South African Congress of Democrats Founding Conference

The lead up to the SACOD founding conference

Rica and Jack Hodgson in the early 1940s wearing the badges of the Springbok Legion. Source:

In November 1952, a meeting was held at the Darragh Hall, Johannesburg. This was the first of a series of exploratory meetings convened by the National Action Council (established by the ANC, SAIC and the Franchise Action Council to co-ordinate the Defiance Campaign) to look into the formation of an organisation that could “house the small but growing band of White democrats who supported the congresses” (Levy, 2011: 145). Bram Fischer chaired the meeting and Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Yusuf Cachalia represented the NAC. The meeting was attended by a select few, many of whom were well known individuals close to the Congresses – some formerly members of the Communist Party of South Africa – and a contingent of members of the Springbok Legion, a left-wing ex-servicemen’s organisation.  The brief outlined at this meeting was:

"to expose to the white section of the community the evils of discrimination and colour bars; to mobilize support for the abolition of all discriminatory laws and practices and to stand for equal political rights and freedoms for all South Africans" (Levy, 2011: 148)

A provisional committee was then elected to draw up a constitution for the organisation based on these principles.

The meetings that followed between the liberal and more radical Whites focused on finding a way to form a single organisation. However, at these meetings, instead, many disagreements emerged between the more liberal elements and those who were already close to the Congresses over what form the organisation should take and the nature of franchise for South Africans.

"Liberals refused to endorse universal suffrage, extra-parliamentary action, or close working links with former Communist Party members." (Everatt, 2009: 104)

The breakdown in relations between the two groups was inevitable and the more liberal individuals went on to form the Liberal Party of South Africa.

The more radical individuals, in Johannesburg, established the Johannesburg Congress of Democrats (COD) in January 1953 as an organisation to highlight White support for a non-racial democracy in South Africa. Bram Fischer was elected chairperson of the COD, Cecil Williams as vice-chairperson with individuals such as Eddie Roux, amoungst others, being elected onto the executive committee.  

The founding conference - 11 October 1953

The South African Congress of Democrats (SACOD) was launched nationally at a two-day conference beginning on 11 October 1953. The Springbok Legion, the Johannesburg Congress of Democrats and the Cape Town Democratic League (a non-racial, extra-parliamentary political organisation launched initially to protest against the Public Safety and Criminal Law Amendments Act) convened this conference. These organisations together with smaller White organisations such as the Durban Congress of Democrats and others from Port Elizabeth and elsewhere merged to form the SACOD. The conference was attended by 88 delegates from Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

Rusty Bernstein and Jack Hodgson presented papers outlining the form and programme of the organisation. The aims of SACOD were left vague since it was established as an activist body and not a political organisation; hence, its policies were not required to cover all aspects. The policy statement adopted at this conference stated:

"There can be no rigid pattern for C.O.D branches, their composition and their activity. Local conditions vary considerably. Each branch and region must adapt the general policy of co-operation and mutual assistance of the three Congresses to the real situation existing in the area. Where there is no local A.N.C branch, the S.A.C.O.D may well work mainly amoungst Africans to recruit [them] to the S.A.C.O.D and to urge the most enlightened to form an A.N.C. branch." (in Everatt, 2009: 122)

The conference elected Piet Beyleveld as president (referred as such by Levy, 2011: 147), Len Lee Warden vice-chairperson, Jack Hodgson secretary, with Bram Fischer, Cecil Williams, Rusty Bernstein, Ruth First, Maulvi Cachalia, Rica Hodgson and Helen Joseph sitting on the executive. Many of the individuals on the executive, Helen Joseph and Piet Beyleveld excluded, were, however,  listed under the Suppression of Communism Act and almost as soon as the conference ended, they were all banned from holding office and taking part in the activities of the SACOD.

Please Note: As a single detailed account of the history of the South African Congress of Democrats and its founding conference is not available, this article has been written by piecing together the accounts from three books (listed below) to provide as accurate as possible a description of the founding conference. Contributions can be made by using the Contribute link.

• Levy, N. (2011). ‘Chapter Nine, The Congress of Democrats: A Stalin Fetish’ in The Final Prize: My Life in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle. South Africa: South African History Online.
• Bernstein, R. (1999). ‘Overground-Underground’ in Memory against Forgetting: Memoirs from a Life in South African Politics, 1938-1964. London: Penguin Group
• Everatt, D. (2009). ‘Chapter 5: The South African Congress of Democrats’ in The Origins of Non-Racialism: White Opposition to Apartheid in the 1950s. South Africa: Wits University Press

Last updated : 27-Oct-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 24-Oct-2011