4 Repression and Political Quiet


As Apartheid took hold, it was met with great opposition in the countryside (described in Chapter Three) and the cities. Some of this was led by formal political parties; a lot of it was ordinary people rejecting the way their lives were being shaped by the regime. When the Apartheid government extended the pass laws to cover black women as well as men, rural women in Zeerust and other areas burned their newly issued passes. Protests often focused on economic marginalisation as well as political control. Bus boycotts were a common occurrence in townships during the 1940s and 1950s. They were used to protest rising ticket fares (and costs of living) as well as issues such as the bus company refusing to employ black drivers. Arrests linked to the breaking of liquor laws was another issue that led to protest action. The government had cracked down on the home brewing of beer, as this was one of the ways in which black women were able to make a living and gain a foothold in the city without a formal job. In response municipal beerhalls – the government’s alternative to shebeens – were boycotted and sometimes attacked.

A number of political formations, including the African National Congress (ANC) and the Non-European Unity Movement, fought the government through the 1950s on issues from the segregation of public facilities (like benches and bathrooms) to broader white political control. The segregation of long-distance trains, the decision to take away the right to vote from Coloured people in the Cape, forced removals from Sophiatown to Soweto and the extension of the pass laws to black women were just some of the issues which were campaigned against.

The ANC grew massively during this time, and its campaigns began from its Youth League’s Programme of Action in 1949, just one year after the National Party came to power. The demands they made against segregation, their calls for political freedom and an end to white domination, and their methods – boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience civil disobedience Purposefully breaking the law or not following government commands in order to protest an injustice. – shaped the ANC’s Defiance Campaign in 1952. A number of other organisations, including the Communist Party, the South African Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats (a radical white organisation) and the Coloured People’s Organisation, supported the ANC in its Defiance Campaign by breaking racist laws, and peacefully allowing themselves to be arrested. This grouping became known as the Congress Alliance. While the Defiance Campaign did not ultimately succeed in tearing down racial oppression, support for the ANC grew, and solidarity between the different organisations was also strengthened.

In 1955 these organisations came together in Kliptown, Soweto to hold a Congress of the People. More than 3000 delegates attended and discussed the suggestions of ordinary people from around the country, about what the country should look like after Apartheid. The Congress adopted the Freedom Charter, their vision for a non-racial, democratic South Africa. It was a Congress-aligned organisation, the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), which led the march of 20 000 women of all races to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, protesting the extension of pass laws to black women.

However, the State had been keeping a close watch on these political organisations. During the Defiance Campaign, a few ANC leaders were banned, and this intensified after the Congress of the People. In 1956 police arrested 156 leaders of the ANC and other organisations and charged them with High Treason, arguing they were plotting to overthrow the government and replace it with a Communist Republic – with the Freedom Charter given as evidence. The trial dragged on until 1961, by which time all of the accused had been found not guilty. While the Treason Trial temporarily weakened the struggle by putting its leaders behind bars, it also put them into close contact with each other, and allowed different organisations to communicate freely and plan together in a way that they would have struggled to do otherwise.

Some ANC members, frustrated at the non-racialism of the Freedom Charter (which the ANC and its allies had accepted), left and formed the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959. It was the PAC that led a peaceful protest to Sharpeville police station on 21 March 1960. The march was intended as a protest against the pass laws. The entire crowd was going to hand in their passes, which would mean the police would have to arrest them all. This was part of co-ordinated action: there were to be other similar marches around the country. The aim of the marches was to flood the jails. Sending pass offenders to jail was a key part of how Apartheid was enforced. This would have meant the government could no longer enforce pass laws across the whole black population because it would not be able to imprison more people who broke the laws.

However, the police shot into the crowd, killing 69 and injuring 180 people. In response, the government banned the major black struggle organisations – the ANC, PAC and Communist Party – and declared a State of Emergency, which gave special powers to the police and army to crush resistance and protest. The struggle was forced underground. Because peaceful protest was no longer legally possible, and was met with violence from the state, the ANC and PAC both took to armed struggle. They each formed military wings: uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and Poqo, respectively. MK attacked and sabotaged a number of government operations, but in 1963 the police captured much of the ANC/MK leadership at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, together with incriminating incriminating Making someone look guilty. sabotage To intentionally damage or destroy something, for political or military advantage. conspiracy Plotting to do something illegal. documents on possible plans for guerrilla warfare. Although the accused leaders argued in court that they were fighting against unjust laws which had not been passed with the consent of the majority, they were found guilty of sabotage and conspiracy. By 1964 they were in jail.

While the ANC and PAC survived, neither of them were as influential within South Africa during the 1960s as they had been in the years leading up to the Sharpeville massacre. There were a few reasons for this. It was now illegal to operate openly. Important leaders were in prison, and many others had left the country to live in exile. The ANC and MK had set up headquarters and military bases in other countries, but both were relatively weak in the 1960s. They operated from Tanzania and Zambia, but those countries were far away from South Africa. Many of the countries around South Africa were still European colonies in the 1960s and so were still friendly to the Apartheid regime. This meant it was difficult for MK to travel through those countries to reach South Africa. It was only after the Morogoro Conference in 1969 that MK became more active again.

Meanwhile, the Apartheid Government was busy tightening its grip on power and cracking down on people who criticised it. It controlled a lot of the media, and gave the police a huge amount of power, including allowing them to detain someone (keep them in prison) for a long time without having to charge them with any wrongdoing. This was a way of criminalising criminalising Turning people into criminals by defining their activities as illegal, especially through a new law. people, and the struggle, without evidence. Individual people could also be banned, which meant they were not allowed to appear in public, meet with more than one person at a time, travel, or have anything they wrote or said published or quoted. Again, this served to stop “troublemakers” from organising or having a widespread effect. More and more people were detained or banned. Also, in the 1960s the first political prisoners were killed in police custody. The Apartheid Government was at the height of its powers.

Over time people became scared to speak out, given the serious consequences. Besides, there was another reason that protest died down during the 1960s: South Africa’s economy was one of the fastest growing in the world. The gold price was high and industries were expanding. While this did not create a freer or more open society, and the wealth generated was not shared justly, it did mean that there was more employment available, and the greater demand for labour meant relatively higher wages. So despite a racist, oppressive government, there were some ways in which black South Africans’ lives improved during the 1960s. People were unhappy, but their leaders were in jail and the costs of speaking out were clear. Mass resistance waited for a new generation.