The Freedom struggle in Bloemfontein

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African National Congress - Founding Members

The formation of the SANNC/ANC

Bloemfontein is the birth place of the SANNC, which became the ANC in 1923, one of the largest organizations in later years to struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa. Between 1908 and 1909, constitutional discussions towards Union took place which prompted numerous meetings organized by Africans, Coloureds and Indians to protest the Whites-only exclusivity of these constitutional discussions.

In 1909, a group of Black delegates from the four provinces attended the South African Native National Convention (SANNC) in Waaihoek, Bloemfontein, to propose ways of objecting to the draft South African Act, and the Union constitution. The SANNC meeting convened by John Dube and Dr Walter Rubusana decided to send a delegation to London to convince the British government not to accept the Union in its present form. The delegation led by former Prime Minister William Scheiner failed in its aims as White supremacy was entrenched under a unitary state.

On 8 January 1912, several hundred members of South Africa’s educated elite met at Bloemfontein to establish a national organization to protest against racial discrimination and to appeal for equal treatment before the law. The group comprised of South Africa’s most prominent Black citizens: professional men, businessmen, journalist, chieftans, ministers, teachers, clerks, building contractors and labour agents. This meeting was the most significant in the history of Black protest politics as it was the first joint meeting of Black representatives from all four self-governing British colonies and indicated that Blacks were capable of united action.

History of the African National Congress

Although it was not the first African political organization in South Africa, its formation marked a clear break from the past as the focus of Black politics previously centered on electoral activity in the Cape Colony where Blacks with the required property and educational qualifications could vote and stand for office. 

Their voice in politics at the Cape was significant. At the turn of the century Black voters constituted nearly half the electorate in five constituencies, which contributed to the belief that the most effective way of accelerating Black political advancement was to use their vote to influence the election men who would be sympathetic to Black aspirations.  But the years succeeding the Peace of Vereenigning in 1902 witnessed the declining force of this argument. The founding of the SANNC marked the realization in middle-class Black circles of the contention that Black interest could best be promoted by action by Blacks themselves and not through sympathetic intermediaries.

Several reasons contributed to this change in opinion. Some members of the Black elite had hopes raised initially by the defeat of the Republics in the South African War and were bitterly disappointed. Despite expressions of imperial loyalty intermingled with polite phrased reproach at the prevalent discrimination against educated Black men with good character and ability, the British government made it clear that its paramount concern was White unity in South Africa.

Hopes that non-racial Cape franchise would be extended to the defeated republics were rapidly dashed as preparations for the Act of Union indicated that existing rights would not be respected in future. The Act removed the theoretical right of enfranchised Blacks to be elected to parliamentary seats which had existed in the Cape and also provided for the removal of the franchise from Black voters through a two-thirds majority vote of both houses of parliament in joint sessions.

By 1912, Black concern moved further than constitutional issues. The first post- Union administration, responding to the mining industry’s labour demands and the disquiet of White farmers squeezed between capitalist agricultural companies on the one hand and competitive Black peasants on the other, moved swiftly to safeguard its position with these groups.
Regulations were introduced, which made breaking a contract a criminal offence. Blacks were also excluded from skilled industrial jobs. The prohibition of rural land ownership by Blacks, or occupation outside the reserves dispossessed many landowners and leasing or tenant-farming relationships between Blacks and Whites were outlawed.

It was therefore made clear that there was more at stake here than just the interests of a small group who through their education at mission stations had come to form an identifiable petty bourgeoisie. The Land Act of 1913 and its complementary labour legislation were the tools used to destroy a whole class of peasant producers, forcing them into already crowded reserves or driving them to seek work as farm labourers and mine workers, and later in the least skilled and most badly paid positions in urban industrial, municipal and domestic employment. 

The group of men that assembled at Bloemfontein was well aware of the wider dimensions of the social tragedy being enacted around them. But their particular concern, the fear of any petty bourgeoisie at the time of crisis, was being thrust back into the ranks of the urban and rural poor. The main aim of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) was to represent the concerns and anxieties of the small professional middle class which was mainly responsible for convening the Bloemfontein meeting.

Its first President was John Dube; a Minister and school headmaster who studied in the USA and was strongly influenced by the American educator and activist Booker T Washington. Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a lawyer and prime mover in organizing the meeting to establish the Congress was appointed Treasurer. The position of Secretary General was occupied by Solomon T Plaaitjie, a court translator, author and newspaper editor who had worked in Kimberly and Johannesburg. These men retained close ties with African aristocracy and the rural chieftaincy, who were conservatives concerned with protecting a moral and social order they correctly perceived to be under attack while at the same time being anxious to promote the general advancement of the Black race in South Africa.

The Congress intended to function as a national forum to discuss the issues which affected them and to act as an organized pressure group. They planned to agitate for changes through the following: peaceful propaganda, the election of Congress sympathizers to legislative bodies through protest and enquiries and finally through passive action or continued movement.

The latter is a clear reference to the tactics which were being employed by Gandhi and his followers in the South African Indian community.

Last updated : 18-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 29-Jun-2011