African People's Organisation (APO)


By the beginning of the twentieth century a number of political organisations initiated by Coloureds existed, most of which dealt with the question of the franchise. The exception was the South African Moslems' Association (SAMA), which mobilised its members around racial segregation in urban areas that was being introduced as a result of the bubonic plague that hit Cape Town in 1901. SAMA did not restrict its membership to Muslims only. Tobin and W. Collins, a lay preacher In the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, were both active in that organisation. Together they mooted the idea of an organisation for Coloureds that would not be organised around a single and specific issue only. This proved to be the hour of birth of the African Political or People's Organisation (APO) as it was later known. Its first president was W. Collins. The APO, although it recruited its members from the relatively small group of educated and economically comfortably off Coloureds, was to become the most influential political organisation for Coloureds for almost forty years. Although it collapsed as an organisation in the early 1940s, having to give way to more radical organisations, the APO shaped black political thought and culture for decades after its demise.

Strategies of resistance of the African Political Organisation

The APO had as its original aims 'civilising' objectives as were prevalent at the time, advocating Victorian probity and abstinence. However, it additionally emphasised achieving unity amongst Coloureds, promoting education, opposing "class legislation" (i.e. discriminatory colour legislation) and defending the social, political and economic rights of Coloureds. However, after the Anglo-Boer War/South African War when the possibility of a white minority state was first discussed, the APO focused its attention on the franchise question and with it, the issue of education as a means to qualifying for the vote. Social and economic issues became secondary. Nonetheless the APO garnered support very easily in the coloured population. Within two years of its founding it had more than 2 000 members in thirty-three branches. Strategies employed by the APO were non-confrontational forms of protest and appeal. They included attempting to influence liberal white parties to take forward the cause of Coloureds. An example would be mobilising the small coloured vote in favour of the white South African Party in return for placing the situation of Coloureds on that party's agenda. Other forms of actions were petitions, resolutions and deputations to the pertinent authorities by the general executive of the APO based on debate and consultation that had taken place in the various branches. The APO also put pressure on the Cape Progressive Party to require from its sister party in the Transvaal to campaign for the vote for Coloureds. Then, too, Coloureds, as Africans, were subject to pass legislation in the Transvaal. This was another issue to which the APO devoted attention at its national conferences of 1903 and 1904

The resistance of the APO to the formation of Union of South Africa

Although the Imperial Britain had conquered the two Boer republics in the Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899 to 1902, there was no clear-cut balance of power in favour of the victors. Six years after the signing of the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging of 1902, Britain was still not able to balance power in their favour. The Transvaal and the Orange River Colony had been granted responsible government in 1906 and 1907 respectively. In 1908 John X. Merriman's South African Party with the support of the Afrikaner Bond came into power in the Cape Colony. Hence the balance of power was decidedly in favour of Afrikaners in three of the four South African colonies. Apart from political disunity, there were also economic problems: railways and customs issues were a cause for conflict in the South African colonies and its neighbours with a coastline. The Customs Union split over issues of rail and customs tariffs. The Colonial Secretary Jan Smuts proposed finding a political solution to the economic problems of the region: the only viable solution would be the unification of the colonies.

In order to establish political framework for the unification a National Convention, chaired by the Chief Justice of the Cape, Sir Henry de Villiers, and comprising solely white representatives of both government and opposition from the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange River Colony, the Transvaal, Southern Rhodesia and Mo?bique met in Durban, Cape Town and Bloemfontein to discuss the establishment and form of a unitary white state. Two models of government were debated, namely a union and a federal state.

In February 1909 the members of the National Convention publicised a draft constitution and a draft South Africa Act for a union. Two provisions particularly caused political consternation amongst blacks. First of all, the draft Act provided for an all-white parliament. Secondly, the Cape franchise model was not to be extended to the remaining three colonies. In a word, then, blacks were being disenfranchised even before the act of union was completed.

The APO general executive postponed their Annual Conference of 1909 until the National Convention had completed their deliberations, in order to react in a manner that was politically opportune for blacks. The APO was able to mobilise protest mass meetings and activities nationwide, launched a fortnightly newspaper, the A.P.O. as an organ of its protest and sought political partners amongst both black and white opponents of the draft Act, directing its protest against the attack on the franchise and the colour bar provisions to both the colonial and Imperial governments.

The APO experienced some political isolation in the coloured community. Peregrino and Tobin and their supporters distanced themselves from the APO, fearing that its stance was too radical. However, the APO found political allies amongst Africans and a home in the responses of Africans. Hence when Dr W. Rubusana, who was the editor of Izwi Labantu, convened a South African Native Convention to formulate an African response to the draft Act, Abdurahman encouraged all APO branches to send delegates to the Convention. He also informed Rubusana through the newspaper of his cooperation and intended alliance. Consequently the APO was co-responsible for the reaction of the Convention to the draft Act. This included appealing to Britain to reject the draft Act in its present form and to guarantee "equal rights for all civilised men". However, for neither the British colonial administrations or governments nor for its white South African counterparts had "civilisation" ever been anything but a decoy in the fight for equal rights for all who lived in southern Africa. Instead "colour" was that which was perceived to divide irreversibly. The supreme historical irony was to be found in the fact that both African and coloured leaders aspired to values of "civilisation" nonetheless.

At the 1909 annual conference of the APO the decision was taken to send a deputation of blacks to London to lobby opposition to the draft Act. A Draft Constitution Fund was duly established. The delegation, comprising eight Coloureds and Africans - Abdurahman, Matts Fredericks, W. Rubusana, D Lenders, T. Mapikela, Daniel Dwanya, J.T. Jabavu and J. Gerrans and led by the white politician and lawyer William Schreiner, put up a brave fight against the draft Act, despite being attacked for their efforts by Africans, Coloureds and whites, as well as the official delegation led by J.X. Merriman, the Cape Prime Minister. However, all the lobbying was in vain, as the draft Act was approved by the British Parliament without any contradiction as a great sign of reconciliation between the English and Afrikaans speaking South African whites.

The constituency of the African Political/People's Organisation

A tricky problem for the APO was how to garner the support of all sections of the coloured population, not just that of the educated and artisan classes. The years following World War I offered an opportunity to address this problem, as its aftermath entailed general economic depression for the majority of the South Africa's people. At the 1919 conference of the APO, therefore, a name change of the organisation was proposed, which would indicate new programmatic attempts to address the social and economic needs of Coloureds and point to a greater involvement with people's concerns. The name was consequently changed from "African Political Organisation" to "African People's Organisation". This attempted change in direction expressed itself in the founding of the APO Building Society in 1919. In 1923 an APO Burial Society was established to arrest the pattern of pauper's burials for indigent Coloureds. These organisations proved to be quite successful, outliving the APO. Indeed, these organisations exist today still on the Cape Flats of the Western Cape Province. However, the APO did not succeed in its expressed aim to recruit support from the coloured working class for either the parent organisation or the Building and Burial Societies. The subscription fees were too high for most Coloureds. Hence these attempts at the social and economic amelioration of lower class Coloureds ultimately benefited the already economically more advantaged Coloureds. However, the APO realised that it would need the support of both rural and urban workers if it were to enjoy a national legitimacy.