South African History (The Ending of Apartheid) – Part 7

The introduction of apartheid policies coincided with the adoption by the ANC in 1949 of its Programme of Action, expressing the renewed militancy of the 1940s.

The Programme embodied a 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 the early 1950s carried mass mobilization to new heights under the banner of non-violent resistance to the pass laws. These actions were based on the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi.

A critical step in the emergence of non-racialism was the formation of the Congress Alliance, including the 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 of this period, which also saw women’s resistance take a more organised character with the formation of the Federation of South African Women.

In 1955, a Freedom Charter was drawn up at the Congress of the People in Soweto. 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.

The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), founded by Robert Sobukwe and based on the philosophy of Africanism and anti-communism, broke away from the Congress Alliance in 1959. The PAC slogan ‘Africa for the Africans’ was strongly pan-Africanist in nature.

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 started in 1956, ended in acquittals in 1961. But by that time, mass organized opposition had been banned.

Matters came to a head at Sharpeville in March 1960 when 69 PAC anti-pass demonstrators were killed. A state of emergency was imposed, and detention without trial was introduced.

The black political organizations were banned, and their leaders went into exile or were arrested. In this climate, the ANC and PAC abandoned their long-standing commitment to non-violent resistance and turned to armed struggle, waged from the independent countries to the north.

Top leaders still inside the country, including members of the newly formed military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), were arrested in 1963. At the ‘Rivonia trial’, Mandela, Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and others convicted of sabotage (instead of treason, the original charge) were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The 1960s was a decade of overwhelming repression and of relative political disarray among blacks inside the country. Armed action from beyond the borders was effectively contained by the State.

The resurgence of resistance politics in the early 1970s was dramatic. The Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steve Biko (who was killed in detention in 1977), reawakened a sense of pride and self-esteem in black people. News of the brutal death of Steve Biko reverberated around the globe and led to unprecedented outrage.

As capitalist economies sputtered with the oil crisis of 1973, black trade unions revived. A wave of strikes reflected a new militancy that involved better organization and was drawing new sectors, in particular intellectuals and the student movement, into mass struggle and into debate over the principles informing it.

The year 1976 marked the beginning of a sustained anti-apartheid revolt. In June, school pupils of Soweto rose up against apartheid education, followed by youth uprisings all around the country. Youth activism became the single most effective arm of the politics of resistance in the 1980s.

The United Democratic Front and the informal umbrella, the Mass Democratic Movement, emerged as legal vehicles of democratic forces struggling for liberation. Clerics played a prominent public role in these movements.

The involvement of workers in resistance took on a new dimension with the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the National Council of Trade Unions.

Popular anger was directed against all those who were deemed to be collaborating with the government in the pursuit of its objectives, and the black townships became virtually ungovernable. From the mid-1980s, regional and national states of emergency were enforced.

The Inkatha movement, which from 1979 became increasingly oppositional to the externally-based liberation movement, played a straddling role in the 1980s. Stressing Zulu ethnicity and traditionalism, Inkatha claimed a mass following in the rural areas of the KwaZulu homeland.

Its leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, carved a distinctive niche for himself, refusing ‘independence’ for KwaZulu but squeezing patronage from the apartheid State by casting Inkatha in the role of loyal opposition. The State sought to use Inkatha structures as surrogates in its war against the liberation movement.

Battles for turf between Inkatha and the ANC became a very destructive accompaniment to South Africa’s transition to democracy. Developments in neighboring states in the face of mass resistance to white-minority and colonial rule, notably Portuguese decolonization in the mid-1970s and the abdication of Zimbabwe’s minority regime in 1980, left South Africa exposed as the last bastion of white supremacy.

The Government embarked on a series of reforms, an early example being the recognition of black trade unions to stabilize labor. In 1983, the Constitution was reformed to allow the coloured and Indian minorities limited participation in separate and subordinate Houses of Parliament. The vast majority of these groups rejected the Tricameral dispensation but it was nevertheless kept intact by the apartheid regime.

PW Botha further modified the Westminster constitutional model by instituting an executive presidency and doing away with the function of Prime Minister. In 1986, the pass laws were scrapped. These initiatives went hand-in-hand with the militarization of society and the ascendancy of the State Security Council, which usurped the role of the executive in crucial respects.

Under the states of emergency, a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy was implemented to combat what, by the mid-1980s, was an endemic insurrectionary spirit in the land. At the same time, the international community strengthened its support for the anti-apartheid cause. A range of sanctions and boycotts was instituted, both unilaterally and through the United Nations (UN).

FW de Klerk, who had replaced Botha as State President in 1989, announced at the opening of Parliament in February 1990 the unbanning of the liberation movements and release of political prisoners, notably Nelson Mandela.

A number of factors led to this step. International financial, trade, sport and cultural sanctions were clearly biting, even if South Africa was nowhere near collapse, either militarily or economically.

These sanctions were called for in a co-ordinated strategy by the internal and external anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The ANC, enjoying wide recognition as the foremost liberation organization, was increasingly regarded as a government in waiting. International support for the liberation movement came from various countries around the globe, particularly from former East Bloc and Nordic countries as well as from the Non-aligned Movement.

During the 1980s, the ANC moved its headquarters from London, England to Lusaka, Zambia. The other liberation organizations increasingly experienced various internal and external pressures and did not enjoy much popular support.

Internal and external mass resistance continued and it was obvious that Botha’s strategy of reform initiatives combined with repression had failed to stabilize the internal situation.

To outside observers, and also in the eyes of growing numbers of white South Africans, apartheid stood exposed as morally bankrupt, indefensible and impervious to reforms. The collapse of global communism, the withdrawal of Soviet and Cuban support for the MPLA regime in Angola, and the negotiated independence of Namibia ­ formerly South-West Africa, administered by South Africa as a League of Nations mandate since 1919 ­ did much to change the mindset of whites. No longer could whites demonize the ANC and PAC as fronts for international communism.

White South Africa had also changed in deeper ways. Afrikaner nationalism had lost much of its raison deter. Many Afrikaners had become urban, middle class and relatively prosperous. Their ethnic grievances, and attachment to ethnic causes and symbols, had largely waned.

A large part of the NP’s core constituency was ready to explore larger national identities, even across racial divides, and yearned for international respectability. Apartheid increasingly seemed more like a straitjacket than a safeguard. In 1982, disenchanted hardliners had split from the NP to form the Conservative Party, leaving the NP open to more flexible and modernizing influences. After this split, factions within the Afrikaner elite openly started to pronounce in favor of a more inclusive society causing more friction with the NP government, which increasingly became militaristic and authoritarian.

A number of business, student and academic Afrikaners held meetings publicly and privately with the ANC in exile. Secret talks were held between the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and government Ministers about a new dispensation for South Africa with blacks forming a major part of it.

Inside the country, mass action became the order of the day. Petty apartheid laws and symbols were openly challenged and removed. Together with a sliding economy and increasing international pressure, these developments made historic changes inevitable.