Liberation Struggle in South Africa

Second World War and its impact, 1939-1948

South Africa enters the War

General Smuts signing the agreement at the first meeting of the UN General Assembly. Source: P. Joyce (2000), Suid-Afrika in die 20ste eeu Kaapstad: Struik, p.107.

In September 1939, World War II broke out. In South Africa, people were divided as to whether or not they should join the war, and if so, on whose side they should fight. Although South Africa was still a British territory many Afrikaners felt closer to the Germans. Many of them were of German descent and identified with Germany's fight against Britain. The issue caused a split in South African politics. At that point, the country was led by the United Party, a coalition of the National Party (NP) of J B M Hertzog and the South African Party (SAP) of J C Smuts. Hertzog preferred that South Africa remain neutral in World War Two, while Smuts wanted to fight on the side of the Allies. Hertzog resigned as Prime Minister of the country, and was succeeded by Smuts. South Africa then joined the war on the Allies' side, and fought major battles in North Africa, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Italy.

At the time of the coalition, a group within the National Party, opposed to the United Party, broke away from the NP. They formed the Reunited National Party or Herenigde Nationale Party (HNP) led by DF Malan. When Hertzog left the United Party in 1939, he joined the HNP. This party would play an enormous role after the War.

For more on South Africa's role in World War II, see our Grade 12 lesson, 1924-1948: South Africa's Foreign Relations.

Post-war problems

The war had a huge social and economic effect on South Africa. Gold and mining remained the biggest industry in the country, but manufacturing had begun to expand significantly as a result of the war and the need for various supplies. The number of people employed in the manufacturing industry, especially Black men and White women increased by 60% between 1939 and 1945.

The financial costs of the war were met by taxes and loans. The cost of the war effort was approximately around 600 million pounds. At the end of the war South Africa experienced supply shortages as a result of the return of thousands of soldiers. After the war, the ruling party, the United Party (UP) under Smuts, lost a lot of support. People believed that it was incapable of dealing with the post-war problems. Many white people felt that Smuts lacked a clear policy on how to deal with black people and segregation.

Resistance and campaigns

The 1940s in South Africa were characterised by political and social resistance campaigns. These were spearheaded by Blacks, Indians and Coloureds. The various campaigns are mentioned below, but not mentioned, and of significance was the formation of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), which was launched in 1943.

Changes within the ANC and the formation of the ANCYL

timeAlfred Xuma was elected the new president of the ANC in 1940 © www.anc.org.za

In the face of oppression, liberation movements such as the African National Congress, Communist Party of South Africa and labour organisations emerged in opposition to the white government, but the question then arose: Were all liberation movements well equipped to challenge the government and its repressive laws? Although the African National Congress took the leading role in the struggle, it had suffered internal problems and becoming stagnant.

However, in 1940, Dr Alfred Xuma was elected President of the ANC and he begun to rejuvenate the organization. Xuma gave the go ahead for the formation of the ANC Youth League, when young members like Anton Lembede, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela called for the immediate revival of the party if it hoped to deliver the African majority into a free land. These young members felt that the ANC was far too moderate and ineffective to challenge the government. As a result of the mounting pressure from

these young members in the ANC, the Congress Youth League was formed in 1944. The ANC Youth League added impetus to the ANC. The Youth League wanted a more proactive approach to be adopted. These changes stimulated a shift in tactics and a stronger articulation of African identities and demands, evident in the ANC’s 1943 Africans’ Claims, an African Bill of Rights that was inspired in part by the Atlantic Charter.

Freedom in our lifetime, the collected writings of Anton Muziwakhe Lembede, with a section on the ANC's Youth League and its activities

Challenges, against the government, also came from the Women's section of the ANC in the 1940s. In 1943, women were allowed to become full ANC members. In 1948, the ANC Women's League was formed under the leadership of Ida Mntwana. Apart from the ANC Women's League, other community-based organisations like the Alexandra Women's Council were set up.

Alexander Bus Boycotts

The first campaign in the 1940s took place in Alexandra Township. There were two bus boycotts in Alexandra, in 1940 and 1944. The residents of Alexandra responded positively to the call by their leaders after several threats were made by the bus company operating in the township to raise its fares from 4 pence to 5 pence. These boycotts spilled over into other parts of the country.

There are a number of reasons for these resistance campaigns. People lived under very poor socio-economic conditions. Unemployment and poverty levels were very high in Alexandra and the people reacted angrily to the bus company's proposed new fares. The residents simply could not afford the higher fares. Committees such as the Alexandra People's Transport Committee (APTC) and the Evaton People's Transport Council (EPTC) were set up to engage in talks with the bus company's management and organise the campaigns. Apart from these committees, the African National Congress (ANC) and Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) played a pivotal role in the mobilisation process, and the most prominent leaders of these campaigns were Alexandra C.S. Ramahanoe (ANC) and Gaur Radebe (CPSA and ANC), who were both on the Transport Committee.

Another reason for the dissatisfaction of Alexandra commuters was the unavailability of cheaper alternative transport to get to work. They felt that the bus company's intentions were tantamount to preventing them from going to work, as they could not afford the new prices. When the situation grew worse the government and other business institutions like the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce became involved and attempted to remedy the situation.

These campaigns received support from other parts of the country and more than 20 000 people rallied behind the protests. As a result the bus company was unable to implement its envisaged fare hike.

The 1946 Indian Passive Resistance Campaign

Dr GM Naicker, President of the Natal Indian Congress, addresses a Passive Resistance rally on 26 June 1946. © Mayibuye Archives, scanned from photocopy

Following the bus boycotts, the Indian community launched a Passive Resistance campaign from 1946 to 1948. The campaign was in reaction to the introduction of the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Bill, later the Ghetto Act. The Bill was enacted despite the opposition of the Indian community.  The Natal Indian Congress and Transvaal Indian Congress reacted to this arrogance by setting up a Passive Resistance Council to organise the campaign. The Council comprised of Dr Naicker, President of Natal Indian Congress, and Dr Yusuf Dadoo, President of Transvaal Indian Congress.

The resistance was launched on 13 June 1946, ten days after the Bill was passed into law. This campaign received sympathetic support from the international community. At an international level, the United Nations served as a platform for the Indian community at large to raise their objection to the Act and other similarly repressive laws. Many African countries and liberation movements in South Africa used this platform to raise their objections to apartheid. As a result, race surfaced as an international issue.

South Africa and the United Nations during Apartheid The 1946 Indian Passive Resistance Campaign

The 1946 African Mine Workers Strike

Mineworkers on strike 1946 © Museum Africa

The number of African people living in towns nearly doubled in the 1940s, eventually outnumbering White residents. Most of these migrant workers had to live in shantytowns or townships on the outskirts of the cities, and living and working conditions were appalling. Many new trade unions were born during the 1940’s.  As a result, workers wanted higher wages and better working conditions. By 1946, there were 119 unions with about 158 000 members demanding to be heard. The African Mineworkers Union (AMWU) went on strike in 1946 and 60 000 men stopped work in demanding higher pay. The police crushed the protest, shooting 12 people dead, but the workers had achieved their purpose in exposing and challenging the system of cheap labour.

State repression and the build up to the 1948 election

In 1947, the Native Representative Council (NRC) demanded the removal of all discriminatory laws. Little did the NRC know that after the 1948 elections, these laws would become even more discriminatory under the policy of Apartheid.

The UP based its 1948 election campaign on a report by the Natives Law or Fagan Commission. It was appointed in 1947 to look into Pass Laws to control the movement of African people in urban areas.

The Fagan Commission reported that "the trend to urbanisation is irreversible and the Pass Laws should be eased". The Commission said it would be unlikely that black people could be prevented from coming to the cities where there were more jobs. They depended on this to survive as the reserves in the rural areas where they were supposed to live held few options for a livelihood. In other words, total segregation would be impossible. The report did not encourage social or political mingling of races but did suggest that urban labour should be stabilised, as workers were needed for industries and other businesses.

Contrary to this, the HNP felt that complete segregation could be achieved. They encouraged the creation of a migrant labour pool with black people being allowed temporary stays in cities for the purpose of work only. In this way, there would be a cheap labour reservoir for industries without black families actually living in towns. The HNP also supported the existence of political organisations within the African reserves, so long as they had no representation in parliament. Malan called for discriminatory legislation, like the prohibition of mixed marriages, the banning of black trade unions and reserving jobs for white people, further oppressing black people.