The politics of Congress in the late 1950s
Writing in Liberation (June 1956), Nelson Mandela stated that the Freedom Charter was “more than a mere list of demands for democratic reforms. It is a revolutionary document precisely because the changes it envisages cannot be won without breaking up the economic and political set-up of present South Africa.”
To win these demands,” he continued, “calls for the organisation, launching, and development of mass struggles on the widest scale…The most vital task facing the democratic movement in this country is to unleash such struggles and to develop them on the basis of the concrete and immediate demands of the people from area to area…Only in this way will the democratic movement become a vital instrument for the winning of the democratic changes set out in the Charter.
Indeed the programme of the Freedom Charter, challenging the fundamentals of the cheap labour system, did pose a revolutionary challenge to the ruling class. It could be enforced, against the opposition of the ruling class and its state machine, only by building a movement on the scale indicated by Mandela – led by the organised working class. Such a movement did not yet exist.
But, rather than consistently building it, Congress leaders continued to believe that this could be short-circuited – by an appeal to the “progressive” capitalists and their supporters to join in an “anti-Nat alliance” or even by appeals to the “morality” of the Nationalists themselves.
Thus in May 1957 Lutuli wrote to Prime Minister Strijdom:
One of the tragic aspects of the political situation in our country today is the increasing deterioration in race relations, especially in Black-White relations…Rather than outlaw the African National Congress or persecute its members and supporters, the Government, in a statesmanlike manner, should reconsider its ‘Native policy’ with a view to bringing it into conformity with democratic and moral values inherent in any way of life meriting to be described as civilised.
It is the considered view of my Congress that the lack of effective contact and responsible consultation between the Government and the non-European people is at the root of the growing deterioration in race relations and in the relation between the African people and the Government…
The Government should earnestly address itself to seeking means and ways of establishing some permanent democratic machinery to enable all citizens to participate intelligently and effectively in the government of the country as is done in all truly democratic states.
(N)o time should be lost,” concluded Lutuli, “in making contact with the leadership of organisations and bodies, among them the African National Congress, representative of organised African opinion, with a view not only to discuss the problems and issues such as I have drawn attention to in this letter, but to consider the advisability and possibility of calling a multi-racial convention to seek a solution to our pressing national problems.
Strijdom, needless to say, paid no attention.
In the same vein the CP leader, Michael Harmel, shortly before the 1958 election, called on the United Party to mend its ways if a revolution was to be averted.
The UP was, he argued, “falling down on the job of providing an alternative” to the Nationalists:
What alternative has the United Party to offer to the people? So far – none at all!…The business and civic leaders in the United Party could recognise clearly enough a year ago the desperate poverty behind the bus boycotts – though they did little more about it than make soothing noises.
If the UP leaders know these things, why don’t they say them? Why don’t they tell the truth and come before the country with the obvious fact that Verwoerdism, Swartism, brutal repression, is to blame for the nationwide disturbances which are plain for all to see? Why don’t they warn the country that to attempt to meet these demonstrations with further force and repression is to invite a calamity: an explosion whose end-effects none can foresee?
Why don’t they come out boldly with the only possible alternative: an undertaking to meet the people’s leaders, a recognition of the justice of their demands and grievances, a policy of – at least – concessions?
Perhaps because the UP represented capitalist interests, concerned to hold the black working class in the chains of wage slavery? Not according to Harmel. No, it was simply on account of “their mean, petty politician’s outlook” which made them afraid to lose votes. But even in that, apparently, they were making a wrong calculation:
Telling the truth now; coming forward with a genuine alternative policy; this will not lose the election for the UP. In fact, with things as they are, even at this eleventh hour, it affords the main, probably the only hope of opening the eyes of the voters and defeating the Nats. (New Age, April 3, 1958.)
That was the point to which “Communism” had sunk.
Not surprisingly, the UP leadership was unmoved. Moreover, the Nats won the 1958 election with an increased majority. With the death of Strijdom in August, apartheid’s supreme ideologue, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, became Prime Minister – and at the opening of the following parliamentary session in January 1959 announced plans for pressing ahead with the divide-and-rule “Bantustan self-government” scheme.
Yet the Congress leadership retained their faith that the “anti-Nat alliance” was gaining strength among the supporters of capitalism, that the NP government might do a “U-turn”, or at least that it had reached the pinnacle of its power.
Shortly after the 1958 election, Lutuli concluded that “the hope for South Africa is now for the Nationalists to mend their ways…I see a time not far away when the electorate will give the country a progressive government.” (Rand Daily Mail, April 21, 1958.) The National Executive report to the 1958 ANC conference maintained that:
There is today wide realisation among the people of South Africa, that the future of the country lies in their unity. The fighting spirit exists in varying degrees among the anti-Nationalist forces. The United Party itself is under fire from its rank and file and from some of its leaders for its vacillating policy of wanting to out-Nat the Nationalists and its double-faced attitude on the question of race relations. The Black Sash and Liberal Party took a firm stand on the question of increase in poll tax, banning meetings, opposition to pass laws, and the sell-out policy of the City Councillors controlled by the United Party. On the question of high wages they too have shown a great interest. The Trade Union Council (TUCSA) has also made a clear statement in regard to the increase of wages…
A clear demand of unity has been put forward by the editor of the Rand Daily Mail…with clarity and foresight…The ANC welcomes the call and will unhesitatingly work for such unity…The unity of the potential progressive forces is the key to the overthrow of the Nationalist regime.
Likewise, to the December 1959 ANC conference, Lutuli stated:
It is no mere rhetoric to say that apartheid is proving to be a Frankenstein…oppression in any guise cannot pay any country dividends…Industry and Commerce are beginning to squeal…We are not without strength. White South Africa is vulnerable.
At this conference – held just four months before the ANC was banned – the NEC report elaborated on the same theme:
However stubborn they might appear to be, the Nationalists are not invincible. In fact they have reached the zenith of their strength and can be weakened and smashed…The sharp criticisms and doubts of the intellectuals, particularly certain professors and members of SABRA, although it was not on fundamental issues, was some indication that all was not as well as might be thought within the Nationalist camp, and that even amongst Nationalists the thaw was setting in…
We welcome the formation of the Progressive Party…The idea of a broad anti-Nationalist alliance of the organisations opposed to the Nationalists is becoming popular. It is such an alliance capable of using parliamentary and extra-parliamentary methods that can ultimately defeat the Nationalist Party.
During the year 14 organisations, including the Black Sash, Liberal Party, Labour Party and Congresses met under the Chairmanship of the Right Reverend Bishop Reeves of Johannesburg to discuss matters of common concern to fight against Nationalist tyranny. We wish to congratulate these organisations on their role in exposing the wickedness of Nationalist rule.
Indeed, even after the ANC and PAC were banned in April 1960, even as the mass movement crumbled under the effects of its own division and the intense repression of the early 1960s, the Congress leadership continued to insist that the regime was on its last legs. Only after the Rivonia arrests of 1964 was there the first admission that serious setbacks had been suffered.
Failure to understand
What underlay these (now almost incredible) mistakes of perspective? It was their failure to ground their approach in a class understanding of society; their failure, in consequence, to base the entire struggle on the working class.
It was the acceptance by the Congress and CP leadership of the “liberal” argument that the apartheid policies of the NP government were against the fundamental interests of the big employers in expanding the economy. Goaded by pressure, the “progressive” capitalists (they believed) would bring about the defeat of the NP.
In an influential article in the pages of the pro-Congress Africa South (January-March 1959) – contributing to a discussion on whether or not revolution was “around the corner” in South Africa – leading CP theoretician Michael Harmel asserted:
…the Congress movement, the national liberation movement of South Africa, has found its direction and goal, and is steadily winning the allegiance of the vast majority of the people.
And herein lies the certainty of the defeat of the present form of Government and the victory of the South African revolution. For no minority Government can endure, however rigid its repression or seemingly powerful its forces, once the great majority of the people have taken the path of resolute resistance and organization against it.
But revolution need not involve violence. There have been plenty of examples in history where a combination of factors have been compelling enough to make a ruling class give way for urgent and overdue changes, without dragging the people through the agony of civil war. We can only hope that this may also be the case in South Africa. We cannot tell what exact form the changes will take, how exactly or when they will come.(Our emphasis.)
While, on the one hand, this perspective failed to comprehend that the mass movement was already seriously affected by a crisis of division, on the other hand it showed a complete misunderstanding of the class realities of the struggle against apartheid.
It is true that the policies of apartheid imposed certain “costs” on the employers. It was true that the pressures exerted by the mass movement produced intense questioning among the bosses and their supporters as to whether these costs were necessary or worth it. For these reasons the UP, during the 1950s, was plagued by increasing divisions – between those who wished to try and “out-Nat the Nats” and those pushing in the direction of a policy of “reform”.
It was these factors which led, by 1959, to the formation of the Progressive Party with Harry Oppenheimer, South Africa’s leading monopoly capitalist, as its principal financial backer.
But the fact remained that even the most “progressive” capitalists, when it came down to it, could not break fundamentally with the existing oppressive system. Their material interests remained diametrically opposed to those of the working masses.
The “costs” of apartheid were infinitely preferable still to the “costs” that would be opened up by a genuinely democratic government, committed to provide decent wages, homes, jobs, education and health for all.
To sustain their profit system the capitalist class relied ultimately on the power of their state machine. This had been built, and maintained its relative stability, on the basis of the support of a privileged white middle class and working class. No section of the capitalists could afford seriously to attack and weaken the base of their state – and, while “white minority rule” existed, they could not expect to get electoral support for major reforms.
Thus only a revolution could force the necessary change of society – not by pressurising the ruling class to reform, but by overthrowing it and taking power into the hands of the working class. That should have been the ABC for any Marxist.
What the “progressive” capitalists were really concerned with was to safeguard the fundamentals of their system against potential pressures mounting from below – for ways to divert the struggle of the working people for a genuinely democratic government into safer channels.
The policies of the NP government were a danger to the liberal bosses only in so far as these policies had the effect of stoking the revolutionary fires. Thus, Harry Oppenheimer explained his worries that Nationalist policies were discouraging foreign capitalists from investing in South Africa. The hesitation of investors, he stated,
is caused by their apprehension that a continuation of the policies of this government is incompatible with white leadership in South Africa. The policies that this government is adopting will result in the ending of white domination in South Africa. (Quoted in New Age, June 27, 1957.)
Yet the Congress and CP leadership persisted in trying to “square the circle” – to find through discussions a meeting point between the interests of the capitalist class and those of the masses.
In such discussions the main concern of the capitalist class and its representatives was to dilute and moderate the demands of the mass movement – to put pressure on the movement’s leaders to accept more “reasonable” policies.
In July 1957 a call was issued for the holding of a “multi-racial conference” over signatures which included Lutuli (of the ANC) and Dadoo (of the Indian Congress – later CP chairman), as well as Hepple (Labour Party), Paton (Liberal Party) and Bishop Reeves.
The aim of the conference would, it stated, be to discuss a resolution passed at the inter-denominational gathering of church leaders in 1956 calling for the “abolition of discriminatory laws and the extension of full citizenship rights to all”. The aim was to discuss whether this resolution should be “adopted, amended, or replaced by another resolution” and “to discuss the practical implication of this or other similar resolution”. “To give the Conference status [sic] the first step was to invite responsible people to sponsor it”!
Invitations were sent to about a thousand “leaders”, including leading members of all churches, all political parties, employers’ and workers’ organisations, teachers’ and student bodies, and the press.
The Report of the conference disclosed that
members of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Nationalist Party and the United Party generally ignored the invitation. A few individuals from these organisations did attend as observers, however.
Chambers of Commerce and Industry and White trade unions were poorly represented, while few, if any, delegates or observers came from the Afrikaans universities and student bodies.
All other bodies gave strong support, particularly the churches. The English-speaking Universities’ staff and students, the Congress movements, the Labour and Liberal parties, the Black Sash, the Institute of Race Relations all had members participating or watching as observers. In addition, there were many individuals not connected with any of these groups.
In other words, apart from the Congress movement itself, there was nothing here that would be of any significant weight when it came to action.
Yet this conference, and the fact that it resolved that “only universal adult suffrage on a common roll can meet the needs and aspirations of the people of this country”, were acclaimed as “historic” by the Congress and CP leadership. 41
Nevertheless, agents of the ruling class were there in sufficient voice to insert – without open dissent by the Congress leadership – qualifications on the demands for democracy. The conference “appreciates”, stated a resolution, “that there is disagreement as to the ways and means of achieving the transition from white supremacy to a non-racial democracy in which these franchise rights may be exercised.”
From this time on, as a Congress activist of the period recalled later, the leadership were “perpetually involved in discussions and high level consultations with liberals, with bishops, visiting academics, and embassy people.” 42 Many of these discussions involved the question of what diluted version of the demand for democracy would be acceptable.
Between December 1958 and February 1959, for example, a series of “hush-hush” meetings were going on between SABRA academics and such leaders as Lutuli, Tambo, Mandela and Nokwe. As Lutuli subsequently related, he told the SABRA academics that he would initially accept a very limited African franchise. 43
In August 1959, too, after the “Progressives” had split from the UP, Helen Suzman held discussions with the ANC prior to the first Progressive Party conference. Her impression was that:
…although the ANC publicly demanded universal franchise, it might be willing to accept less if it could be truly convinced of the sincerity and good faith of the Whites. This belief was borne out when subsequently the ANC issued a statement in which it applauded the bold stand taken by the Progressive Party, acknowledging that the Progressives’ philosophy differed fundamentally from that of the United Party and taking this to be a clear indication that the birth of the Progressives was of ‘great significance to South Africa. (A Cricket in a Thorn Tree, p. 169.)
What the leadership was prepared to accept was, in fact, spelled out in some detail by Nelson Mandela during the Treason Trial. Asked by the prosecution how Congress would respond to the immediate concession of the qualified franchise to Africans, and further concessions “over a period of ten or twenty years”, Mandela replied:
Congress, as far as I know, has never sat down to discuss the question…We demand universal adult franchise and we are prepared to exert economic pressure to attain our demands, and we will launch defiance campaigns, stay-at-homes, either singly or together, until the Government should say, Gentlemen, we cannot have this state of affairs, laws being defied, and this whole situation created by stay-at-homes. Let’s talk. In my own view I would say, Yes, let us talk, and the Government would say, We think that the Europeans at present are not ready for a type of government where there might be domination by non-Europeans. We think we should give you 60 seats. The African population to elect 60 Africans to represent them in Parliament. We will leave the matter over for five years and we will review it at the end of five years. In my view, that would be a victory, my lords; we would have taken a significant step towards the attainment of universal adult suffrage for Africans, and we would then for the five years say, we will suspend civil disobedience; we won’t have any stay at homes, and we will then devote the intervening period for the purpose of educating the country, the Europeans to see that these changes can be brought about and that it would bring about better racial understanding, better racial harmony in the country. I’d say we should accept it, but, of course, I would not abandon the demands for the extension of the universal franchise to all Africans…Then at the end of the five-year period we will have discussions and if the Government says, We will give you again 40 more seats, I might say that that is quite sufficient. Let’s accept it, and still demand that the franchise should be extended, but for the agreed period we should suspend civil disobedience, no stay-at-homes. In that way we would eventually be able to get everything that we want… 44 (Our emphasis.)
But the scenario sketched out by Mandela showed how little the revolutionary class-dynamic of the struggle for democracy was appreciated. While, on the one hand, the step-by-step approach fell far short of what the mass movement was demanding, on the other hand it would have been electoral suicide for any white governing party. Moreover, if the mass movement had built up the power to compel the ruling class to introduce the “first” of the “steps” – then why stop there? Lifting the pressure could only encourage the ruling class to stall, and move to revoke the concessions when it had the situation once more in hand and the balance of forces swung again to the right.
Most important of all, how could anyone imagine that the Congress leaders would have the power to “call off” the mass movement for years at a time? The working class struggles not according to the requirements of its leadership but under the terrible pressure of poverty, hardship and assaults by the capitalist state. Could some seats in parliament have changed the reality of the working people’s lives?
Yet it was in the pursuit of such illusory goals of step-by-step reform in alliance with the “progressive” capitalists that Congress issued its rallying calls to the movement. Neither in the stay-at-homes of 26 June 1957, nor that of April 1958, did the demand of the Freedom Charter for majority rule appear. Instead, the main political slogan of the June 1957 action was “Forward to a Multi-Racial Conference”. And in April 1958 it was “Defeat the Nats”.
As was pointed out by SACTU leader Dan Tloome – reflecting a widespread feeling among activists – this slogan sowed illusions among the people:
The slogan: DEFEAT THE NATS was wrong and misleading. It is highly probably that, taken at its face value, the slogan led a considerable section of the people to believe that the Congresses were in favour of the United Party coming to power, as a party capable of solving our problems in South Africa. 45
After calling off the three-day stay-at-home in April 1958 after the first day, Congress launched no further nationwide campaigns of mass action during 1958 and 1959. 46 Not that there was any lack of opportunities for mobilising struggle. Fresh layers of working people, in town and countryside, were still moving into action and looking for a lead.
In October 1958, for example, the government tried for the first time to issue women’s passes in a city – Johannesburg. Local ANC women activists organised huge marches of Sophiatown and Alexandra women on the Johannesburg pass offices, where they courted arrest. (To march outside the townships was illegal.) At least 1,200 women were jailed, 170 with babies.
Under pressure from below, the Federation of South African Women called for an enlargement of the campaign, and for 20,000 volunteers to defy, refusing to pay fines or bail. This was overruled by the ANC Executive. After that, there were no further major organised protests against the issuing of passes to women.
The Secretary of the Transvaal ANC Youth League stated to the provincial conference of the League in October 1958:
I must say that I am disappointed as regards our struggle on passes. The struggle is rather haphazard as far as I can see it and slowly the number of women carrying passes is increasing…I would appeal to the ANC to set out a definite pattern of how our purpose would be achieved.
In Natal in 1959-60 there was a mass upsurge of resistance by women, which began in Cato Manor in protest against deportations and intensified liquor raids, and spread into the rural areas as resistance to cattle-dipping.
As Durban’s Town Clerk wailed:
The natives of Cato Manor have overthrown European authority. This has lasted for six weeks. They have maintained their success. The only things we have been able to do are the things the natives have allowed us to do. 47
In the course of the Cato Manor resistance, thousands of stick-carrying women engaged in mass confrontations with the police. Asked why they were carrying them, one woman commented: “It is true that African women never carried sticks before. But then, they never carried passes before either.” 48
The opportunity was there to link this tremendous movement of working-class women with the organisation of workers in the factories, the mines, and the other nerve-centres of production. But the clear direction necessary to consolidate and develop the movement in this way was lacking. Having no way forward to offer, Congress leaders in fact offered to the authorities “to go into Cato Manor to pacify the women” – offers which were rejected. 49
In reality it appeared that – though not even one “step” in any conceivable programme of ruling-class reforms had been implemented – the middle-class leaders were already anxious to “suspend” the mass movement.
Here again, if a strong, conscious Marxist tendency had existed among Congress activists it could have transformed the situation.
But, in the absence of such a tendency, the dissatisfaction and confusion among the rank-and-file was played upon by radical nationalists, with no real alternative to offer. This opened up a debilitating split.