The main liberation movements adopted armed struggle only after decades of polite protest and non-violent civil disobedience failed to yield results – and after the apartheid government responded to anti-apartheid organizing with increasingly violent repression. It was in response to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the government's declaring both the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress illegal and detaining many of their leaders that these organizations formed armed wings, called Umkonhto we Sizwe (MK) and Poqo, respectively.
Their first armed actions, taken by small underground cells, were acts of sabotage designed to damage state-controlled facilities without injuring any people. With the ANC and PAC banned, a number of their members went into exile, some for military training. After the 1976 student uprising, the flow of young people into exile, and into the ANC military camps, increased substantially. The ANC did not believe that it could defeat the apartheid government forces militarily; rather the armed struggle was regarded as one element of a larger struggle, along with mass mobilization and resistance inside the country and international economic and political pressure to end apartheid.