One of the defining moments in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa was the Sharpeville Massacre and its aftermath. The heavy-handed response of the state saw thousands of activists detained and imprisoned soon after the massacre of protesters on 21 March 1960. Political movements such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned and forced underground, and although the Liberal Party of South Africa (LPSA) was not banned by the government, its members were not spared the wrath of the state. The crackdown forced the ANC and PAC to re-evaluate their approach to the liberation struggle and consider whether to abandon the principle of non-violence in favour of a campaign of sabotage. Significantly, the period marked the end of the non-violent phase of resistance, particularly for the ANC and PAC.
Despite the LPSA’s non-violent stance, the party was not spared the suppression of political activity after the declaration of the state of emergency in March 1960. The government launched a vicious attack on the LPSA, arresting 35 of its leading members and detaining them at the Fort in Johannesburg. Furthermore, the government issued banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act, severely restricting the political activities of 41 leading members of the party between March 1961 and April 1966.
The detention and banning of leading LPSA members - despite its non-violent stance - ignited a debate which laid the foundation for the formation of the National Committee of Liberation (NCL). During their detention, Monty Berman, a former member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Myrtle Berman, John Lang, Ernest Wentzel and others challenged the idea of peaceful protest when the government was evidently intent on using violence to suppress dissent. Monty Berman, Lang and Wentzel played an important role in the formation of the NCL. While in detention, they debated the need for an umbrella organisation for movements ready to carry out sabotage campaigns. The name National Liberation Committee, which the trio felt was all-encompassing, was chosen to refer to the umbrella body. After their release in August 1960, Myrtle Berman and Lang tried to engage with the ANC to form the NCL, but were unsuccessful.
Since its inception, the LPSA opposed the use of violence as a method of combating the apartheid regime, preferring to endorse the use of constitutional and democratic means to dislodge the incumbent government. However, when it became apparent that non-violence would not result in a peaceful overthrow of the apartheid state, more confrontational methods were adopted.
The NCL was formed late in 1960 by a small group consisting of about 11 people, including Monty Berman and Lang. While the party operated under a liberal ideological framework, those attracted to its ranks possessed common traits; aside from vehemently opposing the apartheid regime, members recognised the impossibility of achieving this goal through non-violent means. In addition, many members shared a common experience of being ideological 'mavericks within their own political movements', as in the case of ANCYL dissidents and ex-communists. Those gravitating to the NCL also tended to harbour a deep suspicion of the SACP and its relations with the Soviet Union. Importantly, a further common theme within the party was the firm belief that acts of sabotage should not bring any harm to human life, which resonated with their liberalist ideological stance.
The NCL was non-racial in character, although its membership was predominantly white. The organisation hoped to attract an African following by undertaking acts of sabotage against government installations and institutions.
The NCL attracted three groups of radicals to its ranks: members of the LPSA, the African Freedom Movement (AFM), and the Socialist League of South Africa (SLA). Radical members of LPSA were disenchanted by the party’s insistence on non-violence whilst government was using violence against the party’s members, who constituted the largest grouping in the NCL.
The second group consisted of disaffected members of the Transvaal ANC Youth League, who defected to form the AFM. Among these were Samuel Olifant, Stephen Segale, Willie Tibane, Johannes Dladla and Milton Setlhapelo.
Finally, the party was joined by former members of the SACP - a number of them Trotskyites who had been expelled from the party, and who subsequently formed the Socialist League of South Africa (SLA). The three organisations were not dissolved, but instead existed under the banner of the NCL. For instance, in February 1962 the AFM joined forces with SLA, and the new National Committee of the AFM was comprised of three white members from the SLA and three African members from the AFM.
In May 1962, the NCL agreed to clarify the structure of the organisation at a meeting convened in Cape Town. The meeting resolved that the organisation would have a federal structure with a National Committee as the executive and regional committees stationed in different areas. Regional Committees were to operate autonomously in the process of recruiting members and undertaking sabotage campaigns. NCL cells were responsible for carrying out the organisation’s campaigns and participated in policy deliberations. Funding for operations would be sourced from membership contributions and from NCL members outside South Africa. The organisation resolved that it would have no leader.
Between 1962 and 1963 the NCL focused predominantly on recruiting people from across the country. In mid-1962 Adrian Leftwich of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) joined the organisation and became one of its leading figures, recruiting a number of people to the NCL. Randolf Vigne, vice chairman of the LPSA, joined the NCL after he was recruited by John Lang. Vigne, who had worked closely with the PAC’s Positive Action Campaign, became a leading figure of the NCL, particularly in the Cape.
Other members recruited to the organisation included Neville Rubin, Baruch Hirson, Stephanie Kemp, Lynette van der Riet, Hugh Lewin, Ronald Mutch, Rosemary Wentzel, Dennis Higgs and Alan Brookes - several of them from the LPSA. With the recruitment exercise gathering momentum, the NCL established two regional committees - in Cape Town and Johannesburg, cities that provided bases as well as targets for sabotage campaigns. The NCL also had members in Natal, notably David Evans and John Laredo.
The NCL recognised that violence was by now a legitimate means to fight apartheid. However, the organisation resolved to avoid human injury or loss of life in it operations. Despite predating the formation of Poqo and uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the NCL did not announce its existence until 22 December, five days after MK announced its existence.
Relationships with other political organisations
After its formation, the NCL recognised that it was necessary to work with other political organisations. Many members of the NCL were in contact with members of LPSA, Congress of Democrats (COD), PAC and ANC, and worked informally with individuals from these and other political formations. They liaised for material assistance or other objectives to advance their ideals. Lang, one of the leading members of the NCL, donated money to the ANC in May 1961 to support a stay-away call in protest against the establishment of the South African Republic. He also donated money to the Coloured People’s Convention in Cape Town.
The NCL helped members of various organisations to leave the country for exile, including Dennis Brutus, the chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC) - even though he was not a member of the NCL. The organisation also helped Robert Resha, a member of the ANC, to skip the country and move to Serowe in Botswana. The ANC reciprocated by helping Milton Setlhapelo of the NCL move from Tanzania to London.
Through the efforts of Monty Berman, Milton Setlhapelo was sent to Cuba, which he was eventually forced to leave - perhaps as a result of tensions with Tennyson Makiwane, the ANC representative there. Makiwane was probably hostile to Setlhapelo because he had left the Transvaal ANC Youth League to form ARM.
With the formation of MK, the NCL approached MK through Rusty Bernstein to organise joint operations. After one failed operation, the relationship did not last and the two organisations ceased to cooperate.
Operations and Campaigns
With a membership large enough to undertake operations, the NCL embarked on a campaign to source explosives and train members in weapons proficiency and sabotage operations. Subsequent to his release from prison, Lang began sourcing financial support for the NCL. He contacted Leslie Rubin - a member of the LPSA and a Ghanaian resident - to source funds from the Ghanaian government. The government of Ghana provided the NCL with two financial assistance payments, the first of which was received in April 1961. Significantly, this was before both the ANC and PAC - who had offices in Ghana - asked for assistance to launch their sabotage campaigns in South Africa. In 1961 the NCL sabotage campaign commenced with the targeting of three power pylons and the burning of a Bantu Affairs office.
The NCL also sourced material for its campaigns by stealing dynamite and explosive material from mines. For instance, an estimated 160kg of dynamite was stolen from a coal mine near Witbank. In June 1962, a member of the NCL, known only as Omar, was apprehended with a suitcase full of explosives and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He later fled the country and went into exile.
Dennis Higgs and Robert Watson, a former British Army officer, provided explosives training to members of the NCL in Cape Town and Johannesburg. In August and November 1962, the NCL carried out sabotage attacks on pylons in Johannesburg, bringing one down. In Durban, the members of the NCL failed to bring down a pylon as a result of faulty timers. Later, in August 1963, the NCL made two attempts to sabotage the FM tower in Constantia, Cape Town. On the first attempt, the operation was cancelled after Eddie Daniels lost his revolver, which was found a few days later. In the subsequent operation at the same installation, the bomb failed to explode. Later, in September, explosives planted by the NCL damaged four signal cables at Cape Town railway station, and in November an electricity pylon was brought down.
In Johannesburg, a cell of the NCL carried out two attacks in September and November. The latter attack was carried out by Johannes Dladla, who was part of the AFM. NCL members used hacksaws to cut through the legs of a pylon in Edenvale, which led to blackout in Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs. More attacks on pylons were carried out in January and February 1964. The climax of the NCL/ARM campaign came in June 1964 when five pylons were destroyed; three around Cape Town and two in Johannesburg.
Between 1961 and 1964 the NCL executed more than 20 acts of sabotage. Despite these campaigns, the NCL failed to attract a significant number of members in the Transvaal. AFM claims that it commanded support in the Transkei proved to be untrue. Disagreements in 1964 - particularly on whether the sabotage campaign should be pursued, since it had not yielded significant results - further compounded the problems of the NCL.
The demise of NCL/ARM
Members of ARM became targets of repression by the apartheid state, which attempted to derail their efforts in the struggle against white minority rule. Myrtle and Monty Berman were banned by the government and in 1961 the police searched Lang’s residence where letters requesting financial assistance were seized. On 26 June 1961, Lang fled South Africa and went into exile to London, where he continued with anti-apartheid activities on behalf of the NCL. That same year, Monty Berman violated his banning order and was given a three-year suspended sentence. As a consequence, he was forced to leave the country in January 1962. His departure threw the NCL into disarray.
Higgs, a key member of the NCL, left the organisation for Zambia in May 1964, and morale among the remaining members declined. The NCL’s efforts to revitalise itself through discussion documents also failed to yield positive results. In an attempt to reinvent itself, the organisation changed its name in 1964 from the NCL to the African Resistance Movement (ARM). On 12 June 1964 ARM issued a flyer announcing its existence and committed itself to fighting apartheid.
The biggest setback for ARM - which ultimately led to its demise - came in July 1964 when the police raided the flat of Adrian Leftwich. They subsequently raided the flat of Van der Riet, where they found documents containing instructions on sabotage and the storage of explosives. Under torture and interrogation, the two implicated their comrades.
While these events unfolded, John Harris, a member of ARM, planted a bomb at the Johannesburg train station on 24 July 1964. He called the police, warning them to clear people from the station to avoid human casualties. When police failed to clear the deck, the bomb went off, killing one woman and injuring 23 people.
Leftwich’s statements were devastating for ARM. He testified against his comrades in at least two of the trials, and as someone who had played a key role in NCL/ARM operations, his evidence was difficult to refute. Subsequently, the police raided and arrested 29 members of ARM, among them Stephanie Kemp, Alan Brooks, Antony Trew, Eddie Daniels and David de Keller - all in Cape Town. Others like Vigne, Rosemary Wentzel, Scheider, Hillary Mutch and Ronnie Mutch escaped. The security police kidnapped Wentzel from Swaziland and brought her back to stand trial in South Africa. She sought relief for her illegal abduction through the courts. Higgs was also kidnapped by apartheid government forces and challenged the legality of his kidnapping through the courts.
In the subsequent trials, Eddie Daniels was sentenced to 15 years in prison, which he served on Robben Island. Baruch Hirson was sentenced to nine years in prison, Lewin to seven years, while Evans Evans and Laredo were sentenced to five years in prison. David De Keller received a sentence of 10 years, Einstein seven years, Alan Brooks four years with two years suspended for three years, Stephanie Kemp received five years with three years suspended for three years, and Anthony Trew was sentenced to four years with two years suspended for three years.
John Harris was arrested and sentenced to death, executed on 1 April 1965 at Pretoria Central Prison. Harris became the first and only white person to be executed for a political offence in the struggle against apartheid.
The arrest of ARM members and the flight of others into exile led to the disintegration of the organisation. However, some of its members, particularly those in exile, continued fighting against apartheid by working for anti-apartheid organisations. Hugh Lewin was appointed head of the International Defence and Aid Fund’s (IDAF) information department. Rundolf Vigne also worked closely with IDAF in Britain and travelled to the United Nations (UN), campaigning against the apartheid government. Finally, Alan Brookes, a former member of ARM who later became a member of the SACP, played a key role in organising demonstrations against the 1969 Springbok Tour to the UK.
Despite the demise of ARM, many of its members continued to do whatever they could to wage the struggle against apartheid.