The Freedom struggle in Pretoria

As the administrative capital of South Africa, and the location of the offices of the President, Pretoria became the centre of many protests that took place during the struggle for freedom. Also, because the High Court was situated in Pretoria, it became the venue for many of the most publicized trials, which had a huge bearing on the history of South Africa. In this section, you will find a brief outline of the most important protests and trails that made Pretoria infamous.

SANNC/ Native United Political Associations Railway Protest

In 1920, the SANNC (now the African National Congress, ANC) organized a civil disobedience campaign in Pretoria to protest the exclusion of Black railway passengers from first class carriages.

A prominent organization based in Pretoria was the Native United Political association, which was founded in 1905. Sefako Mapogo Makgatho became the organization’s first President in 1906. Makgatho became well known for openly defying the discrimination against Black railway passengers practiced in the Transvaal.

During a train trip in Pretoria, Magatho deliberately seated himself in a first class compartment reserved for Whites only. Non-White South Africans had to travel on converted cattle trucks as no compartments were made for them. After being asked to leave, a number of White passengers attempted to force Magatho off the train. Magatho then laid a charge of attempted murder against his assailants which resulted in one White person being found guilty on the charge against him.

This incident not only made Magatho a household name amongst Blacks but resulted in better coach facilities for Blacks in the Transvaal. The Transvaal Native Organisation gained prominence at the time of South Africa’s unification.

Anti-Pass Campaign - PAC

In December 1959, the ANC announced a series of single day anti-pass marches. This was contrasted by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), who called for a more sustained campaign, involving refusal to carry passes and mass presentation at police stations to demand arrest.

However, in Pretoria events were very undramatic, as the campaign was not supported by the masses. Only six men presented themselves for arrest at the Hercules Police station, only to have their names taken and to be sent away. Therefore, this campaign did not achieve the desired effect the organizers had hoped for.

PAC activity in Pretoria seems to have centred round Lady Selbourne High School.

The Federation of South African Women and the Women's Anti-Pass March

Launched in 1954, The Federation of South African Women (FSAW or FEDSAW) played an important role in the protest politics. Although linked to the ANC they drew on other liberal supporters and coordinated campaigns of non-registration, pass burning and petitioning.

The leaders of the 1955 Women's March holding the petitions against passes. © Jurgen Schadeberg.

Shortly after the government announcement, in 1955, that it would issue Black women with reference books from January 1956, some 2000 women marched to the Union Buildings. Lillian Ngoyi, Bertha Mashaba, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa and Sophie Williams, women demonstrated their objections to the proposed measure. This was the first protest organized by FSAW and was attended by women of all races. Unfortunately, this demonstration was ignored by the government.

Not easily deterred, the leadership of FSAW and the ANC Women’s League organized a second protest in Pretoria in 1956. Bertha Mashaba and Helen Joseph were given the task of organizing meetings throughout the country to inform and prepare women for the August march.

On 9 August 1956, women from all parts of the country arrived in Pretoria, some far a field as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Some 20 000 women proceeded to the Union Buildings to demonstrate against the passes, filling the entire amphitheatre in the bow of the graceful Hebert Baker building.

The Defiance Campaign

The Defiance Campaign, launched in 1952 by the ANC and SACP, was a joint venture to protest against the government’s new discriminatory laws. This campaign took place country wide and was supported in Pretoria.

Non-White people deliberately broke apartheid laws like walking through ‘forbidden’ areas, breaking curfew and standing in ‘Europeans only’ lines. Police began arresting people by the hundreds, and White South Africa was forced to notice Black discontent. By December 1952, some 8400 people were arrested with 7986 convictions, and of these 101 arrests were made in Pretoria. The highest arrests were recorded in East London and Port Elizabeth.

Initially, the Defiance campaign started as non violent, but as demonstrations continued, and tension mounted with the police on a daily basis which led to riots breaking out in certain areas. Although the campaign was ended by the banning and imprisonment of many of its organizers, by legislation forbidding civil disobedience and by outbreaks of violence in Port Elizabeth and East London, it had achieved results for both sides.

The campaign presented the government with an opportunity to introduce a battery of laws designed to silence protesters, and demonstrated to Non-White people that cooperation between Non-White groups could work. It also sent a message to White South Africa that something was wrong in the country.

The campaign also put the question of institutionalized racism under the international spotlight at the United Nations. The ANC also gained greater popularity and credibility internationally and its membership was boosted locally.

The Treason Trial

By the 1950’s, the government was highly dissatisfied with the militant direction in which the ANC and other members of the Congress Alliance were moving. The government saw the acceptance of the Freedom Charter as treason and by September 1955 the houses of all prominent protest leaders were searched for incriminating evidence.

Fifteen months later, 156 members and supporters of the Congress Alliances were arrested and charged with treason, this included Luthuli, Tambo, Sisulu and Mandela of the ANC, Naicker and Kathrada of the SAIC, Bernstein, Beyleveld and Turok of the SACOD and Kotane and Slovo of the SACP.

This highly publicized case, which took place in Pretoria, dragged on for four years, with many of the accused being dismissed. In 1960, 30 of the accused went on trial but none were found guilty. The Trial generated wide international publicity, resulting in a stream of sympathy for members of the protest movements.

The Rivonia Trial

On 11 July 1963, the South African Police raided the secret headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe at Lilliesleaf farm and found a large number of documents detailing plans for sabotage and revolution. Almost the entire National High Command of the ANC was arrested.

At the time, Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein and Bob Hepple were actually discussing Operation Mayibuye when they were taken in by police, and the ANC’s blueprint for guerrilla warfare fell into the hands of the government.

This started the highly publicized Rivonia Trial which took place in Pretoria, and on 12 June 1964 Sisulu, Mbeki, Mhlaba, Kathrada, Mandela, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni and Dennis Goldberg were all sentenced to life imprisonment. This trial brought an end to the internal sabotage campaign of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the underground work of both the ANC and SACP.

Last updated : 19-Feb-2013

This article was produced by South African History Online on 29-Mar-2011