South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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

As the ANC’s influence waned in the 1920s, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) grew rapidly as it challenged white racism and the economic exploitation of blacks, only to decline just as quickly by the end of the decade. Black unions developed only slowly due to lack of legal recognition, state repression, job discrimination, and uneven incorporation of blacks into the industrial workforce. White artisan unions and the all-white Labour Party did little to organize black workers, although the Communist Party of South Africa by the 1920s encouraged black membership.

In the 1930s, the ANC and black unions were both in disarray, but, by 1936, protest had galvanized against the Hertzog Bills. Briefly in the mid-1930s, the All-African Convention brought together rival black political movements, but it was the ANC that re-emerged in the 1940s as a viable political force. It reorganized and then, in 1952, the ANC transformed into a mass movement.

The composition of the ANC changed over time. Early ANC leaders were largely drawn from the educated, Christian, black elite—people such as John Dube and Pixley Seme (both educated in the U.S.). Most were relatively well-off economically. Others, such as the largely self-educated Solomon Plaatje, came from far less privileged backgrounds. Significantly, the colonial basis of South African society meant that all blacks were oppressed, hence the ANC’s appeal to a wide range of social classes. By the 1950s, with growing industrialization and the urbanization of Africans, the ANC began attracting a large number of black workers.

These changes stimulated a shift in tactics and a stronger articulation of African identities and demands, evident in the ANC’s 1943 Africans’ Claims, an African Bill of Rights that was inspired in part by the Atlantic Charter, and the radical ANC Program of Action of 1949. The 1949 Program was a watershed in ANC history: it stated that the ANC’s aim was self-determination and “national freedom from White domination and the attainment of political independence [which] implies the rejection of the conception of segregation, apartheid, trusteeship, or white leadership.” The new program embraced African nationalism—a movement of solidarity among African nations that fought for rights for black people, and thus against white supremacy. It was championed by the Congress Youth League, formed in the 1940s and led by Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, and Oliver Tambo. The 1949 Program of Action also adopted more militant forms of protest, including “immediate and active boycott, strike, civil disobedience, and non-co-operation,” and stressed the need to organize African workers into unions.

Although the ANC asserted a platform of African nationalism after World War II, it was willing to cooperate with non-racial and non-African organizations. In the 1920s, many ANC leaders had joined the liberal Joint Councils, and in the 1950s the ANC allied with other national anti-apartheid organizations. The South African Indian Congress (SAIC), formed in 1924, and the Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian Congress were radicalized in the 1940s under G. M. Naicker and Yusuf Dadoo, who led a passive resistance campaign in 1946 to protest laws restricting Indian rights. In 1952, the ANC and SAIC jointly launched the Defiance Campaign, which received massive support with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against apartheid. More than 8,500 demonstrators were imprisoned for non-violently refusing to obey apartheid laws. The 1950s also saw resistance to Bantu Education and forced removals in many rural areas and in urban communities, as well as large-scale anti-pass campaigns.
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH