The South African Coloured People’s Organisation (SACPO) was formed in 1953 at a Coloured People's Convention in Cape Town. The organisation aimed to unite Coloureds against the efforts to remove them from the common voters roll. The SACPO also collaborated with the African National Congress (ANC) in its campaign against Apartheid. Alex la Guma and Reggie September were two of the SACPO’s founding members, and served as President and Secretary respectively.
Successive South African Governments subjected Coloureds to repressive policies. This sort of treatment began shortly after the founding of the Cape of Good Hope and it was repeated in other parts of South Africa as well.
For a time, though, it seemed possible that Coloured voters seemed set to enjoy a modicum of political influence. In the years leading up to the 1924 election, the South African Party (SAP), led by Louis Botha, supported a one stream policy which envisioned conciliation between Afrikaans and English-speaking whites. This moderate stance, in turn, led to the departure of Botha’s Minister of Justice, James Hertzog, and the creation of the National Party (NP), which favoured a two stream policy of separate, but equal, development of Afrikaans-speaking Whites on one the hand, and English-speaking Whites on the other.
The NP and Labour Party (LP) joined forces to defeat the SAP in the 1924 general election. In pursuit of that goal, they managed to entice significant Coloured support in the election cycle by offering Coloureds a “New Deal.” The deal involved offering Coloureds terms that included exemption from restrictions that applied to Blacks and a general expansion of Coloured political rights and economic opportunities. This preferential treatment relative to Blacks would nonetheless contemplate Coloureds as a distinct racial group and subordinate to Whites.
The NP’s objective was to bolster White supremacy by undercutting potential Black political strength. And it sought to do so by segregating Black and Coloured political interests.
The African Political Organisation (APO) represented Coloured interests during the early part of the 20 th Century. Abdullah Abdurahman, the APO’s leader, was very sceptical toward the NP and LP coalition. He tried to discourage Coloureds from supporting the coalition by arguing that the NP had a record of discrimination and that its promise of a “New Deal” was merely an electoral ruse. Instead, Abdurahman urged support for the SAP on the ground that while it had not done all that Coloureds might have wanted, its ranks still contained liberals who subscribed to the old Cape egalitarian ideal of equal rights for “civilised” men, irrespective of class or race.
Abdurahman failed. Facing a challenging environment, due in part to the entry of Black workers into Cape Town that suppressed Coloured wages, the NP’s proposal appealed mightily to many Coloured voters.
The NP and LP Pact won the election with significant support from the Coloured community. But the hollow nature of the Pact’s outreach to Coloureds became clear over the next handful of years as they reneged on their promise to improve the Coloured lot. And once the Pact managed to secure greater white support in the 1929 election – which meant they relied less on Coloured support – they jettisoned any pretence of solicitude toward Coloureds.
The Pact era resulted in a weakening of the APO and its moderate agenda. It lost support among Coloured leaders, which was hardly surprising given that the anticipated benefits of hitching coloured fortunes to the Pact failed to materialise.
The NP radicalised the repressive treatment of Blacks, Indians and Coloureds after it came into power in 1948 on the strength of anti-British sentiment among Afrikaners, and a campaign promise of Apartheid.
The NP, motivated by its commitment to white supremacy, attempted to strip Coloureds of the right to vote for ordinary constituency members of the House of Assembly Rather, Coloureds would elect four members at separate elections. In the 1950s, the NP came to dominate the white vote, and it used its clout to advance many laws that deepened racial segregation in the country. The NP pushed its segregationist agenda so vigorously and effectively that by the middle of the 1960s, nearly every aspect of South African life was characterised by racial separation. Perhaps the most prominent piece of segregationist legislation was the Population Registration Act of 1950. It was a law that placed every South African into one of a fixed number of races. Coloureds were placed into their group on the basis of general appearance, general view and lineage.
Before Apartheid, various organisations represented the interests of the Coloured community. In addition to the APO, those organisations included the moderate, compromise-orientated Coloured People Nation Union (CPNU) and the more confrontational Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). The different attitudes and approaches of these organisations robbed the Coloured resistance to apartheid of cohesion and undermined its effectiveness. But the Apartheid government’s introduction of the Group Areas and Population Registration Acts, and the Separate Representation of Voters Bill unified these factions inasmuch as Coloured political players outside the distinct CPNU and NEUM structures drew closer to the ANC to tackle the common oppressive actor: the Apartheid regime.
The first organisation to materialize out of this heightened need for solidarity was the Franchise Action Council (FRAC) – which was geared toward lobbying.
FRAC resisted the Separate Registration of Voters Bill and sought to collaborate closely with the ANC. It mounted a campaign against the bill in 1951. The CPNU and NEUM did not support FRAC’s initiatives such as a school stay-away in Cape Town.
FRAC failed to garner sufficient support among Coloureds and, in relatively short order, CPNU became the principal political vehicle for Coloured opposition. But that did not last, largely because CPNU’s moderation sat badly with people who did not endorse its moderation.
Thus SACPO was formed to serve as a political vehicle for people who wished to promote social transformation but by way of means that differed from the CPNU.
SACPO had the same objectives as FRAC: to resist the Separate Registration of Voters Bill, and to join forces with the ANC to oppose apartheid. In pursuit of its first aim, SACPO organised protests against the Separate Registration of Voters Bill. And in keeping with the second goal, it undertook a range of ventures including a bus boycott in the Cape in 1954 to protest against racial segregation on buses, and the mobilisation of a Coloured narrative against the Land Tenure Board. But it positioned itself as a national coloured organisation with branches and regular conferences, which distinguished it from FRAC.
Prime Minister Strijdom, however, managed to engineer the passing of the bill into law. He was initially unable to secure the necessary two-thirds majority he needed in Parliament to enact the law he wanted. So he did two things: first he enlarged the Appellate Division – then the highest court in the country – and added executive-minded judges to the mix. Secondly, he added more pro-Nationalist politicians to the legislature. The politicians passed the bill into law, and the sympathetic appeals court upheld their actions. In terms of the law, Coloureds were removed from the common voters’ roll and placed on a separate one. They were to elect four white MPs who, in conjunction with a government-nominated white senator would represent Coloureds. In addition, the law allowed Coloureds to elect two Provincial Councillors, who also had to be white. The law also contemplated an advisory body called the Union Council of Coloured Affairs (UCCA), which was established to put matters of relevance to the Coloured community to the NP.
The passage of the law was seen as a significant blow in the more elitist circles in the Coloured community, whereas other factions, such as NEUM saw it as the legal recognition of a de facto situation: that the Coloured vote did not count for much anyway.
The ANC directed its national executive committee at its National Conference in 1953 to invite other political organisations to the Congress of the People. The goal was to draft the Freedom Charter. The South African Indian Congress (SAIC) and the South African Congress of Democrats (SACOD) also participated. The SACPO, the ANC, the SACOD and the SAIC formed the Congress Alliance. And the Congress of the People, which adopted the Freedom Charter, was held in Kliptown from 25 to 27 August 1955.
SACPO had started working closely with the Congress Alliance by 1956. Its members took part in the Freedom Charter Campaign, among other political ventures. But the late 1950s constituted the period in which whatever early promise the SACPO may have shown wilted.
SACPO paid a steep price for its participation in the Freedom Charter campaign. Some of its members were arrested and charged with high treason.
It supported white members of the Congress of Democrats (COD) to serve as Coloured representatives in the 1958 general election. This decision caused a great fracture within the party, and most Coloured voters either voted for the United Party or boycotted.
The party became known as the Coloured People Congress (CPC) after its conference in December 1959.
CPC/SACPO’s decline gained even greater momentum due to the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the ANC. Several of its prominent members joined other political organisations or went into exile.
• Lewis G. Between the Wire and the Wall: A History of South African “Coloured” Politics (1987)