South African Coloured People Organisation (SACPO)

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Like all other Black ethnic groups, the Coloureds also fell victim to segregation and repressive legislations enacted by Colonial and successive governments since shortly after the founding of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal and the Boer Republics. The National Party (NP), after its ascendance to power in 1948, radicalised it, however. These legislations took away some of the privileges enjoyed by Coloureds prior to the introduction and institutionalisation of the Apartheid policy by the NP. Legislations that had an immediate impact on the Coloured population included the Group Areas Act of 1950, the Population Registration Act of 1950 and the Separate Representation of Voters Act of 1951. Coloureds, who enjoyed limited voting rights and privileged social status, deeply deplored the introduction of these draconian legislations enforcing social, residential and political segregation.

It is against this background that Coloured politics took another direction in the 1950s. Before the introduction of Apartheid, there were existing political organisations like the African People Organisation (APO), the Coloured People's National Union (CPNU), and the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) that advanced Coloured interests. However, these organisations were crippled and weakened by their incoherency and conflicting tactics and approaches adopted to challenge the government. This made the relationship between Coloured organisations and other political organisations confronted by the same challenges, very important.

The largest Coloured political organisation of the time, the CPNU under the leadership of George Golding, favoured a policy of negotiation and compromise. The organisation's membership was dominated by moderate and conservative rural Coloureds. On the opposite side of the tactical approach was the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) and its affiliates, namely the Teachers League of South Africa, the remnants of the old APO and the All Africa Convention. The NEUM was radical in its approach. It had adopted and employed non-collaboration and boycotts as its tactics and approach towards government and other liberation movements.

The situation changed only with the formation of the South African Coloured People's Organisation (SACPO) later Coloured People Congress (CPC) in 1953. SACPO managed to forge a political cooperation with other liberation movements to form the Congress Alliance, which culminated in the drafting of the Freedom Charter in 1955.

Divisions in Coloured Politics and the formation of the South African Coloured People's Organisation (SACPO)

The NEUM's isolationist and negative attitude towards other political organisations surfaced when the first major campaign against Apartheid was launched in the Cape Peninsula, in 1948. The campaign challenged the government's intentions to extend racial segregation to trains in the Western Cape. It was fronted by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), which called a public meeting in Cape Town to appoint a Train Apartheid Resistance Committee (TARC). The TARC proposed the campaign in which volunteers would defy newly introduced train regulations. Soon, though, NEUM clashed with the CPSA and coalition between these organisations collapsed. In spite of these clashes, the TARC made a breakthrough when it managed to have the Appeal Court overturn the government regulations. NEUM accused all organisations that did not share its policies and approaches, from the CPNU to the African National Congress (ANC), as reactionaries.

Further misunderstanding manifested itself when over 2000 White and non-White representatives, drawn from the CPSA, APO, the Teachers' Educational and Professional Association, the ANC, local communities, civic and trade union formations, converged in Cape Town to discuss the Separate Representation of Voters Bill. The meeting culminated in the formation of a 33-member Franchise Action Council (FRAC) as a direct reply to the government's Bill. Sundra Pillay was elected the first chairman and Reggie September as secretary. The CPNU expressed its support to this newly formed structure while the NEUM rejected it on the grounds that it focus on the issues pertaining to the Coloured voting rights. The FRAC was further accused by the NEUM for not adhering to its policies.

In spite of the accusations, FRAC was instrumental in ensuring unity and cooperation between Coloured and other anti-apartheid movements. Its activities were concentrated on two main areas: firstly to challenge the Separate Representation of Voters Act of 1951, and secondly to ensure participation by Coloured organisations in ANC national anti-apartheid campaigns, in particular the Defiance Campaign of 1952. The first FRAC undertaking to challenge the Bill enjoyed an overwhelming support from mostly Whites organisations. The Civil Rights League (CRL) collected 100 001 signatures on a petition to oppose the Bill while the War Veterans Torch Commando (WVTC), made up of mostly White ex-servicemen, organised mass rallies to protest against the Bill. These rallies culminated in a huge march to parliament in Cape Town. Over 50 000 people participated in the march. However, efforts by WVTC failed to produce desired results and it collapsed as a result of internal misunderstandings and rivalries.

The rift resurfaced again when the FRAC embarked on a self-led anti-Separate Representation of Voters Bill campaign in 1951. The FRAC had adopted the ANC-like mode of operations, such as one-day work and school stay-aways in Cape Town. These tactics failed to bring other Coloured organisations to participate in the campaign. The CPNU was scared off by the tactics and perceived them as counterproductive. The NEUM on the other hand declared the stay-aways adversative and irresponsible and actively campaigned against FRAC meetings. In its second conference in June 1951, FRAC resolved to participate in the ANC national campaigns against apartheid.

When the Joint Planning Council (JPC) was instituted in 1951, the ANC invited, African People Organisation (APO) and South African Indian Congress (SAIC) as national organisations to represent Coloured and Indian people. Since FRAC was not recognised as a national organisation, it was only permitted observer status.

The formation of the JPC presented an opportunity to the Coloured organisations to start working closely with other national liberation movements. The JPC was set up to prepare the intended Defiance Campaign. APO turned down the ANC invitation and further demanded the ANC to subscribe to the NEUM's Ten-points programme of minimum demands. This forced the APO president, S.M Rahim, to relinquish his position and join the FRAC. Rahim declared APO a moribund organisation that managed to draw only 18 delegates to attend its 1951 conference. After the conference, the APO slipped into political oblivion. The NEUM also rejected the JPC and the planned Defiance Campaign.

Thereby, the responsibilities to rally Coloured people behind the Defiance Campaign rested with FRAC. It made a formal commitment to the campaign during its March 1952 conference. It also resolved to transform itself into a Coloured national political organisation with membership open to all races. When the Defiance Campaign was launched in the Western Cape, it attracted a low turn out, indicating a low level of interest from the Coloured elite to engage in militant protest actions. FRAC demised with the collapse of the Defiance Campaign in 1953 and this left CPNU as the only leading Coloured political organisation.

The decay of the FRAC raised a fear amongst other Coloured leaders that CPNU would misrepresent their opinion. The fear was fuelled by the meeting held in 1953 between Golding and D.F Malan to deliberate the Coloured franchise issue. The situation inclined these leaders to call a People Convention in Cape Town in August 1953. This Convention gave birth to a long awaited organisation, the South African Coloured Political Organisation (SACPO). Alex La Guma and Reggie September were elected President and Secretary of the organisation respectively.

In spite of this new positive development, division in Coloured politics proved persistent when CPNU refused to join forces with SACPO. The CPNU perceived SACPO as its political rival. There were slight similarities and dissimilarities between FRAC and SACPO. The similarities were on their two-fold agenda which they wanted to pursue: Like FRAC, SACPO sought to galvanise and unite all Coloureds to oppose legislations such as the Separate Representation of Voters Bill. It also sought to work closely with the ANC against apartheid and strive for equal rights for all South Africans. The dissimilarity was that unlike FRAC, SACPO positioned itself as a Coloured national political organisation with a branch network and regular conferences. By May 1954, SACPO claimed over 4500 memberships.

SACPO opposes Apartheid

Since 1954, SACPO embarked on a series of boycotts and protests. In 1954 SACPO staged a bus boycott in Cape Town to oppose the introduction of racial segregation in buses. The boycott was followed by mobilisation of the Coloured opinion against the Land Tenure Board, instituted to probe the application of the Group Areas Act in the Cape Peninsula. The Group Areas Coordinating Committee was subsequently set up under the chairmanship of R.E. van der Ross. The Committee rallied the Coloureds and flooded the Board with mass representations opposing the Act.

The NEUM elected to uphold its long-standing isolationist stance towards the Board. It boycotted the Board meetings and called for non-collaboration with any evictions which resulted from the application of this Act. The CPNU on the other hand, trying to strike a compromise to protect Coloured business and property rights, chose the discussions route. None of the aspirations of these three organisations were realised. The Board decided in 1956 to give huge areas in the Cape Peninsula to Whites. This led to the mass eviction of Coloured communities from these areas in 1960.

SACPO engaged in another protest against the Separate Representation of Voters Act of 1956. The Act finally removed the Coloureds from the common voters' roll and put them on a separate one. The Act was passed after Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom revised the Constitution of the Appeal Court and enlarged it with the appointment of pro-government judges. He also padded the Senate with Nationalist supporters to secure a two-third majority in the senate. The Act provided for the election of two White provincial councillors in Cape Town by the Coloureds. It also provided for the formation of the Union Council of Coloured Affairs (UCCA), which was set up later in 1959, to advise the government on matters concerning Coloureds in liaison with a Minister of Coloured Affairs and the Coloured Affairs Department.

Opposition to this Act did not only come from the SACPO. The NEUM also disapproved of the Act for taking away the coloured vote. In April 1957, the conference of SACPO rejected the Act and resolved to demand full franchise rights for all. It further resolved to boycott the 1958 elections to elect White parliamentary representatives for the Coloureds. The decision to boycott elections was reversed after the advice of the ANC at its 1957 December congress. At the congress the South African Congress of Democrats (SACPO) resolved to support candidate Piet Beyleveld of the SACOD, who stood as Coloured representative. The CPNU rallied behind the United Party (UP) candidates, while the NEUM boycotted elections. The SACOD candidate performed dismally during the elections with only 900 votes cast in their favour. These elections were the last major SACPO campaign.

SACPO and the Congress Alliance

After the ANC, at its December 1953 National Conference, directed the party national executive committee to invite other political movements to the Congress of the People to draft the Freedom Charter, SACPO became one of them. Other participants in the Congress of the People were SAIC and SACOD. These four organisations (ANC, SAIC, SACPO and SACOD) formed the Congress Alliance. Its formation gave formal expression to an emerging unity across racial and class lines . The Joint Action Committee was established for preparatory work of the Congress of the People. The Congress of the People, which adopted the Freedom Charter, was held in Kliptown from 25-27 August 1955.

After the Freedom Charter campaign some leading members of the SACPO were arrested and accused of high Treason in 1956. SACPO became known as the Coloured People Congress (CPC) after its December 1959 conference.

SACPO/CPC Split in exile

SACPO/CPC actively participated in the National Day of Protest called by the ANC following the Sharpeville massacre led by the Pan African Congress (PAC). After the government's State of Emergency, following the massacre and subsequent banning of the liberation movements, other CPC leaders were arrested and others went into exile. After its dissolution in 1966 many of its leaders in exile joined the PAC and the ANC, especially after the ANC opened its membership to all races in 1969.

(Read the statement of dissolution of the South African Coloured People's Congress, by Barney Desai and Cardiff Marney, London, March 1966 [abridged].)


It was not surprising to see Coloured organisations failing to spearhead or stage a major campaign like the SAIC and ANC in the 1940s and 1950s against the White government. Coloured organisations lacked coherency and cooperation amongst themselves and other liberation movements, which were necessary elements to achieve victory over plights and tribulations brought about by the segregative and oppressive legislations of the White government. It was only in the 1950s when Coloureds joined major campaigns (Defiance Campaign and Freedom Charter) spearheaded by the ANC.

• Lewis. G. (1987), Between the Wire and the Wall, Cape Town & Johannesburg: David Phillip Publishers. Pp 261-271
• Lodge T. (1983), Black Politics in South Africa since 1945, Johannesburg: Ravan Press. Pp 69, 142
• La Guma, A, Apartheid and the coloured people of South Africa. (online), available at [Accessed 6 April 2010] (link broken)
• Burger, D. About South Africa. (online), available at [Accessed 6 April 2010]

Last updated : 04-Aug-2016

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