Lessons of the 1950s

10. Sharpeville and its aftermath

In the early months of 1960 the PAC leadership launched a campaign against the pass laws. The aim was for a mass turning-in of passes at police stations, beginning on 21 March, to be supported by a stay-at-home, until the pass laws were abolished.

The campaign was hastily called, ill-organised, and was probably intended to forestall an ANC "Anti-pass Day" (involving no definite action programme) set for 31 March.[56] Nevertheless the desperate thirst of black working people for a lead in action produced a response - at least in the Vereeniging and Cape Town townships.

The state responded with the most brutal repression of the decade. 69 demonstrators were shot dead at Sharpeville, and 2 in Langa on 21 March.

The state response sparked off the most determined demonstration of workers' power in the decade. In Cape Town African workers launched, in the face of massive police action, a general strike from 21 March to 10 April - which remained solid for over two weeks. Heavy industry in Vereeniging was brought to a halt from 21-31 March.

Rather than merely "staying at home", workers moved on the city centres. On 25 March some 5,000 Africans demonstrated at Caledon Square police headquarters in Cape Town, and on 30 March 30,000 marched from the Cape Town townships to the police headquarters. On the following two days there were similar marches in Durban from Cato Manor to the city centre.

This display of working-class militancy shook the ruling class. On 25 March, the government suspended pass arrests. Leading capitalists, including NP supporters such as Anton Rupert and the Chairman of the Wool Board, called on the government to amend its policies. Open division became manifest even within the Cabinet itself.

Brian Bunting of the CP subsequently analysed the situation in this way:

"Once again it had been demonstrated that the intensifica­tion of black resistance, far from strengthening the uni­ty of the white supremacists, on the contrary immediate­ly led to division in their ranks as the more enlightened groups sought to reach accommodation with black power. It had happened after the Defiance Campaign of 1952, which led to the birth of the Liberal Party. It happened again at the time of the bus boycotts, the treason trial and the agitation over the destruction of the Coloured vote, when the Progressives broke away from the United Party. It happened again in the 1960 emergency."[57]

But this was only one side of the situation. In the meantime the government also introduced into parliament new legislation to enable it to ban the ANC and PAC. After days of hesitation it declared a state of emergency and began to prepare for decisive action to immobilise the leadership and crush the upsurge.

The course of events now depended on the organised power which could be mobilised by the leadership of the mass movement.

A SACTU statement during the emergency correctly said: "We must constantly guard against the danger of getting small reforms for the price of our freedom. And, on the other hand, we now have the opportunity of taking advantage of the fight among the bosses to drive home our demands."[58]

The ANC leadership was now under tremendous pressure to respond to the mass mood, or be bypassed entirely. On 23 March Lutuli called for a one day stay-at-home in mourning for the dead at Sharpeville and Langa. On Saturday 26 March he publicly burnt his pass. Mass support swung once again behind Congress.

The Monday stay-at-home was overwhelmingly successful. Workers on most of the Rand, in Port Elizabeth, in Durban, in the smaller Cape towns, joined those already striking in Cape Town and Vereeniging. The time was ripe for stepping up the pressure nation-wide.

On April 1 an Emergency Committee of the ANC issued a leaflet calling for an end to the state of emergency, release of imprisoned leaders, abolition of the pass laws, a national minimum wage of £1 a day, and the repeal of repressive legislation.

While reaffirming the demand for full citizenship, the leaflet also stated that: "The first essential towards resolving the crisis is that the Verwoerd administration must make way for one less completely unacceptable to the people of all races, for a Government which sets out to take the path, rejected by Verwoerd, of conciliation, concessions and negotiation." It called for "a new National Convention, representing all the people on a fully democratic basis…to lay the foundations of a…non-racial democracy."

This was issued two days after police had entered Langa for the first time to try to beat workers back to work, and two days after a round-up of the Congress leadership by the police had begun. It was these police actions which had provoked the march of 30,000 Africans to Cape Town police headquarters.

Strike called?

An activist in Congress at the time recalls that on that day - Wednesday 30 March - hearing of the march and impending arrests, he rushed to the SACTU offices to hear if a national strike was to be called. Leaflets had been printed, he was told, but the authorisation of the Congress leadership was required before they were issued.

But the authorisation never came, and the April 1 leaflet made no definite strike call. Yet, on the morning of Thursday 31 March, workers in the Johannesburg townships waited at the bus and train stations, expecting a call to strike action. Only when they heard nothing did they proceed to work. In Durban the workers were waiting impatiently to follow a strike lead from workers on the Rand. (As it was, SACTU activists in Natal still attempted to organise a 10-day strike from April 1 onwards.)

Thus the ruling class was able to step up its repression unchallenged by the escalation of working-class action. Raids and arrests of leaders continued.

Armed cordon

By 2 a.m. on Thursday 31 March, troops flown from Pretoria had drawn an armed cordon around Langa. On Friday all commandos, the Permanent Force Reserve, the Citizen Force Reserve and the Reserve of Officers were mobilised "for service in the prevention or suppression of internal disorder in the Union." On Saturday troops were flown from the Rand to Durban. On Sunday, Nyanga in Cape Town was sealed off.

The inaction of the Congress leadership made it easier for the state to regain the initiative, and deploy its forces to isolate and crush the remaining centres of resistance. On 8 April the ANC and PAC were banned under the new legislation, and by the following day the strike had been crushed in Nyanga as well as Langa.

"All the signs were," reflected Bunting subsequently, "that, had the internal and external pressures been stronger, the whole apartheid edifice might have been brought crashing to the ground, or at least irreparably fractured…But black pressure could not be maintained; Verwoerd from his sick bed, where he was recovering from an assassination attempt, issued a rallying call to the volk; the ranks of the faithful closed again - and the emergency was over."[59]

But where lay the authority in the eyes of the masses to maintain and intensify "black pressure" if not with the Congress leadership? And how else than through the revolutionary pressure of the black working class can the "closing of the ranks" of the whites be prevented and the "rallying calls" of NP leaders be rendered ineffective?

The fact is that neither then nor since have the ANC or CP leaders been willing to make a serious analysis of how their own policies had prepared the way for this defeat.

At the same time, the PAC leadership were equally responsible for it. They too were blind to the class realities of the struggle. Confronting these class realities in practice, the Congress leadership had backed off from mass mobilisation, and appealed to the "enlightenment" of sections of the ruling class. In reaction to this, the PAC leadership issued calls to militant action - but with no clear strategy and with mindless disregard of the consequences.

For the PAC leadership, the problem with Congress had been its failure to consistently implement the 1949 Programme of Action. "The Nats are carrying out their programme and if we are going to do nothing but oppose, we will never get anywhere," wrote Leballo in 1957, "for every year will bring forth, as every year has brought forth, new oppressive laws, on top of the ones we are op­posing. Thus while we are fighting Bantu Education, Passes for Women come along. While we are organising against that, Universities and Nurses Apartheid come along. Our sacred duty is to carry out our OUR PROGRAMME, irrespective of what Verwoerd is doing. Let us take the offensive and pursue the Nation-Building Programme of 1949, relentlessly and honestly. And white domination will collapse. Whenever any item of that Programme has been implemented, no matter how emasculated, it has drawn overwhelming and enthusiastic support from the masses and has sent the conqueror shaking in his boots. I am thinking particularly of the Defiance Campaign, the One Day Stoppage of Work, the Economic and Bus Boycotts. If these had been honestly and relentlessly pursued in the spirit of true African Nationalism, we would be discussing PRODUCTION today and not oppression."[60]

In the campaign launched in March 1960, the call was "NOBODY GOES TO WORK" until the pass laws were abolished! "And," said the "instructions" issued by Sobukwe, "once we score that victory, there will be nothing else we will not be able to tackle. But we must know quite clearly, NOW, that our struggle is an unfolding one, one campaign leading to another in a NEVER-ENDING STREAM - until independence is won."[61]

The response of a Johannesburg PAC leader to the ANC's one-day stay-at-home call for March 28 was: "We are not opposed to Lutuli's strike call. We go further. We say the people must stay away for ever."[62]

PAC leaders talked of the Programme of Action in complete abstraction, as if it could be organised for in complete disregard of the actual struggle that was proceeding between black working people on the one hand and their employers and the state on the other. The enthusiastic response to campaigns based around the Programme of Action - and the upsurge of mass struggle even when there were no campaigning calls from the leadership - showed the vital need to concentrate all energies and resources on systematically building working-class organisation.

If each year was bringing forth new oppressive laws, this was because the workers, and the mass movement as a whole, were not yet sufficiently organised to turn the tide in the other direction. But the recovery of the initiative by the masses was not going to be achieved by demagogic rhetoric, nor by calls to impossible forms of action-like "staying away for ever".

Short cut

The PAC leaders hoped by a short-cut to avoid the necessary and arduous work of organising the working class, developing its self-confidence first in those limited struggles it had the capacity to tackle, preparing it for the eventual struggle for power and the establishment of workers' democracy.

Calling for a general strike until the pass laws were abolished in 1960, the PAC leaders were encouraging the African working class to embark on a test of strength with the state which the class was not yet strong enough to carry through to the end. With the working class weakly organised, even in the trade unions, with the Congress leaders retaining the allegiance of the majority of workers, it was a divisive move which courted a big defeat.

Moreover, faced with real tests of leadership in action, without a scientific theory or strategy, PAC leaders themselves buckled under the pressures. Indeed, being less experienced than the Congress leadership, they buckled more dramatically.

Despite rhetoric

In Cape Town, the leadership of the strike had come into the hands of the young PAC activist Philip Kgosana. Despite the vehement rhetoric against the moderating role of "white liberalism" which was a foundation-stone of Africanist and PAC policy, Kgosana turned for his prin­cipal advice to…Patrick Duncan and other white members of the Liberal Party!

Even an academic historian, Tom Lodge, in a recent study, has pointed out clearly the role which these elements played:

"It could be argued that although the Contact group wanted the PAC strong, and that some of their actions helped towards strengthening it (the food deliveries, Dun­can's part in persuading Terblanche to suspend pass laws), their advice lost the strong negotiating position which the Cape Town PAC had temporarily won…Liberals had, by contributing to the creation of an 'understanding' bet­ween the PAC leaders and the police chief, strengthened the impression that the police were to be trusted, and that Terblanche would act in good faith. All along they had sought to eliminate tension, to remove any possibility of violence. Duncan was even prepared to defend the forces of law and order:

"'Today [he wrote in his diary - Editor] a State of Emergency was declared. In my view the Government was compelled to do this, and I defended their moderation (up to date) in dealing with the Cape Town situation.'

"Moreover the Contact group had contributed to Kgosana's isolation from his followers. They had seen him as the key man; as the young messiah. Kgosana did have a hold on his followers, but, when he should have been with them, sharing their feelings, assessing their strength, working out a strategy of resistance, sensing the extent of their will to resist, he was elsewhere being in­terviewed and advised by well-intentioned whites."[63]

On March 30, Kgosana was recognised leader of the march of 30,000 to the Cape Town police headquarters. He agreed with the police to send the marchers home, provided a later appointment was arranged for him with the Minister of Justice. When he subsequently turned up for the appointment without his mass support, he was promptly arrested.

The banning of the PAC, and the almost total crushing of the mass movement by the mid-1960s, meant that the ideas and policies of radical nationalism were never ful­ly tested in the practical class struggle, or their contradictions fully exposed.

Thus as the working class recovered from the defeat, and the mass movement revived in the 1970s, it was these ideas which came first to the fore again among students and youth in the Black Consciousness Movement, as they searched for a revolutionary road.

More decisively than the 1950s, however, the last ten years have shown that the real power to take on the regime and the bosses lies in the hands of the working class. Under the banner of Black Consciousness the youth - working-class youth in the main - launched into heroic struggles in 1976. The practical lesson of these bat­tles also was that the movement, to go forward, must be clearly based on the social struggle between the work­ing class and its exploiters. The struggle for national liberation and the struggle to overthrow capitalism must be bound together in a class-conscious movement led by the organised workers.

In action, in the working-class movement, radical na­tionalism has now had more opportunity to show its limitations. At least for the present, it has been over­shadowed by a struggle for workers' organisation and unity.

Tendency remains

Yet radical black nationalism remains present as a tendency among sections especially of the middle class and youth, but also some workers. It waits, as it were, in the wings - to capitalise on any setbacks suffered by the mass movement as a result of reformist policies of Congress.

Attacking the PAC in the late 1950s, Walter Sisulu wrote:

"There are men and women among them who genuinely believe that the salvation of our people lies in a fanatical African racialism and denunciation of everything that is not African. And such a policy is not without its poten­tial mass appeal.

"It would be unrealistic to pretend that a policy of ex­treme nationalism must, in the nature of things, always be unpopular. The people are quick to detect the insinceri­ty of the mere demagogue, and they have confidence in the courage and wisdom of their tried and trusted leaders. But in a country like South Africa, where the Whites dominate everything, and where ruthless laws are ruthless­ly administered and enforced, the natural tendency is one of growing hostility towards Europeans.

"In certain circumstances, an emotional mass-appeal to destructive and exclusive nationalism can be a dynamic and irresistible force in history."[64]

In fact, this became a "natural tendency" in the late 1950s only because of the lack of strong working-class leadership in Congress, in the struggle against national oppression. The answer to this lay not (as Sisulu believ­ed) in the "broad non-racial humanism" put forward by Congress, but in the active quest of the black working class for non-racial workers' unity and workers' power.

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[56] The Report of the ANC NEC, December 1959, said: "After many years of bitter struggle against the pass laws it has become necessary to choose a particular day historically linked with the anti-pass struggle, such day to be known as Anti-pass day. The 31st of March stands out as the most suitable date to commemorate the anti-pass struggle for it was on that date in 1919 that the ANC made a serious attempt to stage a systematic demonstration when thousands of passes were collected in Johannesburg and taken to the pass office."

[57] Moses Kotane, p. 257.

[58] Quoted in Organize or Starve!, p. 438.

[59] Moses Kotane, p. 257.

[60] The Africanist, December 1957.

[61] See From Protest to Challenge, vol. 3, p. 570.

[62] Quoted in New Age, March 31, 1960.

[63] Black Politics in South Africa since 1945, p. 222-3.

[64] Africa South, July-September 1959.

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