Azanian People's Liberation Army

Azanian People's Liberation Army
Active 1961-1994
Country South Africa
Allegiance Pan Africanist Congress
Type Paramilitary, terrorist organisation
Nickname(s) APLA
Matooane Mapefane, Potlako Leballo, Vusumzi Make, John Nyathi Pokela

The Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), formerly known as Poqo,[1] was the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, an African nationalist movement in South Africa.

After attacks on and the murder of several white families the APLA was subsequently classified as a terrorist organisation by the South African National government and the United States, and banned.[2]

APLA was disbanded and integrated into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in June 1994.[3]


In 1968 the "Azanian People's Liberation Army" replaced defunct "Poqo" as the armed wing of the PAC.[4] Its name was derived from Azania, the ancient Greek name for Southern Africa.

Azania is the name that has been applied to various parts of southeastern tropical Africa.[5] In the Roman period and perhaps earlier, the toponym referred to a portion of the Southeast African coast extending from Kenya,[6] to perhaps as far south as Tanzania.


Formation and early resistance

The 1960 Sharpeville massacre (pictured) directly led to the formation of APLA

Poqo was founded in 1961 following the massacre of PAC-led protestors at the hands of police outside the Sharpeville police station the previous year.[1] Potlako Leballo, the chairman of the PAC at the time of the formation of its military wing in the 1960s, modelled APLA on the Chinese People's Liberation Army, with Templeton Ntantala as his deputy.

Members of Poqo targeted the town of Paarl in the Western Cape on 22 November 1962, when a crowd of over 200 people armed with axes, pangas and other home-made weapons marched from the Mbekweni township into Paarl and attacked the police station, homes and shops.[7] Two white residents, Frans Richard and Rencia Vermeulen were killed.[7] This attack was followed by the murder of a family camping at Bashee River in the Transkei on 4 February 1963. Norman and Elizabeth Grobbelaar, their teenage daughters Edna and Dawn, together with Mr Derek Thompson, were hacked to death in their caravans.[8]

Leadership struggles in exile

After the Soweto uprising in 1976, a number of students went into exile in APLA camps elsewhere on the African continent. In 1976, APLA received 500 recruits, including 178 Basotho, for a new Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA), to be formed as an offshoot of the exiled-Basutoland Congress Party under the leadership of Matooane Mapefane, who was a senior instructor of APLA in Libya.[9] Ntantala's original group of 70 APLA soldiers felt threatened by the influx of new recruits, leading Ntantala to attempt a coup against then commander, Potlako Leballo in Dar es Salaam. This was prevented by LLA soldiers, a move which exacerbated tensions within two PAC factions,[10] the "Diplomat-Reformist" (DR) and "Maoist-Revolutionary" (MR) factions. Vusumzi Make's appointment as Leballo's successor sparked a mutiny at Chunya, an APLA camp in Tanzania, on 11 March 1980, during which several APLA forces were killed and the rest further factionalised and confined to different camps; many escaped to Kenya.[11] Leballo himself relocated to Zimbabwe in late 1980 along with senior intelligence and air force personnel from the MR faction. Pressure from Tanzania, however, resulted in his deportation in May–June 1981,[12] as well as the deportation or imprisonment of the others. Make was replaced by John Nyathi Pokela[11] (who was released from Robben Island in 1980), but his ineffectual term of office was marred by further mutinies, executions and assassinations. Following Pokela’s death, Leballo made a comeback through support from Libya, North Korea, and Ghana. After his sudden death in January 1986, the DR faction, outmaneuvered by the ANC, fell into disarray leaving behind the legacy of a semi-national socialist political front.

Attacks on white civilians

After 1986, APLA rejected the MR faction's concept of the guerrilla as a social reformer and instead adopted an ultimately disastrous rallying cry of "One Settler, One Bullet". In the 1990–94 period, the organisation became known for its attacks on civilians despite the progress in negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa.[3] In 1993, the APLA’s chief commander, Sabelo Phama, declared that he "would aim his guns at children - to hurt whites where it hurts most." [13] Phama proclaimed 1993 as "The Year of the Great Storm" and sanctioned the following attacks on civilians:

In total thirty-two applications were received for attacks on civilians. In these incidents, 24 people were killed and 122 seriously injured.[15]

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has presently charged that PAC-sanctioned action directed towards white South Africans were "gross violations of human rights for which the PAC and APLA leadership are held to be morally and politically responsible and accountable".

End of the armed struggle

In spite of their failure to achieve their goals at the negotiated settlements to end partheid, the PAC decided to participate in the 1994 elections, and PAC leader Clarence Makwetu ordered APLA to end its armed struggle.[16]


In 1994, APLA was disbanded and absorbed into the new South African National Defence Force, although members of the MR-faction refused to accept this agreement. Attempts by MR officers to regroup in Vietnam, North Korea, and China were unsuccessful, although links were maintained with the Tamil Tigers and Maoist groups in Nepal and India. Occasional propaganda leaflets distributed within South Africa focus on disparity of wealth and the issue of land.

See also

Further reading


  1. 1 2 APLA submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
  2. "The African National Congress website - Umkhonto we Sizwe". Retrieved 21 January 2015.
  3. 1 2 "Pan Africanist Congress timeline 1959-2011". South African History Online. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
  5. Collins & Pisarevsky (2004). "Amalgamating eastern Gondwana: The evolution of the Circum-Indian Orogens". Earth Science Reviews.
  6. Richard Pankhurst, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia, (Lalibela House: 1961), p.21
  7. 1 2 "Violence erupts in Paarl". South African History Online. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
  8. "Poqo". South African History Online. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
  9. Rosenberg, Scott; Weisfelder, Richard F. (2013). Historical Dictionary of Lesotho. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. p. 252. ISBN 081-087-982-4.
  10. South African Democracy Education Trust (2004). The Road to Democracy in South Africa: 1970-1980. Unisa Press. pp. 17–. ISBN 978-1-86888-406-3.
  11. 1 2 Kwandiwe Kondlo (2009). In the Twilight of the Revolution: The Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (South Africa) 1959-1994. Basler Afrika Bibliographien. pp. 209–. ISBN 978-3-905758-12-2.
  12. "Potlako Leballo". MEMIM Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 20 October 2015.
  13. 1 2 3 TRC Final Report: Pan African Congress
  14. 1 2 "TRC final report - Volume 2 Chapter 7 Subsection 37". SABC. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
  15. TRC Final Report, 6:5:5, as presented by the SABC and the South African History Archive. (SAHA)
  16. "SA has moved backwards, says PAC stalwart Makwetu". Mail and Guardian. Retrieved 3 April 2016.
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