Liberation Struggle in South Africa

Apartheid and reactions to it

The architects of Apartheid. © Apartheid Museum Archive.

In 1948, the National Party (NP), representing Afrikaners, won the national election on a platform of racism and segregation under the slogan of 'apartheid’. Apartheid built upon earlier laws, but made segregation more rigid and enforced it more aggressively.  All Government action and response was decided according to the policy of apartheid. In turn, apartheid failed to respond effectively and adequately to concerns that had led to intermittent labour and civic unrest that erupted in the aftermath of World War II. Consequently, throughout the 1950s unrest in African, Coloured and Indian communities escalated, becoming more frequent and determined. Labour unrest too was in evidence during this period.

After the 1948 elections, as the liberation movements intensified their efforts, the Government came down heavily on them.  It introduced the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. However, in a determined reaction, the liberation movements had assumed a more combative posture. This was spelled out in the Programme of Action adopted by the ANC in 1949. Under this policy the first major action was the Defiance Campaign launched in 1952. . This Campaign brought Africans, Coloureds and Indians together against the common enemy and was a direct reaction by the liberation movements to the unjust laws passed by the government.  Some Whites also joined the struggle alongside Africans, Indians and Coloureds in different campaigns.

Other campaigns included the Western Areas Campaign from 1953 to 1957 and intended to undermine efforts to forcibly remove the community from Sophiatown to Soweto. The Bantu Education Campaign was a reaction to the introduction of Bantu Education in 1953. The Congress of the People gathrered in Kliptown in 1955 to adopt the Freedom Charter and the women’s anti pass march in 1956 expressed women’s abhorrence of the extension of pass laws to them was expressed.

There were other forms of unrest that were spontaneous, largely unorganized reactions to apartheid measures. Foremost among these were bus boycotts that were responses to increased transport costs, boycotts and attacks on municipal beerhalls that were intended to undermine African Women’s source of livelihood from proceeds of beer brewing and reactions to stricter enforcement of influx control regulations.

Institutionalising Apartheid

National Party leaders D. F. Malan and Hendrik F. Verwoerd were the architects of apartheid. Malan used the term "apartheid" from the 1930s as he distanced his party from British traditions of liberalism and the earlier policy of segregation, which he saw as too lenient towards Blacks. Verwoerd, educated in the Netherlands, the United States, and Germany, was the main ideologue of apartheid. He became Native Affairs Minister in the early 1950s and Prime Minister in 1958.

Non White Persons Only Railway Sation Platform, Johannesburg 1983. Photograph by Rodney Barnett © South Photographs.

In principle, apartheid did not differ that much from the policy of segregation of the South African government existing before the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. The main difference was that apartheid made segregation part of the law. Apartheid cruelly and forcibly separated people, and had a fearsome state apparatus to punish those who fought against it. Another reason why apartheid was seen as worse than segregation was that apartheid was introduced in a period when other countries were moving away from racist policies. Before World War Two, the Western world was not as critical of racial discrimination, during which period Africa was colonized. The Second World War highlighted the problems of racism, making the world turn away from such policies and encouraging demands for decolonization. It was during this period that South Africa introduced the more rigid racial policy of apartheid.

Various reasons can be advanced for the introduction of the policy of apartheid and support for it, which are all closely linked. Among the reasons, are those of racial superiority and fear. In South Africa the white people are in the minority, and many were worried that they would lose their jobs, culture and language which explains how people were thinking.

Apartheid Laws

Numerous laws were passed in the creation of the apartheid state in the 1950s; this decade can be described as the era of 'petty apartheid,’ when the Nationalists passed many new racist laws to enforce a racially separate and unequal social order. The 1953 Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, for instance, imposed segregation on all public facilities, including post offices, beaches, stadiums, parks, toilets, and cemeteries, and buses and trains as well.

Here are a few of the pillars on which apartheid rested:

  • Population Registration Act, 1950 - This Act demanded that people be registered according to their racial group. This meant that the Department of Home Affairs would have a record of people according to whether they were White, Coloured, Black, Indian or Asian. People would then be treated differently according to their population group, and so this law formed the basis of apartheid. It was however not always that easy to decide what racial group a person was part of, and this caused some problems.
  • Group Areas Act, 1950 - This was the Act that started physical separation between races, especially in urban areas. The Act also called for the removal of some groups of people into areas set aside for their racial group. Well known removals were those in District Six, Sophiatown and Lady Selborne (also see Cato Manor, Fietas and Curries Fountain (Grey Street area)). People from these areas were then placed in townships outside of the town. They could not own property here, only rent it, as land could only be white owned.
  • Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act, 1959 - This Act forced different racial groups to live in different areas. Only a small percentage of South Africa was left for black people (who comprised the vast majority) to form their 'homelands’. Like the Group Areas Act, this act also got rid of 'black spots’ inside white areas, by moving all black people out of the city. This Act caused much hardship and resentment. People lost their homes, were moved off land they had owned for many years and were moved to undeveloped areas far away from their place of work.
  • Bantu Education Act, 1953 - established an inferior education system for Africans based upon a curriculum intended to produce manual laborers and obedient subjects. Similar discriminatory education laws were also imposed on Coloureds, who had lost the right to vote in 1956, and Indians. The government denied funding to mission schools that rejected Bantu Education, leading to the closure of many of the best schools for Africans. In the higher education sector, the Extension of University Education Act of 1959 prevented black students from attending "white" universities (except with government permission) and created separate and unequal institutions for Africans, Coloureds, and Indians respectively. The apartheid government also undermined intellectual and cultural life through intense censorship of books, movies, and radio and television programs.
  • The Suppression of Communism Act, 1950 (originally introduced as the Unlawful Organisations Bill) - The Act was introduced in an attempt to curb the influence of the CPSA and other formations that opposed the government's apartheid policy. It sanctioned the banning/punishment of the CPSA or any group or individual intending to bring about political, economic, industrial and social change through the promotion of disorder or disturbance, using unlawful acts or encouraging feelings of hostility between the European and non-European races of the Union of South Africa. The Act was progressively tightened up in 1951, 1954, and yearly from 1962-1968.

Some other important laws were the:

  • Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949
  • Immorality Amendment Act, 1950
  • Separate Representation of Voters Act, 1951
  • Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, 1953

Resistance before 1959

*South Africa and the United Nations Organization*South Africa’s Foreign Policy

This period 1948-1959 was characterised by more militant forms of protest, including “immediate and active boycott, strike, civil disobedience, and non-co-operation,” (as stated in the ANC’s 1949 Programme of Action) and African workers were organised into unions. All of these protests were still non-violent, a policy that the ANC advocated (during the next era of the liberation struggle, forced underground, the ANC and its allies adopted new tactics. Most significantly, the movements launched a campaign of armed struggle).

Apart from those suffering the negative effects of discrimination, resistance to apartheid came from other quarters also, including from other countries, and some of these gave support to the South African freedom movements. The 1950s also saw resistance to Bantu Education and forced removals in many rural areas and in urban communities, as well as large-scale anti-pass campaigns.

The ANC’s Programme of Action 1949

On 17 December 1949 the ANC adopted a 'Programme of Action’ at their conference. This marked one of the most important turning points in the history of the organisation's existence up to that time. The adoption was precipitated by the victory of the National party and its determination to implement a policy of apartheid. The Programme of Action called on the ANC to embark on mass action, involving civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts and other forms of non-violent resistance, similar to the 1946 Passive resistance campaign mounted by the South African Indian Conference (SAIC). Therefore, inspired by the desire to achieve national freedom, the ANC was transformed in the 1950s; it now became a more militant liberation movement.

The Defiance Campaign

Part of the large crowd that assembled at Fordsburg to protest. The defiance campaign was born a year earlier, in Johannesburg, on July 1951, when leaders met and decided to form a Joint Planning Council to co-ordinate the liberation movements "to embark upon an immediate mass campaign for the repeal of oppressive measures". Photograph by Jurgen Schadeberg

The Defiance Campaign in 1952 was the first large-scale, multi-racial political mobilization against apartheid laws under a common leadership – by the African National Congress, South African Indian Congress, and the Coloured People’s Congress. More than 8,000 trained volunteers went to jail for 'defying unjust laws.’ Volunteers were jailed for failing to carry passes, violating curfew, and entering locations and public facilities designated for one race only.

In early 1953, the Government imposed stiff penalties for protesting against discriminatory laws, including heavy fines and prison sentences of up to five years. It then enacted the Public Safety Act, allowing for the declaration of a State of Emergency to override existing laws and oversight by courts. Although the Defiance Campaign did not achieve its goals, it demonstrated large-scale and growing opposition to apartheid. Furthermore, the use of non-violent civil disobedience was part of an important international tradition, from the passive resistance campaigns started by Gandhi in South Africa continuing to the independence movement in India two decades before, to sit-ins and other non-violent protests in the United States civil rights movement more than a decade later.

A change in ANC leadership, Chief Albert Luthuli 1898 - 1967

After the illness and the death of John L. Dube in 1946 Chief Albert Luthuli defeated Selby Msimang in a by-election for a successor to Dube on the Natives' Representative Council. With the backing of the Natal ANC Youth League and Jordan Ngubane in Inkundla ya Bantu, he advanced another step onto the national stage in early 1951 by narrowly defeating A.W.G. Champion for Natal provincial president of the ANC. His public support for the 1952 Defiance Campaign brought him finally into direct conflict with the South African Government, and on his refusal to resign from the ANC, he was dismissed from his post as Chief in November 1952. In response, Luthuli issued "The Road to Freedom is via the Cross," perhaps the most famous statement of his principles a belief in non-violence, a conviction that apartheid degrades all who are party to it, and an optimism that whites would sooner or later be compelled to change heart and accept a shared society. The notoriety gained by his dismissal, his eloquence, his unimpeachable character, and his demonstrated loyalty to the ANC, made Luthuli a natural candidate to succeed ANC President James Moroka. At the annual conference, in December 1952, Luthuli was elected ANC President-General by a large majority. He was re-elected President-General in 1955 and in 1958.

Although bans confined him to his rural home throughout his presidency, he nevertheless was able to write statements and speeches for presentation at ANC conferences and occasionally circumstances permitted him to attend a conference personally. In December 1956 he was included in the treason arrests, but was released. He enjoyed a period of relative freedom between his release at the end of 1957 and May 1959, when a new ban confined him to the Lower Tugela district for five years. During this lapse in restrictions, he made a number of highly publicized speeches to Whites and mixed audiences, climaxed by a tour of the Western Cape. Six days after the Sharpeville emergency in 1960, Luthuli sought to rally Africans to resistance by publicly burning his pass in Pretoria, in accordance with an ANC decision, and calling for a national day of mourning. On March 30 he was detained and held until August, when he was tried and sentenced to a £100 fine and a six-month suspended sentence. He was allowed to travel to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1961, an award that Die Transvaler labelled "an inexplicable pathological phenomenon." It was ironic, in fact, that within days after presentation of the award, on a day selected because it was an historic Afrikaner holiday, the ANC embarked on its first campaign of sabotage.

The formation of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW)

On 9 August 1956, Women marched to the Union Buildings again, carrying petitions to protest against the pass laws. This march was also organised by FEDSAW and led by Sophie Williams, Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and Lilian Ngoyi, seen in this picture. Photograph by Eli Weinberg © UWC Robben Island, Mayibuye Archives.

After the formation of the Women's League in 1943, women continued to pursue their struggle against apartheid in the 1950s. The formation of ANC Women League was followed by the establishment of another broader South African women's organisation called the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) on 17 April1954 in Johannesburg. The ANCWL, Coloured People's Organisation, and the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congress of Democrats came together to constitute this federation. The FEDSAW founding conference adopted the Women’s Charter. This organisation was the brainchild of Ray Simons, Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and Amina Chachalia, together formed the steering committee of FEDSAW.

The key activities or campaigns in which women became fully involved in the 1950s included the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and the Anti Pass Campaign of 1956. In the 1952 Campaign women confronted the Verwoerd government with the Women's Charter. The Anti-Pass Campaign brought about 20 000 women of all races together in a mass demonstration. On 9 August 1956, women came from all over the country to converge at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to present anti-pass petitions to the Prime Minister, J.G. Strijdom. This demonstration took place after the pass law was extended to all women in the country.

There was also forceful removal of people from the western areas of Johannesburg, including Sophiatown; they were moved to black townships in Soweto.

The Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter

Bram Fischer (left) and Chief Albert Luthuli (centre) at the Treason Trial in Pretoria. © Bailey's African History Archives.

Another significant event in this decade was the Congress of the People. This was convened on 26 June 1955 at Kliptown where the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter in order to intensify the struggle. The Congress was a very representative gathering. It was attended by 3 000 delegates from different organizations and cut across racial lines. In 1956, 156 leaders of the Congress from around the country were arrested and charged with treason. Involved in the Treason Trial there were 104 Africans, 23 Whites, 21 Indians and 8 Coloureds. The trial became a major political event.

Labour struggles

The struggle was also extended to the labour community but the struggle in this section was crippled by a lack of unity among the working class, which was polarised along racial lines. Although it was initially difficult to organise workers into a multiracial trade union, this was finally achieved in the 1950s when the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was formed in 1955. The formation of solid trade unions was influenced by the repressive industrial laws like the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act of 1953 and Industrial Conciliation Act of 1956 passed by the government. In this period SACTU led two major strikes: the £1 a day campaign and the Amato Textile Mills strike.