Lessons of the 1950s

9. Division weakens the movement

During the 1950s Congress activists had built, if not strong workplace organisation, at least strong bases in many townships. But, as one such activist reflected later:

"What was disquieting in the closing years of the 50s was that even in these townships active support for the movement was slipping away. A magnificent bus boycott, which made a national impact, was carried out in Alexandra township itself, but taken as a whole the urban scene was not encouraging. Within the Congress Alliance there was a growing recognition that the masses were expecting a more militant lead than had been provided in the past."[50]

In Alexandra itself, previously an uncontested Congress stronghold, the ANC (according to one boycott leader, Dan Mokonyane) was unable to hold mass meetings for nine months after the ending of the boycott. In the Pretoria townships (excluded from the settlement terms, and continuing the boycott in isolation), in Evaton, and elsewhere, there was also a slipping away of support from Congress.

In the absence of a Marxist alternative, discontented young activists were drawn towards the radical nationalist "Africanist" tendency in Congress.

The reformism of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s had produced its reaction in the radical nationalism of the 1940s ANC Youth League. Now, to the extent that former Youth League leaders had become absorbed into the reformism of the Congress/CP leader­ship, a new generation of young intellectuals sought to replace them.

For much of the 1950s the Africanists were mainly small intellectual circles of carping critics. They represented no more serious an alternative for working people than did the armchair "Trotskyists" (in fact a million miles removed in ideas and method of Trotsky) of the Non-European Unity Movement.

From 1957 onwards, however, the Africanists began to gain a certain echo in townships (particularly on the Rand) and in the ranks of Congress activists. They did so precisely by throwing a spotlight on the dilution of Congress policies and practice under the pressure of the liberals.

"The Africans are asked, through their spineless leaders," wrote Robert Sobukwe in The Africanist (December 1957), "not to 'embarrass' their 'friends' and 'allies'…[and] to 'water-down' their demands in order to accommodate all the Anti-Nat elements in the country; in short, we are asked to 'grin and bear it' so that our 'friends' can continue to 'plead for us'. And we are told that in that way we shall achieve freedom. What rubbish!"

"The Charterist movement," wrote another Africanist leader, Peter Raboroko, "represents the interests of both the ruling class and the subject classes, and finds itself, therefore, neither fish, flesh, fowl nor good red herring."[51]

Potlako Leballo offered a more extended analysis of the programme of the "Anti-Nat alliance":

"The Congress leadership, because it interprets the struggle as one for democracy and therefore a political struggle, designed to remove legal restrictions, recognises the foe as the present Nationalist government and accepts and treats everybody opposed to the Nationalist government, whatever his motives or beliefs, as an ally. The Congress leadership, therefore, if we are to judge by its actions and utterances, recognises the Nationalist government as the rightful government of the country whose policies, however, it is not in agreement with. The leadership, therefore, conceives of Congress as an Opposition party, with an alternative policy to which the people of South Africa are to be persuaded to subscribe. The difference between the United Party and Congress (as conceived by the leadership) lies in the policies they advocate and in their composition…But both the United Party and the Congress leadership accept the Nats as the rightful government of the country whose policies, however, are disastrous to the country. And both believe that the essential thing to do is to oust the Nats. Both believe that the way to do so is by appealing to the people of South Africa for support for their policies. That is why a certain 'African leader' in an issue of Liberation could state that 'we [i.e. Congress] should water down our demands in order that we should muster the broadest support against the Nats.'

"…It is believed by our leaders that the number of Whites subscribing to the Kliptown Charter will increase so that one day a White party committed to the Kliptown Charter will form the government and implement the hopes and wishes expressed in that document!

"But the Africanists who are committed to the overthrow of white domination, club together all who stand for the maintenance of the status quo and can find no common ground with the United & Labour Parties. The Africanists are aware, too, that when danger threatens the interests of the rulers, they modify their policies in order to gain support of the oppressed. That is what happened during the dark days of the last war. But as soon as the danger is past, the rulers return to their old policies with more ruthlessness in order to crush any awakened hopes. The Nationalist government has trodden on the corns of many groups and many people are prepared to go a very long way to get rid of this government. But this does not mean that they subscribe to a thoroughly democratic constitution. Many, in fact, hate the Nats, because they are threatening the status quo. We are familiar with the diversionary role of the Liberals…"[52]

But - if Leballo and the Africanists identified a ruling class divided under the pressure from below while nevertheless united for the "maintenance of the status quo" at the same time the Africanists failed to identify the real nature of the "status quo", namely capitalism.

PAC analysis

The PAC based its analysis of society around the conquest of the country by foreigners who thereby had dispossessed the indigenous African people of "the land", of the country in other words. This was indeed the case. The African people, the majority, were and are denied political rights in the country of their birth. The overwhelming majority had been deprived of access to the land as a productive resource, and turned into a working class.

But what this analysis glided over was that, in the meantime, the labour of the African working class had not only fructified the land of the big farms (under capitalist ownership), but built the factories, mines, towns, docks, etc - the main productive resources of modern South African society. Economically, "the return of the land" could have no meaning unless it meant the establishment of public ownership and working-class control over these commanding heights of the economy, presently under white capitalist private ownership.

Moreover, to protect capitalist ownership, a formidable capitalist state, resting on the support of the white minority, had come into being.

The United Party upheld the constitution of the South African state (and recognised the NP government as the "rightful" government) because they were a capitalist party supporting a capitalist state. The leadership of the Liberal and Labour parties upheld the state, and therefore in fact the system of white domination, because they refused to break with capitalism.

The political system - of white domination and national oppression of the African majority - had been imposed by foreign conquest and by imperialism. But its rigidity, its resistance to reform, was rooted in the inability of the capitalist system to satisfy the material demands of the working class that would be the consequence of extending democracy.

Therefore the task for the leadership of the liberation movement, in order to end white domination and achieve genuine democracy, was to organise the working class to lead a struggle to overthrow the existing capitalist state machine and replace it by a democratic workers' state.


But the Africanists were as blind as the Congress leadership to these class realities.

To their way of thinking, the solution to the "watering down" of the struggle lay not in organising the African working class to lead all the oppressed on a revolutionary programme, but in purging the movement of "white" and "non-African" influences - in establishing an exclusively African leadership.

It was true that the structures of the Congress Alliance gave non-Africans an entirely disproportionate influence in the inner planning circles of the leadership. In concrete terms, this non-African influence was wielded chiefly by members of the CP. Hence the often-repeated charge that the movement was being held back by "white Communists".

But to understand the essence of the problem it was necessary to look deeper than the ethnic categories, and get down to the class roots. The reformism of the Congress leadership stemmed from its middle-class outlook, and its failure to ground its whole approach in the working-class movement and in the scientific method of Marxism. In due course, the Africanist section of the middle class were to show themselves equally capable of vacillating, when they stood at the head of a mass movement and thus encountered the concerted pressure of the capitalist class.

While correctly pointing to the reformist influence of the "Communist" Party leadership, the Africanists sought to discredit a class understanding of society by identifying the CP's wholly un-Marxist policies as a class approach.

"Those of the ANC who are its active policy-makers," stated Sobukwe, "maintain, in the face of all the hard facts of the South African situation, that ours is a class struggle. We are, according to them, oppressed as workers, both white and black. But it is significant that they make no attempt whatsoever to organise white workers. Their white allies are all of them bourgeois!" (The Africanist, January 1959)

"Their white allies are all of them bourgeois!" Here Sobukwe cleverly put his finger on the weak spot of the so-called Communists - their class-collaboration with the liberal capitalists. But the Africanists refused to accept the necessity of building the liberation struggle on African working-class foundations, on mobilising consciously the only class force capable of overthrowing the racist state and the bourgeoisie.


Even more than the policies of the Congress/CP leadership, the nationalist policies of the Africanists abandoned the white working class to the capitalist class - thus leaving them as a tremendous obstacle in the way of a victorious struggle.

The main thrust of PAC analysis was to predetermine all whites as inevitably in the camp of the enemy - a position which would most certainly ensure that they remained there.

Sobukwe - like some BCM leaders in the 1970s - added a "safety-clause" by stating that "everybody who owes his only loyalty to Afrika and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority," qualified as an African. This was an implied concession to the reality that the majority of whites were no longer "foreigners" but rooted in South Africa as their only home.

But no more than the ANC position could this position attract more than a few radical whites, since it did not link the struggle for majority rule with the struggle to end the power of the bosses and free all sections of society from the nightmare of greed, competition, poverty, privilege, division and all-pervasive insecurity which capitalism means.

Real class politics in South Africa consists in mobilising the African majority of the working class, at the head of all the oppressed - on a programme able to offer a democratic socialist future to the white workers and middle class too - in order thus to weaken and eventually break the power of the capitalist enemy.

But the middle-class Africanists were as resistant as were the leaders of Congress to the assertion by the black working class of its leading role. They showed their hostile attitude to the independent class movement of the workers in many ways.

Explaining why the Africanists had called for scabbing on the April 1958 stay-at-home, Peter Raboroko complained that the SACTU National Workers' Committee was an "ad hoc body…openly sabotaging the ANC by deliberately by-passing it and openly usurping its function." He went on:

"In that campaign the ANC was to be relegated to the role of supporting the workers…the South African Congress of Trade Unions, a multi-racial body representing a handful of trade unions which exist largely on paper, convened the Workers' Conference to launch this political strike and to stampede the majority of trade unions which were non-SACTU and the National Working Committee of the ANC into supporting the workers. In this way the struggle would assume a working-class character." (Africa South, April-June 1960)

Trade unionism among African workers was still weak. Nevertheless the SACTU Workers' Conferences drew together the cream of the active workers: they were the most representative gatherings of workers held during the decade. The "non-SACTU" trade unions to which Raboroko referred had been under an "apolitical" class-collaborationist leadership oriented to TUCSA. They had then fallen under Africanist influence - which hardly transformed them.

Moreover, Raboroko's comments revealed the blinkered vision of the middle class. Every action campaign launched by the ANC during the decade had, in terms of those participating, a "working-class character". The stay-at-home call was at least a partial recognition of the need for the power of the working class to be exerted. Very little additional leverage could be exerted against the state and the bosses by those who were not working class. Surely it was precisely necessary for the ANC to be raised (not "relegated"!) into an effective instrument of the workers' struggle, in the interests of all oppressed people?

Paralysing influence

From 1957, the differences between the mainstream Congress leadership and the Africanists began to exert a paralysing influence on Congress gatherings. The effects were magnified by the increasingly bureaucratic methods of the leadership - and the hooligan tactics adopted by the Africanists in response.

Defending policies which were becoming more out of touch with the mood of the people, Congress leaders increasingly sought to protect their positions by suppressing debate and criticism. What emerged were - as even the CP's Brian Bunting admits - "arbitrary methods of work and control, refusal to deal with the rank and file, or account for funds, etc."[53]

At the Transvaal ANC conference in October 1957, the provincial executive insisted that it be re-elected en bloc, with no opposing candidates. Many activists were highly dissatisfied, feeling that the decision had been unconstitutionally rigged. Similar issues were arising in the Cape ANC.

At the national ANC conference in December the Africanists moved a vote of no-confidence in the Transvaal executive. "We have witnessed during 1957 a desire for unity and solidarity among the masses and a tendency towards crippling and contemptuous bureaucracy on the part of our leaders," stated an editorial in the December Africanist.

Though the resolution was lost, the ANC leadership was forced to concede to the rank and file by calling an emergency conference in the Cape and Transvaal in February 1958 to try to sort out the grievances. But, disastrously, nothing was solved.


In Johannesburg, states Bunting, the conference "ended in chaos". The Africanists claimed that a vote of no-confidence had been passed in the provincial leadership, the constitution suspended, and the way cleared for the installation of the Africanists in the leadership. But the chairman, the acting President-General of the ANC, declared the conference closed before it completed its business.

Afterwards, continues Bunting, "a Congress car was confiscated and the driver was stabbed. On the Monday morning a raiding party of Sophiatown 'volunteers' led by Segale, leader of one of the opposition branches, invaded the ANC office and removed all the Congress records and property." The ANC NEC then dismissed the Transvaal executive and assumed emergency powers.

In Cape Town "a group of Africanists dressed in black shirts and wielding knives and batons" tried to smash up the conference. "Hardly had the first paragraph of the executive report been read than they started to fight."[54] Here, disgusted with this thuggery, the majority ejected the Africanists from the conference. Nevertheless, in the Cape, rival "executives" - one loyalist and one Africanist - continued to squabble for the remainder of the year.

"Congress is not replying as loudly and as vigorously as it should," stated an editorial in Liberation (March 1958). "The reason must be sought in the difficulties that have arisen within the organisation…It is tragic that…in the two biggest provincial organisations of the ANC - the Cape and the Transvaal - disunity and confusion still prevail."

The November 1958 Transvaal ANC conference brought matters to a head. After a day of heated debate between loyalists and Africanists, a battle over credentials broke out. On the second day a crowd of ANC "volunteers" assembled behind the conference hall, and a crowd of Africanist supporters in front. Each group was armed with sticks and lengths of iron and numbered at least 100 men. The loyalists assumed control of the doors of the hall, and began to "screen" delegates. The Africanists withdrew, and reached a decision to split from the ANC. Within months the Pan Africanist Congress was formed.

The split in the movement, and the methods by which it came about, served the interests only of the regime and the bosses. They were the inevitable product, however, of the vacillating policies of the Congress leadership and the absence of an organised working-class alternative within Congress.

Mistaken as their ideas were, the Africanists had a democratic right to put them forward within Congress, provided they agreed to abide in action by the decisions reached by a majority. They should have struggled for this right - not by the methods of thuggery, but by a political campaign, oriented to the rank and file of Congress. Their decision to form a rival organisation only weakened the movement.

The Congress leadership were suffering the consequences of their history of political uncertainty and compromise, and were now defending their policies by indefensible methods - of bureaucracy and thuggery also. If the Congress leadership had broken with the liberal capitalists - if they had put forward clear policies for uniting working people in organised actions directed against the racial oppression and exploitation by the whole ruling class - they would have cut away the support which the Africanists were able to gain.

Many worker activists in SACTU, the ANC and the CP were expressing dissatisfaction with the policies of the leadership. For them the Africanist position had no appeal. They wanted a class lead.

A Marxist tendency in Congress, based on the organised workers, could have explained the inadequacies of the programmes both of the Congress leadership and of the Africanists, and sought to maintain a fighting unity in action against the regime and the bosses. Even expulsions would not have deterred such a tendency from its task, or from its orientation to Congress, to reach the ear of the masses without causing an unnecessary split.

Still looking

Against the continued attacks of the NP government and the employers, working people were still looking for a lead in struggle. In February 1959, around the time of the formation of the PAC, SACTU held a series of regional Workers' Conferences. "The response throughout the country," states SACTU's official history, "was one of the greatest ever to a SACTU campaign for an end to poverty wages and political oppression."

In Durban, a record attendance of 4,000 people gathered for two days, demanding general strike action, boycotts, and political defiance. In Pietermaritzburg, meetings drew 3,000. The Port Elizabeth Local Committee reported "one of the most successful meetings ever held in our area" and Pretoria drew 600 workers "which is outstanding for this area." Two meetings in the Transvaal attracted 2,000 workers, and another in Cape Town was equally successful.

In Natal, along with the mass upsurge of working-class women in 1959-60, 13,500 new workers were recruited into SACTU unions. It was a sign of what could be achieved. As SACTU's 1960 conference stated, organisation of workers was giving "a jolt to the Government and capitalists of South Africa."[55]

But this organising work by SACTU activists under the Congress banner was given no concrete campaigning lead by the Congress or CP leadership. In March 1960, the political initiative was grabbed by the PAC.

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[50] Ben Turok, Strategic Problems in South Africa's Liberation Struggle, p. 38. For voicing mild criticisms of this nature, Turok was expelled from the CP in the 1970s.

[51] Africa South, April-June 1960.

[52] The Africanist, December 1957.

[53] Moses Kotane, p. 235.

[54] Ibid., p. 236.

[55] Organize or Starve!, p. 411-2.

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