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Irish Resistance To Apartheid: Sinn Féin And The ANC, The IRA And MK

A number of readers have asked for some background details explaining the close relationship between the African National Congress and Sinn Féin following on from the ANC’s sympathetic statement last week noting the passing of “comrade” Martin McGuinness. While the political wings of the two movements have long professed public support for each other, particularly during the transition from White minority rule on the one hand and the development of the peace process on the other, the co-operation between their respective military wings was at times equally as close. By the late 1970s and early ‘80s selected members of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed grouping, were receiving guerrilla training in Ireland, Angola and South Africa from experienced volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This resulted in a number of attacks against the apartheid regime in Pretoria, at least one involving the active participation of the IRA. These operations are described in several sources, notably the unfinished autobiography of Kader Asmal, founder of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM) and a senior minister from 1992 to 2004 in the first ANC-led democratic government.

An extract from “Kader Asmal: Politics in My Blood: a Memoir” by Kader Asmal and Adrian Hadland, with Moira Levy (Jacana Media, 2011).

In the late 1970s, I was asked if it was possible to arrange military training for some MK combatants. I wanted very much to undertake this task, but it was a delicate one because it would of necessity involve the IRA. None of us wished to place the ANC office in London in any jeopardy nor fuel the allegations of connivance between the ANC and IRA.

I went to see the general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Michael O’Riordan, who was a man of great integrity and whom I trusted to keep secret the information at his disposal. He in turn contacted Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, and it was arranged that two military experts would come to Dublin to meet two MK personnel and take them to a safe place for two weeks of intensive training. On the date arranged I was to be away, so I instructed Louise [Asmal’s wife and an active anti-apartheid activist] as to what she was to say when the MK men rang. In standard secret-service style, nothing was to be written down, and everything had to be remembered.

…we did arrange a successful meeting, the training was conducted, and I believe the expertise the MK cadres obtained was duly imparted to others in the ANC camps in Angola.

Then, on 1 June 1980, South Africa was shocked by one of the most daring and audacious acts of military insurgency in the struggle against apartheid. On that day the country’s major oil refinery plant in the town of Sasolburg was bombed by explosives. Black smoke billowed over the Highveld. Every newspaper and television station carried pictures, footage and stories of the attack. And, while the damage to the refinery was, according to the apartheid regime, relatively superficial, the propaganda value and its effect on the morale of the liberation movement were inestimable.

Yet only Louise and I knew that the attack on Sasolburg was the result of reconnaissance carried out by members of the IRA. I had again been approached by the MK High Command, who wanted us to find two people to conduct a reconnaissance operation and report back on the feasibility of attacking Sasol, South Africa’s major oil refinery, vital to the maintenance of the apartheid state. Located on the Vaal River, Sasol was a perfect target. It was highly strategic but relatively undefended. There were also few people wandering about the plant at night, so the chances of inflicting civilian casualties were small.

I undertook this task quite separately from the IAAM [Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement]. This was partly to protect the organisation and partly for reasons of security. We knew too that right-wing British intelligence services and right-wing British media would use the information to undermine the ANC and the broad Anti-Apartheid Movement. Once again I arranged the task with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, through the intermediation of Michael O’Riordan. Though I no longer recall the names of the persons who volunteered, if indeed I ever knew them, they laid the ground for one of the most dramatic operations carried out by MK personnel.

It was evident to all of us that the regime had suffered a demonstrable loss and embarrassment. Yet only Louise and I knew that the attack on Sasolburg was the result of reconnaissance carried out by members of the IRA. At the time the ANC accepted responsibility for the coup and much later the three active participants, all MK cadres, applied for and obtained amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Below is one of the earliest academic mentions of the MK and IRA connection by professor Stephen Ellis in “Comrades Against Apartheid. The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile”, with Tsepo Sechaba (Indiana University Press, 1992):

Some of those trained at Fundo were also taken for further specialised instruction by members of the Irish Republican Army working out of an anonymous apartment building in Luanda [capital of Angola]. The IRA men were experts in the construction of bombs and booby-traps, and passed on their know-how to ANC specialists, including Obadi.

The IRA connection, which began in late 1978, has always been one of the ANC’s most closely-guarded secrets. It is not clear what later cooperation there may have been between the two organisations, although some British sources’ were to claim in the late 1980s that it continued, and that officials of the ANC’s Military Intelligence department had visited the IRA in Northern Ireland.

This follow-up publication gives more detail in “External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990” by Stephen Ellis (Oxford University Press, 2013)

The bulk of the ANC’S army now being based in Angola, in 1979 Ronnie Kasrils [later Chief of MK Intelligence] signed a secret agreement on behalf of the ANC with the chief of military counterintelligence of the Cuban forces in Angola on intelligence sharing and on provision for training by Cuban personnel In Maputo. The ANC was able to establish facilities from which it could organise infiltrations directly into South Africa. The city was home to the elite special operations unit led by Slovo [Joe Slovo, senior MK commander]. Having previously specialised in running operations from London, using white cadres especially, Slovo was now closer to his target and able to send people in by land. For work of this type, the ANC enlisted the help of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), at that time perhaps the world’s most sophisticated urban guerrilla force. The ANC’s representative in Ireland made contact with the IRA via the Irish Communist Party which put him in touch with the Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams, an extraordinary development in view of the Irish Communist Party’s distrust of the Provisional IRA.

In due course, IRA men set up a bomb-making school at a safe house in Luanda. The IRA connection was one of the ANC’s most closely guarded secrets, although rumours reached the ears of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which in 1977 reported that ANC guerrillas were being trained ‘by a powerful group of IRA experts who have made their appearance in Tanzania since the middle of March in order to direct a training programme’. This information apparently originated with a Rhodesian source – oddly enough  since the ANC/IRA collaboration actually started only in 1978.

On 1 June 1980, the MK special operations unit launched a spectacular attack on a Sasol facility in South Africa that caused millions of rands in damage and underlined South Africa’s dependence on imported oil, then a matter of great sensitivity due to the recent revolution in Iran, the country’s leading supplier. The sabotage team was led by Motso Mokqabudi, who had trained in rocketry in the USSR before honing his bomb-making skills with the IRA men Luanda. South African intelligence soon learned the identities of Sasol saboteurs…

During this same period, and for many years thereafter, the United Kingdom strongly opposed international sanctions against South Africa, particularly under the administration of the right-wing prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and did much to undermine the UN-led boycott. The Conservative leader was deeply hostile to the ANC, as was her party more generally, dismissing it as late as 1987 as a “a typical terrorist organisation“. Meanwhile, from 1986 onward the British intelligence services, notably the Intelligence Corps (Int Corps) and Security Service (SS or MI5), coordinated contacts between pro-British or loyalist terrorist factions in the UK-administered north-east of Ireland and agents for the National Intelligence Service (NIS) under P. W. Botha’s apartheid government in South Africa. This resulted in at least one large consignment of weapons and explosives being smuggled into the Six Counties from the Lebanon, the operation overseen by Brian Nelson, a British Army agent and a senior member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the legal British terror grouping.

3 comments on “Irish Resistance To Apartheid: Sinn Féin And The ANC, The IRA And MK

  1. Breandán Mac Séarraigh

    D’oibriú mé sa ghnó ola ó 1985 go 1989, san Afraic den chuid is mó. Diúltú mé trí uair dul obair ar son an stáit Apartheid.


  2. ar an sliabh

    Maith thú féin, a Breandán!


  3. For all their flaws at least the likes of MK and the MPLA in Angola confronted the enemy security forces face-to-face on the battlefield. Jumping out from round corners and attacking soldiers and police when they were off-duty was more the IRA’s style.

    And let’s be honest, most of these African liberation movements have brought their respective countries to their knees. I’m sure Gerry Adams will have been a big Mugabe fan back in the ’80s…


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