South African’s National Liberation Movement

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A brief history of the African National Congress

Our struggle for freedom has a long history. It goes back to the days when the African people fought spear in hand against the British and Boer colonisers.

The ANC has kept this spirit of resistance alive! Over the last 80 years the ANC has brought together millions in the struggle for liberation. Together we have fought for our land, against low wages, high rents and the dompas. We have fought against bantu education, and for the right to vote for a government of our choice. This history is about our struggle for freedom and justice. It tells the story of the ANC

1860s - 1900

The African Kingdoms are defeated

White settlers from Holland first came to South Africa in 1652. many bitter struggles were fought over land and cattle. Although the African kingdoms lost land and cattle they were still independent some 200 years later.

But in the 1860s Britain brought large armies with horses, modern rifles and cannons, to take control of South Africa. The Xhosa who had fought nine wars of resistance against the colonisers, were finally defeated in 1878, after more than 100 years of warfare.

Led by Cetshwayo, the Zulu brought a crushing defeat on the British army at Isandhlwana in 1878, but were finally defeated at Ulundi by British reinforcements. Soon afterwards the British attacked and defeated the Pedi who had also remained independent for many years.

Leaders like Sukhukhune, Sandile and Cetshwayo were captured and imprisoned or killed. By 1900 Britain had broken the power of the African kingdoms and they then fell under the control of the colonial government. In 1910, Britain handed over this control to the Boer and British settlers themselves, when it gave them independence. The union of South Africa was formed with a government that recognised only the rights of white people and denied rights to blacks.


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The wars of resistance ended with the defeat of Bambata’s rebellion. Africans had to find new ways to fight for their land and their freedom. In 1911, Pixley ka Isaka Seme called on Africans to forget the differences of the past and unite together in one national organisation. He said: “We are one people. these divisions, these jealousies, are the cause of all our woes today.”

On January 8th 1912, chiefs, representatives of people’s and church organisations, and other prominent individuals gathered in Bloemfontein and formed the African National Congress. The ANC declared its aim to bring all Africans together as one people to defend their rights and freedoms.

The ANC was formed at a time when South Africa was changing very fast. Diamonds had been discovered in 1867 and gold in 1886. Mine bosses wanted large numbers of people to work for them in the mines. Laws and taxes were designed to force people to leave their land. The most severe law was the 1913 land Act, which prevented africans from buying, renting or using land, except in the reserves.

Many communities or families immediately lost their land because of the Land Act. for millions of other black people it became very difficult to live off the land. The Land Act caused overcrowding, land hunger, poverty and starvation.

1919 - 1927

Working for a Wage

The Land Act and other laws and taxes forced people to seek work on the mines and on the white farms. While some black people settled in cities like Johannesburg, most workers were migrants. They travelled to the mines to work and returned home to the rural areas with part of their wages, usually once a year.

But Africans were not free to move as they pleased. Passes controlled their movements and made sure they worked either on the mines or on the farms. The pass laws also stopped Africans from leaving their jobs or striking. In 1919 the ANC in Transvaal led a campaign against the passes. The ANC also supported the militant strike by African mineworkers in 1920.

However, some ANC leaders disagreed with militant actions such as strikes and protests. They argued that the ANC should achieve its aims by persuasion, for example, by appealing to Britain. but the appeals of delegations who visited Britain in 1914 to protest the Land Act and again in 1919 to ask Britain to recognise African rights, were ignored.

This careful approach meant that the ANC was not very active in the 1920s. The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) – a general union formed in 1919 – was the most active and popular organisation in rural and urban areas, at this time. The union won some major victories for its workers through militant actions. However, the ICU could not sustain itself, and in the late 1920s it collapsed.

Socialist organisations also began to organise black workers in the 1920s. The International Socialist League together with other socialist organisations formed the Communist Party in 1921. The Communist Party became the first non-racial political organisation in South Africa.

During the 1920s government policies became harsher and more racist. A colour-bar was established to stop blacks from holding semi-skilled jobs in some industries. It also meant that black workers were paid lower wages for unskilled work.

J.T. Gumede, was elected President of the ANC in 1927. He tried to revitalise the ANC in order to fight these racist policies. Gumede thought that the communists could make a contribution to this struggle and wanted the ANC to co-operate with them. However, in 1930, Gumede was voted out of office and the ANC became inactive in the 1930s undergo conservative leadership.

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