Author: Oliver Tambo
2 June 1966
Oppressed people in South Africa have always associated the history of the United States with the great name of Abraham Lincoln. There was an issue involving human rights in his day - an issue that challenged the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. To the honour of his name, his people, and his country, Abraham Lincoln translated these great principles into concrete action.
The United States Government has made some forthright statements of policy in condemnation of such practices as apartheid in South Africa, where black men and women are held in bondage in violation of the principles enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What puzzles and worries Africans, however, is the opposition persistently offered by the White House to any action intended to put an end to this bondage.
In its historical development, "passive resistance" in South Africa has been closely associated with the late Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy. As early as 1907, he led the Indian community in South Africa in acts of passive resistance. In later years there were further passive resistance campaigns by the Indian community. Mahatma believed in the effectiveness of what he called the "soul force" in passive resistance. According to him, the suffering experienced in passive resistance inspired a change of heart in the rulers. The African National Congress (ANC), on the other hand, expressly rejected any concepts and methods of struggle that took the form of a self-pitying, arms-folding, and passive reaction to oppressive policies. It felt that nothing short of aggressive pressure from the masses of the people would bring about any change in the political situation in South Africa. As a countermeasure to Mahatma Gandhi`s passive resistance, the African National Congress launched, in 1952, the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, or the "Defiance Campaign".
Before they were finally defeated and subjugated by sheer force of superior arms, our forefathers had been engaged in many bitter struggles against the white foreign invaders and colonial conquerors, both Boer and British. With spears and battle-axes their only weapons, and with shields their sole means of protection against bullets, Africans fought grimly in defence of their land and their national independence. The armed struggle was carried on intermittently for 127 years. In the end, however, the Africans were defeated, totally disarmed, and then shepherded into what are known as reserves. These reserves, 260 in number, are usually in the poorest parts of the country and are utterly inadequate for their large populations.
But wounds could not be licked indefinitely. If the British and the Boers, despite the bitterness of a hard-fought war, could come together in a united front against the African people, why could not the Africans unite and face their common problems and enemy, no longer as individual and separate tribes but as a united people? The answer was found on January 8, 1912, when African chiefs, intellectuals, clergymen, workers, and peasants from every tribe in South Africa met in Bloemfontein and formed the African National Congress. The organisation turned out to be more than a negative reaction to the formation of a union of white foreigners and conquerors. It became the symbol of African unity and gave our people a sense of nationhood that has survived the most determined applications of the policy of divide-and-rule over a period of more than fifty years. Seeing in this organisation a serious threat to their continued political and economic domination of the country - an evil force to be fought and destroyed by all means - the white rulers of South Africa and their successive governments employed a variety of measures to eradicate it. They intimidated and victimised chiefs, teachers and government employees who supported the organisation; they engaged the services of informers and agents provocateurs; they engineered groundless quarrels among members of the organisation; and they encouraged the formation of splinter and opposition groups to confuse the people, to undermine their struggle for national emancipation, and, in that way, to perpetuate oppression and exploitation.
At the time of the formation of the ANC, there was no question of relying on armed force as a means of struggle. Only ten or so years previously, the Boers had tried that method against the British and failed. Bambata had resorted to arms in 1906 and also failed. Deputations, petitions, demonstrations, and conference resolutions were the order of the day. Besides, the Africans had been forcibly disarmed. The ANC, therefore, led the people into essentially peaceful and nonviolent forms of action. It was not unusual for governments of the pre-apartheid era to take some notice of African demands and hold out some promise of possible concessions. In some cases, political pressure in the form of public meetings and protest demonstrations yielded favourable results. Although the overall political and economic situation of the Africans remained consistently intolerable, there was always hope for securing some redress of grievances through peaceful means. The African was not denied such rights as freedom of assembly, speech, organisation, the press, and movement - all of which have since completely vanished.
The pattern of legislation passed by successive governments was distinctly discriminatory against the African people and aimed at establishing and perpetuating a servant-and-master relationship between black and white. Thus, Africans employed by white farmers were treated like serfs and worked from dawn to dusk for a mere pittance; the poor and hunger-stricken inhabitants of the overcrowded and arid reserves were subjected to heavy taxation; and, in the urban areas, Africans were harassed by laws requiring passes and were chased from pillar to post by the police.
During World War II, Hitler became the hero, and Nazism the faith, of hundreds of Afrikaners. The fanaticism of the SS was a virtue to be emulated. As the Jews had been shown their place in Hitler`s Germany, so would the Kaffirs in South Africa. But the Africans, heartened by the Allies` promise of a postwar world in which the fundamental rights of all men would be respected, became increasingly impatient with their lot. Institutions such as the Advisory Boards, the Natives` Representative Council, the Transkeian Bunga, and the "Native Parliamentary Representatives" - an insignificant handful of whites representing Africans in the South African Senate and House of Assembly - were all attacked by Africans as dummy bodies, and agitation for their boycott was started. Anti-pass campaigns were launched in urban areas where the Africans were most affected by the pass system, protests against poor housing and low wages mounted, and the rural population resisted government schemes that interfered with their rights to land and that sought to limit their livestock.
The war ended, but repression continued unabated. In 1946, the African mine workers in Johannesburg and the Reef went on strike. The strike was ruthlessly repressed and several Africans were killed. The Natives` Representative Council, a dummy African parliament, which, since its establishment in 1937, had struggled in vain to prevent the enactment of discriminatory legislation, adjourned indefinitely in protest. In the same year, the South African Indians launched a passive resistance campaign against a law restricting their right to landownership. In the meantime, the growing African National Congress continued protesting against various forms of segregation. The government, on the other hand, adopted more repressive legislation.
It was in this atmosphere of discontent and expectation that the black cloud of reaction and brutal repression descended on South Africa: Dr. Malan`s Nationalist Party seized political power in May, 1948. These were the disciples of Hitler. One year later, the shape of things to come was clear. Laws enacted by previous governments were reinforced with vicious amendments and were vigorously enforced by officials who, for sheer brutality, seemed to have been specially recruited from some prehistoric bush where cruelty was a highly prized virtue. Soon the expression became current among Africans that "The devil has been let loose on this country".
Responding to this new challenge, the ANC adopted in 1949 a "programme of action" that stipulated that boycotts, strikes, non-collaboration, and "civil disobedience" would now be used as methods and forms of action in the political struggle. The programme contemplated participation by the masses of the people. It did not raise the question of violence versus nonviolence. The appearance of the word "nonviolence" in the political vocabulary of the ANC was a product of the objective conditions under which the programme was being put into action. The use of the expression "civil disobedience" in the programme was, however, of significance. The ANC was an ordinary political organisation that had always used methods of political pressure recognised in a democratic country. These methods had been nonviolent, but there had been no specific declaration of policy excluding violence or positively proclaiming nonviolence. In the course of normal demonstration or other forms of political action, the people could conceivably have been provoked into conduct that amounted to civil disobedience, and this could have happened without a policy decision authorising such conduct. Why then did the 1949 ANC conference go out of its way to provide for "civil disobedience"? The force with which apartheid struck at the African masses called for action, and the conference decided to commit the organisation to specified drastic forms of action. But the programme of action did not define "civil disobedience". Did it mean civil disorder? Mob violence? Rioting? It most certainly did not mean any of these types of conduct. the keynote of the disobedience was to be discipline. The expression "civil disobedience" referred to the deliberate breach, or defiance, of government laws, regulations, and orders. The conference, in interpreting civil disobedience in terms of disciplined and purposeful mass action, emphasised nonviolence. It called for self-control on the part of the people and urged them to withstand acts of provocation by the police, who were obviously anxious for a showdown. Failure to emphasise the need for discipline would have been a fatal political blunder. Nonviolence was thus a political tactic that could be changed according to the demands of the political situation at any given time.
On May 1, 1950, eighteen Africans were killed by the police during a one-day strike staged as the climax to a provincial campaign for universal adult suffrage. On June 26, 1950, the Africans` first national protest strike was called. The strike was the culmination of a countrywide campaign of protest against the Unlawful Organisations Bill introduced by the government and aimed at stamping out all opposition to its racial and oppressive policies. It was also intended as an act of mourning for the Africans killed on May 1 and earlier in the liberation struggle. The strike was a great success and demonstrated the readiness of the oppressed people for determined political action. The Unlawful Organisations Bill was withdrawn as a result of the protest agitation. (It was later introduced and enacted, with slight textual amendments, as the Suppression of Communism Act.)
The policy of uncompromising apartheid was carried out with vigour, violence, hate, and haste. This has remained the pattern of Nationalist Party rule in South Africa to the present day. The country has been in a state of perpetual political crisis now since 1948. It has been the blackest period in the past sixty years and, for the Africans, the bloodiest since the Boer invasions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fifteen short years, hundreds of innocent Africans have been shot dead by the police; many more have been wounded by police gunfire during raids, while under arrest, and while in prison; and many have been beaten to death on white-owned farms. In addition, millions of Africans have been convicted of petty offences, and the average number sentenced to death annually for what are essentially political offences has been higher than in any corresponding period since Jan van Riebeeck landed in the country in 1652.
When this gruesome phase in the history of the country began to assume a regular pattern in 1950, numerous protests and demonstrations against government policy were staged by many organisations from every racial group. In one way or another, the various groups and movements representing the vast majority of the population voiced their protest. These groups saw the clear advantage in coordinating the anti-apartheid forces and encouraging joint action against the common enemy. Furthermore, since it was the express aim of the government to enforce sharp racial divisions among the population and to set up separate and possibly hostile racial camps, the very act of cooperation and unity among all opponents of racial discrimination and white domination was in itself an attack on government policy. It was, therefore, of great political and strategic importance for the African National Congress to rally, and to welcome, the support of other oppressed groups and of democratic whites. The South African Indian Congress and the Coloured people`s leaders readily accepted a basis for conducting joint campaigns.
At its conference in December 1951, the ANC decided to launch the Defiance Campaign. The story of this dignified, disciplined, and peaceful campaign is well known. It won many friends for the African cause in South Africa and abroad, and served to focus the attention of influential sectors of world opinion on the South African political scene. Within South Africa, the Defiance Campaign strengthened the liberation movement and set the tone for future action. Although towards the end of the campaign the Africans were provoked into some violence, they had amply demonstrated their capacity for self-discipline and their readiness for militant struggle. This meant that it was possible, without resorting to violence, to force the government into a position in which its policy became unworkable. In the years following 1952, hundreds of leaders were banned from taking part in political activities or attending gatherings. Many were restricted to defined areas while others were banished from their homes. Scores were imprisoned, and meetings and processions were prohibited in many parts of the country. Despite all this, however, and despite the fact that the most influential leaders were cut off from the people, the pressure of mass political action throughout the country continued to rise, compelling the government to fall back on an ever-increasing list of repressive and restrictive laws. It made greater use of the police force, equipping it with a growing pile of arms ranging from locally produced pistols to tanks supplied by Great Britain.
When these measures failed, the government resorted to banning political organisations and placing the whole or parts of the country under a state of emergency. The reaction of the ANC to its banning in 1960 was to announce that it would conduct the liberation struggle underground.
The March 1961 conference of 1,500 delegates representing 145 organisations, at which Nelson Mandela was the main speaker, was organised largely under illegal conditions. It demonstrated the power of the underground organisation and the unity of the people. Following this conference, preparations started for a three-day national strike to commence on May 29, 1961. The strike drew unprecedented support from the mass of the African population and was fully backed by the Indian and Coloured communities. Faced with this tremendous political demonstration - which was triumphant breakthrough for a liberation movement operating under a cloud of repressive legislative prohibitions and restrictions - the Verwoerd Government abandoned the political fight and took to arms. The unarmed demonstrators and would-be strikers were confronted with practically the entire South African Army, fully equipped and ready for war.
Today the oppressors are arming feverishly. In 1963, Parliament passed a peacetime "defence" budget of more than £64 million (approximately US $200 million). The Army, Navy, and Air Force are being further expanded and equipped with additional modern weapons. Military training of men, women and young people has become a regular feature of organised life in the white section of the South African population. The Minister of Defence boasts that 250,000 white men and women can be put into action at any time. The regular army of 20,000 is increasing by 10,000 men annually and will number 60,000 by 1965. The police force, which numbered 20,000 in 1953, rose to 50,000 by 1962 and is being further increased. It has now been equipped with weapons for "combat duty." Arms factories have been established in South Africa and, recently, Britain and France have become notorious as the leading accomplices in the frantic arms buildup in South Africa, they being the chief suppliers of a substantial range of death-dealing war weapons and military aircraft of various types. The Army build-up and the new Anti-Sabotage Act have completely nullified the strategic value of nonviolence, leaving the African with no alternative but to pursue the goal of freedom and independence by way of taking a "tooth for a tooth" and meeting violence with violence.
It is hardly necessary to make the point that we would rather have avoided this course. But if the South African Hitlerites go berserk and seek to drown the country in innocent human blood before committing suicide after the manner of their revered hero, no one should be surprised that the African should take effective and appropriate steps to defend himself and, by every method that he considers appropriate, to ensure the successful prosecution of his struggle for liberation. In this context, violence is an extension of, not a substitute for, the forms of political action employed in the past. Its use will be confined to the pursuit of the objective of freedom for the oppressed people.
An intensive policy of soliciting and mobilising world condemnation of apartheid started shortly after the launching of the Defiance Campaign. Visitors to South Africa - numerous journalists, distinguished authors, leading world personalities, and representatives and members of overseas organisations - were briefed in detail on the tyranny of apartheid. By means of annual memoranda sent by the ANC and the SAIC to the United Nations and by South African delegations attending international conferences, the word "apartheid" spread to many parts of the world. The arrest of African leaders on charges of high treason followed by an appeal by Africans for an international boycott of South African goods further increased world support, and offered people and organisations in different countries an opportunity to give tangible expression to their sympathies for our cause. By 1960, the degree of world interest in South Africa was such that the Sharpeville massacre provoked an explosive and universal barrage of indignant protests. This coldblooded carnage brought the whole of mankind face to face with the essentially inhuman and barbarous nature of apartheid.
Many people and organisations in different countries, notably in Britain, Scandinavia, and the United States, took up the issue, and, since 1960, campaigns have been organised to rally support for the boycott of South African goods and for other economic sanctions. Several governments, particularly the newly independent African States, Asian nations, and the Socialist countries, have supported United Nations resolutions calling for economic sanctions against South Africa. The United States and Great Britain which, of all the United Nations member States, have the biggest stake in the South African economy, have, however, consistently and strenuously resisted the move to impose sanctions on South Africa. This has so far made it impossible for the United Nations to employ the only form of peaceful and effective intervention open to it, and has consequently enabled the South African Government to pursue its policies with only limited interference from the outside world. Hence the emergence of violent methods of struggle in South Africa.
It would be wrong to conclude that it is now too late to influence the trend of events in South Africa by way of external pressures. On the contrary, the challenge of the present situation is the greater not only to those who abhor racialism and all that goes by the name of apartheid and white minority rule, but also to those who disapprove of all violence. The sooner South Africa is isolated economically, politically and culturally, the shorter will be the duration of this, the last and bitterest phase of the struggle for human rights and freedom in Africa.