From: South Africa's Radical Tradition, a documentary history, Volume Two 1943 - 1964, by Allison Drew

Document 28 - Brian Bunting, "Problems of the Multi-Racial Conference", Liberation, 28, November 1957

The decision of the Congresses to take part in the forthcoming multi-racial conference has naturally aroused a great deal of discussion in democratic circles in South Africa. There have been those who have welcomed the multi-racial conference as a beacon marking out the road to a united anti-Nationalist front in which all sections of progressive opinion could participate and which could generate the strength to bring the Government to its knees. On the other hand, there have been those who look upon the multi-racial conference with suspicion, fearing that it will prove merely a trap for the unwary, and the militancy of the masses will be drowned beneath the calm waters of liberal complacency.

Contradictory though it may seem, both views of the conference are correct. The conference possesses great possibilities, but also great dangers. To ensure that the democratic cause achieves the greatest possible impetus from the conference, it is essential that all Congressmen and progressives who take part in it should be absolutely clear about what they are doing, and about the tactics of the united front.

Let us first make it clear that in the struggle against the Nationalists a united front is absolutely necessary. For what is the purpose of the united front? It is the mobilisation of the masses of the people in active struggle against the apartheid tyranny. What do we mean by the masses of the people? We mean in the first place all the millions of Non-European oppressed who suffer under the lash of the colour bar that are hounded by the pass laws, deprived of the right to live a normal life by section 10, the victims of the police terror, the disfranchised - in fact, the majority of the South African people. But side by side with them we must aim to mobilise all other sections of the people, European and Non-European, who are prepared today, for a variety of reasons to oppose particular aspects of Nationalist policy. Why do we emphasise the mobilisation of the masses of the people? Because it is only when the masses of the people are mobilised and organised that a weapon will be forged in South Africa which is strong enough to defend the people against the attacks of the Government, to win for them the rights enshrined in the Freedom Charter.

The Europeans alone cannot put things right. Those Europeans who are opposed to the policies of the Nationalist Government, and who yet restrict their political activity to taking part in and preparing for elections, have become the prisoners of the Nationalists just as much as the Non-Europeans. The restriction of the franchise to "Europeans only" is the basic reason for the United Party's ideological capitulation to apartheid. Therefore the solution must be sought outside Parliament and outside the electoral system, because it is only through extra-Parliamentary struggle that the mass of the people can make their voices heard.

Spearheading the extra-Parliamentary struggle against the Nationalist Government and for equal rights for all is the Congress movement - the alliance of the national organisations of the African, Indian and Coloured people with European progressives and trade unionists who have identified themselves completely with the Congress movement. Those who decry the need for a united front should recognise that the Congress movement itself is a united front. It is also instructive to remember that this united front was born of the great Defiance Campaign, where it proved itself as the only effective vehicle by which the protest of all sections of the people against the unjust laws could be organised. No united front, no defiance campaign - and the defiance campaign was perhaps the greatest organised demonstration of the people against the tyranny of white supremacy that this country has ever seen. The unity built up in the defiance campaign was strengthened during the campaign for the Congress of the People in 1955, at which the Freedom Charter was adopted, and was sealed by the treason arrests of December 1956.


The unshakeable unity of the Congress movement, all should realise, is the bedrock on which all effective opposition to the policies of the Government is based. It was the foundation of the bus boycott and one of the factors which guaranteed the victory of the thousands who marched 20 miles a day rather than pay the fares increase. It is the foundation of all organised political activity by other sections of the population as well. Had it not been for the defiance campaign and the coming into existence of the united front, the Liberal Party would never have been born. Had it not been for the unity of the accused in the treason trial, the massive national and international support for the Treason Trial Defence Fund would never have materialised - and it is essential to appreciate that the Fund has not won support on this scale merely because it is a worthy charity, but mainly because it has provided an opportunity for thousands of people to do something concrete to express their hatred of the Nationalist Government and their fellow-feeling for the accused and the cause they stand for. The courage and spirit of the treason accused has not only inspired the thousands of rank-and-file Congressites to reach new heights of militancy in political action (against passes for women, the Mamathola removal etc.), but has also been the underlying factor which induced the clergy to protest against the Church Clause, the nurses against apartheid, the press against the threat of censorship, and even the United Party to come forward with its new Senate plan, feeble though it is.

Maybe not all those who are emboldened to speak their minds against the Government are conscious of this, but it is a fact all the same. What would be the picture in the country if the Congress movement did not exist, if the people simply accepted their fate without protest, took out passes, moved at the crack of Verwoerd's whip, were subservient and demoralised and made no claim for equal citizenship rights? Who then would dare to criticise apartheid? It is precisely the resistance of the mass of the people which is the basis of almost all opposition to the Government.

The Congress movement is an alliance of all sections of the people in the liberatory movement. At the moment, for historical reasons, each national group is organised in its separate national organisation, but there can be no doubt that with the passage of time and ever-closer co-operation in active political struggle, with the growth to political and organisational maturity of each group, the tendency will be for the barriers to break down and ultimately for full political and organisational cohesion to be brought about. Each group at the moment still fears to abandon the protection of its own organisation, and, in view of the special situation facing each group it would be wrong to do so.

Not only inside the organisations themselves, but also among the masses of the people who are not yet organised there are still feelings of racial exclusiveness and antagonism which hinder the fullest and freest co-operation, and which make impossible the creation of one, united, all-in Congress body as is advocated in some quarters. To deny this is to fly in the face of the facts. The existence of Africanists inside the A.N.C., the recent tribal clashes in Johannesburg and elsewhere, the separation in the trade union movement - these and many other proofs of surviving disunity can be adduced.

But the time will undoubtedly come - the sooner with each joint campaign, with each shared disaster or united victory - when the fullest possible unity, inside the Congress movement will become a reality.

But the Congress movement is not only in process of building unity between people of different races. It is also a uniting of people belonging to different political and class groups within each national group. Inside the premier national organisation, the African National Congress, for example, we find working together for the achievement of common aims the worker and the businessman, the lawyer and the intellectual, the communist and the nationalist. They do not see eye to eye on all issues, but they do agree to work together in defence of their rights as Africans against the oppressive policies of the Nationalist Government, and for the achievement of the aims of the Freedom Charter. What unites them most strongly at the moment is their participation in the work of their national organisations.

But what gives the A.N.C. its distinctive and almost unique militancy in the present situation is its overwhelmingly working-class character, in the sense that the workers make up the bulk of its membership and are in a position to determine the nature of its policies to a far greater extent than was the case (and still is) with, say, Gandhi's Congress in India, or the national liberatory movements in most other countries (Ghana, Egypt, Indonesia the Sudan etc.), where the rising national bourgeoisie were (and still are) the dominant factor.

The position is different with the Indian Congress in South Africa, for example, which has a larger middle-class element, and again with the Coloured Peoples' organisations, many of which are entirely dominated by intellectuals (though SACPO has made a conscious effort to base its activities on the organised strength of the working class). But it is the A.N.C. which, by virtue of its leadership and initiative and its greater membership, sets the tone and the pace for the whole Congress alliance, and it is the unique role of the A.N.C. to demonstrate that the national struggle in South Africa is inextricably bound up with the class struggle.


The unity which has already been achieved within the Congress alliance, then, based on the Freedom Charter, must be seen as the first priority in all our political efforts in the immediate future. Why? Because it is this alliance, and only this alliance, which has shown itself capable of mobilising the widest section of the oppressed peoples in effective political action.

No single one of the organisations could have achieved so much by itself, nor even attempted it. For it is precisely the spectacle of the growing unity between the different national groups which has been the most inspiring feature of the political scene during the last few years.

It is necessary to emphasise the word "growing", for the whole Congress alliance is all the time in process of developing - the ties become stronger, the unity deeper, the separatist tendencies weaker with each campaign in which they participate together. But the unity is not complete and will not come to fruition by itself. It must all the time be fought for consciously and with determination. The need to deepen the unity between the Congresses must always be in the forefront of our political calculations.

In view of the fact that the Congress alliance exists, is growing stronger and has already achieved country-wide recognition as the leader of the mass opposition to the Government, what is the need, many people ask, to broaden the front? Why should we work with the liberals and the bishops? How can they help us? Will we not merely be forced to water down our policy and capitulate to their opportunism? Most of those who will be attending the multi-racial conference cannot be expected to agree with or accept the Freedom Charter as a basis for action. What, then, can be hoped for from this conference and from working with these people?

To answer these questions correctly, we must take another look at the general political situation in the country. The Nationalist Government is in power and, as far as can be judged, still firmly in the saddle. Many people are predicting that in the elections next year they will win with an even greater majority than ever before. But, win or lose, Nationalist Party or United Party, the plain fact is that the forces behind the maintenance of colour bar policies in this country are still strong, while the forces behind the Congress alliance are still comparatively weak. Great though are the achievements which stand to its credit, the Congress alliance is still not in a position to draw into the political action the vast majority of the Non-European peoples, let alone the Europeans. The Freedom Charter lays down a very fine programme of principles to fight for, but the Congress organisations, while potentially capable of achieving them, have actually not quite measured up to them. There is a long way to go before we can say we are in sight of our goal.

Meanwhile the Government continues with its ruthless and inhuman attacks on the people. Daily people are suffering, homes are broken up, men and women endorsed out of town, beaten up by the police. New and more vicious legislation is promised for the next session of Parliament. With the growth of opposition against it, the Government is driven to adopt ever more drastic means of maintaining itself in power. As more and more people are drawn into the fight against it, the Government responds by widening still more the area of the conflict. Where, in 1950, it was the Communists and the Congress leaders who were their main target, today the ranks of the victims have been swollen to include members of the Liberal and Labour parties, non-conformists of all types, the Anglican clergy and many others.


In fact, one of the most convincing portents of the coming Nationalist defeat is their complete failure either to isolate or destroy their enemies or to win friends and influence people outside the ranks of the “bittereinders”. It is stock Nazi technique to pick off your opponents one by one and, while the bystanders hold their breath and hope they won’t be touched this time, wipe them out. Ever since they came to power the Nationalists have been trying to do the same thing, but all they have succeeded in doing has been promoting ever-deeper unity in the ranks of the opposition against them. Meanwhile their own failure to win adherents to their cause from the other sections of the population has been startling. Today it is the Nationalist Government and its apartheid policy which are execrated not only in this country but throughout the world.

At the same time, though there is widespread opposition to Nationalist policies amongst both Europeans and Non-Europeans in South Africa, the Nationalists remain in power for the sole reason that their opponents are disunited. Outside of the Con­gresses, there is no agreement as to what should be done and how it should be done. As between the bishops and the Liberals and the Labour Party and the Unity Movement and the various organisations and individuals who profess to abominate Nationalist policies (not to mention the United Party, which is almost unmentionable) there are few points of contact and almost no measure of understanding. That is precisely why the multi-racial conference is so important.

At the multi-racial conference there will be gathered together for the first time practically all shades of anti-Nationalist opinion - for though the formality has been gone through of inviting Nationalists to attend, it is doubtful if any will, apart from the Special Branch.

Congressmen will be able to mix with men and women belonging to other groups, many of whom have in the past been their political opponents, but all of whom are now brought together because they face a common danger "But" it is objected by some, "the Congresses share a common programme the Freedom Charter. Those who will be attending the multiracial conference with them do not accept the Charter, cannot be expected to accept the Charter as the basis for unity. Many of them have not even abandoned the last traces of white chauvinism, and speak of giving us rights 'when the time is ripe'. Many of them are our class enemies, whose real motive is to perpetuate the power of the ruling class by buying us off with a few concessions. We should go to the conference only if others accept our programme, otherwise we will have betrayed our cause."

Others ask: "How can you expect the lion to lie down with the lamb? The Liberal Party is merely the new face which is being presented to the people by the more enlightened wing of the industrial and finance capitalists. If we co-operate with them, do we not merely help to strengthen our enemies, lend them our mass backing to strengthen the institutions of the ruling class? Should we not rather concentrate our attention on destroying the whole capitalist system which is the root of all the evils from which we suffer? At what point can it be said that our interests coincide with theirs?"

There are several points to be made here. First of all, there is no ideological unity in the Liberal Party; there are only Liberals and Liberals. One wing of the Liberal Party can almost be described as reactionary; but another wing is moving ever closer to the Congress point of view, and already works closely with the Congresses in some centres.

Secondly, may not co-operation with others also help to strengthen us? Given a correct approach, there is no reason to fear that we must necessarily get the worst of the bargain. Thirdly, it is not true to say that we and they have no interests in common. Granted, the time may come in future when our policies and interests may conflict with theirs; and of course our long-term perspective is quite different from theirs. But meanwhile, now, if the industrialists and finance capitalists are against the pass laws, should we not welcome their co-operation in a campaign to abolish them?

It may be true that their motives in wanting the pass laws to go are different from ours, but let us ask: would we rather have them with us or against us on this issue? If there is division in the ranks of the ruling class over things like these, why should we not take advantage of such divisions? Is it good tactics to help unite the ruling class, and bring about a united front against us?


To adopt such an attitude is to misread the possibilities of the present situation in South Africa, and to betray sectarianism of the worst order at a time when the needs of the struggle demand the creation of the broadest unity amongst anti-Nationalists. Granted many people cannot accept the Freedom Charter. We don't ask them to. Did Stalin insist that Churchill and Roosevelt accept Communism before he accepted their help during last war? Did he refuse their co-operation because he was afraid of what they would after the war? Of course not. The first principle of the unity of the Allies in the war was united struggle against the monster of Hitler Germany, which threatened equally capitalist Britain and America and Communist Russia, and indeed the whole world. In the same way, the first principle which should be put forward and accepted at the multi-racial conference is condemnation of the apartheid policy of the present Government, and the need to forge some sort of unity in action against it. Not all who are present at the conference may even accept this, but it is likely the majority will.

However, it would be unwise to hope for too much. The conference is a first attempt. Many of the participants will be meeting one another, hearing one another's point of view for the first time. It is even a triumph in itself that in the year of the law designed to end all contact between Black and White except on the basis of master and servant, such a conference is being held at all. We shouldn't risk ruining the conference by demanding a fully-fledged united front at the end of it. Many more meetings and many more shared political experiences will be required before that becomes a possibility.

Yet great opportunities will still exist and must be fought for at the conference. During the last year we have already seen both Congressmen and others shedding their prejudices to work together for a common objective. Congressmen, Liberals, Labour-ites, Black Sash and others have taken part in joint demonstrations against the Group Areas Act in Johannesburg. Congressmen (including COD, against whom many liberals seem to have a particularly violent and unreasonable prejudice), Liberals and others have appeared on united platforms in many centres in Natal in protest against the Group Areas Act and the pass laws. The CATAPAW demonstration against passes for women in Cape Town also succeeded in bringing together for the first time a wide range of opinion, from the A.N.C. to the Mothers' Union.74 Did the Congresses suffer by securing the co-operation of others in these protests? They didn't ask us to give up the Freedom Charter. We didn't ask them to give up their principles. Yet both sides found they could work together and thereby mobilise wider mass support for the struggle against Nationalist policies.

The great possibilities opened up by this sort of co-operation must be placed before the conference. Others may dither and philosophise, but Congress should indicate, at least, that it hopes to see some sort of action flow from the multi-racial conference. It is time to talk, yes, because we must understand one another; but it is also a time to act, before we are all destroyed by the common enemy.

Mao Tse-Tung once remarked "the tactic of the united front and the tactic of closed door sectarianism are tactics diametrically opposed to one another.

The purpose of a united front, he said, is to mobilise million and millions of people and all potential friendly forces to advance and attack the centre-most objective. Failure to build a united front, insistence on keeping our principles pure and not defiling them by contact with others, means that we shall set up diverse objectives and consequently our bullets would hit the lesser enemies or even our allies rather than the principal enemy. This means that we shall be unable to pick out the right enemy and shall waste our ammunition. In this manner we shall be unable to drive the enemy into a narrow isolated position. In this manner we shall be unable to draw over from the enemy's camp and his front all those who have joined them under compulsion, those who were our enemies yesterday but may become our friends today. In this way we shall be actually helping the enemy, retarding and isolating our own movement, causing it to dwindle and decline, and even to take the road to defeat.


The other would say: "all such arguments are erroneous. Our force must be pure and absolutely pure and our road must be straight and absolutely straight. Only what is recorded in the 'Bible' is correct. The national bourgeoisie is destined to be entirely and eternally counter-revolutionary. Not a single inch must be yielded to the rich peasants. As regards the yellow trade unions, we should fight them tooth and nail. Has there ever been a cat that does not love meat or a war-lord who is not counter-revolu­tionary? The intellectual can remain revolutionary only for a day or two, and it is dangerous to recruit them. Hence the conclusion: closed-door sectarianism is the only magic wand, and the united front is the tactic of opportunism." [....]

In conclusion, it should be emphasised that all political movements, while in the course of their development, are in the process of changing. As they grow stronger, their character alters, their power of attraction increases, their responsibilities become more heavy. Only those do not change who are isolated from the main stream of political development, like the Trotskyites and our own Unity Movement, who are being left behind by history. As we enter the door of the multi-racial conference, let us be prepared to discuss with those who think differently from us, let us try to win them to our point of view, let us by all means canvass the virtues of the Freedom Charter and never betray a single clause of it; but let us not be rigid and unbending, or unwilling to meet others half-way if by doing so we can advance our cause. Without losing sight of our goal, let us realise it may not be possible to reach it at the first attempt. Let us be determined to register some progress, rather than retire empty-handed and frustrated. Let us, above all, recognise that if we are true to our principles, we cannot fail to make an impact on those who meet with us. Out of the war-time co-operation of the great powers emerged the Atlantic Charter, the United Nations Charter and the Charter of Human Rights, which are the foundations of our own Freedom Charter, and the goal of millions of people throughout the world fighting for their freedom. We too live in a period of history in which the minds of men are open to new influences on a scale that was never before possible.

Already new political currents are flowing in South Africa whose direction and ultimate destination we can only guess at. Within the last year great cracks have appeared in the Nationalist facade, while strong new bonds of friendship have grown up between some sections of the opposition. By taking part in the multi-ra­cial conference with goodwill and good faith, we can help to usher in a new era in South African politics, break down the barriers which divide our peoples, win new recruits to our own army, and bring closer the reality which is embodied in the slogan "Freedom in our lifetime."