Liberation Struggle in South Africa

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The genesis of the armed struggle, 1960-1966

Introduction

Sharpeville shortly after the shootings © Museum Africa.

The 1960s marked an important watershed in South Africa's struggle against apartheid. The aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre, in 1960, signalled the beginning of a far more brutal and intensive phase of state repression that would crush internal resistance in the space of a few years.

The new policy of 'Grand Apartheid,' as a massive social engineering project, created ethnically defined 'Bantustans' (or 'Homelands') out of the 'Reserves' carved out by the 1913 Land Act. Between 1960 and 1985, approximately 3.5 million Africans were forcibly removed to the State created 'homelands.'

The intensification of repressive laws and further erosion of political rights by the apartheid regime also saw the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) becoming the first causalities in an era of banishment. Forced underground, the ANC, PAC and other liberation organisations adopted new tactics.

The PAC and Sharpeville

Partly as a consequence of the relatively peaceful approach adopted by the ANC and other liberation organisation's prior to 1959 as well as on ideological grounds, a group of disenchanted ANC members, seeking to sever all ties with the White government, broke away to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Robert Sobukwe, a charismatic and intellectual leader, was elected as the first president at its founding conference was held in April 1959 in Johannesburg.

First on the PAC's agenda was a series of nationwide demonstrations against the hated "pass" laws instituted under The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953. Blacks were excluded, among other things, from living or working in White areas unless they had a pass - nicknamed 'dompas' ('dumb pass' in Afrikaans). Being present in urban areas without a valid pass, Blacks were subject to immediate arrest and summary trial, often followed by deportation to the person's 'homeland' and prosecution of the employer. Police vans patrolled White areas to round up 'illegal' Blacks found 'loitering' without passes. However, the blatantly callous massacres at Sharpeville near Johannesburg and Langa in the Cape on 21 March 1960 marked an important turning point in South African liberation history.

On this fateful day, Black people congregated in Sharpeville, a township near Vereeniging, to demonstrate against the requirement that Blacks carry identity documents (under the Pass Law). Estimates of the size of the crowd vary widely, from 5 000 up to as many as 20 000 with the larger figures coming from the police, wishing to stress how much danger they had been in. The crowd converged at the local police station, chanting and challenging the officers to arrest them for not carrying their passbooks. In response, approximately 300 policemen opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 69 and injuring an estimated 186. All the victims were Black, and most of them had been shot in the back whilst trying to flee the scene. The crowd was unarmed. Many eyewitnesses stated that the crowd was not violent, but Colonel J. Piennar, the senior police officer in charge on the day, justified the action by saying, "Hordes of natives surrounded the police station. My car was struck with a stone. If they do these things they must learn their lesson the hard way."

This event became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. On the same day, in Langa, two protestors died and 49 were wounded as a result of police action. In the wake of this event, a massive stay-away from work was organised and anti-pass demonstrations continued. Prime Minister, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, declared a state of emergency, giving security forces the right to detain people without trial. Over 18 000 demonstrators were arrested, including many in the ANC and PAC leadership. A month after the anti-pass demonstrations, the government banned both the ANC and the PAC as reports of police opening fire on unarmed demonstrators were flashed around the world. As if the ban was not enough, a far more brutal and intensive phase of state repression followed. Its major purpose was to eliminate any remnants of internal resistance in future.

The impact of banning leaders and organisations

Cato Manor Protests, Natal. 1959-1960. © Private Collection, Franco Frescura.

The Suppression of Communism Act, passed in the 1950s gave the government the power to ban publications that it believed promoted the objectives of communism, and the power to 'name' people who could be barred from holding office, practicing as lawyers or attending meetings. The Act, later extended through the Internal Security Act, defined communism as any doctrine that aimed at bringing about 'any political, industrial, social or economic change in the Union by the promotion of disturbances or disorder, by unlawful acts or omissions or by the threat of such acts and omissions'.  This definition of communism was so broad and crude that its liberal opponents suspected it was seeking also to trap liberals in its net.

Between 1948 and 1991, the apartheid government banned thousands of people. Banned persons endured severe restrictions on their movement, political activities and association with other persons and organizations.  The government's intention was to silence opposition to its apartheid policies and stop their political activity.  The banning of political opponents - along with other more severe forms of repression, such as indefinite detention, torture and political assassination - were weapons the apartheid government used against the liberation movements.

In addition the Suppression of Communism Act and the Unlawful Organisations Act of 1960 provided for organisations, perceived by the government, as threatening public order or the safety of the public to be declared unlawful. The National Party government believed that by banning the ANC and PAC under this act would stop them from operating. This was not the case. Some of the leaders went into exile overseas, while others stayed in South Africa to pursue the struggle within the country. They went underground and started secret armed resistance groups.

Other liberation organisations, such as the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC), were not banned. These were organisations perceived by the Government as being less revolutionary than the ANC, PAC and SACP. However, since most of the core leaders within these organisations were banned they could not function effectively. Moreover, gatherings of more than ten people were forbidden and offenders were dealt with accordingly by the state.

Resistance goes underground

As a result of the ban on their organisations, the ANC and the PAC were forced underground, and new tactics had to be adopted. Most significantly, the movements launched a campaign of armed struggle. The ANC had always advocated non-violent methods and debates over the use of violence were often acrimonious. Older leaders committed to non-violence, such as Chief Albert Luthuli, winner of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize, were clearly troubled by this transition but acknowledged its inevitability. Nelson Mandela, in a famous speech from underground, saw no alternative to a government that met peaceful protestors with savage violence.

The ANC launched its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation," or MK) in December 1961, with Nelson Mandela as its Commander in Chief. The PAC's military equivalent was Poqo ("Pure" or "Alone"), formed in February 1960 by Robert Sobukwe. The two organisations became closely identified with the sabotage campaigns they conducted. For example, in the first 18 months of their existence they orchestrated about 200 acts of sabotage sometimes with very fatal consequences. Their overriding aim was to overthrow the South African government in order to replace it with a democratic order which represented all the peoples of the land.

The Rivonia Trial and the increase in Government's attempts to hamper the liberation movements

The voices of the crowd raised in song outside the Palace of Justice on Verdict Day (11 June 1963) of the Rivonia Trial in Pretoria as Winnie Mandela appeared on the steps. Nelson Mandela's mother is behind Winnie (extreme back), she had come all the way from Umtata to hear that her son had been found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. Photograph by Drum Photographer © Baileys African History Archives.

In July 1963, the liberation struggle suffered a huge setback. Most of the prominent people in the ANC's underground movement, who were designing Operation Mayibuye ("Operation Come Back"), the plan to overthrow the South African government, were arrested at Lilliesleaf. Those arrested included Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg. Nelson Mandela had been arrested earlier on other charges on 5 August in Howick, Natal. The leaders were subsequently tried for treason in the infamous Rivonia Trial (October 1963) after which Mandela and seven of his colleagues were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in June 1964. Oliver Tambo, a senior member of the ANC leadership, managed to escape South Africa and was to lead the ANC in exile for another thirty years.  

Verwoerd made futile attempts to hamper the growing spirit of liberation and the efforts by leaders to establish a unified resistance. South Africa attacked countries that offered support to the liberation struggle in an attempt to isolate these organisations in exile, but this did not work. The state then turned to employing the services of assassins and bombers to invade the headquarters and other ANC structures in various countries, including London (where the liberation struggle cadres were). Once again it failed abysmally and was met with fierce resistance. The liberation movement, spurred on by these atrocities, became even more determined in its resolve. The government also enacted draconian legislation at this time, trying to slow down the influence of the liberation organisation inside the country. During this period, the leaders were still trying to establish more offices in Africa and in Europe apart from the ones they had in Dar es Salaam, Lesotho and London.

The Rivonia trial was condemned by the United Nations Security Council, and was a major factor in the introduction of international sanctions against the South Africa government. With the ANC, PAC and South African Communist Party banned, and Mandela and his fellow leaders in jail or exile, South Africa entered its most troubled period.

The homelands

As apartheid legislation was increasingly enforced, separation between the different population groups increased culminating in the creation of ethnically defined 'Bantustans' (or 'Homelands'), which were designated lands for Black people where they could have a vote. These homelands were established out of the old 'Reserves' carved out by the 1913 Land Act. The Promotion of Black Self-Government Act of 1958 set up separate territorial governments in the homelands. The aim was that the homelands would eventually become independent of South Africa. In practice, the South African government exercised strong influence over these separate states and generally, government-approved 'tribal' leaders ruled over the Bantustans in a violent and corrupt manner with the full support of the South African government, which was responsible for their entire budgets and provided military assistance.

Between 1960 and 1985, approximately 3.5 million Africans were forcibly removed to the 'homelands.' These rural dumping grounds functioned as reservoirs of cheap Black labour for White employers, but the apartheid regime also envisioned them as 'independent' territories that would ensure the denial of South African citizenship to millions of Africans. Some of these territories, such as Bophuthatswana, comprised dozens of isolated pieces of territory with no common frontier. Situated in the most unproductive regions of the country, Bantustans were inhabited largely by poverty-stricken women and children since men migrated annually to work in South African cities and towns, and farms as well.

The 1960s period of the struggle ended with, Verwoerd, another architect of apartheid's 'separate but equal' policy, being stabbed to death in parliament in 1966. However, his policies continued under B. J. Vorster and later P. W. Botha.

Last updated : 09-May-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Mar-2011

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