The Defiance Campaign

From the book: My Spirit Is Not Banned by Frances Baard and Barbie Schreiner

In 1952 the ANC decided that we are going to organize a Defiance Campaign. Everyone decided that we were not going to obey the laws, which the government had made because if no one obeyed these laws then they would have to take them away. So during this campaign everybody wanted to break the laws and go to jail so that the jails would be too full, of people who didn't like the apartheidlaws.

The Defiance Campaign happened all over South Africa at the same time. It was a very big thing. There were six laws in particular that we wanted to get them to stop because they were very bad laws. They were the pass laws; the Group Areas Act; the one that said you could only own so many cattle and no more; the Bantu Authorities Act which was trying to make some black governments in the reserves, like the homelands, so that we will have no rights in the white areas; the Suppression of Communism Act; and the separate representation of voters law where they wanted to take the vote away from the coloureds in the Cape, because at that time some coloured people were still allowed to vote there. Dr Moroka and Walter Sisulu sent a letter to the prime minister asking him to take back these acts, but when he said no, then we decided we must go ahead with the Defiance Campaign.

We worked with the Indian Congress on that campaign. We decided it should start on Freedom Day, the 26th of June, the same day that the stay-aways had been on. The day before the campaign started we had big meetings with prayers and songs, and all the volunteers promised to be obedient and disciplined people have left. That was my job, I had to go and look for some elderly people to go and stay in the houses, and see that the rents are being paid as long as the husband and wife are in jail, and that the children are looked after. We used to buy food for them and pay the rent. The people collected money for this because these people were going to jail to help all of us. Most of the people who went to jail decided that they would stay in jail for two months, maybe three months, or a few days, rather than pay the fines the magistrate gave them. But sometimes they sentenced the young people to be flogged and that was not good.

In a few months, by maybe October or November, there were thousands of these defiers who were arrested in Port Elizabeth. We even managed to fill the jail sometimes. And it was such a smart new jail too! They had to send police from other parts of the country to look after us there in Port Elizabeth! Also, many of the workers would talk to other workers after they had defied and been to prison, and then maybe they would strike in support of the campaign. There were quite a few strikes in Port Elizabeth in that time. In October there was a one-day stay-away in support of the campaign. In the township nearly all the people stayed away from work. Everybody was feeling very militant then.

But after the campaign had been going on for some time things got very tense between the police and the people because the people were breaking all these laws and being arrested every ' day, and the police didn't like all this trouble. Near the end of the year there was some trouble in Port Elizabeth and East London - riots and trouble with the police. I don't know how it started or what, but it was very strange because the campaign was peaceful; there was no violence till then. But with this trouble the police shot some people, a lot of people, and then the people were very angry and things got very bad. Then the government made a curfew to say that you must stay inside your house between such and such a time, and if you are not inside then they will arrest you. And they banned meetings and that made organizing very difficult for a time, until things got better again.