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History, Resistance to Apartheid

Robert Sobukwe, Battle of Blood River, Sharpeville Massacre, apartheid laws, underground organization

In 1912 the South African Native National Congress was founded by a group of black urban and traditional leaders who opposed the policies of the first Union of South Africa government, especially laws that appropriated African land. In 1923 the organization was renamed the African National Congress (ANC). At first its main agenda was to protect voting rights for blacks in the Cape Province. For nearly 50 years it pursued a policy of peaceful protests and petitions.

During the 1950s, while the South African government passed and implemented oppressive apartheid laws, black South Africans responded by intensifying their political opposition. The ANC dramatically increased its membership under the leadership of Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela became one of the organization’s principal organizers. Although the membership of the ANC was largely black, it was a multiracial organization with white and Asian members, some of whom assumed leadership positions.

After decades of receiving no response to demands for justice and equality, the ANC launched the Defiance Against Unjust Laws Campaign in 1952, in cooperation with the South African Indian Congress, an Asian antiapartheid political organization. The campaign was a nonviolent one in which apartheid laws were deliberately broken. After several months of civil disobedience and 8,000 arrests, rioting broke out in a number of cities, which resulted in considerable property damage and 40 deaths. Black protest and white repression continued. In 1956 three black women were killed when thousands of them confronted the police because of their inclusion under amended pass laws, which had previously applied only to black men.

Despite the ANC’s increasing militancy, its aims were still reformist, seeking to change the existing system, rather than revolutionary. In 1955 the ANC brought together nearly 3,000 delegates of all races in Kliptown in the Transvaal to adopt the Freedom Charter. This remarkable document, which affirms that South Africa belongs to all its people, remains to this day the clearest statement of the guiding principles of the ANC. It emphasizes that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people and the people in South Africa had been robbed of their birthrights to land, liberty, and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality. It stated that, “Every man and woman shall have the right to vote for and stand as candidates for all bodies which make laws.”

In 1958 Robert Sobukwe left the ANC; he founded the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) in April 1959. The PAC insisted on a militant strategy based exclusively on black support in contrast to the ANC’s multiracial approach. Black attitudes toward the liberation process changed dramatically after the Sharpeville Massacre on March 21, 1960. White police opened fire on a mass demonstration organized by the PAC, killing 69 blacks and wounding more than 180. The Sharpeville Massacre led to violence and protests throughout the country. The government declared a state of emergency and arrested many members of the PAC and the ANC. In April 1960 the PAC and ANC were banned.

In 1961, in response to the government’s actions, the ANC organized Umkhonto we Sizwe (Zulu for “Spear of the Nation”) to conduct an armed struggle against the regime. On December 16, 1961, when Afrikaners were commemorating the Battle of Blood River, Umkhonto’s first act of sabotage took place. From its inception, however, the underground organization refused to engage in terrorism against civilians and only attacked symbolic targets, police stations, military offices, and other government buildings. The PAC’s military wing, in contrast, attacked white civilians.

On a trip to several other African countries in 1962, Nelson Mandela arranged for ANC recruits to undergo military training abroad. The South African government, concerned with the potential of Umkhonto to cause increased unrest, passed new legislation that gave the police broad powers of arrest without warrant. In July 1963 police raided Umkhonto’s secret headquarters in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia and arrested most of its leadership. Mandela, who was already in prison at the time, was put on trial with the other Umkhonto leaders, all of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment. With the imprisonment of the nationalist leadership and the earlier banning of the ANC and PAC, South Africa entered a decade of enforced calm.

The government held a referendum in October 1960 to decide whether South Africa should become a republic and on May 31, 1961, the country officially became the Republic of South Africa. In addition, it chose to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Nations before it was forced to leave because of apartheid policies. The government continued to implement repressive legislation. A 1963 act provided for detention of up to 90 days without trial for the purpose of interrogating anyone even suspected of having committed or intending to commit sabotage or any offense under the Suppression of Communism Act or the Unlawful Organizations Act. The Terrorism Act, passed in 1967, provided for the indefinite detention without trial of suspected terrorists or persons in possession of information about terrorist activities.

Prime Minister Verwoerd was assassinated in September 1966 and John Vorster, who had been minister of justice, police, and prisons, was chosen to succeed him. One of the important challenges facing South Africa during Vorster’s tenure as prime minister was the increasing hostility of states surrounding South Africa. Angola and Mozambique achieved independence in 1975, and their new governments were opposed to the South African government’s policies of apartheid. Liberation struggles were underway in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Namibia in the mid-1970s, causing an atmosphere of unrest.

In the late 1960s Stephen Biko and other black students founded the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which was loosely based on the Black Power movement in the United States. In South Africa it emphasized black leadership and non-cooperation with the government or with bantustan leaders, who were considered collaborators with the government. The BCM was involved in establishing the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) for black students. In 1969 SASO split from the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), a white-led but nonracial liberal organization, and from the University Christian Movement. Biko, the president of SASO, believed blacks had to provide their own leadership in the liberation process. SASO and the Black Peoples Convention (BPC), a coalition of black organizations, held rallies in September 1974 to mark the independence of Mozambique, despite a government ban on such meetings. Many were arrested, including several of the leaders, who were then prosecuted and sentenced. The BCM had a formative influence on students and young South Africans, who played a crucial role in the liberation process. In September 1977 Stephen Biko died after being mistreated while in police custody.

The 1970s witnessed the emergence of a Zulu-based ethnic organization called Inkatha, which became the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The IFP was led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and rejected early by the ANC because the ANC opposed its exclusive ethnic character and close cooperation with the existing white power structure. These differences turned into violent confrontations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1991 investigations revealed that the South African government had given covert training and financial support to Inkatha in an effort to foster division among black organizations in the country.

The 1970s were also marked by a new and revitalized phase of black trade unionism even though government restrictions continued to limit unions’ political effectiveness. The dependence of the South African economy on black workers created a powerful political and economic force, and from the 1970s onward this growing power was demonstrated by a series of illegal boycotts and strikes. The growth of militant worker and youth organizations in this period was a clear indication that banning the nationalist movements had not ended black resistance. It was not until 1981 that black trade unions could be officially registered and black workers were given the right to strike. The power of the black trade union movement continued to grow and played a central role in ending apartheid and in the transition to black majority rule.

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