Formation of the African National Congress, 1912

South Africa Table of Contents

Milner's pro-white policies followed by the discriminatory legislation enacted by the Union of South Africa engendered considerable resistance from blacks and led to the formation and growth of new political bodies. In 1902 coloureds in Cape Town had formed the African Political Organisation to represent the interests of "educated . . . Coloured people." Abdullah Abdurahman, a Scottish-trained doctor, became president of the organization in 1904, and, by stressing the political discrimination to which coloureds were subjected, he had built it into a vital body with 20,000 members by 1910. Mohandas Gandhi began a passive resistance campaign against the pass laws in 1906, leading Indians in Natal and the Transvaal (they were legally prohibited from living in or entering the Orange Free State) in demonstrations and organizing stop-work protests that won the support of thousands of people. Numerous meetings were held by Africans, coloureds, and Indians to protest the whites-only nature of the constitutional discussions that took place in 1908 to 1909. These activities culminated in March 1909 in a South African Native Convention, which called for a constitution giving "full and equal rights" for all blacks, coloureds, and Indians.

But it was opposition to the Natives Land Act, preliminary drafts of which were debated in 1911, that led to the formation in 1912 of the most significant organization, the South African Native National Congress (renamed the African National Congress [ANC] in 1923). Several hundred members of South Africa's educated African elite met at Bloemfontein on January 8, 1912, and established a national organization to protest racial discrimination and to appeal for equal treatment before the law. The founding president was John L. Dube, a minister and schoolteacher who had studied in the United States and who had been strongly influenced by Booker T. Washington. Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, a lawyer with degrees from Columbia University and Oxford University and a prime mover in organizing the meeting to establish the congress, was appointed treasurer. Solomon T. Plaatje, a court translator, author, and newspaper editor who had worked in Kimberley and Johannesburg, became secretary general. The meeting opened and closed with the singing of the hymn "Nkosi sikelel'i Afrika" ("God Bless Africa"), which had been composed at the end of the nineteenth century by a Xhosa poet.

The congress was moderate in composition, tone, and practice. Its founders were men who felt that British rule had brought considerable benefits, especially Christianity, education, and the rule of law, but who also considered that their careers as teachers, lawyers, and court translators were hindered by the racial discrimination so endemic in South Africa. They called not for an end to British rule but for respect for the concept of equality for all, irrespective of color. They respected "traditional" authorities in African societies and made chiefs and kings office-holders as of right within the congress. They believed that they could best achieve their aims by dialogue with the British. As John Dube said, the congress pursued a policy of "hopeful reliance on the sense of common justice and love of freedom so innate in the British character." Such reliance, however, proved unfounded. When the congress sent a deputation to London in 1914 to protest the Natives Land Act, the colonial secretary informed them that there was nothing that he could do. Members of another deputation that went to London in 1919 were received sympathetically by Prime Minister Lloyd George, but they were also told that their problems would have to be resolved in South Africa by the South African government.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress