South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Unit 4. Protest and Resistance through the Rivonia Trial (1964)

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Nelson Mandela, Statement from the Dock, 1964

Intensification of repressive, discriminatory laws and practices under segregation and apartheid prompted growing black protest and resistance. The early period of black challenges to land dispossession, colonization, and segregation was marked by complex strategies and influenced by diverse ideologies and identities. The period of direct, military resistance came to an end with the destruction of the Zulu state by the British. Early African political organizations formed in the last decade of the nineteenth century. In this same period, Mohandas K. Gandhi, then living in South Africa, developed his strategy of non-violent resistance (satyagraha) to confront colonial racism. Gandhi later used civil disobedience to great effect against the British Empire in India and inspired resistance to apartheid in South Africa.

Early African political movements, most notably the African National Congress (founded in 1912 and known also as the ANC or “Congress”), emphasized a strategy of peaceful constitutional protest to try to incorporate Africans more fully into colonial society. This strategy reflected a heavy influence by liberal democratic and Christian philosophies. Pre-1949 ANC politics were moderate, seeking greater influence for Africans within the existing government.

In its first protests, the ANC demanded equal rights and justice for all and presented a petition to stop the 1913 Natives’ Land Act. When South African authorities rejected their appeals for justice, the ANC mounted several unsuccessful delegations to Britain. These delegations were their last resorts, for South Africa’s highest appeal was to the British Crown. Imperial petitions proved futile, however. But after the Act of Union in 1910 and then Dominion status in the 1930s, South Africa was free to build a government on white supremacy and racism. Indeed, the central point of the Peace of Vereeniging, which ended the South African War in 1902, was an agreement by Britain with the Boers (Afrikaners; “boer” literally means “farmer” in Dutch) that white people would rule South Africa.

Hardening racism in South Africa and the rise of anti-colonial nationalism elsewhere in Africa and Asia modified ANC leaders’ faith in respectful delegations and polite petitions. Alternative ideologies - African nationalism, communism, and Garveyism - spread rapidly but unevenly in South Africa during the 1920s. These ideologies were more readily subscribed to by younger, newer members of the ANC, who were more likely to be radical teachers or workers as opposed to relatively more privileged, conservative chiefs and established kholwa (Christian) elites. With this changing class composition, the ANC began to shift its tactics. During economic crises following World War I and in the depression years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, some provincial branches of the ANC took part in more radical protests such as mass demonstrations and burning passes.
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