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The Shape of Things To Come

Afrikaner nationalists consolidated their unity in the post-war period with a campaign that manipulated white anxieties over growing black labour militancy. The ruling United Party crushed a massive black miners' strike in 1946, but its subsequent attempts at reform prompted panic among white farmers worried about their labour supply drifting toward the cities and white workers who feared competition from lesser-paid blacks. A new policy of 'apartheid' — a newly coined Afrikaans word for separateness — promised to solve these problems for whites through stricter pass laws, job reservation, forced removals of blacks out of 'white areas' into the overpopulated rural labour reserves, tighter restrictions on black political activity, and state support for Afrikaner farms and businesses. Behind the promise lay the reality of 'volkskapitalisme' (people's capitalism): the economic empowerment of the Afrikaner middle classes at the expense not only of blacks, but of their poorer white partners in the cross-class alliance as well.

The Reunited Nationalist Partyi won political power in the 1948 elections. The apartheid legislation that followed met with some opposition from liberal whites, notably around the Nationalists' anti-constitutional efforts to remove the coloureds from the common voters' roll. However, the most serious challenge came from the rejuvenated African National Congress (ANC), now including Youth Leaguers in its leadership and a fiery new spirit of cultural nationalism in its rhetoric. 

The protest is to us a manifestation of all those divine stirrings of discontent of the African people since 6th April, 1652, onward — through the period of the so-called Kaffir Wars, through the days of Dingana, through the days of Moshoeshoe, through the days of Sekhukhune against the Grondwet [constitution], through the days of the Treaty of Vereeniging, through the days of the White Union Pact of 1910.ii

What is more significant to us is that for the first time since 1652, African National Leaders are going to stage simultaneously a forceful opposition to our oppressors. If Makana, Dingana, Khama and Sekhukhune had defended their country jointly, Africa would have been saved for posterity.iii The African people have pledged themselves to liberate South Africa — black, white and yellow — and to that end the impending national crisis presages the shape of things to come.

Our cause is just, our aspirations noble; Victory cannot but be ours. Vuka Afrika! Up You Mighty Race! Tsoga Afrika!

Statement on a National Day of Protest against the Unlawful Organizations Bill (later the Suppression of Communism Act) by the Central Executive Committee of the TRANSVAAL ANC YOUTH LEAGUE, 31 May 1950

 Resistance ideology was in transition. This formative stage in the development from nationalism to non-racialism pointed up the need for unity and joint action in an African-led opposition.

“I had become very much politically aware during the Passive Resistance campaign of the Indian Congress. I was very, very, very much impressed by the determination of the Indians in fighting against the segregation of the Ghetto Act, to the point that they were prepared to go to jail. I felt that one must fight for his rights. 

When I got married in 1945, I wanted to get a house in the housing scheme. You can't get a house without a pass, and up to that time I avoided taking out a pass. Now I will tell you my traumatic experience. When I went into the Native Administration Department I queued up in a very long line, and when we went into the hall it was shattering: we were ordered to expose our male organs! This was a very rude order, which is not mentionable in Zulu, literally: Tut' umthondo', expose your penis. We were in a line, no respect for privacy, and the white man examined our private parts, just casually, and then said, 'Go away, you must go and wash yourself.' Such humiliation I'd never seen, and I felt that the white man was such a horrible oppressor. And I went back so disgusted that I felt I would have to fight against passes because I was so humiliated, and I didn't like to face the experience again.

So I went up to apply for membership of the ANC: it represented the blacks fighting against white oppression. At that particular point I didn't have any idea of alliances with the coloureds and the Indians, but as the struggle grew, we became aware of the need for a united front.

How did you become aware of that?

First we became aware through the tragedy of the Indian riots during 1949. It was the incitement to racial animosity which was responsible for the riots. We felt that we had to confront the question of our deprivation of rights together, and fight as a united organization. We had joint sessions with the South African Indian Congress.

We were then in the Youth League, and the ANC in Natal was still led by Mr A. W. G. Champion. Mr Champion was not prepared to cooperate with the Indians, but from our experience we felt that the Indians were to be trusted to go along with us because they were in the Passive Resistance campaign. We argued that we have no alternative but to work with the Indians, that we are fighting the same enemy. We won, Champion was deposed, and Chief Albert Lutuli replaced him as leader of the African people.

When I first joined in 1945, I regarded the ANC as not very militant at all. I felt that this was a body which was doing absolutely nothing. It was based on the support of the chiefs, and the chiefs were dependent on the government's goodwill. The methods of passing resolutions and deputations had been proved to be of no effect. The Youth League had been formed in 1944, proposing very, very, very drastic reforms through the Programme of Action, and it had stated that Africans must be united through African nationalism and we must devote our energies on strikes and civil disobedience.

When you said you wanted to make the ANC more militant did you feel it should be more pro-African, more anti-white?

It was not an anti-white thing. We became more and more aware that our struggle is not against the white man — our struggle is against apartheid. Of course, generally, our whole thrust was African nationalism. African nationalism was, as we saw it, a uniting force and a driving force towards overthrowing white oppression. As we developed our own philosophy of African nationalism, we discovered that we had common goals — it didn't matter whether you are black or white. In other words, we evolved towards non-racialism. I think you can't fight against racism and then substitute racism. Racism is a philosophy which is very destructive — it's very soul-destroying.

How did you actually make that change away from African nationalism?

Well, from the actual struggle. The National Party made laws against the Communist Party, it made laws against the coloureds, the Group Areas Act, and so forth. We felt that, no, we are all lumped up together and we must all fight together. This was a natural process of learning about our common struggle against apartheid, and we were able to discover in actual practice that our fight was against the common enemy. The whole concept of non-racialism developed imperceptibly, slowly, but I've become a convinced non-racialist. I am repeating this point over and over and over again: the struggle made me a non-racialist.”

M. B. YENGWA, a Natal ANC Youth League member who was elected to the ANC National Executive Committee in 1952

In 1952, the ANC launched a campaign that was to swell its membership to an all-time high of 100,000. The Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws was the first major action to draw support from all race groups.

“When I first heard about the ANC, I was walking in town [Durban]. I was returning from school and I heard people shouting, Mayibuye! Mayibuye i'Afrika!' [Let Africa return!]. We saw a large group of Africans and Indians singing, and we sat down and listened to what they were saying. They were talking about land which was taken from us by the Afrikaners. One of my friends told me that they were talking about the history that we were taught at school.

It was in 1952. From that very first day, I decided to join the ANC. People at the meeting did not advocate for whites to be driven out of the country. They wanted to be free, to live wherever they pleased, to have the right education, to have a say in the making of laws in this country. I started to be a card-carrying member shortly after the Defiance Campaign. I was a full-time member and not just a tea-maker. Our mentor was Chief Albert Luthuli. He taught us that men and women were equal, and that it all depends on one's dedication.

There were Indians we lived with. We were close to them and went to school together, but I got to know them well at Cato Manor, in the struggles we waged together. I was fascinated by the contact we had with them, because we respected one another and lived together happily. 

We were locked up for a month during the Defiance Campaign. It was my first jail experience. We did hard manual labour. It was a bad experience. We crushed large rocks with hammers, but our determination was not crushed. We were determined to get liberation, no matter how demanding it may be.

Other groups which emerged argued that we should not mix with whites. But Chief Luthuli taught us that every person born in this country had a right to stay and be free, whether he is Indian, African or white. We fought side by side. There were other white people who did not believe in racism and oppression. They were known as 'democrats'.” 

DOROTHY NYEMBE, in the leadership of the Natal ANC, the ANC Women's League, and the Federation of South African Women (FedSAW) in the 1950s

 Such democrats had been active for years, in the trade unions and political organizations, but it was the participation of whites in the Defiance Campaign that publicly highlighted their involvement.iv

“I met a crowd off campus called the Modern Youth Society. And that was my great moment of transformation. Because these were young people — mainly, but not exclusively, whites — who were struggling for a free, liberated, non-racial South Africa. They had all the values that were lying latent inside me. But they were my pals, my generation, my crowd. I wasn't doing things for my parents.v I developed a definite reaction against that. Immediately, this is where I wanted to be, I knew. At that stage — this was '52 onwards — the Modern Youth Society was the only non-racial organization in the whole of the Union of South Africa. Apart from the CP, deep underground, there wasn't a single non-racial organization — social, cultural, political — in the whole country. Even the churches were racially divided.

We had a lot of activities. We organized a youth festival, we also used to have what we called non-racial dances. It was a most straightforward social activity, having fun but defying the laws — in the sense that the serving of liquor was always controlled, in terms of race. But the real defiance was in terms of the fact of black, white, brown just dancing together.

We were white-dominated, there is no doubt about that. We were always eager to have blacks in positions of leadership, and somebody would roll up at a meeting and three weeks later might be the chairman. It was a bit artificial. And almost invariably these people turned out to be police spies. It was because we accepted the importance, in principle, of black leadership of a people's movement.

How did this political involvement relate to your own personal background?

My parents were Jewish in a kind of cultural sense. There are certain characteristics of style and humour, sometimes little things that one eats and so on, that one can say is part of a Jewish tradition. But they were involved in the struggle for liberation of everybody, not just for the Jews. I know when I went to Czechoslovakia, and in Prague saw the two synagogues that had survived the holocaust — the guide told me that these synagogues had been preserved by the Nazis to be a museum, a museum for an extinct race — I wept, it just came pouring out, because I know that a lot of my family had been annihilated and this was something that had touched me. But the result of that was not to make me want to identify with Israel or the Jewish cause — it was all a part and parcel of the struggle against oppression everywhere.

It wasn't just millions of Jews who had died in the holocaust: it was millions of Poles and Russians and half-a-million gypsies. So there was no need to distinguish gradations of horror. It was a ghastly episode, and fascism and Nazism had to be combatted wherever it was. So in that sense, the world I grew up in wasn't a world of identification with Jewry — it was a world of identification with struggle against oppression.

How would you explain the disproportionate representation of Jews in South African resistance politics?

I think that there are sociological and cultural reasons for that. They came from poor families, immigrants. The way the South African economic structure was established, Jews could enter the professions, the liberal professions in particular, through education. But even though they could be very successful in professional terms, they were excluded largely from government, they were excluded from the multi-national part of industry, and also there was a lot of very strong anti-semitism which was promoted by the internal racists.

Did the whites in your circles have a political relationship with the ANC?

We worked with the ANC Youth League and every Saturday afternoon we would go out to the locations to show the non-racial quality of the ANC.

Nineteen fifty-two was a very important year for me, the year of the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. We were told to go to some hall in Salt River, a sort of working class coloured area. The hall was packed, and suddenly there was this commotion and in walks Johnson Ngwevela, one of the ANC leaders. He was one of the first to receive a banning order and he was now attending a meeting in defiance of the banning order. And everybody stood up and sang, and then the police came in and took him away and we carried on singing, and then we sat down and someone said, `Comrades, you have seen Comrade Ngwevela defying the unjust laws — we now call for volunteers.'

People were rushing forward, saying, 'Take my name, take my name!' and everybody was given great cheers, and I was saying to the comrade next to me, 'You say it is a freedom struggle — why can't whites participate? It is for everybody. We believe in a non-racial South Africa, why can't I join?' They responded with, 'Wait, wait, it is not time yet — we are just starting.' So I said, `At least the question has got to be taken up.' So he said, 'Okay, we will take up the question.'

By about August or September the word comes through: the leadership in Jo'burg say it is okay for whites to join. So we went and sat down on a 'Blacks Only' post office bench in a huge post office in Cape Town — and nobody would arrest us. Now any black who took part in the Defiance Campaign was whipped off in no time, but people actually went out to get us a cup of tea, we were waiting so long to be arrested. And by then I would say a thousand people, black people, had gathered around, and two colonels came to arrest us. So we weren't even arrested by any old sergeant. And I turned to the crowd and shouted, 'Mayibuye' and the blacks shouted back, 'Afrika' three times. Later the court was packed; they were happy that there were young whites willing to participate in their campaigns. 

In a sense, we operated at two levels. There were the Modern Youth Society activities that were overtly non-racial in character but white dominated. And then there was organizing work that was all semi-secret, and that was black-dominated — where we would be doing the driving, we would be called in for study classes. The ANC would tell us where they wanted support from us — it could be anything from politics to the history of South Africa.

I had book knowledge, a lot of it. The people wanted that. I'd been recruited for that, but for me, this was my real university: going into a tin shanty. The workers would be there, it had a very intense emotional quality, the interaction between us, for them and for me. It had even an intense visual quality, because it was all by candlelight. So it was very, very much a two-way thing. You had to learn not to have a complex about the advantages of growing up in a privileged white society. Complexes help nobody. You had to learn to take everything that you'd got from that privilege and put it at the service of the people's struggle. And that is what the people wanted. They didn't want us to voluntarily impose upon ourselves all the limitations that apartheid society imposes upon people. That is a kind of a self-sacrificial idea that was totally out of keeping with the concept of liberation.

Years later, I met Moses Kotane. I think he always had this special feeling for me because he had known me as a kid. He now sees I am in the Defiance Campaign, so I think he is feeling quite pleased. But he gives me a little lecture. He says, 'You whites, you all love running to the location [black township]. You get big cheers from the people.' He says, 'Water always follows the path of least resistance. We don't have access to the whites, we can't organize amongst them. That is really where you people have to be, but you always run away from that. Because it is more difficult’.”

ALBIE SACHS, an ANC-supporting activist in the Cape in the 1950s and 1960s

It was to this difficult task of organizing in their own community that progressive whites were asked to address themselves when the ANC appealed for their support. While many whites would have preferred to join an organization open to all races, the ANC argued that the time for one united non-racial body had not yet come, and that the goal of non-racialism could best be achieved through building organizational bases in the existing segregated communities. Even the ANC Youth League, regarded as anti-white only a decade before, exhorted whites to work with the ANC through its own wing of the Congress Alliance.

Last month a very important conference was held in Johannesburg, consisting largely of progressive Europeans [whites]. The aim of this conference was to establish an organization in South Africa of all those Europeans who believe in and are committed to struggle for the achievement in this country of the principles of the African National Congress. This is a most significant step in the political history of this country.

This is a national movement of Europeans pledged to a policy of working with and under the leadership of the Congress. We would like to pause here to draw attention to a fact that is often lost sight of. The expression, 'liberation', from the point of view of a European democrat, cannot bear the same meaning as when it is used by the African. Thus liberation, from the point of view of a democratic European, would concretely mean freedom from class oppression. In other words, every time a European in this country speaks of liberation, his mind must jump to the concept of freedom from economic exploitation under capitalism. 

As for the African, the tendency is for him to think in terms of the removal of caste or national oppression whenever the expression, liberation, is employed. The fact that national oppression and class oppression are twin problems, interlinked and interlocked, is what occurs to him when he thinks again. This, crudely put, is the contradiction that has always existed between the European and African democrats in this country. The formation of the Congress of Democrats (COD) is an important step in the resolution of the internal contradiction within the democratic camp.

AFRIKA, journal of the ANC Youth League, November 1953 


How did you feel about the job of working among whites?

“I tried, but it was very hard. I am the world's worst canvasser, I can't sell anything to anybody. I was the secretary of our Hillbrow branch and one of our tasks was to get literature out, COD pamphlets and Fighting Talk and Liberation,vi going flat by flat to sell it. I was hopeless. I respected COD tremendously for what it was trying to do, but I don't know what impact we made on the white people in Jo'burg. We certainly did not get around to the ordinary people in the street. I never see the Congress of Democrats as a failure, though. I tell you where I think we did make an impact: not in the personal contact, not in wooing people in, but we certainly were an important 'ginger group'. We made people think, through our literature, letters to the paper. There wasn't a topic that we didn't bring out a pamphlet or document on. Anything, apartheid at the zoo, anything that came up that was a topical issue, COD was out with a pamphlet or an article or booklet. We were the most indefatigable writers of letters to the papers.

And we certainly had, I think, a great effect upon the Liberal Party, because we were always one or two or three steps ahead. We were the people who were recognized, who were part of the Congress Alliance — equal partners in it. The Liberal Party was still trying to buffet its way in, but handicapped by its concern for its membership. You know, the Liberal Party started on a qualified vote, and it took them eight years to get rid of that one. Whereas we were in immediately. That was their mistake: the Liberal Party didn't move far enough.

You see, there was a split among the people that attended the meeting called by the ANC and the SAIC to discuss the formation of a white organization. The people that later made the Congress of Democrats stood on universal franchise and the liberals stood on a qualified franchise. And I suppose I acquired a form of contempt for the liberals because of that. I was so enthusiastic about this new world of mine that I tended to be very critical of people who wouldn't accept universal franchise. That was what we fought for, that was what I had been in the army for: for democracy, and democracy means universal vote.vii That's what the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights says, so why can't these people accept it? I really was intolerant of them. I knew some lovely individuals, but as a group, we in COD had contempt for them — yes, we did. We have always been ahead of them, you see.

But I have canvassed for the liberals. We would always work with them and we would have been very happy if we had got closer to the liberals. But the liberals were very suspicious. Don't forget, in the 1950s there was tremendous anti-communist suspicion, and the liberals were very suspicious of COD — which some of them still see as a communist front.”

HELEN JOSEPH, a COD founder member 

Misgivings among liberal whites about the African-led mass movement were highlighted by the exaggerated response to a wave of riots in the Eastern Cape during the Defiance Campaign. Despite the ANC's claim that the unrest had been fomented by government agents aiming to discredit the well-disciplined campaign, a group of distinguished liberals issued a statement counselling patience for the defiant 'non-Europeans'.

We have watched with dismay the situation that has developed from the growth of the non-European movement of passive resistance against unjust laws. We believe that it is imperative that South Africa should now adopt a policy that will attract the support of educated, politically conscious non-Europeans by offering them a reasonable status in our common society. This can be done by a revival of the liberal tradition which prevailed for so many years with such successful results in the Cape Colony. That tradition, an integral part of South African history, was based on a firm principle: namely, equal rights for all civilized people, and equal opportunities for all men and women to become civilized. On their side, we ask the African and Indian leaders to recognize that it will take time and patience substantially to improve the present position. 

"Equal Rights for All Civilized People", statement issued by 23 signatories from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, including Edgar Brookes, Alan Paton, Leo Marquard and Donald Molteno,viii 14 October 1952

 The logo of the Congress was a wheel, with four spokes representing the ANC, the Indian Congress, COD and the South African Coloured People's Organization (later renamed the Coloured People's Congress). Of all the spokes of the Congress wheel, it was this last one that encountered most difficulty in establishing a base in its community. As with whites and Indians, there was some suspicion among coloureds about the position of a small minority in the African-dominated Congress Alliance.

With the object of achieving freedom in our lifetime, we have joined forces with the African National Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the South African Indian Congress. Almost too late, we coloureds have come to realize that the few privileges we enjoy are won at the expense of our African and Indian comrades. Too long have we accepted the policy of divide-and rule of the South African government, always believing and hoping that the attacks made on the liberty of other sections would not affect us.

And friends, most tragic of all, too many of the coloured people believed for too long that because at a certain stage in the history of South Africa, Dutchmen, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans — in fact, men of most of the races of Europe — have embarked on married life with, or violated, Hottentots and Bushmen, yes, we believed we were their descendants. But when we realize facts, we see that we are not an appendage of the European people. We must be oppressed, humiliated and deprived of rights which in democratic countries are the liberty of all people. My advice, friends, is not to delay one moment longer. The government is not wasting time in oppressing you, so don't waste time in fighting back. Don't be lulled into a sense of false security and believe that it is not for you, that it is for Africans only.

Join in the struggle through your national organizations. Throw in your lot with the Congress movement, and show the world at large that although oppressed, we are not browbeaten, and have the courage of our convictions to fight and strive for a place in the land of our birth. Forward to Freedom!

GEORGE PEAKE, national chairman of the Coloured People's Congress (CPC), speaking at a joint rally with the ANC at Cape Town's Parade, October 1954


“You know, questions of suspicion of the African community, in my experience, have come mostly from the more privileged section of the coloured community, not from the poor section — which in my opinion have proved to be the most involved in struggle. A big percentage of the coloured community is very poor, and to me, this is the section which is most amenable to organization, because they've got more to fight for. They are closer to the African because they are poorer, and more likely to respond to appeals for supporting the struggle than the average artisan.

It's not necessarily a homogeneous community that you're dealing with. You're dealing with a community which has a class structure within it, very much so, and we've got to take this into account throughout in organizing the community. We have a need to pay particular attention to the poorer section of the community in order to draw them into struggle. The rest of the community will be drawn in as the movement gathers momentum. This is my belief.

From your experience in trying to mobilize coloured people, were there any particular leaders or heroes whose names could be invoked to win a greater response?

 Perhaps it's one of the things that we've lacked in the community. We've never had a Luthuli or a Mandela or a Xuma — this is one of the problems. In its heyday, the community did have a Dr Abdullah Abdurahman. At a later stage, it did have a Cissie Gool, who was the leader of the National Liberation League (NLL), but since then, I would not claim that there was anybody in particular who stood out as a leader of the coloured community.ix

As a result, did the coloured community accept the African leaders?

I think that, more and more, as they gained experience, they understood that it was inevitable that the African people would lead South Africa — but a lot of these things come about as a result of practical experience, don't they, not just talking about them.”

REG SEPTEMBER, CPC founder member



The party that made an election pact with the Afrikaner Party in 1947 in order to campaign as a united Afrikaner nationalist front. Once in power, it presided over the rapid centralization of Afrikaner capital and the emergence of monopoly corporations controlled by a small minority of the yolk. This led to increasing differentiation between the various class forces that had initially united behind Afrikaner nationalism, laying the ground for the ruptures in its ranks in the 1980s.

ii The 'Kaffir Wars', frontier clashes between settlers (usually supported by British troops) and Xhosa from 1779 to 1879, are now known as the Wars of Dispossession. Dingana succeeded Shaka as Zulu king and is remembered for his attack on Boer leader Piet Retief and his followers, and the subsequent defeat of the Zulu army at the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838. Basotho chief Moshoeshoe succeeded for a good part of the nineteenth century in playing off Boer against Briton to salvage independence for what is now Lesotho. Pedi chief Sekhukhune, the last independent African chief in the Transvaal, was defeated by a combined force of English, Boers and Swazis in 1878. The Boers conceded defeat to the British with the treaty of Vereeniging in 1902. The four South African colonies — Transvaal, Cape, Natal and Orange Free State — united in 1910, embracing white supremacy.

iii Makana was a Xhosa leader during the war of 1818-19 who was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island and then drowned while attempting to escape. Khama was chief of the Bamangwato, the largest Tswana polity.

ivThe white participant in the Defiance Campaign who received the most publicity at the time was Patrick Duncan, son of a former Governor-General of the Union of South Africa. Duncan went on to edit the Liberal Party-supporting newspaper, Contact, opposed the ANC's alleged communist domination, and became the first white member of the PAC.

Albie Sachs's mother, Ray Edwards, was secretary to Communist Party leader Moses Kotane; his father was the Garment Workers Union leader, Solly Sachs; and his parents named him after Albert Nzula, the first African to hold the post of CPSA general-secretary, in 1929.

vi COD publications.

vii Joseph served as an Army Information Officer during the Second World War, giving weekly lectures on current affairs and South African government to Air Force women — an experience she regards as her initial politicization.

viii Paton wrote Cry the Beloved Country and, along with Marquard and Molteno, was in the national leadership of the Liberal Party from its founding in mid-1953; Brookes became chairman of the Party in 1964.

ix Abdurahman was president of the Cape Coloured-dominated African People's Organization from 1905 until his death in 1940. The NLL, founded in 1935 by radical coloureds, inspired the formation in 1938 of the non-racial Non-European United Front, led by Dadoo.

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