The long-standing friendship between the Chinese PLA and the South African liberation forces

We are pleased to republish the following article that provides rare detail of the long-standing and sincere support provided by the People’s Republic of China to the armed struggle waged by South Africa’s national liberation movements to overthrow the racist apartheid regime.

It was originally published on IOL (Independent Online), a major South African news website, on August 1 2022, marking the 95th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and was co-authored by Mbuelo Musi and Cedric Masters, who were respectively members of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress of South Africa (ANC), and the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA, formerly known as Poqo), the armed wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC). Such collaboration is not only noteworthy in itself – it also enables a more comprehensive account of the totality of China’s long-term commitment to South African liberation.

The authors note that China’s support for the armed struggle dates back more than six decades, to October 1961, following the Sharpeville Massacre, when the apartheid regime killed 65 peaceful protestors, injured many more, and banned the organisations of the liberation movement.

The first group of MK trainees stayed in China from November 1961 to December 1962, in which time they met Chairman Mao Zedong on two occasions. The article notes the significance of the links between the Chinese and South African communist parties in facilitating this relationship. China’s support for MK from its inception was first discussed by Chairman Mao and visiting SACP leaders Yusuf Dadoo and Vella Pillay.

The article also highlights the training received by APLA cadres in the 1970s, which was notable for the evident degree of attention given by the Chinese instructors to the actual conditions and circumstances of South Africa. It also notes that the training provided in China itself, “constituted only a small portion of the PLA’s support”, it being complemented, for example, by training in African countries, including Ghana and Congo (Brazzaville).

In conclusion the authors note that the training provided by China to comrades of both organisations has also benefited the state and non-state institutions they have served since the end of apartheid.

Reading this article one can better understand why President Xi Jinping describes the ties between South Africa and China as a “special bond of comrades plus brothers.”

The occasion of the 95th Anniversary of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) provides us, former members of the South African Liberation Movement, with a perfect opportunity to reflect on our experience, growth and military careers in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) since those far-off days of our training by PLA instructors.

The training also benefited those who pursued civilian careers in democratic South Africa and elsewhere. Mbulelo Musi, National Political Commissar of MK Liberation War Veterans (MKLWV) and Major-General (Retired) Cedric Masters a former APLA operative recount the long-standing relations between the PLA and South African freedom fighters.

The politico-military relations between the People’s Republic of China and the ANC-led MK would be over 60 years today, dating back to October 1961. Historically, it was in October 1961 in China that these military relations began. This was after the then apartheid cruel minority system had unleashed brutal repression and banned all forms of protests.

It had just committed a massacre in Sharpeville, which led to the killing of over 65 people, and the injury and arrests of many. Organisations of the people such as the ANC and the PAC were banned and were thus forced to declare the armed Struggle against the racist regime. The apartheid colonial system had declared war against the majority of the people of SA.

The first batch of six cadres of ANC MK fighters went to China for military training from November 2, 1961 to the end of December 1962. The training consisted of two parts. The first part from November to December 1961, the trainees studied in detail the history of the Chinese revolution, and the second part from January to August 1962, they were trained primarily on guerrilla warfare, footpath traps, and sophisticated and rudimentary explosives. For more than nine months they learnt guerrilla warfare, its discipline and its ethics.

Deep guerrilla warfare became their speciality. During the training, all trainees were interviewed twice by the great leader of the Chinese people Chairman Mao ZeDong. “It was in October 1961 that I secretly left the country for military training with Cde Andrew Mlangeni in China. We left the country, South Africa via Bechuanaland (Botswana) then Tanganyika (Tanzania),“ said the first premier of the Eastern Cape, the late Comrade Raymond Mhlaba.

“On arrival in Beijing, the Chairman of the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong, welcomed us. We were trained in guerrilla warfare which took place before MK was officially launched on 16/12/1961. Our training included the use of small firearms, hit and run techniques and the use of radio communication. It was very interesting and useful training that prepared us for the military missions we were intending to carry out in SA,“ said Mhlaba who became the leader of the group.

“When we arrived in China other members of the Communists Party of SA like Wilton Mkwayi, Peter Mthembu, Steven Naidoo and Joe Gqabi were already there. We did our military science training at the Nanjing Military Academy, South of China. The training lasted for about 10 months.“

On their return to South Africa, Mhlaba, Mkwayi and Mlangeni were arrested together with Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi and Ahmed Kathrada at the MK Military Headquarters at the Liliesfarm in Joburg. They went to trial with Nelson Mandela who was the first commander-in-chief of MK.

Mandela had been arrested earlier in 1962 after undertaking an extensive African safari including visiting and undergoing military training in Algeria. He also visited Morocco, Egypt, Tanzania and Ethiopia to organise training for MK recruits and then returned back clandestinely to SA. They were all brought together in the notorious Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Therefore, to fully appreciate the historic significance of the ANC/MK military relations and their genesis, it is necessary to appreciate the historical political and ideological basis that gave rise to their evolution as well as the character they assumed with the passage of time. The first MK detachment is commonly referred to as the Luthuli Detachment and its nucleus was made up of members of the CPSA which had negotiated with the Communist Party of China. All those who trained in China at the time have passed on, with one of them, Cde Joe Gqabi, killed in a car bomb planted by the apartheid brutes in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1980.

The historic foundation of these relations between the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Party of South Africa was actually forged and took root in the crucible of the liberation and working-class Struggle. It took firm root during the Second World War from 1939-1945.

Three groups of 26 young people drawn mainly from the ranks of high school and university students who were at the forefront of the 1976 nationwide uprising, were trained by the PLA between March 1977 and the first quarter of 1978. The first group led by Zebulon Mokoena, a veteran of the Vila Peri battle with the Portuguese Colonists in Mozambique and the white settler regime in South Africa, were trained at the Nanjing Military Academy. The second and third groups led by Sabelo Phama, the late APLA commander and E Radebe, a senior APLA cadre, were trained at institutions in the Guangzhou Military Region. A fourth group, which accompanied the third group, received introductory lessons on the importance of self- reliance for guerrilla forces such as the extraction of nitrates from putrefied urine as explosive ingredients, before continuing their journey to Kampuchea for their military training.

This group was led by the late Ezrom Mokgakala, a senior APLA cadre. The education and training received by these groups can be categorised in two components; the strategic concepts and operational principles of a Peoples War, and the tactical and technical competencies of a guerrilla fighter. The strategic concepts centred on the protracted nature of a national liberation Struggle, the primacy of the political intent and the relationship with and respect for the people. The operational principles covered the need to take the initiative in all operations, the flexible employment of our forces and the criticality of planning. The aim of the operations was understood to be battles of quick decisions and self-reliance was the primary means.

The groups were empowered for engaging the enemy through training in the use of small arms from a pistol to a recoilless rifle, the preparation and use of home-made explosives, exercises and training in unarmed, knife and bayonet close combat techniques as well as the use of hand grenades. The accompanying skills of navigation and terrain orientation through the use of purpose-made technology such as maps and compasses, as well as heuristic (rule of thumb) methods were taught.

A strong feature of the training consisted of heuristic methods reflecting the PLA’s grasp of our future operational conditions which would likely be poorly resourced. And thus, the operatives should by design be self-contained and where replenishment would be needed the relationship with the people would be critical for their support. With regards to the self-sustainment aspect the training also covered bush craft and survival skills.

Training for the battle application of these skills were received through the movement and organisation of combat formations up to company level. The combat formation training covered various battle scenarios such as ambushes, quick decision contacts and disengagements, and a company in attack conducted under different topographical features from swamps to hills.

The education and training also covered critical mass organisation activities in high density urban areas. These covered the careful consideration of the morale and security of the people in the selection of offensive targets and the goals of mass action. Since operational objectives should always serve to weaken the enemy and preserve ourselves, offensive targets that would strengthen the enemies’ resolve because of its emotional impact were to be avoided. With regard to mass actions, limited but attainable objectives would be preferable to objectives which compel the enemy to take an uncompromising position. Mass political activities would provide the movement with excellent opportunities to identify and recruit new cadres.

The PLA’s training of these groups was a massive boost to the struggle of the South African populace but, it constituted only a small portion of the PLA’s support. For more than one and a half decades before 1977, the PLA had been training Task Force members as well as other African freedom fighters on African soil. Notable among this training was that of the multinational fighters who were trained in Ghana in the early sixties, which included South Africans.

Retired SANDF Brigadier-General Cyril Gumede was one of the beneficiaries of the Ghana and Congo-based training. Numerous senior cadres of the movement studied the Art of People’s War in the People’s Republic of China. Among them was TM Ntantala an earlier commander of APLA. Retired Lieutenant-General JT Nkonyane and the late Sabelo Phama, two former commanders of APLA, were part of a 1976 group that undertook such a study tour of the People’s Republic.

The group included Rear Admiral Mfundo Njikelana and Ezrom Mogakala who led the group that trained in Kampuchea. These senior cadres upon their return shared their knowledge with the rest of the organisation. They drew upon their collective knowledge of the socio-economic situation in South Africa and formulated a new approach to revolutionary warfare. The approach was strongly inspired by the strategy of People’s War as waged by the predecessors of the PLA – the Eighth Route Army and the Workers and Peasants Red Army. This new approach became the revolutionary war strategy of the Pan Africanist Congress as declared at the 1967 Conference held in Moshi, United Republic of Tanzania. The envisioned strategy was compiled into a booklet named The New Road of Revolution.

Over time this booklet became part of the organisation’s political training literature. The other landmark occurrence of this interaction with the PLA was the renaming of the armed wing of the organisation to that of the Azanian Peoples’ Liberation Army. So, it was that, the combined value of the training in the People’s Republic and the roadmap of a People’s War as executed by the PLA, the PAC launched its “Home Going” campaign.

The Home Going campaign was manned almost entirely by cadres from the three groups who were trained in China, and senior cadres who were part of the 1976 Study Group in China. The planning, leading, organising, co-ordinating, control and support responsibilities for the campaign were all assumed by these PLA trained cadres.

Those who were tasked to execute the first phase of the campaign, known as “Operation Curtain Raiser” were also drawn from their ranks. The aim of “Operation Curtain Raiser” was to reconnect with underground cells inside the country and establish safe areas for training cell members and recruits in the Art of People’s War and guerrilla warfare tactics. The training that we received from the PLA was to a great extent responsible for the confidence and willingness with which we assumed these responsibilities.

The characteristics and qualities that the cadres developed through operations that were built on the sound base of their training has on the whole benefited them and the state and non-state institutions that they served and are still serving since the demise of the apartheid regime.

The communist and socialist parties started under the banner of the Communist International that rallied under the banner of “Workers of the world unite; you have got nothing to lose but your chains!“ Those historic ties could be of mutual benefit to the people and militaries of both countries. They need constant nurturing, refreshing and deepening.

It’s a rich and diverse legacy and heritage worthy of preservation and promotion for the sake of generations to come.

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