PART 1: Examining ANC history: the beginnings

14th February 2012 By: Raymond Suttner

The ANC centenary celebrations offer an opportunity to reflect on its beginnings as an organisation which drew people from different backgrounds; workers, intellectuals, chiefs and others, despite limited resources. How did it navigate the challenging times? Did it adapt to the changing situations? What can be learnt from its evolution?

The ANC was established against the background of a range of setbacks experienced by the black peoples of South Africa, most immediately the conquest of all independent chiefdoms by the end of the 19th century, despite resistance by famous warriors. The intensification of seizure of land and taxation was linked to white farmers and the recently discovered diamond and gold mines complaining of labour shortages. While Africans could farm their own land, sometimes profitably, they did not consider it desirable to work on the mines or white farms

Military defeat had seen the rise of a new type of leadership. Earlier, Christian missionaries created a stratum of educated people who were to enter political activities and also interpret the biblical message in a manner that advanced equal rights. Some would also break away from white controlled churches and form
ed independent churches, one of the most significant being Ethiopianism, propagating a radical Africanist vision that was often manifested in mass activities

Conditions in the 19th century were not uniform, for while there was disenfranchisement in the boer republics and de facto disenfranchisement in the Natal colony, Africans in the Cape had access to a limited franchise based on property and educational qualifications, gradually eroded but nevertheless significant in some constituencies. Early African entry into the constitutional political arena was in seeking election or in supporting particular white liberal candidates. The universalist element of Cape liberalism would have continued influence in the development of the ANC

The 19th century also saw the rise of a range of African organisations which made the first claims for the rights of black people. Imbumba yama Afrika formed in 1883, called for unity of the African people: ’In fighting for national rights, we must fight together.’

But African organisations were primarily on the defensive. The defeat of the Boers in the South African war saw Britain appease the Boer republics by granting them self-government, meaning. unfettered control over the African population. The Act of Union which brought all the territories together with only limited and fragile rights for Africans in the Cape continued this trend, albeit in a new state.

The ‘national convention’ that led to the creation of the Act of Union, was countered by a South African Native Convention which met in Bloemfontein in 1909. Its pleas and subsequent petitions went unheeded by the local whites or the British.

In the same year Pixley ka Isaka Seme called for the establishment of a ‘native union’, that is an alternative union to the white Union of South Africa. His vision for the South African Native National Congress later to be known as the ANC was based on unity of all African peoples, in place of previous divisions, what would become a continuing ANC theme.

The methods adopted by the early ANC centred on deputations and petitions to the British King and Union government. The claims were couched in the language of loyalty to the Crown and claimed rights (denied by the Union Government) as British subjects. That these deputations were continually unsuccessful should not evoke ridicule. The ANC was born into a new terrain and used methods that accorded with what appeared potentially viable then. What is of significance for us today is their demand for constitutional rights and a desire for links of equality between all South Africans.

It is true that the A NC was not a mass organisation until much later and other organisations like the Industrial and Commercial Union (the ICU) established in 1919 showed that mass activities were possible, sometimes organising 100,000 people. The ANC was slow to adapt to new methods. In the presidency of JT Gumede links with mass activities and Communists was attempted, but he was replaced by Seme who was not willing to develop the organisation which practically ceased to exist in the 1930s.

In the late 1930s efforts were made to rebuild and the main credit for re-organising the ANC on a sound administrative basis and with a regulated membership base must go to Dr AB Xuma and Rev (later Canon) James Calata. Their spade work provided the organisational base on which the ANC Youth League led by Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela and others made possible transformation of the organisation into mass based structures. It was also during Xuma’s presidency that the ANC developed African Claims, a response to the Atlantic Charter, adapting its human rights pledges to apartheid South Africa.

The early ANC must be understood, then as an organisation exploring new and difficult conditions and creating conditions on which later generations could build.

Raymond Suttner is attached to Rhodes University. For three months he is 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 reasons behind the ANC's formation.

This is the first of a three part series. Click here for Part 2.
Click here for Part 3.