Lessons of the 1950s

7. 1957-58: The movement in a crucial phase

By 1957 any relative lull in the mass struggle in South Africa had completely evaporated. This reflected itself partly in a rise of strike action, from the low point of the decade in 1953 to a high point in 1955-57. But the weakness of the workers' organisations meant that the movement flowed predominantly along other channels.

What provoked this movement were specific attacks by employers and the government: fare increases, the introduction of passes for women, and the imposition of "Bantu Authorities" in the reserves.

Economically, South African capitalism was entering a recession, and the ruling class sought to lay the burden on the workers. "It would seem," stated the government's Viljoen report on industry in 1958, "that the boom in secondary industry has for the present largely spent its force." In fact, between 1955-6 and 1959-60 only 5,397 new jobs were created for African workers. The capitalists held off wage concessions even for white workers in, e.g., building and engineering during this period.

Early signs of resurgence of mass struggle were the launching of a bus boycott in Evaton in July 1955, and the burning of passes by women in Winburg in March 1956. In both cases militant and determined action under local leadership produced victories. As a result of the women's action in Winburg, the government stopped issuing passes to women for six months. In Evaton, after a boycott for more than ten months, bitterly and violently contested, the fare increases were withdrawn and a measure of control over the running of transport was conceded to a locally-elected committee.

The demonstration of 20,000 women from all over South Africa at the Union Buildings in August 1956 (called by the Federation of South African Women) showed the enormous militant potential of working-class women. This was only the beginning.

From the end of 1956, when the government again started issuing passes to women - in country districts and small towns - a spontaneous struggle erupted, drawing in the men as well. During 1957 this escalated, involving general strike action in some towns, and merging with resistance to Bantu Authorities in a number of areas in the Transvaal. From April, for example, there was an open mass revolt under way in the Marico district.

Meanwhile the same was taking place in urban areas. On January 7, 1957, a bus boycott began in Alexandra in protest against a decision by PUTCO to raise bus fares by 1d (one penny) to 5d. From the start it was a solid demonstration of working-class solidarity. The boycott spread immediately to Sophiatown and Lady Selborne in Pretoria - and to Atteridgeville, Mooiplaats, Newclare in Pretoria, as well as to Germiston and Edenvale.

On January 13, workers from Moroka and Jabavu - 20,000 or so - joined in solidly, even though fares had not been raised there. In February, solidarity boycotts began in other parts of the country: Randfontein, Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, Bloemfontein. In March an existing partial boycott in Brakpan was made total. In April a bus boycott developed in Worcester.

The working-class atmosphere of the movement is captured in contemporary accounts:

"For five or six hours every day endless streams of walkers filled the pavements. Over the rise that obscures Alexandra Township from the main road came the eruption of workers in the dawn hours when mists and brazier fires mingle indistinguishably together. End to end the road was filled with shadowy, hurrying figures. Then the forms thinned out as the younger men with the firmest, sprightly step drew away from the older people, the women, the lame.

"In the late afternoons and early evenings, the same crowds turned their backs on the city and again took to the roads. Down the hill the footsloggers found it easier (though by the tenth and eleventh weeks of the boycott many shoes were worn to pitiful remnants), the spindly-legged youngsters trotted now and then to keep up, the progress of the weary women was slower still, here a large Monday washing bundle carried on the head, there a paraffin tin, or the baby tied securely to the back." (Ruth First, in Africa South, July-September 1957.)

"Not since the days of the Defiance Campaign," she continued, "had Africans held so strategic a position…Throughout the long weeks of the boycott, the political initiative in South Africa passed out of the hands of the Government and the Cabinet and into the hands of the African people."


On the whole, the initiative lay with the working class. According to the then ANC activist, Tennyson Makiwane:

"The protest by the people which has soared to such inspiring success these few weeks has been achieved with the minimum of fuss and bother, no central coordination of the boycott and wholly local direction of the protest movement." (Fighting Talk, February 1957.)

In Alexandra, the leadership of the boycott was in the hands of a People's Transport Committee, responsible to mass meetings. Local ANC activists were prominent on it.

In fact, the Alexandra boycott broke through an increasing isolation of the national ANC leadership from the mass mood. They had played no part in the earlier Evaton bus boycott, and when they had been approached by the women in Winburg for advice on how to respond to the government's introduction of passes, they had advised the women not to burn them.


Guidelines issued to activists by the Congress National Consultative Committee on the women's struggle over passes, in December 1956, showed that one important conclusion on the implications of the struggle had begun to dawn:

"The pass system is the foundation of the whole cheap labour system in South Africa; the ruling class will not easily be forced to give it up. It follows, that victory in the struggle against the pass laws must not be looked for in every minor skirmish against the enemy…Final victory for the people means the end of the cheap labour system in South Africa. It can only be achieved finally by the overthrow of the ruling class, and by the winning of the Freedom Charter as the ruling policy of South Africa."

But from this fact, the document failed to draw any clear conclusions on how to prepare and mobilise the working people for these revolutionary tasks. Instead, it concentrated on warning that acts of resistance and defiance could not be expected to produce results. Instead of a clear lead, there was, effectively, no lead.

On the one hand, stated the guidelines: "Nothing should be said or done which would discourage…acts of defiance, passive resistance," by the women. (Actually the women's defiance was far from passive.) "But," it continued, "this is not the only way to fight, nor even the best way. Even widespread acts of passive resistance alone cannot, in the long run, deter the government from its course, if it is determined to use all its force, authority and power to enforce its will…We must not let our enthusiasm blind us to the prospects of overwhelming government force - mass deportations, sackings from jobs, evictions from homes, etc - which can be unleashed against passive resisters, to break their resistance."

What alternative was proposed to take the struggle forward? Only generalities so vague that no-one would be able to draw from them a direction for any clear campaign:

"There are other ways of struggle against the pass laws, each of which has its place. Pass laws can be fought by demonstrations and strikes, by petitions and meetings, by boycott and resistance and disobedience, by active struggle as well as passive. Which of these ways is best? This can only be conceived in the precise circumstances in which we find ourselves in each area at any one time. Sometimes one and sometimes another…We must be ready to use any and every means of struggle which are appropriate and possible at any time and which advance us to our goal…"

"The campaign must be conducted - as befits a long-drawn out war - with flexibility and skill, now using one weapon, now another…"

In practice, the magnificent local resistance struggles of the women against passes were not built upon nationally, and became confined mainly to the organisation of meetings, petitions and demonstrations. The women's activity was not linked to the task of building and using the organised strength of the workers in production.

With the launching and spread of the bus boycott movement - at the same time as the struggle of women against passes was taking off - the ANC and CP leadership faced an even more serious test. Though Congress had not initiated the struggle, the working people were looking to it for a lead.

Moreover, the government itself threw down a challenge. The boycott, declared Minister of Transport Schoeman, "was not an economic matter, but a political move in which the African National Congress was testing its strength…If the Government capitulated to this political move I dare not think what the future would hold for us. But there will be no capitulation…

"The boycott will be broken whether it continues for one month or six months. We are convinced that this is only a beginning. These plans have been plotted for a long time. This is merely the precipitating event and their leaders are preparing themselves for the struggle…If they want a showdown they will get it."[32]

Moreover, commented the Natal Daily News:

"Mr Schoeman did not say so in Parliament but there is good reason to believe that the Cabinet thinks if the boycott were to succeed over bus fares it would become the conventional and invariable weapon against all other increased charges levied on the Bantu, such as house rentals.

"As such it would have become the effective political weapon for an unenfranchised majority in other fields as well and would eventually enable the Bantu to challenge the authority of the Government itself."

What was frightening the government - and the whole ruling class - was that the African working class in struggle was beginning to sense its own power.

Generalise demands

Once launched into action, the working class inevitably begins to generalise its demands beyond the issue which sparked matters off. If fare increases could not be afforded, it was easy to conclude, the cause was inadequate wages. From the heart of the boycott movement the demand for £1 a day emerged - and was pressed on the Congress leadership.

At a week's notice in the midst of the boycott, on February 10, SACTU convened a National Workers' Conference. It was attended by over 300 delegates representing 24,000 organised workers, as well as unorganised workers from over 100 factories. The demand for £1 a day national minimum wage was unanimously acclaimed, and the conference set a target of organising 20,000 workers on this basis.

Like lightning, around the country, the slogan of the boycott, "Azikwelwa" ("we will not ride"), was joined by the slogan, "Asinamali" ("we have no money").

The bus boycott was a painful enough weapon through which to press demands for withdrawal of fare increases. It could not, of course, enforce wider demands, certainly not for £1 a day. Among other reasons, it left the employers in possession of the labour-power of the workers, while progressively tiring out the workers.

Mobilisation at that time by the Congress leadership for a countrywide 24-hour general strike, linking the fares issue with the demand for £1 a day national minimum wage, and raising the slogan of "one man one vote", would have been the most effective way to consolidate the whole mass movement and carry forward the offensive.

It would have cemented the unity of the already-organised workers. It could, around the £1 a day demand, have drawn unorganised workers into the unions - probably in far greater numbers than SACTU's 20,000 target. It could have linked together the struggle over fares, wages, passes and all the democratic issues - and directed it consciously against the source of the cheap labour system, the capitalists and their state.

Durban strikes

According to activists of the early 1970s, the strike movement which erupted in Durban in 1973 against rising prices nearly began as a transport boycott. Who can doubt the impact on our history - in terms of the resurgence of the working-class movement - that resulted from the fact that it took the form of a strike movement, demonstrating the strength of the working class at the point of production?

The movement in 1973, moreover, emerged out of the darkest ebb of the 1960s, and in the absence of nationwide political or trade union leadership. In 1957 the mass movement was surging forward at a peak of confidence, and looking in one direction - to Congress - for leadership.

These were the very dangers feared by the ruling class. Between the left and right wings of the capitalist class, there occurred a "division of labour". While the government camp took its adamant stand against the boycott, the "progressive" capitalists scurried to find other strategies to restore control over the masses.

This latter section of the ruling class was perceptive enough to see that the movement could not be halted without making some concessions. For them, therefore, the first task was to restrict the issue to the minimum concession which would be acceptable to leaders of the boycott and could be "sold" to the people.

The problem for these liberals was that the committees controlling the boycott were democratically responsible to mass meetings.

Initial negotiations between PUTCO, the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and the Alexandra "Standholders Association" of petty businessmen could hardly impress the working class. It was necessary to "widen" the negotiations.

A series of intermediaries stepped in, including members of the Liberal Party, Ambrose Reeves (Bishop of Johannesburg), and ex-ANC leaders. The departure point of these elements was an insistence that any settlement should not (in the words of a Liberal Party memorandum on the subject) involve issues "beyond the preservation of pre-boycott fares."

Proposals for a settlement on these terms were cobbled together by the end of February, and combined with the threat by PUTCO of a "permanent" withdrawal of buses from Alexandra.

Before mass meetings were held to discuss these proposals, the press was already announcing that a settlement had been agreed! On the day when the mass meetings were to take place, the Mayor of Johannesburg issued a call to the boycotters to "preserve the goodwill and sympathy you have received from all quarters," by returning to the buses. He reminded them that, in addition to the proposals for temporary reversion to pre-boycott fares, he was promising to "request" the government to "investigate" wages of unskilled workers: "This may result in a wage increase." (Rand Daily Mail, March 1, 1957.)

Nevertheless, eight weeks into the boycott, the working people remained firm in rejecting these proposals. The mood was for broadening out the struggle.

A meeting in Western Native Township on March 1, for example, greeted with "cheers and thumbs-up signs…the statement by one woman that promises could not be trusted. 'They say they will raise our wages in three month's time…Let them raise them now.'" (Rand Daily Mail, March 2, 1957.)

The boycott continued for another month. By then, however, the ruling class was able to impose the same settlement terms on a more exhausted - and by now divided - movement.

At the end of March, the proposals were considered by three separate mass meetings in Alexandra. Two of these meetings accepted the settlement while the third, the largest, rejected it.

This division was serious enough to break the movement in Alexandra, and the buses began to fill once again. Nevertheless, the solidarity boycotts in Moroka and Jabavu continued for a further two weeks. In Lady Selborne in Pretoria, which had not been included in the settlement, the boycott continued in isolation into 1958!

Unfortunately, the Congress leadership had a role in producing this dangerous division, which cannot be passed over in silence. From the start they set themselves against any generalising of the movement, in its demands, its scale, or its methods.

In the Eastern Cape, they used their authority to call off the solidarity boycotts that had erupted: in East London after two days, and in Port Elizabeth after two weeks.[33] On the Rand they placed their weight with the liberals who were arguing that the settlement must be confined to the initial issue, and on the Alexandra People's Transport Committee increasingly sided with the conservative Standholders Committee against those who were for extending the scope of the struggle.


In their fundamental approach to the struggle, there was complete conformity between the CP and ANC leaders. Indeed, as an ANC member of the APTC subsequently related, it was on the advice of Kotane, general secretary of the Communist Party, that "we gave the chairmanship (of the APTC) to S. Mahlangu, chairman of the Standholders Association, to convince the people that it was they [!] who were in control, that the boycott was a matter for the whole township, not just an affair of the ANC. He [Kotane] was always thinking about involving wider and wider groups [!] of people in action."[34]

How did the Congress leadership justify their policies? "To put it briefly," recorded Lutuli in his autobiography, "the Chamber of Commerce appeared willing to do what the adamant Government refused to do, which was to subsidise the company indirectly rather than place a new burden on poor folk. It was here that Congress leadership came in. The difficulty was that the boycott was such an unqualified success that many people wanted to extend it whether or not the boycotters' demands were met. It seemed to us that if the declared objective could be attained, the boycott should cease. We were very much aware of the hardship of the rank-and-file boycotters, and aware, too, that if opinion became divided the whole boycott might fizzle out and the Government intention ultimately triumph. For these reasons we threw the weight of our argument in on the side of terminating the boycott if the initial demands of the people were met. There is an end to endurance. That is a reality which wise leadership must take into account."[35]


Most certainly there is an end to endurance, and a wise leadership makes a level-headed appraisal of when that end is approaching - so as to use its authority to bring about a tactical turn and preserve the unity of its embattled forces.

Only phrasemongers, barren of understanding or real alternatives to offer, elevate boycotts to a "principle" and seek to sustain them hopelessly beyond the point of exhaustion.

But the reluctance of many thousands in Alexandra and elsewhere to end the boycott (at a time when, taken alone, it could plainly achieve little more) resulted from their readiness to carry forward their resistance in new forms, and their unrewarded thirst for the leadership, strategy and tactics with which to do so.

It was because the Congress and CP leaders would offer no concrete plans, no action programme, no unified conception of how to take the movement forward, that the Alexandra boycott ended in division, with a sterile argument between "die-hard" boycotters and the leadership who called the boycott off.

More correctly, perhaps, it should be said that this was the result because no strong Marxist tendency existed at the time, able to explain and rally support within Congress for a realistic alternative.

Thus the CP was able to cover its own policy of retreat under a screen of attacks against the die-hard boycotters. CP leader "Rusty" Bernstein's article in Fighting Talk (May 1957) was an especially skilful evasion of the central issue of how precisely to carry the movement forward, and for that reason is worth quoting at some length:

"Can this be victory, it is asked, when the people pay the old fare of 4d, but the denomination '5d' appears printed on the ticket? Can this be victory, it is asked, when the duration of the settlement is dependent upon the Chamber of Commerce's £25,000 fund, with no guarantees for what happens thereafter? The debate can well be left to garrulous old men in wheel-chairs, for whom verbal exercise is all-important and the hard realities of life of no consequence.

"The reality is that the people have returned to the buses, and still pay four pence…The real issue now is how to use the breathing space provided by the settlement to prepare the people's forces for the second round of struggle which will come to full maturity when the Chamber of Commerce Fund runs out.

"…Only fools can seek to enter into these battles by destroying the people's confidence in the gains with which they have just emerged, by raising their doubts as to whether it was worthwhile, and by raising their suspicions against those who led. Men who would be generals must understand that substantial gains have been won; and that the confidence in their own strength which the people draw from such gains is the stepping-stone to new and greater gains in the battles that lie ahead. Unity, determination, courage won the gains of yesterday; tomorrow's battle, if it is to be won, must start from the pinnacles of self-confidence and high morale which can grow from such victories, but only if the initiative amongst the people can be taken from the disruptive critics, and returned to those who can understand that even partial, temporary victory becomes a weapon to advance new conquests.

"…In many areas 'perfectionism' damped the flavour of victory and in some the settlement was, at first, rejected 'until a minimum wage of £1 a day is achieved'. No doubt the leaders meant well. But they became giddy with their own success, imagining that a boycott could bring not just PUTCO but the whole national body of employers to its knees. Setting the sights this high and raising the people's hopes so unrealistically could only make the settlement seem a let-down. There is a moral in this…[that] political leaders can only lead successfully while their feet are planted firmly on the ground of reality; that a struggle cannot be dragged beyond the limits of the people's strength, understanding and willingness to fight, no matter how radical and militant the slogans advanced by the leaders; that leadership consists not only in knowing how to go forward, but equally in knowing when and how to stop, or to retreat in good order and in unity.

"There are times - and the thirteenth week of the boycott was surely one - when it is impossible to go forward any longer without a pause to regain lost breath or recover balance; times when one step back is an essential condition for taking two steps forward…When that testing time came in Alexandra, the real leaders revealed their true mettle, while the adventurers cried 'Forward!' even when it was apparent that their bitter-end actions could only result in the whole struggle being frittered away and lost.

"It was in this testing hour that the central leadership of the African National Congress showed its quality and its statesmanship. The adventurers now claim that the ANC 'sold us out'. The barren formalists, even in the ranks of the ANC itself, claim that their leadership should not have intervened to win the people for the boycott settlement, because the boycott was the concern of the united-front People's Transport Committee and not of the ANC…No serious organisation can ever be bound, by the formality of a united-front committee's existence, to sit idly by and watch that committee fritter away the substance of people's victory, and fail to give leadership when leadership is needed…

"The first loyalty of the ANC leadership was to their people, not to the Alexandra boycott committee. Only those on the inner leadership of the boycott will know the real, painstaking statesmanship which guided the ANC leadership during this period…If there is credit attaching to the boycott committee for its determined and skilful handling of the boycott in all its earlier period, then much of that credit attaches to the ANC which guided and influenced its direction. And if, in the end, it appeared that the gains of the boycott would be lost by adventurous calls for greater sacrifices than the people were ready to make, it is to the credit of the ANC leadership that it reacted as people's leaders should; that it pocketed its pride in order to recommend careful consideration and acceptance of the settlement.

"…And the leadership of the ANC, which intervened directly in the boycott at the eleventh hour, has been vindicated by the people, who considered the settlement offer, used their own good sense to weigh up the possibilities of further resistance, and then accepted it…That the acceptance of the settlement was disorderly and ragged - first Alexandra, later Moroka, and with Pretoria left outside the area of the settlement - is the result not of the ANC intervention, but of the fatal divisions among the boycott leaders themselves, who failed to rise to the historic moment and seize the settlement and victory when both were there to be taken."[36]

All this completely evaded the central issue involved. It was necessary to look beyond the objections of the diehard boycotters, for the real question was not whether the boycott itself should be extended. In fact, in Alexandra itself, pressure was mounting as early as March for the transformation of the boycott into a general strike.

General strike

General strike action is a question of the utmost seriousness for the working class.

The generalised withdrawal of labour directly challenges the "right" of the ruling class to command the productive system. It poses the question: "which class rules society?" To this challenge the ruling class will respond with whatever means it can muster.

Therefore, no leadership calls for general strike action lightly. It must be warranted by the objective situation, the mass mood must be ready for it, and it must be organisationally prepared.

At the same time strike action - of which a general strike is the highest form - is an indispensable weapon for the working class in building its class understanding and confidence. As Trotsky, the great Russian Marxist, put it in the 1930s: "By means of the strike, various strata and groups of the proletariat announce themselves, signal to one another, verify their own strength and the strength of their foe. One layer awakens and infects another…Only through these strikes, with all their mistakes, with all their 'excesses' and 'exaggerations', does the proletariat rise to its feet, assemble itself as a unity, begin to feel and to conceive of itself as a class, as a living historical force."[37]

An indefinite general strike puts the question of power itself at issue. Unless the regime or the bosses compromise on the basic issue which has provoked the strike, it can lead only to one of two results for the workers: a tremendous political victory over the forces of the enemy or, ultimately, a severe defeat.

In South Africa, violent confrontation with murderous state forces is obviously inherent in such a situation. While an all-out general strike does not necessarily lead to insurrection, such a strike poses the problems of revolution starkly before the workers. It makes workers see the necessity of taking over the control of the factories, mines, docks, farms, etc, and of establishing their own democratic rule. The strike committees which spring up to organise the strike are themselves the local embryos of workers' rule.

For all these reasons, a general strike requires thorough organisational and political preparation, for which a hardened and clear-headed leadership is a paramount need.

On the other hand, a limited general strike - called for 24 hours, for example, or longer - provides a means for the working class and its leadership to test the balance of forces in action. Properly prepared and with the right timing, it gives the working class the opportunity to assess its state of readiness, and gives confidence to the unorganised and helps bring them into the organised movement. It can prepare the way to push the ruling class further onto the retreat.

A limited general strike is therefore a means of mobilising and preparing for further action. It needs to be explained to the workers in that light, and linked with a coherent strategy by which the movement, as it gathers strength and disorganises the enemy forces, can move towards bigger-scale confrontations.

By the same token, a limited general strike which reveals weaknesses of organisation, preparation and leadership in the working class can be used to turn the attention of the activists in a concentrated way to correcting these in preparation for other mass mobilisations later.

Thus the strike itself is no panacea: the crucial thing is how the strike tactic is approached, understood and consciously used.

What is absolutely fatal is to repeatedly call 24-hour or other limited general strikes without them leading anywhere, without them forming part of a clear strategic plan. This only frustrates workers, causes them to see such strikes as useless, and so weakens the response to successive strike calls.

The practice of "stay-at-homes" which has developed over the decades in South Africa has suffered from precisely this defect - because these actions have been unconnected with any overall strategic plan.

Moreover, the lack of a coherent strategy had a lot to do with the reluctance of Congress leaders in the 1950s to take up the general strike weapon at all.

Held off

Strike action was a weapon in the arsenal of the Programme of Action; yet despite the pressures from activists at times, the Congress leadership had held off from it since 1950-51. Moreover, the one-day strikes in 1950-51 had been essentially regional in character - first on the Rand, then in Natal and the Cape, then again in the Cape.

But what existed in the early months of 1957 was a nationwide movement - symbolised in the response in Bloemfontein and the Eastern Cape to the Alexandra boycott. The upsurge was both in the major cities and because of the women's anti-pass campaign and resistance to Bantu Authorities - in the smaller towns and the countryside as well. What was coming into being was the "generalised mass action" that the Planning Council had envisaged for the Defiance Campaign.

But, because they were under the pressure of the liberal capitalists on whom they counted for support, the Congress leaders did not seize the opportunity. A huge chance to consolidate and develop the struggle for democracy and workers' power was squandered. The consequences, as they set in, were to be profound.

Disappointment in the leadership produced division among the masses, thus weakening the movement, and providing opportunities for the ruling class to recover the initiative.

It is true that general strike action did take place under the banner of Congress - for one day on 26 June 1957 and again during the election in April 1958. Despite massive mobilisation by the state machine and the bosses against them, these were massively supported by workers around the country.

But in neither case did this result from a clear and unambiguous call by the leadership for strike action. 26 June 1957 was named by Congress as a "Day of Protest, Prayer and Dedication" - in which each area was left to decide its own form of demonstration. In 1958, the original intention was - as suggested by Lutuli in November 1957 - that "election day could very well be a day of mass prayer and dedication to the freedom cause." (New Age, November 7, 1957.)

That these calls became transformed into mobilisation for strike action was the result of the pressure of the working class, which was responded to by worker-activists particularly in SACTU.

More effective

How much more effective would have been a 24-hour strike call at the height of the mass movement in early 1957? In September that year the secretary of SACTU's Milling Union, remarking how "our workers have come to look on the £1 a day campaign to end their sufferings and hardships of their low wages," complained that, "they feel that work for the campaign is far too slow." (Workers' Unity, August-September, 1957.) Strike action at the height of the boycott mood could have transformed the £1 a day campaign overnight into an effective movement for mass unionisation - and put the employers on the defensive, as did the Durban strikes in 1973.

As it was, even with the pressure of the boycott alone, the "adamant" government was forced to rush through Parliament the Native Services Levy Act which made employers pay a subsidy to transport, and to institute Wage Board enquiries (some of which resulted in wage increases). How much more would determined strike action have compelled the employers to make good their "promises" immediately.

CP leader Bernstein argued, in the passage we have quoted, that the real issue was "how to use the breathing space provided by the [Alexandra] settlement to prepare the people's forces for the second round of struggle." But the failure to broaden action in January/February meant that the mood of the masses came off the boil - while the ruling class was given a breathing space.[38]

Moreover, how did the ANC and CP leadership use this "breathing space" to arm the working class politically and organisationally for renewed struggle? In May 1957, when 40,000 African workers struck in Johannesburg against the pass laws and marched to the City Hall - this action was opposed by senior ANC leaders.


Instead the ANC sent an appeal to government and business leaders, putting forward the demand for £1 a day. Regarding the role of the Mayor of Johannesburg and the President of the Chamber of Commerce in the bus boycott settlement, this memorandum stated:

The ANC wishes to place on record its deep appreciation of the untiring and noble efforts of these two citizens of our country, who, under difficult and trying circumstances, boldly pursued their object of finding some temporary solution to the dispute.

"To find a long-term solution to the problem of higher fares," it continued, "is the concern and responsibility of all of us: the Government, the employers, the workers and the public generally." But how, when the Transvaal Chamber of Industries had already called the £1 a day demand "reckless and irresponsible", could an amiable "long-term solution" be arrived at, reconciling the workers with their exploiters?

By 1958, frustration at the lack of a clear lead to action was producing increasing anger among Congress activists at the leadership, and differences surfaced between SACTU and the ANC.

From late 1957 SACTU began to mobilise for a series of Workers' Conferences in early 1958, around not only the £1 a day campaign, but also around demands for ending job reservation, passes for women, deportations, and the pass laws generally.

Regional conferences in February were followed by a National Workers' Conference in March. Present were 1,637 delegates and 3,000 observers representing, it was claimed, 46,000 workers directly and a further 128,000 indirectly.

The mood at the conference was enthusiastic, determined and militant. During the session on the pass laws the entire meeting rose to its feet and surrounded the Special Branch "observers" with passes brandished in every hand. The warmest applause was given to those who attacked not merely the NP government but the system of capitalism.

This conference resolved to organise - to begin two days before the elections - "a week of National stay at home, protest and demonstration" in support of demands for £1 a day and the abolition of passes.

Though the initiative for this conference, and for its decisions, came from workers organised in SACTU, the middle-class ANC leadership took over from SACTU the responsibility for the campaign.

Despite the Workers' Conference decision, the ANC immediately shortened the call from a week-long to a 3-day stay-at-home. Then, shortly before it was due to start, Lutuli announced at a press conference on behalf of the ANC that "there would not be a nationwide strike: the strike would be called only in those areas where success was feasible; in all other areas, local conditions would determine the nature of the demonstrations."[39]

Moreover, despite the atmosphere at the Workers' Conference against the bosses, Lutuli insisted that "the stoppages of work which form part of the demonstrations were not specifically directed against commerce and industry"! (Rand Daily Mail, April 7, 1958.)

But this did not pacify the bosses. As usual, they showed a far more realistic appreciation of the class struggle which was taking place than the foggy-headed middle class. In 1957 the President of the Transvaal Chamber of Industries, in an "urgent confidential" memo to members, called the June 26 day of protest a "test of strength" to be met by Industry with "resolute solidarity"[40], and employers called factory meetings to threaten with dismissal workers who intended striking.

The repression in 1958 was more severe still. Not only were there warnings and threats from the government, from UP leader Graaff, and from employers. All meetings of more than ten people were banned (the ANC was also banned in a number of rural areas). Police leave was cancelled, the army was put on readiness, and convict labour was on call. On the first morning of the strike, squads of police armed with sten guns entered the townships at 2 a.m.

The Mayor of Johannesburg warned workers that an "illegal stoppage" would dissipate the "fast-growing evidence among employer organisations of goodwill and a willingness…to develop proper means of consultation." (Rand Daily Mail, April 11, 1958.)

Workers' response

But workers, on the whole, were neither intimidated by the repression nor taken in by professions of "goodwill". Shamefully, however, five non-SACTU African unions as well as right-wing "Africanists" in Congress openly opposed the stay-at-home.

On the first day, the strike was at least 50% effective in Port Elizabeth. The mood there was reflected in a statement by one worker: "The bosses are dead scared only when we talk with one voice…If they were not afraid, why bring in the army? Why do they beg us so to come to work if we shall be the ones to go hungry if we do not go to work?" (New Age, April 24, 1958.)

In Durban the strike was estimated to be 30% effective on the first day - with major participation from African workers there for the first time in the decade. The Durban dockworkers were solid, and won wage increases as a result of their action.

On the Rand on the first day, the response was more disappointing. In 1957 the stay-away in June had been estimated to be 70-80% effective in Johannesburg and Vereeniging, and 50% effective elsewhere on the Rand. Now, while Sophiatown and Newclare were solid, the stay-away elsewhere was estimated at no more than 10%.

This low response was a reflection of an uncertainty setting in among many workers as a result of indecisive leadership, the opportunities missed by Congress, and the divisions that were already opening up in the ranks. Had the strike been sustained for three days according to plan, it would have allowed the activists time to convince their fellow workers to follow the example of the areas that had responded best on the first day.

The low first-day response in much of the Rand was thus no reason whatsoever for calling off the action. Yet this is what the ANC leadership did.

In Port Elizabeth and Durban, and on the Rand as well, SACTU activists were furious. As Nimrod Sejake has recalled (Inqaba, no. 12):

"I remember buying a newspaper and seeing the headline: 'General Secretary of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, calls off strike.'

"I was furious. Because, at that time, we were on bail from the Treason Trial, and one of the conditions was that we did not attend meetings or organise in any way. But, nevertheless, we had risked organising the workers to make the strike a success."

Workers in Sophiatown and Newclare ignored the call-off, and, in bitter battles with the police, continued to strike for the full three days.


The ruling class took full advantage of the decision to call off the strike, seeing it as weakness. In contrast with 1957, punitive reprisals were taken not only against known activists, but against ordinary workers who had participated. In some areas trials were going on a year later. The situation was starkly summed up in a report from the Food and Canning Union in Port Elizabeth to head office: "At one of the factories here one Employer scrawled on the Reference Book of one of his workers when he dismissed him for the 14th April: ANC supporter."

SACTU's official history, Organize or Starve!, records (p. 354):

"Whether or not the leadership should have taken the decision to end the protest after the first day became a much-debated issue within the Congress Alliance…The Management Committee of SACTU reacted very strongly to this and the relationship between the ANC and SACTU suffered a temporary but serious strain. The question of SACTU's equality with its partners in the alliance came to the fore, and SACTU leaders realized that many ANC members did not regard SACTU as an important force in the struggle. The decision also pointed to the need for SACTU to take a more independent stand on mat­ters directly affecting the working class…"

Indeed, what matters affecting the Congress movement did not directly affect the working class? The vital task for the working class was to put its own stamp upon the whole of Congress policy. In this, the workers organised in SACTU could have played a decisive role.

But there was no Marxist tendency in Congress, based in the trade unions and among the youth, which might have given a lead in this.

Instead, sad to say, the magnificent potential aroused in the working class, the fighting and self-sacrificing spirit of the mass of the people, was frustrated by the leadership - and was cut across by growing confusion, division, demoralisation and, eventually, serious defeat.

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[32] Rand Daily Mail, January 25, 1957; February 6, 1957.

[33] In Port Elizabeth, three days after the Congress leaders called off the solidarity boycott there, black dockworkers began a go-slow and were joined by railway workers. They decided to start work one hour later, stop one hour earlier, and not to work overtime or at weekends. The dockworkers were demanding a wage increase from 11/6 a day to 25/-; the railway workers an increase from £4/10/0 a month to £7.

This strike was the fruit of SACTU organising work; success would have been a critical breakthrough in the tough transport sector.

Against the strikers not simply police but troops were brought in and placed on standby. To work on the weekend of 2-3 March, stevedores were shipped in from Cape Town and East London, having been told the lie that a transport boycott in Port Elizabeth was preventing stevedores from getting to work. At the same time the state placed convict labour on call, and began to recruit "endorsed out" workers in the Ciskei and Transkei and place them under guard in tents at the docks.

On Monday March 4, the Port Elizabeth dockworkers and railway workers were told to drop their demands unconditionally, or be locked out. They refused to budge, and were locked out and replaced by the convict labour.

Immediate protest from the international labour movement forced the government to withdraw the prison labour. Nevertheless the workers, fearing replacement by the Transkei/Ciskei labour, agreed to return to work on March 7.

The railway workers who participated in the action were fired; the stevedores had their wages cut.

In the context of nationwide mobilisation for even a 24-hour general strike, this defeat might well have been avoided. The state would not have been able to concentrate its efforts and resources at this one site of struggle, and would have found much more difficulty finding workers from other areas to break the strike.

[34] Quoted in Moses Kotane, p.231-2.

[35] Let My People Go, Fontana edition, p. 157-8.

[36] Fighting Talk, May 1957.

[37] "The Role of Strikes in a Revolution", in The Spanish Revolution (1931-39), Pathfinder Press, p. 159.

[38] In the months after the settlement of the Alexandra bus boycott, the ruling class used the "breathing space" with which it had been provided…to launch attacks on the factory strongholds of SACTU's largest unions.

In 1957 bosses at Advance and Rand Steam Laundries, the Laundry Union's key Transvaal bases, withdrew stop-order facilities. These were employers whom SACTU had regarded as "reasonably cordial". (Organize or Starve!, p. 216-7.)

In June 1957 workers struck at Philip Frame's Consolidated Textile Mills in Durban. Though they won their demands, Frame used the negotiations to withdraw stop-order facilities from the union, and take the medical benefit fund out of its hands. Soon afterwards he began dismissing Textile Union activists.

In 1957, also, the Food and Canning Workers Union had stop-order facilities cut off for its African section by the two biggest food-canning monopolies, LKB and H. Jones. It also suffered a severe setback in losing a strike at Spekenham in Cape Town, where it was attempting to break through from fruit-canning to other sections of canning.

In February 1958 a strike at Amato Textiles in Benoni was viciously broken by the police. This had been the fortress of the Textile Workers Union in the Transvaal. In the wake of the strike, not only were hundreds of workers dismissed, but they were black-listed from employment elsewhere in Benoni, and many were deported off the Rand. "Although the workers' militant spirit had not been crushed by these repressive measures, the mass strike action characteristic of Amato workers ceased to exist for some time." (Ibid., p. 287.)

Even SACTU's biggest victory of the year later turned sour. Workers in the Milling Union won 12.5% wage increases at six Johannesburg flour mills in November 1957 as a result of strike action. New Age commented that it was "the most successful African strike for a long time". But within a few months, "Union officials had been arrested and shop stewards were being prevented from collecting subs from workers." (Ibid., p. 223-4.)

The confidence with which the employers and the state conspired together to inflict these blows stemmed from their sense of the vacillation and uncertainty of the Congress leadership, and the division and confusion this was producing among the working class.

[39] Stanley Uys, writing in Africa South, July-September 1958, p. 47.

[40] Quoted in From Protest to Challenge, vol. 3, p. 278.

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