Today, the people of South Africa are ruled by a government led by the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa. The path to this destination was long and hazardous, painful, bloody. It was full of sacrifices in which many of the best sons and daughters paid with their lives to achieve this great freedom visualised by the founding fathers at inauguration 100 years ago.
That gathering in Bloemfontein – the Flower Fountain – on 8th January 1912, was an act of necessity and urgency.
After years of warring between the white races – English and Afrikaners (boers) – which culminated in the triumph of British Imperialism over the Afrikaners in the hard fought Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902. The defeated boers were forced into signing the Treaty of Vereeniging. Vereeniging is a town in the then Transvaal (Gauteng Province since 1994), but the actual signing ceremony took place in Pretoria.
The Treaty, signed on 31 May 1902, brought an end to all hostilities and the surrender of the boers. They had to relinquish all their arms to the British, who in turn promised self-government to the boers in Transvaal (South African Republic), and the Orange Free State as colonies of the British Empire. The two Boer Republics then took cover under the sovereignty of the British Crown.
After the passage of a few years, the Union of South Africa was created on 31 May 1910. This Union gained relative independence (dominion status) under the 1926 Imperial Conference and the 1931 Statute of Westminster. That relationship remained until South Africa became a republic in 1961 and severed all ties with Great Britain.
The black majority was neither consulted nor invited to participate and air its views in the whole process. Instead, no sooner the white (English and Afrikaners) parliamentary machine got into action, one law after another was hatched out daily to the detriment of the majority of the people.
In effect the laws that were rolling out of the all-white parliament had in essence one common factor – repression of the black population in every conceivable situation. They were used to curtail freedom of movement; to deny blacks from trading; to cripple their education; deny the majority of the population their basic human rights and chances of equality. To deny the people of their right to economic development, cultural welfare and social advance. It was a downright racist parliament dishing out unjust racialist laws.
The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the introduction of a draft bill in parliament in 1911, the so-called Natives Land Act (1). It was a law that allotted 90 percent of the land to the minority white population and the rest, mostly barren and arid 10 percent to the black population. In other words the rulers were doing their utmost to stuff a whole whale into a sardine tin. Therefore, the urgency to oppose this draconian law.
What emerged from Bloemfontein in 1912 was a two-tier South African Native Congress (changed to African National Congress in 1923); the Upper House and the lower House. Seven Paramount Chiefs appointed as Honorary Presidents made up the Upper House. The National Executive (Lower House) under the leadership of the Rev John Dube as President, was elected to administer the organisation. It consisted of four ministers of religion, lawyers, an editor, a building contractor, a school teacher, estate agent, interpreter and a Native Labour Agent (person who recruited workers for the mines). These were relatively young people who had received their education at mission schools and five of them had gone abroad and came back with degrees and British and American universities.
The composition of the Congress was moderate and very respectful. Their approach to problems facing the people was one of appeal and/or delegations to the various ministries which in most cases ignored them. Delegations were even sent to London to appeal to the British Government to bring respite to the majority of the people who were reeling under the pressures of injustice brought to bear by the all-white parliament. Although these delegation were received courteously, but were politely told to go back home and solve the problem there because the British government could not interfere in the sovereignty of the South African Government.
Another noticeable feature of the founding of the ANC was the complete lack of female participation. This was the norm of the times. But women have always been the backbone of the struggle against injustice. In 1913, the Black women in Orange Free State, decided to make their presence felt, both to the authorities, and the leaders of the Congress. They took to the streets in a heroic display against the issuance of passes (2) to African women. So forceful was the opposition that the authorities were forced to hastily shelve their plans. For the time being.
But that demonstration of the women forced Congress to wake up and have another look at the role that the women could play in the struggle. Therefore, it was only natural that they took their rightful place in the freedom struggle – alongside the men. But, it must be pointed out that the ANC remained a male organisation and only admitted women into its fold in 1943.
The history of South Africa’s liberation struggle is brimming with the deeds of the womenfolk. They were never found wanting. It is absolutely in order that they have such a high presence in most branches of South African society today, although much still has to be done.
The whole face of the ANC took a new turn with the founding of the ANC Youth League in 1943 and the Women’s League in 1948. A revolutionary zest was introduced into the organisation that still believed in the fairness of the colonialists/imperialists. Lead by such young revolutionaries like Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Anton Lembede and Ida Mtwana , Lilian Ngoyi, and many others, they pushed through the Programme of Action (POA) which was adopted by the ANC at its 38th National Conference in December 1949.
The POA had one message. Universal franchise for all adults and the right to participate in all organs of the state. Gone were the days of cap-in-hand diplomacy. The fight was now being taken to the doors of the state. And the state, was now in the hands of the National Party (Nats), whose members were all hardcore admirers of Hitler and members of the various Nazi groups that operated in South Africa. The Nats, after defeating the pro-British United Party in the all-white general elections of May 1948 made no bones about their intent to tighten the screws of racist laws and where none existed, new ones would be enacted. They did just that.
This is a very brief background of the ANC. The history books and historians have and are still dealing with the subject. The language used here is that which was the norm at that particular time.
With the coming of the Nats to power in 1948, the black population began to feel the promises that the Nats were making to their followers over the years. Harsh laws, bordering on that which Hitler and his gang unleashed in Germany, were spewing out of parliament. The ANC and its allies did not cow down to these barbaric acts. On the contrary it met the offensive of the upholders of ‘law and order’ with massive opposition. Of course it was an uneven battle. The dice was heavily loaded on the side of the ruling class and the result was that there many casualties on our side.
Nonetheless, these actions brought a sense of responsibility and unity to the people and also drew attention overseas to the plight of the black people in South Africa. It feels great to look back at those campaigns and the satisfaction of being personally involved in all of them between 1951 and 1965 when I was sent into exile. I can assure you there were many. There was never a dull day. We had vowed not to give the fascist rulers of our country any respite.
Nevertheless, in my belief, it was the Congress of the People (COP)which adopted the Freedom Charter in 1955 was the most historic. It was a document that gave our movement a guideline as to what we need and where to go. COP was the brainchild of Professor Z. K. Matthews (3), a member of the NEC of the ANC and the decision was taken at its Annual Conference in December 1953. No dates were set.
Immediately this decision was taken, the wheels of the Congress Alliance went into action. This was not a baby of the ANC. It belonged to the people and therefore, COP Committees were set up in every town, district, factory, farm, etc. the idea was to involve a wide spectrum of people representing all sections of the social strata. Volunteers were recruited. Even from outside the Alliance. Our job was to go from house to house and talk to the people. The main stream media was not our friend. There were no computers or twetter at that time. Not even TV.
For over a year, COP was the key word. It was talked about wherever volunteers were occupied. After work, it meant visiting homes in our residential areas. It was a back-breaking undertaking. Fortunately, the people were most forthcoming. They spoke their minds, and left no doubt as to what they expected in such a document. Their main demands centred around bread and butter politics; better and free education; free movement; better health and medical facilities. And the right to vote.
Finally in September 1954 it was announced that COP will be held in Johannesburg on 25 & 26 June 1955. This announcement encouraged us to push ahead with our work. A few weeks before the great day, elections were held to nominate delegates. I was delighted to represent my residential area Sydenham with 13 others. Now the job was to raise money for transport and we finally raised enough cash to pay for a small van (covered) to Johannesburg. Unlike the highways of today, those days a journey from Durban (Natal)to Johannesburg took a long time -between 10-12 hours
On reaching the border to the Transvaal (Gauteng) we ran into a road block. Those of us from the Indian Community were not allowed to travel from one province to another (there were four in all) had to produce passes to cross over. I did not have one and applications were a long drawn out affair. So I asked a friend to lend me his permit. It worked like magic. There was no problem crossing over, although there were consequences a few months later. In Johannesburg we reported at the ANC office and were told to make our way to Kliptown (Soweto).
We did not believe our eyes when we finally reached the football ground where the conference was to be held. There was fun and frolic in the air. It was one huge sing-song. It was a real dance session. These were delegates who arrived earlier from all corners of the South African compass. It was gaudy and colourful. They were undaunted by the tough trip many had to undertake.
It was made even more difficult by the police road blocks that were set at vantage crossing points. Almost the whole of the Western Cape delegates were not allowed to continue their journey at the road blocks and had no alternative but to return to their homes.
COP was attended by over 3 000 delegates. Lots of hugs and back-slapping. We were almost complete strangers to each other. Some of the people I met at COP in 1955 have become lifelong friends. Quite a number of us are still alive.
Despite police interference, that weekend was witness to one of the most historic events that ever took place in the South African struggle for freedom and democracy. For two whole days, the delegates put forward proposals for a new, democratic, non-racist, non-sexist South Africa. Finally, in the early evening of 26 June 1955, the Freedom Charter was adopted, chapter by chapter.
It began with a preamble that reads:
We, the people of South Africa, declare for all in our country and the world to know that:
South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.
The Freedom Charter is divided into 10 Sections :
The People shall govern;
All national groups shall have equal rights;
The people shall share in the country’s wealth;
The land shall be shared among those who work it;
All shall be equal before the law;
All shall enjoy equal human rights ;
There shall be work and security;
The doors of learning and of culture shall be opened;
There shall be houses, security and comfort;
There shall be peace and security.
The Freedom Charter was the base for the arrest and indictment of 156 leaders.
They were charged with treason in 1956 and finally discharged in 1961.
I also had to go back to Johannesburg in October 1955 and was charged for ‘illegally’ crossing the border with ‘false documents’. During the afternoon of the second day, the regime invaded our conference and surrounded the enclosed area. Nobody was allowed in or out. It was announced that each and every person will be searched as the state believed that an act of treason was being planned by this gathering. They wanted to begin with their work immediately.
“You wait until we have completed our work” was the cry from the masses.
Funnily, they waited. Over five hours. Then they searched us and confiscated documents and in the process, they found the pass I was carrying. My friend in Durban was visited after a few weeks and he immediately spilled the beans which resulted in my trip back to Joburg in October.
“Not guilty on all counts” declared the magistrate. What a sigh of relief. I was not happy at the prospect of spending the next few years in prison.
Today, after 60 years of active participation, I can say it was worth it. The fight was hard and fraught with danger but we dared to stick out our necks. It extracted a great deal of sacrifices from our people especially our womenfolk, be she a mother, wife, sister or however related. If they were not in the midst of the fray, then they kept our backs free. Alas! Many of our comrades did not live to see the dawn of freedom. Their contributions to the noble cause of freedom and democracy cannot be erased.
In 1979 the young freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu, marched to the gallows in Pretoria and uttered these brave words: “Let my blood water the tree of freedom”.
I am happy that I was an active participant and not a passive onlooker.
(1) Solomon Plaatje, who was elected General Secretary at the founding Congress, described the Land Act in his book Native Life in South Africa, published in 1916, thus: “Awakening on Friday morning , June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth”.
(2) The pass law, and its various amendments over the years have always been hated by the African majority. It played havoc with the lives of the Black men and these were now being extended to the women as well. Daily, thousands of men would be arrested for pass infringements would simply disappear. After a brief trial, which did not last five minutes, these men would be sentenced to fines which they could not afford. That meant imprisonment. Most of the times they would be “hired” out to white farmers to work under the most brutal of conditions. Some returned after many months on these farms bruised and broken. Many did not.
(3) Prof. Matthews was a lecturer at the Fort Hare University, the only institution catering for higher education for the blacks. A number of Africa’s leaders studied there. Prof Matthews was later forced to resign because of his political activities. When the former British Protectorate of Betchuanaland attained its independence from Britain in 1966, Prof Matthews became its first Ambassador at the United Nations.