A history of Apartheid in South Africa

The armed struggle and state repression of the 1960s

A turning point in the struggle against apartheid came about in the 1960s. This change was the result of combined elements, including the formation of the PAC, growing frustration among black people, the Sharpeville incident and the banning of the ANC and the PAC.

Soon after the break up between the ANC and the PAC, the ANC organised a protest against pass laws for 1960. The PAC decided to jump ahead of the ANC planned march, and organised a similar protest for 21 March 1960. The pass campaign had little support other than in Langa in the Cape and in Sharpeville near Johannesburg. In Sharpeville the police got nervous, and opened fire on the crowd without warning or order. They continued to shoot while people ran away. On this day 69 people were killed and 180 were injured.

There was immediate reaction to the Sharpeville Massacre from across the world as people saw how violent the South African government had become. Support for the struggle against apartheid increased. Although the ANC had not organised the campaign they gave support to the PAC over the next few days. The government reacted by declaring both the ANC and the PAC illegal in April 1960.

Both the ANC and PAC decided to go into exile after they had been banned. The NP government thought that banning the ANC and PAC would stop the movements from operating, but they both continued to operate from outside the country and decided to change their tactics to that of an armed struggle. The ANC formed an armed organisation, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and started a sabotage campaign. The ANC was against killing people, and rather burnt down power stations and government buildings, although on occasions people were hurt. The PAC started a much more violent campaign and many people were killed. The first act by MK took place on 16 December 1961, and during the next 18 months the group managed about 200 acts of sabotage. Nelson Mandela played an important role in organising the group. He started making plans for MK to get training outside of South Africa.

The South African government was however not prepared to accept the continued existence of the ANC and PAC. Various measures were introduced giving the police more power, and the police tried to catch leaders of MK. Mandela managed to slip through their hands for a long time, earning him the name 'the Black Pimpernel'. However in August 1962, after a tip-off, the police were able to set up a roadblock and capture Mandela just outside Howick in Natal. After this the success of MK decreased and police also managed to infiltrate the organisation and learned where the MK headquarters was. In July 1963 they raided Lilliesleaf farm near Rivonia, and arrested many prominent leaders of the ANC and MK. Those arrested included Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada. At the same time the police gathered evidence to be used in the trial against these men.

In October 1963 the Rivonia Trial began against ten people all accused of treason (trying to overthrow the government), and 221 acts of sabotage. Mandela was tried together with those arrested at Lilliesleaf. Bram Fischer was the defence lawyer. Eight were found guilty in June 1964 of sabotage, planning and executing guerrilla warfare and working towards an armed invasion of the country. The charge of treason had been dropped. They were all sentenced to life imprisonment, and the death penalty was not handed out. Goldberg was sent to Pretoria prison and the others were all sent to Robben Island. Bram Fischer was himself arrested and tried soon afterwards.

By imprisoning leaders of MK and the ANC, the government was able to break the strength of the ANC inside South Africa. The ANC however also succeeded in increasing international criticism of apartheid and the United Nations condemned the trial and started steps to introduce sanctions. Over the next few years there were few acts of sabotage. Without an internal structure the ANC had great difficulty in planning and executing infiltration into South Africa. The late 1960s turned out to be very quiet as black people tried to reorganise themselves both inside South African and in exile. It became so calm that some people even began to think that they had accepted their position and that the government had managed to suppress oppression. As the ruling party, the NP government went about strengthening their position inside South Africa and improved the economic position of white people. The government's strategy was quite effective, until 1976 when mass resistance began again.

You should now know more about apartheid and the resistance movements during the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1970s the Soweto Uprising took place, and changed the direction of protest politics in South Africa. This meant that while the NP had taken the upper hand by the end of he 1960s, its position would not last and eventually apartheid would collapse. It would however take another two decades to achieve this, and it was these decades that turned out to be very violent.

Last updated : 06-May-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011