In 1943, during World War II, young members of the African National Congress [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 introduction of apartheid policies coincided with the adoption by the ANC in 1949 of its program of action, expressing the renewed militancy of the 1940s. The program embodied the rejection of white domination and a call for action in the form of protests, strikes and demonstrations. There followed a decade of turbulent mass action in resistance to the imposition of still harsher forms of segregation and oppression. The Defiance Campaign of 1952 carried mass mobilisation to new heights under the banner of non-violent resistance to the pass laws. These actions were influenced in part by the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi.
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.
A critical step in the emergence of non-racialism was the formation of the Congress Alliance, including the ANC; South African Indian Congress; the Coloured People’s Congress; a small white congress organisation (the Congress of Democrats); and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. The alliance gave formal expression to an emerging unity across racial and class lines that was manifested in the Defiance Campaign and other mass protests, including against the Bantu education of this period, which also saw women’s resistance take a more organised character with the formation of the Federation of South African Women.
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 charter enunciated the principles of the struggle, binding the movement to a culture of human rights and non-racialism. Over the next few decades, the Freedom Charter was elevated to an important symbol of the freedom struggle.
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 and based on the philosophies of “Africanism" and anti-communism, , 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).
The state’s initial response, harsh as it was, was not yet as draconian as it was to become. Its attempt to prosecute more than 150 anti-apartheid leaders for treason, in a trial that began in 1956, ended in acquittals in 1961. But by that time, mass organised opposition had been banned.
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