The Formation of the All-African Convention: The Background

In 1935 the Union Government confronted the country with what were called the Three "Native"Bills, or, as we knew them, the notorious Hertzog Bills, which were to "settle the Native Question once and for all"-according to the rulers' way of thinking. The need for this drive to "settle the Native Question"did not spring out of the fertile brain of some politician. It had its roots in the economic and political conditions of the country.

It will be remembered that throughout the twenties and early thirties, as a result of the first World War, the whole world had been gripped in the throes of an economic crisis. Europe and Asia had been convulsed by revolutionary upsurge. South Africa as an integral part of the capitalist world had been hit by the depression. The economic structure of the country was shaken and the herrenvolk parties decided to drop their petty squabbles and come together to save the country. The Fusion Government of Smuts and Hertzog came into being. But what, to the herrenvolk, did "saving the country mean? It meant intensifying the process of enslaving the Black man, depriving him of the last vestige of his rights and reducing him to the status of a baggage animal whose sole function was to labour and produce wealth for the "master-race."This they proposed to effect through the three "Native Bills."

Before we go further it is necessary to say a word about the significance of this Fusion of the herrenvolk parties, and at the same time to nail down once and for all the myth of the liberal tradition of the Cape. It has become a common practice to contrast the liberal tradition of the Cape with the reactionary attitude of the Northern Provinces-the Boer Republics. In fact the whole political history of the Union in so far as it concerns the whittling down of the rights of the Non-Europeans, is presented as a triumph of the reactionary Boers over the liberal Cape. But nothing could be more false than this ridiculous picture of heroic resistance on the part of the English to the irresistible tide of Afrikanerdom. Whoever starts to assess the situation on this false basis will founder in a sea of confusion. To fail to have a clear idea of the forces at work in society, is to relinquish what should serve as a sheet-anchor in the welter of contradictions which surround us;it is to deprive ourselves of the touchstone whereby we know who our political enemies are, and who are our natural allies. In a word it is to disarm ourselves at the outset of the struggle for liberation.

Ever since the time of Union the Africans throughout South Africa have looked to the White politicians of the Cape to alleviate their distress by granting them some political rights. They have clung tenaciously to the idea that as representatives of the liberal tradition these politicians were the champions of the rights of the Black man. In support of their belief they have pointed to the "struggles"of the Cape liberals at the time of Union to maintain the vote for the African in the Cape Province. But the truth of the matter is, that at no time were they concerned with the defence of the rights of the Black man, nor were they ever actuated by the principle of the equality of all men.

It was a simple case of political expediency. What they were concerned about was the pro-British majority in Parliament. They needed the Africans vote for their own defence against the recently conquered enemy, the Boers in the North. It was to be used as a weapon against those who opposed the British flag. And they knew that every African-thanks to the myth of the Great White Queen as their "protector"-would vote British as against Boer. Thus the African vote would ensure a majority in Parliament for the British loyalist representatives against the recalcitrant Boer Republics.

When, however, the big Dutch farmers finally became convinced of the wisdom of remaining within the British Empire because of the juicy crumbs to be obtained from the table of British Imperialism in the form of large subsidies, and when they realised that Britain was prepared to rule South Africa with them as co-partners, then there was no fear of a secessionist movement on the part of the Boers. Then the need for the Cape African vote vanished. Gone was the need for the old Cape liberalism. A political marriage took place between Dutch feudalism and British imperialism and the Fusion Government was formed. Now the united herrenvolk could turn with a single mind to "settling the Native Question once and for all. "The first thing that the Fusion Government did was to pass the three "Native"Bills. This they did in 1936 (Native Representation Bill and the Native Trust and Land Bill), and 1937 (The Urban Areas Amendment Bill).

The "Native"Bills

In presenting these Bills the rulers used the method which is becoming very common in South Africa, of designating repressive legislation against Non-Europeans in terms which imply exactly the opposite of what it is intended to do.

(a) Native Representation Bill

This Bill was actually intended to deprive the African of the last vestige of citizenship and render him a foreigner in the land of his birth. As such he would be completely deprived of the right to buy land.

The Bill provided (1) for the election of three members of the herrenvolk to "represent"the disfranchised African masses in the herrenvolk Parliament of 153 members and (2) for the creation of a so-called "Native Representative Council "which was neither "Native "nor representative, nor was it even a council in the proper sense of the word.

Such a drastic step against the people who constituted about four-fifths of the total population, was expected to produce a ferment which might well result in uniting the oppressed, and compel them to lose faith in the good will of the herrenvolk. Some means had to be found to stem this process. It was necessary at all costs to persuade the African to retain his faith in at least some section of the herrenvolk and his hope that one day his lot would be improved. For, once he had lost this faith and relinquished this hope, he would turn his back on the herren­volk as a whole. He would discover that henceforth he must look to himself and his natural allies;he would learn to place reliance on himself and his fellow-oppressed. He would realise that he must seek strength in his own unity and solidarity with his brothers in oppression.

Here was a chance for the liberals to play an important role which was in keeping with their function in the past. It would invariably be the liberals who would stand for election as the "representatives"of the Africans. Parliament, then, would provide a platform for these so-called "champions"of the African cause. Every opportunity would be given them for indulging their eloquence in the "defence " of the voiceless masses. From the highest rostrum of the land they would publicly shed crocodile tears on their behalf. And the Press would play its part by giving great prominence to their heart-stirring jeremiads. And on reading these the hungry Africans would have their bellies filled with windy hopes. In truth their faith would be revived in these apostles of Christian trusteeship. The gross fraud and the palpable absurdity of this "representation " becomes all the more apparent when we reflect that it was in every way to the benefit of the rulers themselves;for in effect the Africans were now called upon to elect three extra members to the herrenvolk Parliament, thus still further safeguarding the interests of the rulers.

(b) The Native Trust And Land Bill

This Bill was calculated, not to relieve the dire landlessness of the Africans but to intensify it as a means of forcing them off the land to work on the European farms and in the mines. it deprived them of the right to buy land anywhere except in the already over-crowded Reserves. The emptiness of this nominal right stands revealed when we remember that the vast majority of those who are officially resident in the Reserves haven't a plot to their name because there is no more land to be had. To be sure, the Bill held out the bait of promised land- "released areas " which were to be bought for the people by the Trust Fund. Time was to prove the hollow sham of this promise. The people were to learn that the Trust Fund itself was to be used for their own exploitation and as a means of depriving them still further of the right to buy land, even the released farms.

(c) The Urban Areas Amendment Bill

This Bill was a corollary to the other two and was designed for the complete regimentation of African labour. Having been driven off the land and stripped of all political rights, the African would now be defenceless, without even the rights of a worker. This supplementary Bill proposed to deprive him of the right to sell his labour in the open market to the highest bidder. It created the machinery for directing the stream of African labour according to the demands of the various groups of employers for cheap "Native "labour. Denied free access to the towns the African would be forced on to the European farms and into the mines.

The Calling of Convention, 1935

This triple onslaught of the Slave Bills stirred the African people throughout the country. Spontaneously there was the urge to come together, but, as we have indicated above, there was not a single organisation capable of rallying the people behind it. There were a number of little organisations-political, trade union, civic, professional, religious and sporting bodies-all existing in isolation. Then, in the face of crisis, a few leaders decided to call on all such organisations to send representatives to a convention to be held in Bloemfontein in December, 1935, and the people rallied to the call, for they realised that the Bills threatened all alike. It was the biggest conference in their history and was a truly representative gathering. There were over 500 delegates present, with representatives from both the towns and the rural areas. Delegates had been sent from the Reserves, from the Transkei and Zululand;from the Protectorates, Bechuanaland (Botswana), Basutoland (Lesotho)and Swaziland.

The meeting was characterised by great enthusiasm and determination. Once more the mood of. the people was high. A common danger had brought to their consciousness the need to unite. Under the force of events all petty organisational rivalries were swept aside and all the old leaders came together. Every leader was present and every organisation represented. With a single voice the people manifested their determination to resist the Bills. The keynote of the conference was unity, unity of purpose and unity of struggle. Conference passed a resolution rejecting the Bills and instructed its executive to in­form the Government of its decision.

We have said that the idea of coming together in a convention of this nature had been a spontaneous one. It was not invented by any one particular leader. It would be more true to say that it was generated by the stress of events and a common danger. By organising the conference through the already existing channels, namely the various organisations established throughout the country, the leaders had lighted upon the only effective means of bringing the people together. So great was the response that those delegates present felt that this bringing together of the existing organisations into a Convention was the very form which unity should take. Conference decided that Convention should meet again in June, 1936,

Events of 1936

In view of the general lack of information about the coming into being of the All African Convention and also in view of the falsifications, which for that very reason are all too common, concerning the manner in which the Convention was formed and the purpose for which it was created, we consider that it is necessary to go into some detail. A reference to the Minutes published at that time will furnish us with a picture of the salient facts.

In accordance with the resolution taken at the first conference, the Convention assembled from the 29th of June to the 2nd of July, 1936, in the Community Hall, Bloemfontein. In addition to the officials there were 206 delegates present, representing 112 organisations. It was at this Conference that Mr. R. V. Selope Thema, seconded by Mr. P. Ramutla, moved the following resolution:

"that the Convention approves of the principle of the establishment of this body as a permanent organisation of all the African people."

This resolution was passed and the Executive Committee was instructed to prepare a draft constitution.

At this time the following were the office-bearers: Professor D. D. T. Jabavu, President;Dr. A. B. Xuma, Vice-President;Dr. J. S. Moroka, Treasurer;Mr. H. Selby Msimang, General Secretary;Mr. R. H. Godlo, Recording Secretary;and Professor Z. K. Matthews, Clerk-Draughtsman.

Two days later (1st July) the Executive submitted a draft constitution which was accepted "pending approval by the various African organisations and final ratification by the next Convention in December, 1937. "Note that while the delegates present accepted the principle of establishing the Convention as a permanent body and adopted a draft constitution, nevertheless they considered it necessary to receive the consent of the people as a whole, through their various organisations. The adoption of the draft constitution, then, was in the nature of an instruction to the delegates to go back to their respective organisations, put the matter before them, discuss it thoroughly and bring their decision to the next Conference of Convention, which was to be held in 18 months' time. While the African people were in the process of evolving this new form of political organisation, which was the logical outcome of the events of 1965 and the enthusiasm thus engen­dered and manifested in the first meeting of Convention, other events were taking"place which were seriously to affect this process of development. The 1935 Conference had instructed the Convention Executive to communicate to the Government its decision to reject the three Bills. The leaders had gone to Cape Town during the 1936 Parliamentary session. There they had held several meetings in private, now consulting with tins liberal and now with that member of Parliament;for, as was to be expected, these "champions" of the African cause were ever-ready with their advice and assistance. Their efforts at "assisting"the leaders were all the more strenuous in view of the fact that all over the country the African people were declaring their rejection of the Slave Bills in no uncertain voice, reports had come in to Government quarters to the effect that in the secret meetings held with them even the chiefs on their own had been able to put their finger on the fraud of the so-called Land and Trust Bill. The Government knew and the liberals, too, were fully aware-in fact the whole herrenvolk realised that the decisions made at Bloemfontein did not merely reflect the feeling of those delegates present at Convention, but were the expression of a unanimous rejection by a whole people of the three Slave Bills.

Obviously, in face of this unprecedented unanimity, the rulers had to act. The notorious compromise was hatched. The Herrenvolk Pressproclaimed in the headlines that a compromise had been reached between the Government and the African leaders.

This announcement fell like a bombshell on the African people. They, who only a few months previous had been united in enthusiasm and determination and had reached the stage where they were forging a weapon of resistance, were now thrown into a state of consternation and confusion. The apple of discord had been cast into their midst. And history was to prove how costly this "apple" was to be to a whole people. It had the effect of diverting the Africans from their course and forcing them into a political desert for a decade.

Since those days they have been fooling about with mock elections, mock representation and a dummy Council. For a decade and more they have been learning through bitter experience what is meant by "developing along our own lines. "They have been slow in recognising the old trick which the rulers played on them, of throwing a bone to the dogs and getting them to fight amongst themselves while they eat their choice meat undisturbed. The rulers have given a bone in the form of sham representation and dummy councils, while they have their Parliament. The Africans have been busy fighting amongst themselves for positions in these dummy councils and squandering their energies in disputing as to which White man is to plead in their Parliament on behalf of the Black slaves. They have been busy electing three extra members for a herrenvolk Parliament. This is exactly what the rulers wanted.

1937 Conference

In accordance with the resolution taken at the 1936 Conference the Convention met in Bloemfontein, 13th-15th December, 1937. Its first task was to hear reports of delegates from their respective organisations concerning (1) the principle of establishing the All African Convention as a permanent body;

(2) the Draft Constitution which had been decided upon at the previous Conference. The delegates reported that their organisations were in agreement with the principle and accepted the Draft Constitution.

At this stage written reports were read from officials who were unable to attend Conference by reason of their being overseas. First there was a report from Dr. Max Yergan, Secretary for External Relations. We quote from the introductory letter to the report, written from America:

"To the Delegates to the All African Convention assembled at Bloemfontein, December, 1937.

To My Brothers, Greetings!

It is with the deepest regret that I have had to inform our President of my inability to be present at this meeting of the Convention. I am unable to come, because, among other reasons, the immediate work which I am trying to do in the interest of our entire cause makes it impossible for me to leave America just now. I wish you to know how deeply I have desired all along to be present at this particular meeting, for I recognise the importance of your deliberations and of the action which you have taken following your deliberations. May I, therefore, be permitted to express my views in what I believe to be the best interest of our cause in South Africa.

"I am more than ever convinced that our chief need now, as was true a year ago, is to build a people's movement. By this I mean to make possible the largest amount of united action on the part of our people in South Africa. This means clearly that our task is to continue in our effort to federate existing organisations. This, of course, means that we must find at this moment principles and tasks to be accomplished, around which it will be possible to unite the great mass of the people, including those in organisations and outside organisations.

"To do this, of course, we must begin first with the existing organisations. We must let nothing stand in the way of making it possible for the leaders of the various organisations to see the importance and desirability of united action as will be made possible by a federation of the existing organisations. This I believe to be our supreme task at the moment, and I am convinced from my observations here in America and elsewhere, that we must prepare to pay whatever price is required in order to accomplish this particular end of a united people struggling for ends which are common to us all ......... "

"Yours faithfully, MAX YERGAN ,

Secretary for External Relations."

(See Minutes of the All-African Convention, December 1937, p.p. 35-37). The next Report came from Dr. A. B. Xuma, who wrote from London. His letter ran as follows:

"London, England.

December 2, 1937.

"Delegates of the All African Convention and Fellow Countrymen,


"You will find before you the Constitution of the All African Convention for ratification. In the articles of the constitution you will find much that you can criticise with justice.

"I want, however, to emphasise to you that the Constitution will develop in time through your reasonable amendments and suggestions provided they are made in the right spirit and right attitude with a sincere desire to help build the unity of our people. You must realise that this constitution is merely the basic authority for our united action. It calls for a united front, a common objective.

"You do not have unity because you write a beautiful constitution on paper. Unity must be -written in your hearts and minds. It must mean unselfish service for your people. It must mean faith in yourselves, faith in your people and their leaders.

"All of us must surrender personal ambition for national unity. "By speaking with one voice, acting unitedly, we will be serving South Africa as a whole.

"Anyone who will endeavour to wreck the principle of unity that gave birth to the All African Convention will be doing so for personal reasons and will be a traitor to Africa.

"As your Vice-President and Chairman of the Executive of the All African Convention, you have always given me your ear and your full co-operation, for which I thank you.

"Six thousand miles away, I appeal to you to ratify the Constitution and show the world that you mean to stand together at all costs.

"Besides, you must decide upon a definite practical policy and pro­gramme of action upon which all elements can join hands in putting it over.


Vice-President A.A.C., Chairman of the Executive of A.A.C."

(See Minutes of All African Convention, 1937. P.p. 46-47). The various delegates reported that their organisations accepted the principle of establishing the All African Convention as a permanent body and approved of the Draft Constitution. As a result of this, the Conference formally adopted the Draft Constitution as the Constitution of the All African Convention.

We consider it pertinent at this point to quote the Preamble as well as the passages relating to the Composition and Object of the All African Convention.

Preamble to the Constitution of the A.A.C.

"Whereas it is expedient in view of the situation created by the 'Native' Policy of segregation, discrimination and other repressive measures definitely adopted by the Government and Parliament (tile Union of South Africa that the African races of South Africa as a national entity and unit should henceforth speak with one voice, meet and act in all matters of national concern.

This Convention resolves that a Central Organisation shall be formed with which all-African religious, educational, Industrial, economic, political, commercial and social organisations shall be affiliated.

And to give effect to this purpose, the following Constitution shall form the basis of the organisation to be and which is hereby established, namely:-

1. NAME: The name of the organisation shall be the All African Convention.

2. COMPOSITION: (a) The Convention shall be composed of accredited organisations and organised bodies duly registered with the General Secretary and which organisations and organised bodies shall be represented by accredited delegates at all meetings, of the Convention.

(b) Any duly organised body with a constitution that expresses its objects shall be eligible for registration.

3. OBJECTS: (a) To act in unity in developing the political and economic power of the African people.

(b) To serve as a medium of expression of the united voice of the African people on all matters affecting their welfare.

(c) To formulate and give effect to a national programme for the advancement and protection of the interests of the African people.

(d) To assist in rehabilitating dormant and moribund African organisations and bringing together unorganised Africans into societies, communities or bodies affiliated to the All African Convention. "

(See Minutes of the All-African Convention, December, 1937. P.p. 18-19)

Minutes of any Conference are not generally inspiring. They are necessarily brief and often dry as dust. But here, even in the scope of a brief report something of the spirit, which at this time animated the people, comes through. It was in the midst of this atmosphere that the All African Convention was born and its Constitution formulated. Pre-eminent was the spirit of unity. The letters from Dr. Yergan and Dr. Xuma, quoted above, clearly reflect this and are a sample of the speeches delivered at the 1937 Conference. The people had realised that the determination to resist-as expressed in their resolutions at the first Conference in 1935-was in itself not enough. The idea of coming together and acting in unity was indeed a tremendous step forward, and the formation of the All African Convention was the concrete expression of this idea. But this was only the beginning. They had still to grapple with the problem of carrying the idea to the masses and helping them to understand the full implications of their political and organisational tasks. Having seized upon the idea of unity they had still to get down to the practical problem of welding the various organisations throughout the country into a single unit, not in any way to replace these organisations, but to co-ordinate and centralise their activities. In this way they would be forging an effective machinery with which, to wage a sustained struggle.

There was not a speaker at Conference who did not reflect this spirit of unity. One and all were striving to come to grips with the problem of building this new federal organisation, the All African Convention, into a powerful body. Mr. Selby Msimang, the then General Secretary, in introducing a discussion on organisation read a paper entitled: "Organisation and the Relationship of the A.A.C. with other Organisations. "In it he said:

"The problem of organising the All African Convention is essentially a question of how to strengthen, vitalise and consolidate existing organisations. The Convention depends for its existence on the active participation and co-operation of the various organisations in that it is the central body which provides a common platform for exchange of views and mutual helpfulness in matters national in character. It recognises the right of each organisation to exist and enjoy an undisturbed autonomy, provided that each organisation in turn appreciates and lives up to the ideal that it is part of an organism or a lever in a mechanism where it contributes its vital share to the life of the whole. "

This was an eloquent summing up of the political trend among the Africans at this time. The wave of enthusiasm starting in 1935 had carried them through to this point, and December 1937 can be described as marking the culminating point in the first stage of the development of the All African Convention. Thereafter, following upon a most propitious beginning, it entered on the seven lean years. In spite of the initial determination of the people to resist the Bills;in spite of the clear resolutions and the finely-conceived Constitution of the Convention;in spite of the brave words and the eloquent speeches of the leaders, the Convention fell into a period of decline. For seven long years the bold ship foundered on the sands of ineffectuality and frustration. Why?

It will be necessary for us to face this question squarely and to analyse the reasons for the turn which events took at this point. We must be able to draw the proper lesson from it. We cannot do this unless we examine the situation without fear or favour. To fail to do so is to expose ourselves to even greater dangers in the future.

This brings us back to the "Compromise "of 1936, Now we maintain that in politics there can be no such thing as a compromise between oppressor and oppressed. There can be a compromise only when the contracting parties meet on a footing of equality. The so-called "Compromise"under the conditions of such gross inequality as between White ruler and Black oppressed, could only be tantamount to a capitulation or a political "sell-out". In such a "compromise"one party must lose all the time while the other, without yielding one jot, gains all at the expense of its victim. The only compromise possible between a wolf and a lamb must be at the expense of some vital limb. And that is not the end of it. The lamb, thus incapacitated, lies helpless before the inevitable onslaught that must follow. For, with his appetite whetted by the first morsel, the wolf will not be satisfied till he has swallowed the whole of his victim. The African people, having been robbed of the last vestige of their rights through the "Compromise", were left without political defence against further attacks that were to come. It should have been obvious that the taking away of even this vestigeal franchise would facilitate further repressive legislation.

How, then, was it possible for the African leaders to be persuaded that there was anything to be gained from this "Compromise"? How was it possible for them to consider it at all, let alone accept it?

Let us say here that there is no doubt that the "Compromise"was accepted. It is true that some leaders to-day deny that it ever took place and they point to the fact that there are no records of it. We are not now, concerned whether this or that particular leader, closeted with this or that liberal, did in fact instruct the liberal to convey his acceptance of the "Compromise"to the Government. What we are concerned with is the sum total of the effect of their political actions.

It is a fact that the leaders of the day went out, in total disregard of the 1935 resolutions, to operate the Acts once they were passed, and participated in the farcical elections. This was not merely a section of the leadership, nor the leadership of this or that organisation. It was all the recognised leaders of that time.