Historians recognise the significance of popular struggles over the past 100 years. But debates among historians about their relationship to formal political formations continue to rage.
In light of the upcoming centenary celebrations of the ANC, it is an opportune time to reflect on the extent of formal political formations’ involvement with popular struggles. To what extent were they the outcomes of deliberate, organisational efforts on the part of the ANC and other political formations? And to what extent were they inspired by local and grassroots political formations unrelated to national movements?
This feature examines the causes of popular protests that erupted across South Africa between 1948 and 1960, showing that they were largely responses to new measures passed by the apartheid government in the 1950s.

One of the factors that loomed large in the general elections of 1948 in the minds of white voters was that the United Party (UP) government under J. C. Smuts was incapable of dealing with growing unrest in the townships as well as the increasing number of strikes. The squatter movements that spread around the Witwatersrand in 1944 and 1945 and the African Mineworkers strike of 1946 were still fresh in the minds of voters at the time of the elections in 1948. The Nationalist Party (NP) of D. F. Malan promised not only to institutionalize racism to achieve the stated objective of “the reallocation of labour between mining, manufacturing and agriculture”, but also to take tough action against any unrest that could come from Black communities.

Unrest started during the term of the UP and continued to flare up sporadically in certain areas soon after the NP government assumed power in 1948. Black townships particularly on the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vaal (PWV) area, (present day Gauteng) were involved in unrest that often turned violent. For instance, the Vaal township of Evaton experienced unrest that often turned violent as residents clashed with the police.  In the Eastern Cape towns of East London and Port Elizabeth unrest broke out sporadically and acted as prelude to the Defiance Campaign of 1952. This was the case in Durban and Bloemfontein. 

Unrest was sparked by a range of causes related to the increasing cost of living that was unmatched by average family incomes. These causes included increased bus, train and tram fares, intensified enforcement of pass laws, rigorous enforcement of liquor laws and increased rentals following the provision of mass housing schemes soon after World War II.  In some cases one or two of these causes combined to ignite unrest that lasted for several months.

Tramway Clashes

In 1949 residents of the Western Areas of Johannesburg, including Newclare, Western Native Township and Sophiatown staged a boycott of trams following the Johannesburg City Council’s (JCC) decision to increase fares. The JCC insisted on the fare increase even against the advice of the Native Affairs Department. This led to an organized boycott of trams and a march into the city centre led by the Anti-Tram Fare Action Committee. Heavy police presence prevented the march from taking place, but the tram boycott lasted nearly two months. On 1 November 1949 clashes between police and residents broke out when a tram returning from the city carrying one passenger was stoned.

On 29 January 1950 yet another clash between police and residents broke out. The catalyst this time was the attempted arrest of a man carrying a container of ‘illegal’ liquor. The man resisted and the crowd came to his rescue. A crowd gathered and started stoning the police patrol and freeing the offender. On this occasion the crowd, numbering about two hundred started stoning motorists and attacking government buildings such as the Newclare Railway Station. Another incident followed the arrest of a pass offender. Yet again the crowd gathered and started stoning passing vehicles and setting Asian-owned shops on fire.

These events preceded the banning of prominent members of the ANC and SACP J. B. Marks and Moses Kotane and Yusuf Dadoo of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC). Marks, a resident of Newclare, was particularly popular in the Western Areas of Johannesburg. So when he along with Kotane and Dadoo were banned, and the ANC and CPSA called for a stay at home campaign for 1 May 1950, the response was overwhelming. Maylam states that “large numbers of Africans in the Johannesburg area observed the stoppage, which ended tragically in clashes between police and crowds in Alexandra, Sophiatown, Orlando East and Benoni, leaving 18 dead”. (Maylam, P, 1986, pp.184-5). Africanists within the ANC condemned this campaign as a diversion from the Programme of Action adopted a year earlier.

The May Day protest set the tone for the 1950s. Tensions and clashes between crowds of Africans gathered for one reason or the other and the police escalated during the decade. In some of the incidents, these were responses to campaigns organized at a national level by the ANC. The Defiance Campaign of 1952 falls into this category. In many of the cases though, spontaneous outbreaks of protests happened frequently. At the centre of many of the protests of the 1950s was the boycott of public transport facilities and services.

Each of these protest actions had underlying causes related to living conditions and the struggle to survive in the cities. The first, the Anti tram boycott was sparked by the rising cost of living. The second, the arrest of the man carrying liquor had wider ramifications on one of the key sources of income for many families in the Western Areas-beer brewing. The third was related to harsher enforcement of pass laws and location regulations. The fourth was linked to calls for increases in wages.

Provision of mass housing started after World War II intensified in the 1950s. Old Locations, situated on the fringes of towns were destroyed and residents moved to townships situated too far from city centres for workers to walk to the workplace. Transport costs were either added to family expenses or had to increase with increased distances travelled. This led to a series of transport boycotts in the 1950s. These boycotts were particularly evident in the PWV area, the Eastern Cape towns of East London and Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein in the Free State and Durban in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

The Evaton Bus Boycotts

The Evaton Bus boycott is widely documented and has become a significant indicator of commuters’ responses to poor services, fare increases and unfair labour and employment practices by transport operators. In January 1950 commuters boycotted the bus service following the operator’s decision to use only tarmac roads. This meant that busses would not enter the township but would only get to the edge of the townships. Commuters would have to walk longer distances to the rank.

Another bus boycott in Evaton was called in November 1954. On this occasion commuters were disgruntled with overloading and overcrowding in busses. A one day demonstration was held and commuters continued to use the service. The biggest and most effective bus boycott in Evaton lasted several months. It began at the end of 1955 and ended early in 1956. It is this round of the Evaton bus boycott that inspired others in other parts of the country during 1956 and 1957. The cause of this boycott was fare increases. In this case the bus operator was forced to reduce fares.

In Kliptown south of Johannesburg Public Utility Transport Corporation (PUTCO) bus service was hit by a boycott. Here commuters had several grievances with the bus operator, including a 6d a week fare increase. After a four-week boycott, the Manager of PUTCO, a Mr. d’Agnese agreed to a fare reduction, other improvements of the service and consultation with commuters when drawing bus timetables.

The Western Areas and Alexandra bus boycotts of January to April 1957 are also well documented. In both cases the cause was a fare increase by the same operator PUTCO. And in both cases the boycott ended when PUTCO agreed to reduce fares by introducing the coupon system. In the case of Sophiatown this happened in the middle of forced removals of the community to Soweto. At the time of the boycott the process of resettling the community was yet to be completed. But by 1957 resistance had all but collapsed.

A few landlords were still trying to hold out for higher compensation than the Native Resettlement Board (NRB) was prepared to give. By the end of 1957 however, all Sophiatown residents had been relocated to different parts of Soweto. Yet again, it should have been expected that as fares would be higher for commuters travelling between Soweto and Johannesburg, affected communities would continue with the boycott of services. But because of the more rigorous application of pass laws and location regulations, Western Areas communities relocated to different parts of Soweto had to wait nearly twenty years before becoming involved in another mass protest, the outbreak of the Soweto uprising in 1976.

Elsewhere on the Witwatersrand bus boycotts broke out during the 1950s. In the East Rand Brakpan, Germiston and Katlehong were also affected by bus boycotts. Two bus boycotts broke out in Brakpan within a space of two years. The first happened in October 1954 and lasted for a month, ending in November. The issue here was employment of Black drivers. The boycott ended a month later when the city council, the bus operator conceded to the employment of Black drivers. The second, which started in April 1956 and lasted for a month was a response to the Council imposition of 1d increase in fares. This too ended when council scrapped the proposed increase. In both instances the ANC and the local Vigilance Association were involved in organizing the event. This is explained by the presence of top ANC officials on the East Rand, notably David Bopape.

The last two boycotts on the East Rand broke out in Katlehong and Germiston. The cause of the boycott in Katlehong in 1955 was the Transportation Board’s refusal to grant permission to taxi operators to provide a service and compete with the Council-run busses. The boycott ended after two weeks when the Council agreed to register taxis. The boycott was led by Vuka Afrika Party. In February 1957 a boycott was called in Germiston, Eastwood and Edenvale. The boycott was done in solidarity with the Alexandra boycotters.

Pretoria had one boycott during this time that was to overshadow the rest because of its duration. It lasted nearly two years, beginning early in 1957 and ending in 1958. The cause of the boycott was fare increases which were maintained at the end of the boycott. This boycott too was led by the ANC. In February 1957 a boycott in sympathy with Alexandra residents and against a 2d increase in fares broke out in Randfontein on the West Rand. The boycott lasted two months and ended when the Council withdrew its service permanently.

Bloemfontein had one bus boycott during this period. In February 1957 commuters boycotted busses, disgruntled that profits from bus operations were used to subsidise segregated white facilities and that Black drivers were not employed on services running between the city and the townships. The boycott was postponed after inadequate response to ANC local leadership.

Bus Boycotts in the Western Cape

The Western Cape also experienced bus boycotts.  For instance, the South African Coloured People’s Organization (SACPO) ANC, Congress of Democrats (COD) and South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), Labour Party and the Liberal Party organized and coordinated the Cape Town bus between April- May 1956 in Cape Town. People picketed at terminuses in places such as Mowbray, Claremont and Wynberg and bus routes encouraging others not to ride buses. Just on the outside Cape Town, between March and April of 1957 Worcester also faced a bus boycott after the bus company failed to heed the local ANC’s call to reduce fares. This was followed by a three-week boycott of busses that enjoyed 90% support from commuters.

Bus Boycotts in the Eastern Cape

The last group of bus boycotts in the early years of Apartheid broke out in the Eastern Cape. Port Elizabeth had four boycotts, two in February and November 1957, one in 1960 and another in 1961. This was an indication that the town had become a hotbed of popular struggles in the 1950s. In February a two-week boycott led by the ANC and the South African Coloured People’s Organisation was held in solidarity with commuters in Alexandra. The next boycott happened in November following a 1d fare increase. Led by the ANC, the boycott failed after two days due to commuter indifference.

The boycott in January 1960 incorporated some distinctly political grievances. This was a protest against the Coloured Affairs Department and the Union’s 50th anniversary celebrations in addition to rejection of the fare increase. The boycott was led by the South African Congress of Trade Unions. The last one was in 1961 and was a response to the dismissal of workers by the Bay Passenger Company.

East London and Grahamstown each had one boycott. In East London commuters boycotted for 11 days in solidarity with the Alexandra bus boycott. Grahamstown too faced a strike that was caused by fare increases in May 1961.


Popular struggles in the early period of Apartheid were a continuation of growing resistance to segregation and apartheid intensified during World War II. The African miners’ strike of 1946 was a factor during the election campaign leading to NP victory in the polls in 1948. Sections of the white electorate were concerned about the UP government’s capacity to deal effectively with the resistance movement. The NP with its policies and draconian measures presented itself as an alternative to the seemingly benign rule of the UP. Yet, the outbreak of popular unrest happened only a few months after the NP was swept to power.

The outbreak of popular revolts in the 1950s was inspired mainly by rising costs of transport for commuters. This was occasioned by the destruction of old locations and the resettlement of residents in townships far removed from city centres. In many instances these outbreaks were often spontaneous. However, in some cases the local ANC personalities were involved. This was the case in Western Areas of Johannesburg where J. B. Marks was a popular local leader as well as Brakpan on the East Rand where David Bopape was well known.

The Eastern Cape particularly Port Elizabeth showed a marked level of radicalism as well as well organized responses. This is explained by the presence of a peculiarly large industrial workforce and unprecedented levels of poverty in the immediate rural hinterland of Ciskei coupled with a strong presence of trade union formations.

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