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

Forced underground, the ANC and its allies adopted new tactics. Most significantly, the movements launched a campaign of armed struggle. The ANC had always advocated non-violent methods, so debates over the use of violence were acrimonious. Older leaders committed to non-violence, such as Albert Luthuli, winner of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, were clearly troubled by this transition but acknowledged its inevitability. Nelson Mandela, in a famous speech from the underground, saw no alternative to a government that met peaceful protestors with savage violence. In December 1961, Mandela became the commander-in-chief of the ANC’s new armed wing: Umkhonto We Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation,” or MK).

But within two years, the apartheid government had arrested Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders. The Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 featured an eloquent and well-publicized speech by Mandela on the primacy of democratic values in challenging apartheid. However, in 1964, Mandela, together with seven other Congress Alliance Members - Govan Mbeki (father of current South African President Thabo Mbeki), Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Moretsele, Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg - were found guilty of treason and imprisoned for life. All but Dennis Goldberg were sent to prison on Robben Island, the notorious penitentiary where a large number of people involved in the anti-apartheid movement were sent. (Since segregation ruled even the prisons, Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Central Prison, which was reserved for white political detainees). Some activists who were arrested in this period, such as the poet and musician Vuyisile Mini, were sentenced to death and hanged. The long period of incarceration of many political activists robbed the democratic movement of its finest leaders but, as will be seen below, the prisoners turned Robben Island into a site of political struggle.

The life stories of ordinary people, like those of resistance leaders, illustrate vividly how people coped with racial oppression, fought for freedom, and worked to develop democracy. For instance, township residents resisted apartheid through bus boycotts and by participating actively in a vibrant popular culture of sport, music and literature, passed on by word of mouth or through popular media such as the magazine Drum. In the countryside, Africans also challenged white rule, at times resorting to armed resistance, as in the 1960 Poqo Revolt in Pondoland.

Black and even some white women actively resisted apartheid. Women organized vigorous anti-pass demonstrations in the 1950s, and they also protested against government-run beer halls. The ANC Women’s League and the non-racial Federation of South African Women organized a massive march on August 9, 1956, now commemorated as South African Women’s Day. Twenty thousand women participated in this demonstration to protest the extension of pass laws to women. The march ended in a silent show of strength at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The Black Sash, an organization of white women, also played an important role in solidarity work and educating whites about the impact of apartheid on African communities. Women took a greatly expanded role in ANC campaigns of the 1950s when working women like Frances Baard, Dorothy Nyembe, and Dora Tamana became leaders.

The stories of black men and women workers were absent from official South African history. Radical black unionists such as Clements Kadalie and Moses Kotane realized that, under South African conditions, any black labor movement had to seriously address questions of democracy as well as wage and workplace issues. Many labor activists, such as John Gomas, combined labor organizing with supporting broad democratic rights. Frances Baard recalls that in the 1950s blacks “suffering with low wages … joined the ANC to make these things better.” On the other hand, Naboth Mokgatle’s autobiography expresses a militant worker’s frustration with ANC leaders’ timidity. Lacking formal unions, many black workers developed ethnic or kin-based networks and found informal ways of resisting segregation or apartheid, such as slowdowns, strikes, and boycotts. Organizing mineworkers in closed compounds was difficult. Despite a major strike in 1946 by a short-lived miners’ union which was quickly and ruthlessly suppressed, black mine unionization remained impossible until the 1980s. Nevertheless, African nationalism found adherents among migrant mineworkers.

Sometimes Africans responded to white rule with accommodation rather than open resistance. For example, the sharecropper Kas Main maintained a symbiotic, though servile relationship with his white farmer baas (boss), but always sought to assert his autonomy and dignity. Others expressed their desire for freedom by developing their own independent churches, free of white control. During the 1920s, authorities in the Eastern Cape dealt harshly with millenarian African religious leaders such as Enoch Mgijima and Nontetha Nkwenkwe when they sought to exercise religious independence from mainstream churches.

ANC leaders from founder Pixley Seme in 1912 through leaders of the 1940s and 1950s such as A. B. Xuma and Albert Luthuli, to Mandela in the 1990s, all refused to collaborate and sought to build a united African political movement without ethnic divisions. However, more conservative African leaders such as, Kaizer Matanzima, Lucas Mangope and other Bantustan leaders, including Mangosuthu Buthelezi (who, unlike Matanzima and Mangope, did not accept independence of the Bantustans), represented a small portion of the black elite that chose to collaborate with apartheid and stayed in power by exploiting political divisions.

Historians generally see the 1960s as a period of defeat and quiescence of resistance, though recent research shows that the ANC underground was far from inactive. Still, the apartheid state continued to tighten repressive laws with the 1972 Internal Security Act, which gave police powers to detain without trial for a renewable period of ninety days. With these stricter laws, the apartheid regime succeeded in repressing most dissent, until in 1973 a series of wildcat labor strikes erupted, followed by the youth revolt in 1976, reignited South Africa’s quest for freedom.

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