South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


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

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The Coloured People’s Congress and the Congress of Democrats, composed of white radicals, joined with the ANC and SAIC to forge the Congress Alliance. Labor unions, despite tremendous pressure from restrictive laws, formed a new non-racial federation in 1955, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), which also allied itself to the ANC. As the struggle developed, racial barriers across the anti-apartheid movement evaporated, with white activists such as Helen Joseph, Bram Fischer, and Trevor Huddleston joining with Africans, Indians, and Coloureds.

Some staunch African nationalists emphasized the need for complete independence of Africans and Pan-Africanism and objected to the involvement of communists in the Congress Alliance. These individuals finally split from the ANC in 1959 to form the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), which was led by Robert Sobukwe. The PAC rejected cooperation with whites or Indians, yet it found an unlikely ally in the United States government, which was deeply entrenched in its Cold War fight against communism. Washington secretly funded the PAC in order to weaken the ANC, which was perceived as full of radicals and communists sympathetic to the Soviet Union.

The ANC’s and other organizations’ emphasis on non-racialism is enshrined in the seminal document of the liberation movement: the Freedom Charter (1955). It asserts that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. The Charter came to represent ANC policies over the next four decades. It grew out of a widespread campaign to collect the people’s proposals for alternatives to apartheid. From meetings organized across the country, people sent in ideas for a democratic South Africa. The Congress of the People, held on June 26, 1955 in Kliptown, near Johannesburg, adopted the Charter, which stated that “only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief.” A strong constitutional element was discernable: “All Shall be Equal Before the Law!” and “All Shall Enjoy Equal Human Rights!” Inclusiveness was evident in the demand that “All National Groups Shall Have Equal Rights!”

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Demands for land reform, educational reform, and economic opportunity also were strongly articulated in the Freedom Charter, which represented more radical socialist views. The latter were seen in these demands: “The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth!” and “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.” The government used these statements to ascribe communist influence to the movement and arrested 156 leaders of the Alliance. They were charged with high treason, and 30 of these leaders endured a four-and-a-half-year Treason Trial, which ended in their acquittal.

The apartheid government repeatedly met peaceful protests with violent repression. Bannings, detentions, and harassment of liberation movement leaders and activists became commonplace. The most brutal example of repression from this period was the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960, when policemen killed at least sixty-nine defenseless people—many of whom were shot in the back—during a peaceful PAC demonstration against pass laws. In the immediate aftermath of Sharpeville, the apartheid government declared a State of Emergency and banned the ANC and PAC.

 
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH