Lessons of the 1950s

3. The Rise of the ANC

When the mass movement recovered at the end of the 1940s, the vacuum left by the failure of the Communist Party to build a mass workers' political organisation was being filled by the African National Congress. Though the CP leaders played a role in the 1950-51 general strike calls, it was also leaders of the ANC (as well as the South African Indian Congress and other organisations) who made these calls.

This represented a radical departure for the ANC. From its formation in 1912 until this time, the ANC had been little more than a middle-class pressure group, ap­pealing to the ruling class for the removal of its own disabilities. Only for short periods, in one area or another, did the pre-war ANC seek or find any mass sup­port. The huge upsurges of struggle of the working masses against the ruling class which took place between the 1920s and 1940s bypassed the ANC almost completely.

During and after the second world war a new genera­tion of young African intellectuals sought to orient the ANC towards mobilising mass action. They were, on the one hand, disillusioned with the failure of the ruling class to respond to the old ANC methods of petition and deputation, and, on the other hand, impressed with the power of the wartime mass working-class movement. The ANC Youth League, espousing these aims, was form­ed in 1943, in the wake of the Witwatersrand strike wave of 1942.

The brutal repression of the 1946 mine strike, follow­ed by the 1948 NP victory, angered and radicalised broader layers of the black middle class, especially the youth. It was in the wake of these events, in December 1949, that the ANC adopted what was essentially the pro­gramme of the Youth League - the Programme of Ac­tion. It resolved to mobilise a struggle for "National freedom" and an end to white domination, by means of "immediate and active boycott, strike, civil disobedience, non-cooperation and such other means as may bring about the accomplishment and realisation of our aspirations."

On the basis of this mandate the ANC leaders, many with considerable reluctance, participated in calling the successful one-day general strikes in 1950-51.

Hundreds of thousands of workers were looking for a political lead, and gave immediate support to these calls. Thus the ANC stepped into the gap left by the absence of a mass workers' party, and became the focus for the nationwide movement of the black working people.

The rise of mass support for the ANC was confirmed in the next major campaign which it launched: the De­fiance Campaign of 1952. ANC membership mounted from a few thousand to (some would claim) 100,000. But the turn by the working class to support an organisation that, despite radicalisation, remained under middle-class leadership, opened up huge contradictions in the ANC.

As the National Executive itself stated in its December 1950 report, "the masses are marching far ahead of the leadership."

The approach of the old middle-class ANC leadership had been, and remained, to rely on a "change of heart" on the part of the white population.[6] Because they did not experience life as black workers experienced it, at the sharp end of the system of exploitation, they could not see that the real material interests of the capitalist class lay behind the national oppression of the African peo­ple, including themselves.

They imagined that racism could be overcome by moral persuasion of whites and by appeals to goodwill and com­mon humanity. Hence they looked naturally towards white liberals - to the liberal wing of the capitalist class, together with its intellectuals, clergymen, etc - as some sort of forerunners of an enlightened attitude that would (God willing) lead to a change of heart by the majority of whites.

More militant

The younger generation of radical ANC leaders took a more militant line. The Programme of Action, stated Nelson Mandela later, "meant that the ANC was not go­ing to rely on a change of heart. It was going to exert pressure to compel the authorities to grant its demands."[7] The key to this was mass mobilisation.

Even so, however, the lack of a class analysis and perspective meant that the revolutionary implications of mobilising the working class were not grasped. If moral persuasion had failed, perhaps it would be enough to twist the government's arm.

It was still believed that winning support from liberals and "democrats" among the upper-class whites constituted real breakthroughs in the struggle.

On this basis the old moderate and the young radical wings of the ANC leadership were uneasily reconciled with each other in their support of the Defiance Cam­paign. But in the implementation of the campaign, in the actual mobilisation of the working class, the underlying divisions and uncertainty of purpose became manifest.

Taken as a whole, the ANC leadership was not willing to carry out such a mobilisation fully and systematically. They were not willing to see the initiative of the strug­gle pass into the hands of the working class, or for the workers' class struggle to become the paramount drive and focus of the movement.

This fact largely explains the uneven character of the Defiance Campaign in different areas of the country and why it failed to develop nationwide momentum.

Nevertheless, like the one-day strikes of 1950-51, the Defiance Campaign confirmed that the working class was the real force in the struggle against the NP government.

It was initiated as a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience by selected volunteers against six unjust laws: the pass laws, stock limitation, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Group Areas Act, the Bantu Authorities Act, and the Voters Act of 1951. But it was most successful in the Eastern Cape, where it rapidly took on a mass character.

Strongly rooted

In the Eastern Cape, particularly in Port Elizabeth, the ANC was most strongly rooted in the trade unions and led by trade unionists. Defiance of the law by volunteers was backed up by organised strength. When employers tried to sack volunteers, workers struck to enforce their reinstatement. Against police violence in the townships, resistance was organised. When armed police were in­troduced on the buses and a curfew imposed, a bus boycott was begun and a general strike threatened: the municipality backed off.

The lead given in Port Elizabeth drew into action fresh layers of working people throughout the Eastern Cape countryside. Three-quarters of the arrests of volunteers nationwide occurred in the Eastern Cape.

The Eastern Cape alone attempted to put into prac­tice the full plan which had been envisaged by the Plan­ning Council for the campaign throughout South Africa. This was conceived as a campaign in three stages: com­mencing with civil disobedience by "selected and train­ed" volunteers in the major cities, continuing with in­creasing the number of volunteers and the number of cen­tres, and in the third stage broadening out "on a country­wide scale and assum[ing] a general mass character."[8]

But in all other areas the campaign was held back from passing beyond even the first stage. Nationally, it was allowed to dwindle to a ragged halt before the end of 1952.

This did not reflect any collapse of enthusiasm among ANC activists and supporters. During the campaign thousands of volunteers had been turned away. In the early months of 1953 the ANC rank-and-file in the Transvaal and the Cape were pressing for a general strike call in support of the demands of the Campaign - despite the introduction by the government in January of new stiff penalties for civil disobedience.

In fact, however, Congress launched no further mass action campaigns until 1955. And the action campaigns in 1955, too, became paralysed and petered out for want of a vigorous lead.

In 1955 the ANC committed itself to prevent the forc­ed removal of residents from the Johannesburg Western Areas. This was identified as the key point for implemen­ting a general "Resist Apartheid" call.

The residents had been roused by the slogan "we will not move", and had been allowed to believe that secret plans had been drawn up to call a general strike if the police attempted removals, in order to disperse and paralyse the forces of the state. Yet, on the eve of the removals, the ANC President in the Transvaal said: "There can be no talk of defiance in this matter."[9]

As the ANC Secretariat subsequently admitted, the ma­jor weakness of the campaign "would seem to be the failure of the leadership to tell the people precisely what form of resistance was to be of­fered on the day of removal. This information was re­quested time after time and at no stage was a clear and unequivocal answer given. The masses were given the im­pression, however, that Congress had the answer and would give it at the appropriate time."[10]

Similar vacillations paralysed the 1955 campaign against Bantu Education. There was widespread hostili­ty, among parents, youth and teachers to the govern­ment's plans. Many activists wanted to organise an in­definite boycott, and even an alternative schooling system. This was, of course, utopian. But the ANC leadership, unwilling to endorse this, but unable to offer an alternative plan of struggle, blew hot and cold - disappointing those who had committed themselves to action.

Instead of mobilising consistent "pressure to compel the authorities to grant its demands," the approach was to turn the pressure on, and then try to turn it off again.

Of course ebbs and flows in the mass movement were inevitable: mass action cannot be sustained indefinitely. But the task of leadership is to assess in advance what particular campaigns can achieve, and then carry them through to a conclusion - laying a firm basis from which the movement can once again advance. Cutting off cam­paigns while they are still moving forward only confuses and disorganises a mass movement.

Attitude reflected

In reality, the wavering of the leadership reflected a middle-class attitude to mass mobilisation.

The middle class is oppressed by capitalism (especially in its monopoly form) and, in South Africa particularly, by racialism - but at the same time it is raised by petty privileges above the condition of the workers. It neither controls the means of production nor produces the wealth of society: hence in the struggle between the main social antagonists - the working class and the capitalist class - it has no independent role to play, and no independent policy to offer. It therefore shows no consistency, but tends to bend according to the conflicting pressures on it.

Any determined mass struggle inevitably polarises the capitalist class and the working class against each other. Initially such a movement accentuates divisions among the capitalists, resulting from conflicts over their different particular interests and from uncertainty over their strategy. But the liberal capitalists, too, move ultimately into the camp of reaction when they face a challenge by the workers which cannot be warded off by tricks and smiles.

Only by understanding how the liberal section of the capitalists will behave once a serious revolutionary con­frontation develops can the workers' movement avoid be­ing deceived by the liberals in the earlier stages of its mobilisation.

Forced to choose

When the main classes polarise against each other, this in turn forces the middle layers of society to choose bet­ween two starkly opposed forces, and ultimately two alternative "regimes". Sharp and apparently bewildering swings of the middle classes to left and to right have been a regular feature of revolutionary epochs in all countries.

In South Africa, the bulk of the white middle class has been drawn over a long period to the right, and with it has gone the privileged white workers. Under the impact, however, of capitalist crisis and the rising challenge of the black workers, sudden rifts and radical swings among these layers will occur in the future - both to the extreme right and to the left.

On the other hand, the majority of the black middle class sympathises and identifies with the black workers' movement, and can be drawn behind it by a strong lead. At the same time, however, elements of this middle class pass over into open alliance with the capitalists when they find they can no longer safely occupy middle ground. The first signs of this appear even in the first stages of the polarisation of labour and capital. At the end of the Defiance Campaign, for instance, the Working Commit­tee of the ANC (Cape) noted the departure of "pleading, cowardly, and hamba-kahle leaders who were always ready to compromise after they had been flattered by taking tea with the rulers of the people. These leaders have now been isolated and are siding with their masters to justify oppression and exploitation…"[11]

Today we see the parallel in the role of the Bantustan leaders, the President's Council collaborators, etc.

As the working class and the ruling class struggle more intensely against each other, as more and more of the old middle ground disappears, this process affects the upper layers of the middle class to an ever increasing extent (and can have the unexpected result of even previously respected leaders changing sides).

Decisive influence

The important thing to understand is that the shifts and swings in the behaviour of the middle classes are decisively influenced by the polarisation and grinding action of the main forces of labour and capital against each other. The bulk of the oppressed middle class can be rescued from its dilemma only by a determined lead from the workers.

It is a characteristic blindness of middle-class leaders to seek the impossible "middle way", by "reconciling" labour and capital - by first supporting and then trying to hold back the struggles of workers, and by hoping to reconcile the capitalists to workers' demands. These uto­pian ideas often play a big role at the beginning of a revolutionary epoch, before they are overwhelmed by great events.

In South Africa, especially in the early 1950s, the ANC leadership was characterised by such illusions of recon­ciliation and compromise.

Thus Chief Lutuli, in November 1952 (shortly before he was elected President of the ANC with the support of the Youth League) insisted that the Defiance Campaign was not subversive, "since it does not seek to overthrow the form and machinery of the State but only urges for the inclusion of all sections of the community in a part­nership in the government of the country on the basis of equality." The following year he spoke of "a democracy which shall provide for a partnership in the Government of the Union of South African within the present framework of the Union."[12]

But the Programme of Action and the Defiance Cam­paign implied more than this. They called on the people to take up a struggle for their own needs by methods - civil disobedience, boycott and strike - which inevitably brought them into confrontation with the "law and order" of the state and the authority of the ruling class over pro­duction and society.

Carried into action, they could only bring to light that the struggle for democracy in South Africa involves a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the ruling capitalist class. They therefore struck at the very foundations of the "present framework of the Union."

To pretend otherwise would not deceive the ruling class, acutely conscious of its interests. To pretend other­wise could only conceal from the masses the understan­ding indispensable to their effective mobilisation.

Hopes pinned

Not having learned the necessary lessons from the ex­perience under the United Party and other capitalist governments up to 1948, an influential section of the ANC leadership at this time pinned hopes on a defeat of the Nationalist Party in the 1953 white elections. After the re-election of the NP government (with an increased majority), there was more vocal criticism within the ANC of the "change of heart" conception. Among the critics were the radical nationalists who later formed the core of the PAC split-off from the ANC.

From this time, the ANC leadership spoke increasing­ly in terms of the construction of a "multi-racial united democratic front" to "challenge the forces of reaction in this country."

The African working class - with its families, the ma­jority in society - had every interest in the widest possi­ble unity in action of workers and all genuine strugglers. If powerfully organised, and armed with a clear understanding of its tasks, the working class could have rallied all sections of oppressed society to its side, giving a basis for workers to win over their non-working class supporters to a revolutionary programme.

In that way, the movement could have been united in the struggle for national liberation and democracy, con­sciously linked to the need for workers' power and the socialist transformation of society.

But this was not the kind of "united front" envisaged by the middle-class ANC leadership. They hoped to find "democracy" while evading the question of workers' power and the struggle against capitalism.

Thus, on the one hand, their approach was to construct the "Congress Alliance", linking ethnically-based sister organisations led in each case by the middle class - the Coloured People's Congress, the Indian Congresses, the white Congress of Democrats. On the other hand, they set out to woo the support of open apologists for, and representatives of, the capitalist class.

Under middle-class leadership, they hoped to bind together the opposing interests of the workers and the bosses into a Popular Front of all classes against the NP government.


Thus a characteristic ANC document evaluating the Defiance Campaign for the National Action Committee (December 1952) welcomed as a distinct mark of success the "range of white sympathy" which had been generated among "philosophers, liberals, university professors and other prominent people," including church leaders. Against all the evidence of continued implacable resistance by employers and police to workers' struggles on the factory floor, they claimed that commerce and industry were "propagating liberal and more humane policy."[13]

In 1954, to the ANC conference, Lutuli expressed "gratitude" not only for the formation of the Congress of Democrats, but for the formation of the openly pro-capitalist Liberal Party, on a programme of qualified franchise. Between them and "ourselves", he said, "there exists a warm sympathetic understanding." And he referred to the late J. H. Hofmeyr - Deputy Prime Minister at the time the 1946 African mineworkers' strike was crushed - as a "great South African".

Certainly the force of the rising mass movement had deepened divisions among the ruling class and its supporters. Under the more intense pressures from below today, such divisions have opened up again on an even greater scale. But these do not signify a "change of heart" by the ruling class over the defence of its material interests. They are a sign of its weakening, and of its search for new methods of trickery and division to use against the working people.

Rather than bending and accommodating to the ruling class "progressives", the task for the mass movement is to intensify its pressure. But the right wing of the ANC leadership, particularly, shrank from these class realities. Intimidated by the ruling class, they feared also the forces that would be unleashed by mass confrontation.

Elevated above the condition of the workers, the black middle class in Congress were susceptible to pressures from above - to the weight of the capitalist class and its state. In the wake of the Defiance Campaign, related the Congress right-winger Jordan Ngubane, the Institute of Race Relations organised meetings involving leading liberals as well as Lutuli and two former ANC Presidents. "The majority on the white side," he stated, "wanted us to pursue a course so moderate our people would promptly lynch all of us."[14]

Clearly, the right wing could not afford to go so far. Nevertheless, they insisted on the "non-subversive" character of the mass struggle, and were willing to use their authority and prestige to try to maintain it within limits acceptable to the liberals.

Congress leaders showed the heavy influence of the liberals in clinging still to the dream that South Africa could be changed by an opposition party defeating the Nationalist Party in future white elections. Giving his Presidential address to the Cape ANC in June 1955, Professor Z. K. Matthews criticised the UP opposition and argued that:

"Only a party with a policy diametrically opposed to that of the Nationalists' party will ever remove them from office. No such party has yet emerged from among the people who enjoy the franchise in South Africa. Such a party when it eventually does emerge will probably be in the wilderness for some time, but it will be the only party with a future in South Africa and will constitute a genuine alternative government to that of the Nationalist Party. It is such a party and such a party alone which will be able to preserve South Africa not for white civilisation, but for civilisation as such." (Our emphasis.)

All else aside, this represented a total misunderstanding of the psychology of the white electorate. In the 1950s, the NP government was offering to the white workers and middle class the best they could expect to get in the harsh and uncertain world of capitalism - economic concessions, and the reliable defence of their privilege. This was why the UP opposition refused to budge from the same ground. The liberal splinter parties which emerged in the 1950s might win support from individuals whose conscience was disturbed, but could never have a realistic appeal to the majority of whites.

Organised power

The only thing that could have begun to win respect from white workers was the strongest possible display by black workers of their determination and organised power in fighting for their own rights and class interests - and therefore for the complete transformation of society. While an appeal to the common interests of black and white workers in joining a struggle to overthrow capitalism would probably not have won much support from white workers at that stage, it was the only serious basis on which a conscious revolutionary movement of black workers could have been developed, having the prospect of eventual success.

In reality, the "reasonableness" of the Congress leadership towards the liberal capitalists only hardened the racism of white workers and drove them further to the right. They saw in it a combination of the blacks with the white bosses, and thus felt threatened by it in a way which they would not be threatened by a class-conscious movement of black workers offering workers' unity with a socialist programme.

It was precisely the danger of a "toenadering" of the capitalists and the blacks which was always pointed to in the "swart gevaar" propaganda used by the NP demagogues to whip up fear among the lower class whites.

Therefore the compromising policies of Congress leaders (and class-compromise always has this effect) contributed to the opposite development to that which they intended.

In 1948 the NP government had scraped into office. But it increased its majority in each subsequent test: in the elections of 1953 and 1958, and in the referendum for a Republic in 1960.

Its support growing, the NP government grew more confident in repression. Insistence on the "non-subversive" character of the struggle did not save the Congress movement from intensified restrictions, bans, banishments - or from the arrest of 156 leaders in 1956 on charges of high treason.


Certainly, the state's vicious response to the Defiance Campaign did cause serious activists in Congress to rethink their earlier belief in the almost magical power of unorganised mass actions.

Thus Nelson Mandela, who at the December 1951 ANC conference had called for apartheid to be "made unworkable"[15] by means of the Defiance Campaign, drew sober and important conclusions in his well-known "No Easy Walk to Freedom" speech in September 1953:

"The Congresses realized that these [repressive] measures created a new situation which did not prevail when the campaign was launched in June 1952…

"Long speeches, the shaking of fists, the banging of tables, and strongly worded resolutions out of touch with conditions do not bring about mass action, and can do a great deal of harm to the organization and the struggles we serve. We understood that the masses had to be made ready for new forms of political struggle. We had to recuperate our strength and muster our forces for another and more powerful offensive against the enemy…The Defiance Campaign, together with its thrills and adventures, has receded. The old methods of bringing about mass action through public mass meetings, press statements, and leaflets calling upon the people to go into action have become extremely dangerous and difficult to use effectively…

"The general political level of the people has been considerably raised and they are now more conscious of their strength. Action has become the language of the day. The ties between the working people and the Congress have been greatly strengthened. This is a development of the highest importance because in a country such as ours a political organization that does not receive the support of the workers is paralysed on the very ground on which it has chosen to wage battle…

"From now on the activity of the Congressites must not be confined to speeches and resolutions. Their activities must find expression in wide-scale work among the masses, work which will enable them to make the greatest possible contact with the working people. You must protect and defend your trade unions. If you are not allowed to have your meetings publicly, then you must hold them over your machines in the factories, on the trains and buses as you travel home. You must have them in your villages and shanty-towns. You must make every home and every shack and every mud structure where our people live a branch of the trade union movement, and you must never surrender .

"…Here in South Africa, as in many parts of the world, a revolution is maturing: it is the profound desire, the determination and the urge of the overwhelming majori­ty of the country to destroy forever the shackles of oppression that condemn them to servitude and slavery."

The conclusions drawn by Mandela on the need for the organisation of the working class were quite correct.

But to turn them into reality, something more was needed. That was an understanding of why the organisation of the working class was the key - and a conscious acceptance of the need to transform Congress into an instrument of struggle in which the organised workers predominated and gave clear class leadership to the entire movement.

To put the same point another way: what was needed was an understanding of the capitalist foundation on which the. apartheid system rests, and a programme rousing the working class, linking the democratic and social demands with the ideas of socialism, and imbuing the whole movement with a revolutionary perspective and strategy.

Without this conception - without a deliberate struggle to convince Congress activists and change the direction and leadership of the movement - there could be no fundamental break with the failed methods of the past.

Thus, in fact, neither the Western Areas anti-removals campaign nor the Bantu Education campaign was based on developing the organised strength of the working class.

To move seriously in the direction in which Mandela's speech had pointed, it was not enough for trade union leaders to be elevated into some leading positions in Congress (as happened in the 1950s, and as we see again today in the UDF). Nor was it a question of the workers being organised as "one front" - even "the most important front" - in a struggle of "many fronts" (a terminology current today).

It was a question then - as it still is today - of the working class, its interests and its programme, ruling the policy of the Congress movement.

The awakening of the working class in the early 1950s, its pressure upon Congress, and the search for new direction among the ANC activists provided a fertile field in which an organised campaign to transform the movement on these lines could rapidly have made headway. What would have been necessary to achieve this, however, was the formation of a conscious Marxist tendency within Congress, unashamedly putting forward its ideas and building support systematically among the organised workers.

Communist Party?

Was this not a role which the Communist Party might have performed in the ANC? Was such a transformation of Congress not a means of bringing into being at last the mass workers' party which the CP leaders had failed to build or even prepare before?

Again, tragically, the opportunity was missed. The CP had already degenerated to such a degree - its policies had already parted company to such an extent from the fundamental class ideas of Marxism - that when it turned its forces into Congress in the 1950s it merely propped up and gave a cover to the old mistaken policies and approach of the middle-class leaders.

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[6] In his Presidential address to the December 1951 ANC Conference, Dr. J. S. Moroka stated: "I appeal to them [the white people of this country] to reconsider their attitude towards us. Give us democratic rights in this land of our birth."

[7] No Easy Walk to Freedom, p. 83.

[8] Report of the Joint Planning Council of the ANC and the South African Indian Congress, November 8, 1951.

Despite the success of the 1950-51 one-day strikes, the Planning Council was nervously ambiguous about the role that would be played in the Defiance Campaign by the exercise of workers' industrial muscle:

"We cannot fail to recognise that industrial action is second to none, the best and most important weapon in the struggle of the people for the repeal of the unjust Laws and that it is inevitable that this method of struggle has to be undertaken, at one time or another during the course of the struggle…We are nevertheless of the opinion that in this next phase of our campaign lawful industrial action should not be resorted to immediately, but that it should be resorted to at a later stage in the struggle. In this new phase of the campaign a sustained form of mass action will be necessary which will gradually embrace larger groups of people, permeate both the urban and the rural areas and make it possible for us to organise, discipline and lead the people in a planned manner…It should be noted, however, that our recommendations do not preclude the use of lawful industrial action during the first stage provided that conditions make its use possible on a local, regional, provincial or national scale."

[9] Drum, February 1955, p. 17. (Quoted in Tom Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945, London, 1983, p. 105.)

[10] Quoted in From Protest to Challenge, A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964, edited by Karis and Carter, Stanford, 1977, vol. 3, p. 26-7.

[11] From "Circular Letter to All Congress Branches of the Province", December 1952.

[12] The Road to Freedom is Via the Cross, published by the ANC, London (undated), p. 9 and p.17.

[13] From Protest to Challenge, vol. 2, p. 426.

[14] From Protest to Challenge, vol. 3, p. 298.

[15] Guardian, December 27, 1951; quoted in Strategic Problems in South Africa's Liberation Struggle: A Critical Analysis, by Ben Turok, LSM, 1974, p. 24.

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