Liberation Struggle in South Africa

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State policies and social protest, 1924-1939

Many white labourers were employed by the railways and harbours to; help solve the "Poor White" problem and ensure that job reservation continued. Source: Callinicos; L (1993). A Place in the City-The Rand on the Eve of Apartheid. Johannesburg: Ravan

One of the most important developments in South Africa in this period was the formation of the Pact Government in which the push for independence from Britain was becoming strong. In 1923 the National Party (NP) and Labour Party (LP) formed a pact to win the general elections held in the Union of South Africa in 1924. Their main opposition was the South African Party (SAP), led by General Jan Smuts, who had been the Prime Minister of the country since Louis Botha's death in 1919.

The Pact Government had to work on establishing a new South African identity marking its freedom from British rule. This meant the creation of a new flag and recognition of Afrikaans as an official language. During this period of rapid and far reaching political change the Government experienced several splits and fusions.

Economically the late 1920s and early 1930s were difficult years. There was a worldwide depression and South Africa did not escape its effects. Unemployment soared and there was widespread poverty. Although urban dwellers felt the pinch too, it was the families in the rural areas and particularly those in the reserves that suffered the most. African women struggled to feed their families and often the only option was to go into the towns to look for some means of supplementing the family income; often domestic service proved to be the answer. In the 1930s the Government made attempts to stem the flow of African women into the towns, but as women (unlike men) did not have to carry compulsory passes, female migration to the towns continued.  
Many Afrikaners who were still on the land also began to drift into the towns, creating what was called the ‘poor white' problem. Urbanisation thus received another boost. Afrikaner women, like their African, Indian and Coloured counterparts, began to enter the labour market in increasing numbers, often finding work in the industrial sector.

Segregation legislation against Black, Indian and Coloured South Africans increased during this period as more Blacks moved to urban areas. The 1923 Natives (Urban Areas) Act restricted African migration into towns, laying the foundations for urban residential segregation. The Government also sought to tighten control of Black workers by passing laws in the 1920s that severely curtailed black economic freedom, including a prohibition on forming unions, as the main movements through which the oppressed expressed their growing political awareness.  In the 1930s this was done through the ANC, the CPSA and the trade union movements. By the 1930s, the government’s segregationist stance hardened further.

The PACT government

Jan Smuts.© www.zar.co.za

Prior to the 1924 elections, The SAP had been through a very difficult 14 years in office for several reasons. They had been instrumental in the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and had led the country since then, but had experienced an internal split. Some of the party members wanted to keep links with Britain while others (who formed the National Party or NP in 1914, and split from the SAP) favoured full independence for South Africa. The SAP also had to govern while World War I was being fought from 1914 to1918 and had to deal with the Rand Rebellion in 1922. The Rebellion was the result of severe labour unrest that had been simmering for some time.  The economic depression after the war and dissatisfaction from Blacks and other extra-parliamentary groups also made the SAP's rule more difficult.

The National Party (NP) and Labour Party (LP) were prepared to work together because they wanted to force the South African Party (SAP) out of power. They could only do so by forming an alliance. Both parties were determined to block all economic competition from black people. The NP believed in total segregation while the LP wanted a colour bar in industries to protect skilled and semi-skilled white workers against their replacement by cheap black labour. The LP did not agree with some of the NP's ambitions, like secession from the British Empire, so the NP agreed to focus less on its plans for greater self-determination for the Union of South Africa (i.e. be more in line with the LP on the republican issue) and thereby keep the pact intact. The LP was enthusiastic about the NPs idea of placing more white people in mines, and thus limiting black labour. The National Party and Labour Party Pact, under the leadership of General J. B. M. Hertzog, provided unhappy voters with an alternative to Smuts' ruling SAP.

The NP and LP election pact brought these two partners a clear victory in the 1924 general election, although the total number of votes for each individual party showed that the SAP was still the strongest single party. The Pact now held 81 seats while the SAP had 53.

Hertzog’s Government won the 1929 election five years later. He realised that united Blacks posed a threat to White minority rule in South Africa, so he used “Swart Gevaar” (Black danger) slogans in his speeches and campaigning as a tool of getting Whites to vote for him in the 1929 election.

The beginnings of African trade unions

A.W. Champion, Natal President of I.C.U and Clement Kadalie. Photograph by L.T. Majola © Bailey's African History Archive

During the 1930s attempts at organising workers into trade unions became more widespread. Some were more successful than others. By 1928, the Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU) did little to offer solidarity for Blacks as it was riddled by internal squabbles and it could not direct its energy where it was supposed to, therefore its membership numbers dwindled. In 1930 the South African Trades and Labour Council (SATLC) was formed. Between 1930 and 1955 it was the largest trade union body in South Africa. It was made up of:

  • craft unions that organised semi-skilled white workers’ e.g. iron moulders
  • White industrial unions who often relied on the racist policies of the Government for support e.g. South African Iron and Steel Trades Association which grew into one of the largest and most conservative White unions
  • racially-mixed trade unions that organised Black workers as junior partners in their unions e.g. Garment Workers' Union established a Number 2 Branch for Coloured members
  • Non-racial trade unions that organised all workers together e.g. Food and Canning Workers' Union and the Textile Workers' Industrial Union. These unions were based in industries where, as a result of World War II, there had been a large drop in the number of Whites employed. It had become impractical for these unions to organise along racial lines.

South African Labour History

As indicated previously, throughout this period African unions, while not illegal, were prevented by law from becoming registered. Only White, Coloured and Indian workers were allowed to form and join registered unions. Until about 1940, African trade unions remained small, weak and divided. Following unity talks in 1941, the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) was formed with Gana Makabeni as President and Dan Tloome as Vice-President.

Movements for black unity

During and prior to this period other organisations sprang up all over the country and all of them were on an individual basis of membership. There were political organisations, professional organisations, trade unions and civic bodies, religious organisations, etc. All of them had one purpose, the fight for liberation. Yet each organisation operated in isolation from the rest. In other words, the struggle was uncoordinated, ineffectual, and resulted in a dissipation of energy. In addition the two main organisations of the African people, the African National Congress and the I.C.U. had declined quite rapidly.

In 1923, The South African Native National Congress (SANNC) renamed itself, African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was hoping to be the uniting factor and the organisation capable of taking the aspirations of oppressed people forward. The National Party Government counter-acted by introducing the Native Urban Act, aimed at regulating the presence of Africans in urban areas. A report called the Stallard Report led to the passing of this Act, it stated:

“It should be a recognised principle that natives – men, women and children – should only be permitted within municipal areas in so far and for as long as their presence is demanded by the wants of the white population”¦The masterless native in urban areas is a source of danger and a cause of degradation of both black and white”¦If the native is to be regarded as a permanent element in municipal areas”¦there can be no justification for basing his exclusion from the franchise on the simple ground of colour.”

Around this time the new Pass Laws also came into effect. Through this, Blacks who were deemed surplus to the labour force in urban areas were sent to the reserves.

In 1923, the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) was formed as a national Indian organisation to fight the increased anti-Indian legislation entrenched by the Hertzog government. The SAIC was the coming together of various provincial Indian Congress’s, namely the Natal Indian Congress, the Transvaal Indian Congress and the Cape Indian Congress. Before the formation of the SAIC these organisations were already opposing the Government’s racist policies.  Unlike the ANC, when the SAIC started, it had a bit of success and dialogue between the SAIC and the South African Government was undertaken on numerous legislations. This was because of a combination of the opposition from the Indian community here in South Africa and backing from the Indian Government as the SAIC depended on petitions and deputations to the authorities and appeals for help to the Government of India, which was then under British control.

In 1927 the ANC’s Zaccheus Richard Mahabane and D.D.T. Jabavu, along with the APO’s Dr A. Abdurahman, organised the Non-European Unity Conferences between 1927 and 1934 of African political organisations to formulate a co-ordinated African response to segregation. This coalition did not turn into a permanent body because of organisational rivalries and personal jealousies, but it nevertheless was a significant first initiative at forming a united black political front.

By the 1930s, the Government’s segregationist stance hardened further. Amendments to the Masters and Servants’ Act, for instance, legalised whipping. In 1936, the Hertzog Bills removed the few Africans who were still enfranchised in the Cape from the voters roll.

The All Africa Convention, the awakening of a people by IB Tabata

The onslaught of the Hertzog Bills stirred African people throughout the country. A few of the liberation movement leaders decided to call on the liberation organisations to send representatives to a convention to be held in Bloemfontein in December 1935. It was the biggest conference in the liberation struggle’s history and was a truly representative gathering. There were over 500 delegates present, with representatives from both towns and the rural areas. Delegates had been sent from the Reserves, from the Transkei and Zululand; from the Protectorates, Bechuanaland (Botswana), Basutoland (Lesotho) and Swaziland.

The All Africa Convention

The All African Convention (AAC) was aimed at promoting African rights through boycotts. Most of AAC members had dual membership with their respective organisations, which made it possible for its members to interact with various organisations on numerous issues. However, leadership problems and an inability to mobilise grassroots support reduced the organisation’s efforts. The AAC’s ambitious aim of having the ANC dissolved and the formation of the All African National Congress angered influential members of the ANC who opposed the AAC’s tactics. The question of the Cape Native Franchise was another issue that the Executive Committee of the AAC was faced with. It emerged that Prof. Jabavu had made secret agreements against the AAC. This issue divided the AAC and cracks started appearing as there was no trust at all.

Changes in government and the outbreak of WW2

In 1934, the United Party was formed when the NP and SAP merged, with Hertzog as leader and Prime Minister and Smuts as deputy leader. The circumstances that led to the outbreak of the Second World War (WWII) had a direct impact on South Africa. The whole world was watching anxiously as events unfolded and countries were interested in building allies to safeguard themselves in case of a war. At first, Hertzog and Smuts agreed to disagree on SA’s right to remain neutral if Britain declared war, with Smuts wanting to fight with the Allies. However, after Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 South Africa entered the war on the side of Britain causing the UP to split and Smuts to become Prime Minister. At the beginning of the War, the ANC and other opposition political parties were ambivalent about participating in the War.  Later they gave qualified support to the War, but as a result of the war, the liberation movement initiatives that had shown some promise up till this point were placed on hold. At this stage both the AAC and the ANC were in a critical era of their struggle as they were holding vigorous talks with the government. Therefore, the hope for the liberation movement was for the War to end in so that South Africa could concentrate on its domestic affairs.

It is important to note that as a result of the formation of the UP some Afrikaner politicians and intellectuals broke away and established the Purified National Party (HNP) under the leadership of Daniel F. Malan in 1934. The Purified National Party and the Broederbond mobilised ordinary Afrikaners significantly in the 1930s, particularly around the centenary of the Great Trek in 1938 - a celebration re-enacting the migration of Afrikaners in the 1830s to the northern and north-eastern parts of South Africa. This was the organisation that would later win the 1948 elections and formally institutionalise Apartheid. Alongside cultural and political mobilisation, Afrikaner economic power also developed significantly in the 1930s. Afrikaner capital expanded through the insurance giant Sanlam and the Volkskas Bank (now ABSA), while Afrikaner workers formed their own ethnic unions, such as Spoorbond in the railways.

Last updated : 03-Mar-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011