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PART 2: ANC’s focus on mass movement during the 1950s

In the Centenary year of the African National Congress, Polity's Dimakatso Motau speaks to Prof Raymond Suttner about the ANC’s focus on mass movement during the 1950s. Camera: Darlene Creamer & Shane Williams. Editing: Darlene Creamer.

14th February 2012

By: Raymond Suttner


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The ANC YL, formed in 1944, described itself as the ‘powerhouse’ of the ANC. It developed a programme of action which was adopted by the organisation as a whole in 1949. Walter Sisulu was then elected to the key position of secretary general of the ANC.

This was shortly after the election of the National Party government, which led to the implementation of widespread apartheid dislocation and intensification of repressive legislation. This meant further attacks on the rights of black people and clamping down on all individuals and organisations campaigning against apartheid.


The banning of the Communist Party in 1950 led the ANC to take steps to prepare for underground, using the M-Plan named after Mandela to organize small groups who studied political material and were able to gather in small units without being noticed. Although this did not take off widely it was later an important element in the period when the ANC had to go underground. It should be noted, however, that restrictions imposed on many leaders meant that their continued political activities were in fact underground some time before the organisation was banned

But the main significance of the period was in public mass campaigns. In 1952 the ANC took the offensive with the Defiance campaign. There had been earlier acts of defiance by women at various times, by the ANC itself, by the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), the Communist Party and in particular by the Indian Congresses from Gandhi’s time. This was a very significant moment for the ANC with the notion of defiance possibly questioning allegiance to the apartheid state. The terms in which the campaign was initiated, did not however break entirely with previous practices. In writing to the Prime Minister the organisation combined an ultimatum requiring the repeal of certain laws with a call for talks.


The Defiance campaign involved all population groups and thousands of ‘freedom volunteers’ went to jail. The campaign started symbolically on the day when many whites were celebrating the 300th anniversary of the arrival of van Riebeeck. It captured people’s imagination and ANC paid up membership rose from 7000 to 100,000. Walter Sisulu indicated the significance of the campaign in that volunteers were known as ‘defiers of death’ being willing to give their lives if necessary. He saw this as an embryonic revolutionary consciousness.

But where to from there? In 1953 Professor ZK Matthews proposed the idea of a Congress of the People to create a Freedom Charter. This was going beyond opposition, and advanced a vision of an alternative future. This led to volunteers gathering demands from all over the country voicing what people wanted in a future South Africa. These were consolidated into the Freedom Charter adopted at the Congress of People in June 1955. The Charter ‘provoked’ the state to charge 156 people with High Treason. The case hampered the activities of the organisation with leaders tied up in court for 4 ½ years before acquittal in 1961.

The 50s saw a range of other resistance campaigns in the cities and in the rural areas. Some were less successful than others. For example the campaign against Bantu Education was centred on boycotting the new education. But this placed parents in a difficult situation in that the Congress organisations were not able to provide viable alternative schooling. Consequently the campaign proved unrealistic and children drifted into the Bantu Education schools.

In the rural areas fierce battles were fought against the imposition of the Bantu authorities system, and attempts to impose unpopular chiefs and headmen on local communities in areas like Pondoland, Sekhukuneland and Zeerust. In Zeerust there was also a complex combination of women resisting passes acting together with chiefs. In the Dinokana village when Chief Moilwa was instructed to tell his wife to take out a pass, he replied, ‘who the hell is Verwoerd?’

The YL had been formed as an Africanist organisation, and was suspicious of cooperation with other population groups and also communists. The Xuma period had, however seen a pact between the Indian Congresses and the ANC. But it was during the 1950s that this was consolidated into the Congress alliance –involving the ANC, Indian congresses, Coloured Peoples Congress, Congress of Democrats for whites and the South African Congress of Trade Unions. The emerging women’s struggle led to the revival of the ANC Women’s league and the formation of the Federation of South Africa women, which had drawn up a women’s charter, some of whose demands found their way into the Freedom Charter. One of the high moments of women’s struggle was the march on the Union buildings by 20,000 women in 1956

The 1950s was both a period of increasing repression as apartheid broadened its impact but also one of broader resistance. The new decade would see a clamp down and the phase of illegality.

Professor Raymond Suttner is attached to Rhodes University and is spending 3 months as a Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies


In the Centenary year of the African National Congress, Creamer Media's Dimakatso Motau speaks to Prof Raymond Suttner about the ANC’s focus on mass movement during the 1950s.

This is the second part of a three-part series. Click here to watch Part 1. Click here to watch Part 3.


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