72. The Defiance Campaign, 1952

A joint planning council of the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress resolved to embark upon a mass campaign for the repeal of a battery of discriminatory laws, chief among them being the Pass laws, stock limitation regulations, the Group Areas Act, the Separate Representation of Voters Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, and the Bantu Authorities Act. The Government was called upon to repeal these laws by 29 February 1952, failing which the A.N.C. and the S.A.I.C. were to launch a joint campaign of defiance. For the first time, Indians joined hands with Africans in a national political movement. Part two of the S.A.I.C. secretarial report, July 1954, follows. Source: S.A.I.C. Agenda Book, Conference, 9-11 July 1954, S.S. Singh Collection.

THE CAMPAIGN FOR THE DEFIANCE OF UNJUST LAWS

The executive committees of the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress met in conference on the 29th of July 1951 to discuss the difficulties and problems facing the non-white people of South Africa. After discussing the means of overcoming these problems the conference declared its firm conviction that all the people, irrespective of race, colour or creed, have the inalienable right to participate directly and equally in the governing councils of the state, and in pursuance of this objective it:

  • (a) declared war on pass laws and stock limitation regulations, the Group Areas Act, the Separate Representation of Voters Act, the Suppression of Communism Act and the Bantu Authorities Act;
  • (b) resolved to embark on a mass campaign for the repeal of these oppressive measure; and
  • (c) established a Joint Planning Council to co-ordinate the efforts of the national organisations of the African and Indian peoples in this mass campaign.

The Joint Planning Council prepared and presented its report to the executive organs of the two Congresses for the consideration of their national conferences. The 39th conference of the African National Congress and the 20thconference of the South African Indian Congress adopted the report with minor alterations. In doing so the Congresses resolved to implement the following line of action:

  • (a) The African National Congress to call upon the Government of the Union to repeal the Acts mentioned above by not later than February 29th 1952. This call to be supported by the South African Indian Congress.
  • (b) In the event of the Government failing to take action for the repeal of these Acts the Congresses, in terms of the recommendations of the Joint Planning Council, to take recourse to mass action for the defiance of the unjust laws.
  • (c) To hold mass demonstrations throughout the country on April 6th 1952, firstly to register a protest against 300 years of oppression and exploitation, and secondly as a prelude to the launching of the campaign.
  • (d) To receive reports from the provincial organs and to hold a joint meeting of the executive committees of the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress to co-ordinate efforts and to decide upon the date for the launching of the campaign for the defiance of unjust laws.

The African National Congress, in terms of the above plan, on the 21stJanuary 1952 wrote to the Prime Minister, Dr. D. F. Malan, demanding the repeal of the stipulated laws by not later than February 29th 1952, failing which it conveyed its intention of embarking on a mass action. The South African Indian Congress in a comprehensive letter to the Prime Minister supported this call.Dr. Malan's reply to the demands of the African National Congress revealed the deeply ingrained racialist ideology of the Nationalists. In his letter, he warned the African National Congress that should it persist in its programme of civil disobedience, the Government would use the machinery at its disposal to crush the movement of the people. The Prime Minister did not reply to the letter of the South African Indian Congress, but his private secretary admitted the receipt of this letter at a court proceeding.

In accordance with the decisions of the conferences, mass demonstrations were jointly held throughout the country on the 6th of April 1952. These demonstrations were attended by thousands of people in cities, towns, villages and hamlets of South Africa, at which the people dedicated themselves to the cause of freedom in the following words:

We, the oppressed people of South Africa, do hereby solemnly pledge to carry on a relentless struggle for the repeal of the unjust laws, as specified in the plan of action of the African National Congress and supported by the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People's organisations and other freedom-loving peoples. We shall do everything within our power to the utmost limits of our endurance and sacrifice to carry out the Congress call to fight against the unjust laws, which subject our people to political servility, economic misery and social degradation. From this day onwards we vow to act as disciplined men and women and dedicate our lives to the struggle for freedom and fundamental rights.

Reports from the provincial organisations were received by the African National Congress at the meeting of its executive committee held at Bloemfontein on the 27th April 1952, and the South African Indian Congress at its own executive meeting held at Johannesburg on the 4th May 1952.... In these reports the requisite machinery for the conduct of the campaign was recommended, an appeal for 10,000 volunteers made, and the date for the joint meeting of the executive committees of the two Congresses agreed upon.

The historic joint meeting of the two Congresses held at Port Elizabeth:

  • (a) established the National Action Committee to control, guide and conduct the campaign for the defiance of unjust laws;
  • (b) appointed a National Volunteer Board;
  • (c) accepted Dr. Y. M. Dadoo, the President of the South African Indian Congress, Messrs. M. Kotane, J. B. Marks, D. W. Bopape, and J. Ngwevela, who were banned by the Minister of Justice under the Suppression of Communism Act, as the first volunteers in the defiance campaign; and
  • (d) Decided to launch the mass campaign on the 26th of June 1952.

In terms of the above decision the president of our Congress and the above-named outstanding leaders of the African National Congress defied the orders of the Minister of Justice by addressing public gatherings. They were arrested and kept in custody for well over a month. The matter was tested in the courts of law; the sentences imposed on them in the lower courts were annulled by the Appellate Division.

On the 26th of June 1952, the Campaign began with the arrest of 112 volunteers in Johannesburg and 30 in Port Elizabeth. Soon it developed into a movement of the people. Organised and disciplined volunteers began to defy unjust laws as a protest against the policies of the Government. The following figures show that between June and December 1952, 8,557 volunteers in 37 different centres in South Africa braved the hazards of jail life in defence of the rights of the people:

(1) Monthly figures for the number of volunteers participating:

June 146

July 1,504

August2,015

September2,258

October 2,354

November/December 280

8,557

(2) Number of volunteers arrested in each centre:

Eastern Cape5,719

Western Cape, Mafeking, Kimberley 423

Transvaal 1,911

Natal 246

Free State 258

8,557

(3) The following were the centres of operation:

(a) Eastern Cape:Port Elizabeth, East London, Uitenhage, Queenstown, King Williamstown, Jansenville, Grahamstown, Peddie, Fort Beaufort, Port Alfred, Alice, Stutterheim, Cradock, Aliwal North, Kirkwood.

(b) Western Cape, Mafeking, Kimberley: Cape Town, Paarl, Worcester, Ceres, Stellenbosch, Kimberley, Mafeking.

(c)Transvaal: Johannesburg, Springs, Brakpan, Boksburg, Benoni, Germiston, Roodepoort, Krugersdorp, Pretoria, Witbank, Vereeniging, Bethal.

(d)Natal: Durban.

(e)Free State: Bloemfontein.

The Defiance Campaign succeeded in arousing the political consciousness of the non-white people as never before. Frustrated by ruthless oppression and unbearable conditions, people from all walks of life rallied to the call of action. It brought sharply to the fore the grievances of the non-Europeans and compelled all the sections of the people of South Africa to focus their attention on the basic problems of the country. When the lights of liberty were being extinguished one by one, this movement of the African and Indian Congresses remained a beacon in the storm. When the so-called and self-styled defenders of democracy were abandoning the forts of freedom and succumbing to the fascist onslaughts of Malan, this mass action of the Congresses stood out as the only bulwark of hope.

Far-seeing men among the Europeans realised that if the ever-widening gulf between the whites and non-whites is not bridged it would do incalculable harm to the future of South Africa. They supported the campaign and expressed their desire to resolve the deadlock. The various reactions of the Europeans may be summarised as follows:

(a) Individuals were moved to reconsider the question of relationship between the whites and non-whites, supported the demand for the repeal of unjust laws and advocated concessions to non-Europeans. These people include philosophers, liberals, university professors and other prominent persons among them.

(b) The Civil Rights League, the S. A. Institute of Race Relations, the Torch Commando and other similar organisations declared their concern over the plight of the non-whites.

(c) Commerce, trade and industry showed grave concern about the situation and propagated liberal and more humane policies towards the non-Europeans.

(d) The campaign constituted a challenge to Christian conscience and thechurches were materially affected, consequently the most important churches took serious note and pressed for the resolution of the impasse from pulpitand platform.

(e) A group of Europeans under the leadership of Mr. Patrick Duncan, the son of a former Governor-General of South Africa, directly participated in the campaign during December 1952.

(f) One of the most outstanding reactions was the establishment of the South African Congress of Democrats, an organisation of the Europeans, which stands for equal rights for all, regardless of race or colour. This organisation was established as the result of a call made by the National Action Committee of the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress.

The United Party, through its leader, Mr. J. G. N. Strauss, in condemning the Defiance Campaign, announced the following four-point non-European policy:

(a) social separation with proper separate facilities for all;

(b) no miscegenation;

(c) residential separation; and

(d) application of the work and efforts of the non-Europeans for the benefit of the community as a whole – ‘on our farms, in our kitchens, in our factories and on our mines'.

Fundamentally there was no difference between the United Party and the Nationalist Party on the Defiance issue. The S.A. Labour Party 'viewed the campaign with grave concern' and was not prepared to condemn it without qualification. It suggested consultation with the representatives of the non-Europeans and the examination of the unjust laws.

The campaign evoked a tremendous response beyond our borders. Support came from influential and important organisations throughout the world. The racial policies of the Union Government received the consideration of the General Assembly of the United Nations and the overwhelming majority of the member states supported and adopted a resolution setting up a three-man fact-finding commission on the issue. The South African Government disregarded the resolution of the United Nations and refused the commission of inquiry [permission] to visit South Africa.

The Government allowed the campaign to develop in the early stages and adopted a policy of 'wait and see'. It believed that the campaign would not arouse popular response as it thought that the masses would remain apathetic. When this was proved otherwise the Minister of Justice declared that he would introduce new legislation to meet the situation. The following are significant reactions on the part of the Government:

(a) The Minister of Justice tried to link up the campaign with violence, and incited the police to abandon all restraint in its dealing with the public.

(b) Volunteers were harshly treated and beaten up in prisons.

(c) Riots were provoked at New Brighton through police shooting. Subsequently the Minister issued a ‘shooting order’ to the police and it resulted in the loss of innocent lives at Denver, Kimberley and East London.

(d) Fruitless efforts were made to link up the Defiance Campaign with Mau Mau.

(e) 37 Leaders were arrested in the different parts of the country and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. The judgement in the trial of 20 leaders in Johannesburg is illuminating. It clearly establishes the fact that the Act has nothing to do with 'Communism' as such. It is an instrument of suppressing the liberties of the people.

(f) Restrictions were imposed on the freedom of assembly and movement of the leaders throughout the country, meetings were banned and the offices of the Congress were raided.

(g) Bogus organisations such as the non-existent Bantu National Congress, the Supreme Council, the Kleurlingsbond and the South African Indian Organisation were placated to accept the Government policy of apartheid.

(h) The Public Safety Act and the Criminal Laws Amendment Act, giving wide powers of dictatorship to the Government, were passed, ostensibly as anti-Defiance measures.

The Government fostered a policy of divide and rule.It provoked violence in order to create disorder. But it failed to bring about chaos in the ranks of the liberation movement and was unable to achieve its aims of:

(a) dividing the Europeans against the non-Europeans so as to drive them into the hands of the Nationalists;

(b) dividing the non-Europeans amongst themselves so as to weaken them; and

(c) using the resulting situation for thrusting absolute fascist dictatorship.

The Defiance Campaign:

(a) revolutionised the outlook of the non-white people on a mass scale and instilled the spirit of defiance in them;

(b) established the African and Indian Congresses as the true spokesmen of the aims of the majority of the people of South Africa;

(c) focused the attention of all sections of our people - and indeed the whole world ”” on the basic problems of the country;

(d) challenged the perpetuation of racial discrimination and white 'baasskap'; and

(e) opened the way for democratic advance for all the people of South Africa, both white and non-white....

A Documentary History of South african Indians