Black Resistance in the 1950s

South Africa Table of Contents

The Congress Youth League and the Programme of Action

In 1943, during World War II, young members of the ANC, critical of what they considered its passivity, formed their own organization, the Congress Youth League (CYL). Anton Lembede, president of the CYL from 1944 until his death in 1947, stressed that South Africa was "a black man's country," in which the concerns of Africans should take precedence. He argued that African society was socialistic, but, because he considered the conflict in South Africa to be primarily a racial rather than a class struggle, he repudiated any alliance with the Communist Party in bringing about "national liberation." After the war and Lembede's death, and faced by the implementation of apartheid, the CYL's leaders, Peter Mda, Jordan Ngubane, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu, strove to take charge of the ANC. They called on the organization to adopt the use of strikes, boycotts, stay-at-homes, and various forms of civil disobedience and non-cooperation to make the apartheid system unworkable. Overcoming the opposition of ANC president Alfred Xuma, the CYL succeeded in 1949 in electing James Moroka to the presidency, in seating three CYL members (Sisulu, Tambo, and Mandela) on the party's national executive body, and in persuading the congress formally to adopt the program of action.

The ANC's new leaders formed a Joint Planning Council with leaders of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) (unlike Lembede, the Mandela, Sisulu, and Tambo team believed strongly in working with other groups) and in February 1952 called on the government to repeal all unjust laws or face a Defiance Campaign starting on April 6, the tercentenary of Jan van Riebeeck's arrival at the Cape. Malan rejected the ultimatum. The ANC and the SAIC, led by Yusuf Dadoo, then organized mass rallies and stay-at-homes for April 6 and June 26. These actions drew the support of thousands of men and women. The government reacted by banning leaders and newspapers under the Suppression of Communism Act and by arresting participants in the demonstrations. By December 1952, approximately 8,500 people had been arrested, most of them in the Cape, and the Defiance Campaign had largely come to an end without bringing about any change in the laws. The ANC had grown enormously, however: its paid membership had increased from fewer than 7,000 at the beginning of 1952 to more than 100,000 by the end of the year. Its leadership had also changed: James Moroka had been dismissed in disgrace for having pleaded guilty to charges placed under the Suppression of Communism Act, and Albert Luthuli had been made president.

The Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter

House arrests, bannings, and other forms of government restriction limited the ability of ANC and SAIC leaders to organize publicly in 1953 and 1954, but in 1955, approximately 3,000 delegates met on June 25 and June 26 near Soweto in a Congress of the People. They represented black (the ANC), white (the Congress of Democrats), Indian (the SAIC), and coloured (the Coloured People's Congress) political organizations and the multiracial South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). The congress was held to develop a new vision for a future South Africa, one that reached beyond protest politics. The prime document discussed was the Freedom Charter, which had been drafted several weeks before the congress met. The charter emphasized that South Africa should be a nonracial society with no particular group assumed to have special rights or privileges. The charter stated that all people should be treated equally before the law, that land should be "shared among those who work it," and that the people should "share in the country's wealth," a statement that has sometimes been interpreted to mean a call for nationalization. The congress delegates had ratified almost all the sections of the charter when the police surrounded the meeting, announced that they suspected treason was being committed, and recorded the names and addresses of all those in attendance.

The Pan-Africanist Congress and Sharpeville

Struggles over apartheid legislation continued through the remainder of the 1950s. In 1956 the police arrested 156 leaders, including Luthuli, Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu, and others, and put them on trial for treason in a court case that dragged on for five years. Mass resistance, however, continued in a variety of forms. Thousands of people participated in bus boycotts on the Rand, preferring to walk to work rather than to pay high fares to travel on substandard vehicles. Thousands of African women, organized by the newly formed Federation of South African Women (FSAW), protested the extension of the pass laws. In 1956, 20,000 of them marched on the Parliament buildings in Pretoria and presented a petition with the signatures of tens of thousands of people opposed to the pass laws. Yet these efforts had little effect on the Nationalist government, which was determined to implement apartheid.

The failure to achieve any real success caused a major split in black resistance in 1959. Critics within the ANC argued that its alliance with other political groups, particularly the white Congress of Democrats, caused their organization to make too many compromises and to fail to represent African interests. Influenced by the writings of Lembede, the Africanists, led by Robert Sobukwe, called on the ANC to look to African interests first and to take more action to challenge the government. They were, however, forced out of the ANC, and they formed their own organization, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). In March 1960, the PAC began a national campaign against the pass laws and called on Africans to assemble outside police stations without their passes and to challenge the police to arrest them. One such demonstration outside the police station at Sharpeville, a "native" township in the industrial area of Vereeniging to the south of Johannesburg, ended in violence when the police fired on the demonstrators, killing at least sixty-seven of them and wounding 186. Most of the dead and wounded were shot in the back. Stoppages and demonstrations continued, including a peaceful march of 30,000 Africans on the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. Verwoerd's government reacted by declaring a state of emergency, by arresting approximately 18,000 demonstrators, including the leaders of the ANC and the PAC, and by outlawing both organizations.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress