The African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA)


The African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA) was launched in Duncan Village outside East London in March 1961. The launch followed a conference of the Non European Unity Movement (NEUM) in January in which, according to the founding document of APDUSA, the national situation was frankly and exhaustively discussed. One of the resolutions of that January meeting of NEUM was the formation of APDUSA. 

APDUSA was launched two months before South Africa became a republic in May 1961. In its founding document APDUSA warns of the calamity that awaits black people in the event that South Africa became a republic. It saw the move to republican status as the realisation of the Broederbond’s Grand Plan of creating a herrenvolk (‘master race’). APDUSA referred to a report on the conditions of native Angolans under Portuguese colonial rule, warning that the apartheid state was equally brutally oppressive. According to APDUSA, the report revealed that the oppression of blacks in Angola was so great, the conditions of living so appalling and wages so low that the population was being decimated”.

APDUSA warned that a “whites only” republic envisaged by the apartheid government was poised to launch an attack on black people’s rights in the same way the Portuguese colonial government was doing in Angola. To counter this, it appealed for unity of all the oppressed and exploited. However, APDUSA was alarmed at the fragmentation of the Anti Coloured Affairs Department (CAD) political formations.  

It appealed for a rethink on relations with the United Party (UP), the Liberal Party (LP) and Progressive Party (PP). APDUSA was particularly concerned that political formations, historically antagonistic to apartheid, were being turned into collaborators. It singled out one R. E. van der Roos as spokesperson for a group that included the South African Coloured People’s Organisation (SACPO) for particular censure. Van der Roos, the document claimed, was able to propound herrenvolk ideas with a black mouth using a forum provided by the UP.

APDUSA also accused van der Roos of preparing the minds of Coloured people to accept a deal from the herrenvolk that would undermine Africans. Along with van der Roos, APDUSA listed other Coloured political formations that had been co-opted by the apartheid government. These sought to forge a separate Coloured identity and included the Union Council of Coloured Affairs (UCCA), the Kleurling Volksbond (KV) and the Onderwyserbond. Beginning with the All Africa Convention (AAC) of 1958, the document concludes, the Anti CAD leadership betrayed the masses by withdrawing from the NEUM without consulting them.

This fragmentation of NEUM undermined its capacity to challenge the apartheid government. This was aggravated by the arrest and imprisonment of some of its leaders between 1961 and 1963. As part of a nationwide clampdown on the resistance movement, the highlight of which was the raid on Liliesleaf leading to the Rivonia trial, the apartheid government was on the offensive. Running parallel to the Rivonia trial was another, involving members of a breakaway group of NEUM. In October 1963, Neville Alexander, Don Davis, Marcus Solomons, Elizabeth van der Heyden, Fikile Bam, Ian Leslie van den Heyden, Lionel Davis, Dorothy Alexander, Dulcie September, Doris van der Heyden and Gordon Hendricks were brought to trial in Cape Town. Some of these were convicted and given long term prison sentences. Even though some had withdrawn from NEUM, the impact on its capacity and on that of affiliates, including APDUSA to mobilise against the apartheid government, was significantly undermined.

Of all NEUM’s affiliates, it is APDUSA that made a conscious effort to mobilise peasant communities in the emerging homelands. Inspired by the Pondoland uprising, APDUSA saw the need to mobilise rural communities in the homelands and reserves against a series of laws passed to regulate them. The first of these was the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951, which created traditional authority structures headed by chiefs who implemented apartheid government’s laws. APDUSA condemned the chiefs as collaborators and called for an alliance of workers and peasants.  

At about this time in the Eastern and Western Cape Poqo had declared war on chiefs known to be collaborating with the apartheid government. APDUSA lent moral support to this, though it is not clear whether its members became involved in the attacks. Many of those involved are confirmed to have members of Poqo. However, APDUSA had a significant following in areas where these are known to have been widespread. Here too, the series of Poqo trials and the execution of many found guilty undermined the capacity to mobilise rural communities in the Eastern Cape against chiefs and the increasingly oppressive measures they introduced.

As was to become apparent in the early 1970s, this assault on political formations by the apartheid government helped drive resistance underground. It was reported in 1969 and 1970 that some rural communities in the Eastern Cape were resisting forced removals enforced by chiefs. In Bizana, Lusisiki and Flagstaff, the ANC and APDUSA were involved in recruitment drives.

As overt and above ground resistance to apartheid became a peril, most political formations survived by establishing underground networks. APDUSA did not evolve into a significant underground network. It did, however, continue to criticize the apartheid government throughout the 1960s. Through its newsletter, Unity, APDUSA offered regular analysis of conditions under apartheid for the rest of the decade. In an article published in `1966 in the International Socialist Review, APDUSA explained the complexity of oppression and exploitation, representing them as aspects of imperialism. It also sought to explain the ideological linkages between Rhodesia, South Africa and Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola.

Being a movement committed to the unity of all the oppressed and exploited, APDUSA appealed for unity between the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress. It warned, though, that it envisaged a unity based on expediency. This theme was to recur in the resistance movement in the 1970s and 1980s. By the end of the 1960s, when the Morogoro Consultative Conference was held, APDUSA’s presence in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape was not completely obliterated.

Following the Morogoro Consultative Conference, the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) Liberation Committee demanded that the ANC and the PAC forge a united front. The ANC felt that unity with a fragmented PAC would be counterproductive and insisted it was the only recognised liberation movement in South Africa. It dismissed the PAC, NEUM and APDUSA as inconsequential.

When new attempts were made to infiltrate cadres into South Africa in the early 1970s in the early phase of armed propaganda as a method of struggle, APDUSA had the capacity, however limited, to provide support structures for the new initiatives.  Furthermore the bombing of strategic installations became frequent from the early 1970s, tensions of strategies emerged.

Within the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) in exile, an ally of the ANC, were those who argued for the creation of internal structures to mobilise workers. They included Paula Ensor, Robert Peterson and Martin Legassick. They argued that withdrawing the best cadres out of the country for military training was counterproductive. They called for the retention of the best cadres inside the country. They were supported in this by groups associated with APDUSA initiatives in Pondoland. Another group within the ANC in exile that agreed to the idea of building strong internal structures, was the generation of Soweto youth.    

NEUM and APDUSA were revitalised by the release of some of their members in 1974 and 1975 after ten years on Robben Island. One such activist released at this time and active in NEUM in the 1950s and 1960s was Neville Alexander. This was at the height of popular struggles inspired by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). These returnees once again became involved in the resistance movement. In many cases though, they did so as members of BCM formations, only later assuming distinct identities.     

Early in the 1980s a new political challenge emerged that galvanised communities against the apartheid state. The apartheid government announced that a tri cameral parliamentary system, giving representation to Coloureds and Indians, would be adopted. The United Democratic Front (UDF) and Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) mobilised communities against the new dispensation. This led to a new drive of the politics of non collaboration with the apartheid government. APDUSA was also part of this new initiative until the formation of the UDF in 1983.

By the mid 1980s, when popular unrest had spread to the rest of the country, NEUM and some of its affiliates, including APDUSA were overshadowed by the UDF and to a lesser extent, AZAPO. Some of the activists associated with NEUM and APDUSA in the 1960s and 1970s became involved in the UDF. A few joined AZAPO.


APDUSA was conceived as a movement that would promote unity among political formations involved in the struggle against apartheid. In its early years it was forced to confront the challenge of those among its ranks who opted to collaborate with the apartheid government. It survived the apartheid assault on the resistance movement by going underground. It remained a factor in the Eastern Cape throughout the 1960s and early in the 1970s when all others had been all but obliterated from popular consciousness. By the mid 1980s some of its members had linked up with popular movements as individuals.

• Hemson, D., Legassick, M and Ulrich, N., “White Activists and the Revival of the Workers Movement in Magubane, B., The Road to Democracy In South Africa vol. 2 (1970-80)
•  Magubane, B., “Resistance and Repression in the Bantustans” in Magubane, B. The Road to Democracy,  Vol 2, 1970-1980
•  From International Socialist Review, Vol.27 No.3, Summer 1966, pp.109-114.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.