Examination of the black reaction to apartheid during the period 1948-1973 is topical and should help us to understand what is now happening in South Africa. The black reaction is not merely to apartheid; it is to the whole social system imposed on the black people of South Africa from the moment the white man landed there in 1652. There has been a reaction over the succeeding centuries which has manifested itself in a variety of ways. For a long time this reaction assumed the form of armed resistance. When that was defeated, it took the form of political opposition. But the black reaction was a reaction to a formal system and it continues. For the purposes of this symposium, I will first discuss briefly the period immediately before 1948 - the years covered by the Second World War - when the reaction was influenced by the war as it had been influenced by specific developments for centuries.
World War II was fought for world democracy. This was the slogan, and the Atlantic Charter defined the aim of the war as the establishment of a new world order. Black people had participated in that war and they identified with its objectives. In South Africa this statement, issued by world leaders, went to the very root of the struggle which blacks had been waging for centuries, and so they felt - like oppressed and exploited peoples the world over - that the war would bring an end to tyranny, and a new world order, extending to South Africa, would be instituted. Black South Africans sought to make their position known to the world and to the authors of this Charter (which they understood was to be adopted at the peace conference as a guide to worldwide politics on matters affecting human rights). They prepared a document, a bill of rights, known as the "African Claims". This document was to be placed before the conference in order to make participants aware of the claims and demands of the black people of South Africa - particularly the Africans - who had been denied the very rights and freedoms discussed in the Atlantic Charter. The "African Claims" thus constituted a basis for the mobilisation of the African people, a call to action in the struggle for equal opportunities and participation in the political system.
While the period before 1948 was inspired by the wartime statements of world leaders, it was a period of reaction in South Africa. This reaction was expressed through increased political activity; the miners' strike of 1946, boycotts and other protest campaigns by the Africans, and passive resistance by the Indian people. There were resignations by members of the Natives Representative Council, a body established through an Act which had also deprived Africans of the vote (i.e., the 1936 Act). These resignations had been prompted by the realisation that the Council served no useful purpose. The strike had been brutally handled by the police, and the Council had been rendered impotent. The Natives Representative Council was the subject of political debate for many years. Some thought that better use should be made of it; others boycotted it - regarding the Council as an instrument designed to divert the attention of the African people from the central issue of effective participation in the apportionment of political power in the country. In other words, the years immediately preceding 1948 were marked by a climate of heightened political activity.
As the elections of 1948 came to an end in South Africa, the President-General of the African National Congress held a press conference during which he discussed apartheid policies as defined in the course of those "apartheid elections". He declared that apartheid added nothing new to the South African situation and that the policies connected with it could surprise no one remotely familiar with successive South African governments or with the history of the country. According to this view, 1948 represented little that was different and did not present blacks in South Africa with anything new to occasion a sharp reaction.
In the meantime, however, and for the first time, the African National Congress and the South African Indian Congress had agreed formally through the Xuma-Naicker-Dadoo Pact(2) to cooperate in opposition to the policies of the supremacist Malan Government. It should also be pointed out that in the years after 1948 the policy of segregation and white dominance identified as apartheid became characterised by the increasingly violent enforcement of this foul policy.
I would like now to divide the period between 1948 and the present into two parts: 1948 to 1961 and 1961 to 1973. The decade following 1948 ushered in a period of great activity on the part of oppressed people - nationwide activity more intense than at any previous time during the history of political struggle in South Africa. Such action was founded on the new demand for "one man, one vote". It was based on the 1949 Programme of Action which advocated boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience. At the time, it was especially important that the African National Congress adopt this attitude in favour of strikes. Strikes had been called prior to 1949 but they had been ordinary industrial strikes, and because they were illegal they had offered no challenge to the law. The strikes which occurred after 1949 were national political strikes. This offensive was met by a government counteroffensive which led to the Suppression of Communism Act.
The reaction to apartheid was not confined to black people; apartheid policies were opposed on various grounds by whites as well. Some felt that apartheid was leading to violence; it was provocative and might embroil the country in bloodshed. These critics preferred a smooth, gentle method of maintaining the same policy - but the Nationalist Party was impatient, resolute and uncompromising in the enforcement of apartheid. Thus, in practice, the struggle of the black people drew active sympathisers from progressive whites who, in differing ways, also opposed the policies of various white governments in South Africa.
The decision to conduct a nonviolent struggle in South Africa was propagated through the 1949 Programme of Action referred to above. Such nonviolent opposition has been an important aspect of the black reaction to apartheid in South Africa. Despite earlier failures to create a broad front uniting all black organisations, the Youth League of the ANC, the African People's Organisation, the Communist Party of South Africa, and the South African Indian Congress did agree to challenge the Unlawful Organisations Act. Seen as an attempt to suppress all opposition to the policies of the new regime, the Unlawful Organisations Act (later known as the Suppression of Communism Act), was actually instrumental in uniting the opposition.
It was further decided, in pursuance of the 1949 programme of militant action involving civil disobedience, that adequate preparation should be made for the implementation of the programme. National strikes were precipitated, however, by the killing on May 1, 1950, of a number of workers who were observing the day, first, as a workers' day, and second, as a means of enforcing their demands for higher wages. Typically, the South African police used violence which resulted in the death of a number of people. Reacting to this, a national stay-at-home strike was called on June 26, 1950. This was the first of its kind in the history of political activity in South Africa. It was also the first in a series of some eight national strikes which took place over the next decade. Thus, strikes became almost annual - and June 26 is now commemorated by blacks throughout South Africa as Freedom Day. Such national strikes are perhaps an indication of the level of activity which has been effectively organised in opposition to the policies of apartheid and in pursuance of freedom in South Africa.
Opposition to apartheid inevitably provoked counteraction which resulted in bannings, the passing of new legislation intended to suppress this opposition, and a general observable escalation of both political resistance and vicious governmental legislation. The Defiance Campaign which sought originally to mobilise the African people more vigorously into action commenced in 1952 and drew substantial support from the people. In the end it was suppressed by new legislation - the Riotous Assemblies Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act - and by more violence. By that time, however, it had attracted international attention, and part of the attempt to build opposition to these policies consisted in inviting the world to witness the situation in South Africa.
The Defiance Campaign represented a different kind of nonviolence. It arose out of a specific awareness that the policy of the Nationalist Party government was to unite all the white people in an offensive against the black people. This was the essence of apartheid. The greatest problem facing the Nationalist Party was not the United Party, the (legal) opposition; the question that had to be dealt with was that posed by the black man.
The politics of the country at every election had revolved around the so-called black problem, or the native problem. The elections that led to the seizure of power by the Nationalist Party in 1948 had been - like earlier elections - fought over the question of "native policy". When the Nationalist Party won on the slogan of apartheid, "baaskap," then the moment to deal with this problem in a tough and unrelenting way had arrived. From the government point of view, the issues were clear, and the method chosen by the government to gain support from other whites included provoking the black people to violence.
There was no doubt then - and I think none now - that there could be no guarantee that a violent situation whose thrust tended to be against white people would not get out of hand. There was no guarantee that even white supporters of the national liberation movement might not be killed. If such violence were to affect the white community, then the government could use its power to deal effectively with the African people. Through its efforts to "control" the situation the government would establish the fact that it was dealing with a dangerous, violent, and explosive situation which dictated that the only course open to whites and to the United Party was support of the government. This seemed to be the slant of official thinking, and in order to deny the government the opportunity of uniting the entire white population of South Africa against the blacks, the African National Congress refrained from engaging in violent acts. It was hoped that this policy of nonviolence would, in due course, bring support from an increasing number of whites. The Defiance Campaign had precisely the desired effect. It revealed that there were many white people in South Africa who were prepared to associate themselves with protest activities led by the Africans. Noticing this, the ANC decided to encourage mass action to support the struggle of the blacks - action in which sympathetic whites could also participate.
The Defiance Campaign met with a series of repressive measures which were countered by an ever more determined struggle. When the government found that bannings and the prosecution of leaders did not stem this upheaval, the national leadership of the African people and their allies were arrested and prosecuted as traitors. In the treason trial which began in December 1956 and proceeded for five years, almost every leading activist in South Africa (white as well as black) was arrested and prosecuted. An attempt was made to silence the protest, to show the capacity of the Nationalist Party to handle the black people. It had the contrary effect. It fostered greater activity, triggering other, more stringent measures. The African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress were banned in 1960. In some parts of the country, the ANC continued to operate illegally. In other parts, the convening of political meetings under any pretext was declared illegal. These attempts to curb dissent did not prevent the emergence of localised conflicts in different areas such as Sekhukhuniland, Zeerust and the Free State where there was violent opposition to government policies. All demonstrations of opposition were met with gunfire, and there were many incidents of limited massacre which preceded Sharpeville in March 1961.
By 1959 the ineffectiveness of every measure taken by the government was manifest. In fact, by this time a new obstacle to the political organisation of the African people had been produced in the effort to contain the wave of opposition building under the new leadership of Albert Luthuli, President-General of the African National Congress. Armed police, together with the Special Branch, now broke into every meeting and displayed their might openly, as delegates sat making decisions about the next course of action. Already police violence had erupted in the country; but it had no effect on the development of this momentum which, in turn, produced more and more armed strength. Saracens and sten guns were no longer an intimidation. The entire country was organised into positive resistance.
Then Sharpeville occurred. Sharpeville was like any other nonviolent gathering of people. But the police opened fire and the killings which ensued were on such a scale and so brutal that the incident sent waves throughout South Africa and the world. This is explained not so much by the extent of the violence (there had been worse instances), as by the timing. Sharpeville erupted at a moment of heightened militancy on the part of the people. Further north, new and independent African nations were coming into being - and this had a tremendous effect in South Africa. Sharpeville was followed by the arrest not only of blacks, but of numerous leaders from the white community. A State of Emergency was declared.
When their prison terms came to an end and hundreds and thousands of detainees were released, the ANC and allied organisations (i.e., the Coloured People's Congress, the South African Indian Congress, and the Congress of Democrats) called a national conference of considerable significance. The Maritzburg conference was to act as a catalyst for more action at a time when both the ANC and the PAC had been banned. It demanded that a national convention be called and that a new constitution for the country be formulated on the basis of "one man, one vote". The 1961 conference set time limits within which the racist government of South Africa was to respond and indicated that if the government did not respond, there would follow a period of violence. Predictably, there was no reaction from the government. A strike was then called. The significant aspect of that strike was that almost the entire South African Defence Force was thrown into suppressing it. It was extensive and well-organised, reaching as far as Namibia. These three days of national strikes (March 27-29), the shooting at Sharpeville, and the application of the entire armed strength of the South African government in suppressing a peaceful strike led to the decision to introduce a higher level of struggle.
The period 1961 to the present has witnessed a reversal of the policy of nonviolence. Shortly after Sharpeville, it was announced that the struggle had entered a violent phase. This announcement was accompanied by acts of organised violence, sabotage, and the training outside South Africa of hundreds of activists in preparation for the armed phase of the struggle. It is currently recognised that partly as a result of that decision, the black reaction is now a reaction not only to apartheid as a racialist policy but a reaction aimed at the forcible overthrow of colonialists and racists wherever they are in control.
In discussing international action in response to apartheid it is important to note that after 1960 it was decided by the African leadership within South Africa to call upon the peoples of the world, the newly independent states of Africa, the United Nations, and all opponents of apartheid to support a programme of sanctions and to isolate South Africa. International pressures have grown more intense and they have helped increase the effectiveness of the black reaction in South Africa. Black South Africans must still bear the burden of the struggle, but the participation of the rest of the world is essential.
The black reaction currently assumes two forms in South Africa. Because of the persistence of racial discrimination and the emphasis on suppression of blacks, there has emerged what is generally referred to as a black consciousness which has resulted in far-reaching attempts to rally the black population. Africans have reached the stage where progress will be made through their own actions. As their strength grows, they will draw support from everybody who comes to appreciate their strength and their determination and the inevitability of their struggle.
The black reaction is also manifest in the efforts of victims of colonialism the world over to shake off the oppressor. Africans on the continent identify with the struggle in South Africa and are part of the black reaction against colonialism. Today, political activity on the part of black South Africans has been inspired not only by the sabotage activities of the early 1960s, but by the armed conflict of 1967-68 in which South Africa participated with great effect in Zimbabwe. This did not go unnoticed. The struggles in Mozambique and Namibia are also having a tremendous influence, and we have no doubt that this reaction which started long before 1948 is beginning to assume its proper character as a reaction not just to the authors of the policy of 1948 and the continued application of that policy. It is also a reaction to exploitation identical to that which has given rise to struggles on the part of Third World peoples everywhere. This is not merely a struggle against apartheid; it is a struggle for control, for power, for full citizenship in a society where there is no discrimination. I believe that the black reaction today can be defined as a mass movement of all anti-racists, all anti-colonialists, and all opponents of related systems. It is no longer a reaction to apartheid as conceived by members of the Nationalist Party long before the Second World War and brought into force with great vigour when the opportunity arose in 1948.
2 Pact of Joint Cooperation signed by Dr. A.B. Xuma, President-General of the African National Congress, Dr. G.M. Naicker, President of the Natal Indian Congress, and Dr. Yusuf M. Dadoo, President of the Transvaal Indian Congress, on March 9, 1947.