From Union to South African Republic 1900-1976

Picture: Terre Blanche, H & Ilsley, J. 1999. Help-U-History Grade 12. Cape Town: Kagiso

Reactions to the formation of a republic

Different sections of the South African community reacted to the formation of the republic in different ways. The fact that the republic had now been achieved changed the focus of white politics and reduced a point of contention between the English and the Afrikaans. On the other hand, most South Africans had had no say in the introduction of the republic - with coloureds, Indians and blacks all being left out of the voting process. The period after the republic saw a radicalization in black politics.

Afrikaners

White South African politics had previously been divided into a pro-Republican, mainly Afrikaans group and an anti-republican largely English group. Amongst National Party (NP) supporters the tendency was to favour republicanism and the United Party (UP), its main opposition, did for a time provide a home for those against a republic. However, with the republic being achieved, many recognized that this division was now defunct, as the republic would not easily be reversed. Verwoerd also took note of this change, and suggested that groupings no longer be along language lines. He called for better relations between the English and the Afrikaners that would cut across language barriers, and he used the 1961 constitution to promote this suggestion.

In Verwoerd’s view the new division should be only between those that gave their support to apartheid and those that did not. He declared that in this period his main priority was white security. He called on all whites to support the NP, and especially invited the conservative English to join the NP. Most Afrikaans speakers agreed that white unity was important now that the republic had been achieved.

Verwoerd wanted to see if he had gained support from the English electorate, and therefore decided to bring the next election forward to 1961. The NP had however only received a very slight increase in support, and they got two extra seats, binging their number up to 105 in the national parliament. The election results proved that the English were not fully persuaded and that Verwoerd had failed to unite the white population. He decided to appoint two English-speakers to the cabinet and continued to invite the English to vote for and join the NP. He did manage slowly to win the support of some of the English, and in the 1966 election the NP received 126 seats.

The English speaking electorate

The English were divided mainly into two camps over the republican issue. The first group were upset about the break in ties with Britain and still felt loyalty to the crown. This group were also very upset about the fact that they now needed to choose between becoming South African or British citizens. This was the worst part for many. Many of these English had voted against the republic, and Natal remained the most English province. A large part of the English community felt that leaving the Commonwealth was a mistake and that South Africa was now on a difficult path.

Others English speakers were pushed towards the NP after the republic was formed. They agreed with Verwoerd’s call for unity, especially as they saw decolonization in the rest of Africa. Many of these English speakers also felt alienated by Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech and felt that, together with British decolonization, Britain was abandoning them. This is a sentiment Verwoerd would exploit.

Picture: Terre Blanche, H & Ilsley, J. 1999. Help-U-History Grade 12. Cape Town: Kagiso

Black South Africans

For people who were not White there was little doubt that the National Party (NP) victory was a serious setback to their hopes and aspirations. Before the election, George Golding, leader of the moderate Coloured People's National Union, warned that an NP government would seriously threaten the coloured 'race'. He soon abandoned attempts to co-operate with the new government.

The new government 'tried' to introduce some measures that they hoped would address increasing criticism. In 1960 they started taking steps towards economic and educational development in Coloured areas, and in 1963 they recognized Indians as citizens of the Republic of South Africa for the first time. They also started working on the homeland situation and ‘decolonization in South Africa’. In the Transkei a form of self- government was granted in 1963. The government hoped that these steps would reduce international criticism.

However these developments hid the actual picture.

The black leadership watched the election campaign of 1948 with weary resignation. The NP's election platform promised that South Africa would remain a white man's country. Albert Luthuli, who would later become leader of the African National Congress, wrote that blacks had been so disillusioned by the Smuts government that the election result 'did not either surprise us or extremely interest us'. He confessed, however, that 'few (if any) of us understood how swift the deterioration was destined to be'. But he also took some comfort in it. The 'very intensity of Nation­alist oppression' had produced among the Black masses a greater political awareness that would finally goad them out of their 'resigned endurance'.

Albert Luthuli was elected president - general of the ANC in 1952. The goverment imposed several bans on him, including one in 1957 limiting him to a radius of 24km from his home. it was lifted breifly to allow him to receive the Nobel Prize. Picture: New History of South Africa.

In 1960 the ANC and PAC had been banned, and these organizations were now starting to re-group and function underground. They rejected the newly formed republic because Black people had had no say in its formation.

In May 1961 a group representing the banned ANC called for multiracial talks between members representing the different racial groups. They also stated that if the government ignored the request, a strike would be held over the period 29-31 May, overlapping with the time of the inauguration of the republic. These strikes would show that they did not support the new republic in its present form. The government ignored the request and the strike took place. The National Party government reacted quickly and harshly, giving the police the right to detain people for twelve days. Many leaders were arrested and there were cases of police brutality. It was decided that the strike should be called off early (30 May) to stop any further violent action.

After assessing the situation, the government’s violence and their refusal to talk, it was decided that the ANC needed to find new methods of resistance. The ANC had always followed a policy of non-violence, but in this climate it was decided that this could no longer be effective. They decided to form a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which would carry out acts of sabotage in South Africa. MK was formed in 1961, and the first acts of sabotage took place on 16 December 1961, a day of great cultural and political significance to Afrikaners. The struggle against apartheid had now entered a new phase.

Thus, while the formation of the republic brought about greater unity between English and Afrikaans speakers, it caused a greater divide between those that supported apartheid and those that were against it. White politics came to focus increasingly on apartheid, and black resistance entered a more radical phase, with the freedom movements now operating an armed struggle from underground.

Last updated : 26-Jan-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011