South African’s National Liberation Movement

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National General Council

Discussion Documents

Unity of the Movement

29 June 2005

DURING THE NINETY-THREE YEARS OF ITS existence the African National Congress has demonstrated the capacity to remain relevant despite sweeping changes in South Africa, Africa and in the rest of the world. Ossification, complacency and rigidity can overtake even the wisest of political movements. In 2005, not only is our movement relevant, it has demonstrated in three successive general elections that it enjoys the support and confidence of the overwhelming majority of South Africans.

Yet in South Africa and in other parts of the world, movements and parties of about the same age as the ANC, have collapsed, become irrelevant or are struggling to stay alive. What has given the ANC this extra-ordinary capacity to survive and sustain its relevance?

The growth, development and maturation of a political formation is not a linear process. A delicate balance that sustains continuity but which nonetheless offers the political space for new initiatives and for the emergence of novel ideas is vitally necessary to keep it alive. This intervention is an attempt to examine how the ANC has historically maintained that delicate balance and to open up discussion on how we should handle the inevitable tensions that accompany development and growth in the present.

The ANC bears the singular distinction of being among the oldest national liberation movements in the world. It was the pioneer movement in sub-Saharan Africa from which a host of sister movements in Southern and East Africa drew direct inspiration. Founded in 1912 as a multi-class movement primarily for the african people, at first membership was restricted to men only, but in time women were brought into full membership. Towards the end of that decade, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) – a general workers’ union – was formed among a group of dockworkers in Cape Town. It became the most active and popular organisation in urban and rural areas during the 1920s and produced a crop of militant african, coloured and indian working class leaders led by Clements Kadalie, AWG Champion, James La Guma, Johnny Gomas, Gana Makabeni, Doyle Modiakgotla, and others.

Though they emerged independently of each other, the national movement and the black working class movement intersected, were intermeshed and fed off each other at numerous points. Members of the ICU were invariably members and leaders of the ANC, as working class ANC members were also enrolled in the ICU.

Owing to the relative numerical weight of the working class and other working people among the oppressed, there was an ongoing mutual cross fertilisation between the two movements. Tactics learnt and employed in workers struggles informed the strategy of the ANC; skills acquired and employed in the national movement found application in workers struggles. The classic method of working class struggle – the general strike – was incorporated into arsenal of the ANC. The movement borrowed freely from others throughout the world, adapting their methods to the South african situation where appropriate.

Nationalist politics emerged during the third quarter of the 19th century, when black South Africans – specifically africans and coloureds – began to organise politically within the colonial political environment to secure their rights. Black political leaders waged an unsuccessful rearguard battle to defend the few rights blacks had attained under British colonial governments until 1910. The founding of the ANC in 1912 marked the moment after which blacks would increasingly challenge the institutions of white overlordship and pose alternative courses for the country as a whole.

Content at first to operate as a loyal opposition that recognised the legitimacy of the white state, as the movement acquired self-confidence, its leadership, consistent with its own ambitions and the growing capacity of the African people to be their own liberators, challenged white rule on grounds of its illegitimacy. The ANC leaders of the time would have argued that their political strategy was to affirm the political fact that the Africans were British subjects; and as British subjects, were entitled to certain rights which whites enjoyed but blacks were denied on grounds of their race. Their deeply held confidence in these British institutions shaped their tactics: moral suasion complemented by protest action to give prominence to the issue.


For maximum effect, any political movement relies on the collective action of its adherents. Unity of purpose and of action are indispensable for effect. Objectives – immediate, intermediate and long-term – must be known and understood by the protagonists to attain this. Consequently political programmes and the programme of action by which to pursue them are the devices by which political adherents commit themselves to common action. The collective commitment made by the adherents of a movement is further reinforced by agreed mechanisms of mutual discipline – the whips in a parliamentary party play this role – which entails submission of the individual member to the collective in all matters affecting the collective good. The unity of the movement thus involves a social contract between the individual member and the collective in terms of which the individual member surrenders a measure of personal sovereignty in order to pursue a common purpose, in return for which the individual is reciprocated by the support of the collective to pursue an individual objective that is unattainable except through collective action.

Unity is an organisational value upheld and pursued by all political movements because it enhances the effectiveness of collective action. But, political collectives are made up of diverse individual members, who have come together to pool their energies in pursuance of shared objectives.

The more elastic the breadth of the collective and the greater the depth of its potential appeal, the greater the prospect of tensions and conflicts among its adherents. The imperatives of coherent and effective action therefore require a leadership to exercise vigilance not to allow potential and actual tensions to jeopardise it.

Yet, a mechanical uniformity holds out the threat of stifling, undermining and repressing the creative thinking and innovation so necessary for growth and adaptation to ever-changing situations and environments.

The art of successful political leadership entails the management of the tension/contradiction occasioned by the demands of coherent collective interventions and the reality that the political environment is not static and thus requires adaptation and constant adjustment and re-adjustment.

Two mutually exclusive and rival nationalisms emerged in the history of twentieth century South Africa, embodying fundamentally differing perspectives on the character and future of our country. Both nationalisms however laid claim to the same piece of earth, our common home, South Africa.

The divergent approaches reflected the antagonistic interests of the constituencies of the respective movements. The main line of fissure in South African society was race, in terms of which power, status, wealth and opportunity were distributed. Afrikaner nationalism sought to entrench and permanently institutionalise this division, African nationalism fought to abolish it.

At its birth the movement that became the historic bearer of African nationalism, the ANC, embraced a number of values, principles and ideals as the key pillars of its political canon. They are still recognisable as deriving from a specific political tradition – a culture of human rights, rooted in and inextricably linked to the political revolutions of the late 18th century, those of the mid 19th century and the post-war 2Oth century.

The ANC embraced all of humanity – black, white, brown, yellow, red – as its moral universe. In contrast Afrikaner nationalism adopted an extremely narrow moral universe, bounded by ethnic group, language, church and race.

While the ANC accepted that Africans, Europeans, Asians and others were all part of a world-wide human family to whose patrimony Africans had contributed and in which they were entitled to share, Afrikaner nationalism asserted the exclusive claim of the white race, and specifically the Afrikaners, to the wonders humanity had created. The ANC’s was a vision of a shared society in which all citizens would have the equal opportunity to improve themselves by their own efforts; of equality before the law as opposed to the vision of the white minority autocracy that succeeded the colonial state. The concept of a common society was also embraced by the left-wing of the then pre-dominantly white labour movement, organised as the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), in 1924.

The struggle for liberation and democracy was the contest between these opposing visions embodied in the rival nationalisms that dominate 2Oth century South African history. For either of the two to succeed required that each endeavours to win as many adherents and supporters to its side of the argument, while devising the political isolation and impotence of its antagonist. The conflict consequently involved the crafting, definition and redefinition of variable alliances, fluid coalitions and adaptable power blocs to maximise the strength of the rival centres.


Though defined by law and practice as a conquered and colonised people, the black population were and remain highly differentiated communities. Such diversity derives from the origins of its many components, the experience and lived existence of its members, as well as the highly differentiated social and economic environment it has to work and live in. This diversity is further overlain by gender, linguistic diversity (the africans alone speak about ten different languages), ethnic origins, religion (some are Christians, some non-Christian), regional, and as the century unfolded, there emerged differences between urban and rural, in addition to differences of class and occupation. The plural character of the most oppressed and exploited community was matched by equally diverse coloured and indian communities.

The challenge faced by the political leadership was devising strategies and tactics that could result in unity of purpose and collective action, despite the diversity of the communities to be mobilised. To achieve this, they emphasised the shared political status of blacks as colonised people. On their part the white minority regimes sought to exacerbate the differences among the oppressed. Differential treatment of the three black communities, emphasis on ethnic and linguistic differences, regional and occupational differences, were all harnessed to thwart unity and to divert energies to purposes that would make united action more difficult to achieve.

Unity of purpose is thus not a given nor is it constant. It is the outcome of ongoing political and ideological struggles through which the oppressed learn its virtue from their own experience. But because the terrain on which the struggle unfolds is unstable and continuously shifting, strategy, and especially tactics, have to be kept under constant review. There are no pre-ordained formulae, no text-books of infallible quotations that are applicable in any and every situation.

The task of leadership is to be concrete and to examine the unfolding realities at a given moment and to act in accordance with their comprehension of it.

The strategy of the ANC sought to maximise the unity of the african people in the first instance, then create wider alliances with the movements of the other oppressed communities, while stimulating opposition to the white minority regime among whites.

This strategy had its origins in the coalition that went to London in 1909 to oppose the creation of the Union. For almost two decades after 1910, the ANC leadership thought it would be possible, through patient and restrained agitation, to convince a critical mass of whites of the justice of their cause. Such an achievement, they hoped, could lead to the election of a reformist government that would extend full citizenship rights to the black majority incrementally.

Arising from this conception, the tactics the ANC leadership of that time employed relied heavily on winning the goodwill of “reasonable” whites. Moderation, it was assumed, would retain such goodwill and not antagonise those who could potentially be convinced. The abolition of the Cape African franchise (with the passage of the Hertzog Bills) in 1935 discredited these tactics.

Josiah T Gumede, who succeeded ZR Mahabane as President of the ANC in 1927, sought to rejuvenate the ANC. Gumede had been impressed by the militant struggles led by the ICU and the Communist Party. He was persuaded that the ANC could not succeed purely by petitioning the government or seeking relief from Britain. He wanted to transform the ANC into a movement representing the urban workers, the farm-workers, the rural people and the poor. Gumede’s presidency converged with developments in both South Africa and the international political arenas.

Like many other parties in the Second International, the South African Labour Party had split into an anti-war left-wing and an empire-loyalist right-wing at the outbreak of World War I in August 1914. Constituting itself into the International Socialist League (ISL), the left had also turned its attention to mobilising black workers. The Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), a general workers union, was established with their assistance. In 1921 the ISL joined with a number of smaller groups from Cape Town and Durban to found the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). In 1924 the CPSA congress resolved to recast its strategy to concentrate on organising the black working class. Within a few years it had attracted some of the leading militants in the ICU.

In 1919, under Lenin’s personal guidance, the Communist International (Comintern) had adopted the cause of the colonial people as its own. After Lenin’s death the Comintern was instrumental in the establishment of the League Against Imperialism, with its headquarters in Berlin, headed by an energetic German communist and consummate organiser, named Willi Munzenburg.

The league convened a world conference that met at the Egmont Palace, Brussels in early 1927. Among the South African delegates were Josiah Gumede, President of the ANC, James La Guma, from the CPSA and one Walter Colraine from the Trades and Labour Council. Other participants in the conference included Jawaralal Nehru of India; Sen Katayama from the USA; Ho Chi Minh from Vietnam; Richard Moore from the USA; and George Padmore from the Trinidad.

Later that year both Gumede and La Guma were invited to Moscow as guests at the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution. As one of South Africa’s leading black communists, La Guma held lengthy consultations with the leadership of the Comintern. From these there emerged a resolution, setting the attainment of “an independent Native Republic” as the immediate objective of the CPSA, which La Guma was charged with transmitting to the party in South Africa

Gumede travelled to the Asian republics of the USSR, where he was greatly impressed by the reforms the Communists had effected to bring the Tsar’s dependencies into the modern world. On his return to South Africa, he told the ANC conference: “I have seen the New Jerusalem.”

Gumede’s strategy of an ANC alliance with the CPSA, the trade unions and progressive peasant organisations to create a mass movement striving for freedom and an end to colonial domination was a radical turn for the ANC. Radical democratic politics, including socialist ideas, came into the ANC through the alliance Gumede attempted to build.

However, in 1930, Gumede was voted out of office. In a well-organised conservative backlash, people opposed to radical poitics in principle had him ousted. Under the more cautious leadership of Pixley ka Seme the ANC withdrew into itself. Destructive witch-hunts ensued to rid the movement of radicals, communists and others perceived to be such. Later that decade, in Natal, John Dube broke with the national body to form a regional ANC, iANC yase Natal.

Division led to decline leaving the ANC ill-prepared for the offensive of the white minority government cobbled together by Hertzog and Smuts in 1935. The growing urban african, coloured and indian communities acquired a new importance during the 1940s. In the towns the communities themselves underwent transformation as new points of association were established and skills of modern organisation were acquired.

The collapse of the economies of the “Native Reserves” during the 1930s coincided with the demand for more workers as industries developed. Many more people moved to the cities during that decade. Here they spawned their own community organisations – such as the Squatter’s Movement – and joined trade unions.

In the cities gender roles changed when african women, unable to sustain life in the rural areas, migrated to the cities where thousands found employment as washer-women, domestic servants and as factory workers, especially in food processing and textiles, as teachers, nurses and later in other professions.

Urban struggles, at both the community and factory levels, stimulated the emergence of a corps of militant women leaders and political activists. In 1946 they initiated the creation of the ANC Women’s League replacing the auxiliary body that preceded it and took full membership in the ANC. During the mid-forties black trade unionists constituted the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) to coordinate workers’ struggles. In the rural areas of today’s Limpopo Province and the eastern Free State, peasants rose in revolt against the impositions of the white government and oppressive chiefs in their pay. The strikes, boycotts and other mass struggles during the war years culminated in the strike by african mineworkers in 1946.

In 1947 the presidents of the ANC, the Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) and the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) signed a pact pledging mutual support for one another’s campaigns. Though the thrust of ANC, NIC and TIC policy increasingly converged in the post-war period, the leadership of all three bodies thought it tactically wiser to retain their separate identities. The movements had come into existence as distinct organisations and though the leaderships might have overcome the racial animosities fostered by the white minority government’s policies, this did not necessarily apply to the communities they were organising. Unity in action by the mass organisations of the disenfranchised not only made for greater effectiveness but could also more effectively break down the mutual suspicion. The first crucial test was the Defiance Campaign of 1952, during which 8,000 volunteers courted imprisonment by defying apartheid laws.

The Defiance Campaign was a defining moment for the ANC. The concept of a “volunteer for freedom”, a disciplined, self-sacrificing activist of the liberation movement was born in the course of the campaign. The ANC itself underwent transformation from a movement of relatively passive members who regularly attended branch meetings and adopted resolutions, to a body of the politically engaged, who intervened in and gave leadership to popular struggles.

Inspired by the vision of the ANC Youth League’s founders, during the 1950s the ANC was able to create a broad front of pro-liberation forces in the Congress Alliance, and inspire the mobilisation of others committed to change. Its primary aim was to isolate the racist regime through ever broader alliances and coalitions among all South Africans opposed to racism while at the same time generating tensions, divisions and splits among the ranks of the regime and its supporters.

As a result of the changes wrought by World War II, a handful of white liberals within the dominant capitalist classes tentatively embraced the idea of a common society. They were instrumental in getting city councils to respond to the huge housing shortage among blacks. Permanent urban african communities thus became a recognised feature of South African life. The liberals made an ambivalent attempt to force this recognition on the rest of white South Africa in the Report of the 1946 (Fagan) Commission on Native Laws. But the majority of white South Africans rejected the notion of a single society, insisted on excluding blacks from common citizenship and voted the National Party, the party of Afrikaner nationalism with its programme of apartheid, into office with a small majority in 1948.

After Winston Churchill and FD Roosevelt concluded the Atlantic Charter, setting out the war aims of the allies, ANC President Dr AB Xuma called together a committee of african leaders, thinkers and opinion makers to draft a document applying the principles of the Atlantic Charter to Africa. The product was the “African Claims”, published in 1943, summing up the ANC’s aims and objectives.

The “African Claims” diverged sharply from the earlier thinking of the movement’s leadership by locating the issue of racial oppression in South Africa in a continental context. It called unequivocally for African self-government and independence, which in South Africa translated into democracy. That was a direct challenge to the prevailing system of government. The African Claims indicted all systems of colonialism and minority rule by applying the test of “government by the consent of the governed”, which the Atlantic Charter had proclaimed.

The African Claims were based on the black people’s humanity rather than their status as British subjects. The document spoke of freedom as a birthright rather than as an accident of history arising from British dominion or as a favour bestowed by benevolent rulers. A very different strategy flowed from this. As a birthright, oppressed blacks striving for freedom had the right to employ whatever methods were necessary to attain it irrespective of the views or sensibilities of “reasonable” whites. The movement thus recognised that national democracy could only be realised by defeating and overturning the existing political arrangements. The African Claims posed an alternative programme – based on the principles of democracy, non-racism, non-sexism and equality – for all of South Africa. In the South African context, democracy meant that at least two basic conditions should be met: government based on the consent of the governed, and all racist laws that institutionalised inequality should be scrapped.

Few of the ANC leaders of the time would have interpreted their actions in these terms, but the alternatives they posed were revolutionary and directly challenged white minority rule by posing majority rule as the alternative. The African Claims affirmed that the struggle was a contest for state power and not one to reform the white minority state. The african masses would be the principal agency of change, with other forces playing a supportive and auxiliary role.

The independence of India in 1947 was the first decisive victory of the colonial liberation movements. Other colonial people drew inspiration from it as an implicit guarantee of their own freedom. It gave an irresistible character to the drive for colonial freedom that unfolded during the 1950s and 1960s. The commencement the Algerian War of Liberation in 1954; the Suez crisis in 1956; and the independence of Ghana in 1957, stimulated endless debate on strategy within the ANC and the wider democratic movement. The character of alliances, fronts and coalitions were endlessly debated along with the tactics to address specific and long-standing struggles The ANC had always linked the South African struggle with the anti-colonial struggles in the rest of the world, especially those in Africa. After 1946 the movement systematically sought to draw democrats, liberals, labour and workers’ parties throughout the world into an international movement in support of the struggle of the South African people, complementing our own efforts with international solidarity. ANC leaders had participated in the various Pan-African conferences in the past, President Josiah Gumede had attended the congress of the League Against Imperialism in 1927, and during the forties and early fifties ANC leaders worked closely with the US-based Council on African Affairs founded by Paul Robeson in 1936. The Anti-Apartheid Movement of Britain, formed in 1959, was the first among many movements in solidarity with South African struggle that grew in the decades that followed.

India placed the issue of racial oppression in South Africa on the agenda of the United Nations Organisation (UNO) soon after her independence. This was the initial step in mobilising for the international isolation of the white minority regime.

The strategy that flowed from this conjuncture envisaged mass action in peaceful struggles in the urban and rural areas, while encouraging those whites critical of the regime to find ways of relating to the movement. Thus two alliances developed. The first, a strategic alliance among the ANC and its allies in the Congress movement, the second, a wider tactical coalition of anti-apartheid forces, under the ANC’s leadership.

A living movement generates masses of information to keep participants and supporters abreast of current news and debates in and around national and international politics. During the 1950s, the ANC and the Congress Alliance produced a number of publications (a weekly newspaper, ‘Advance’ later ‘New Age’ ; two monthly journals, ‘Fighting Talk’ and ‘Liberation’) as well as a number of pamphlets and booklets. Various caucuses and lobbies for specific viewpoints also circulated less formal publications among the ranks of the movement. Ephemeral mimeographed newsletters and discussion journals appeared only to disappear after two or three published numbers. The most durable of these was ‘The Africanist’, edited by Robert M Sobukwe, produced by a small lobby led by Potlako Leballo and Josiah Madzunya.

The mood of expectation and optimism after 1945 stimulated discourse about colonialism and struggle as liberation visibly advanced. These debates within the movement and among its supporters distilled new strategies and tested new ideas.


From its inauguration the ANC advanced the idea of a single South African nation based on democratic institutions, while it recognised the diverse elements that make up South Africa. Forging a single, united nation requires that we bridge the huge gulf separating the rich from the poor, white from black, and distinguishing urban from rural areas. Where formal legal equality proved insufficient to attain this, the movement concluded, a democratic government empowered to intervene to address these disparities would be required.

That vision was captured in the Freedom Charter, the standard around which the ANC rallied its allies and popular forces.

Among the results produced by ANC campaigns was catalysing the birth of the South African Congress of Democrats among radical whites in 1953, and the formation of the Liberal Party among the left-wing of the opposition United Party in 1954, after the poor showing of that party in the 1953 elections. This culminated in the crystalisation of a liberal wing within the United Party which broke away to form the Progressive Party in 1959.

The ANC evolved and grew during the 1950s because it was consistently politically engaged. It had interacted with and learnt from a host of other political formations in South Africa and beyond its borders. In the process it had borrowed freely and adapted to its own purposes the tactics of the movement for Indian independence. From the workers movement it had learnt how to organise strikes. It had forged alliances with like-minded bodies of coloureds, indians and whites, besides working in loose coalitions with bodies of whites who were critical of the policies of apartheid. It also inspired the formation of other bodies that accepted the leadership of the ANC. The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), founded in 1954, piloted a Women’s Charter, setting out an agenda to improve the situation of women in South Africa.

The strategic alliance the ANC built collectively adopted the Freedom Charter as their common programme after 1955.

The collapse of agriculture in the “native reserves” during the 1930s and ’40s resulted in the migration of thousands of African women into the urban areas. As the 1946 Native Laws Commission pointed out, the cheap labour system was based on the assumption that the overwhelming majority of male African workers would be migrants, whose incomes in the urban areas could be supplemented by agricultural production of women in the “reserves”. The inability of the “reserves” to sustain themselves compelled rural women to seek employment in the urban areas to supplement the meagre earnings of their husbands.

Regulation and control of this new urban workforce became one of the priorities on the NP government’s agenda. The first step in this direction was the extension of the pass laws to apply to african women. When the apartheid regime moved to re-impose passes on african women, FEDSAW stepped into the fray to mobilise a massive demonstration of mainly african women, who marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria on 9 August 1956.

The militancy of the women also became evident in the townships. Apartheid law made it illegal for African women to brew traditional beer. Police raided homes and destroyed home brewed liquor so as to encourage men to use municipal beer halls. In response, women attacked the beer halls and destroyed equipment and buildings and also organised a highly successful boycott of the beer halls.

Resistance in the rural areas also reached new levels as the campaign against passes for women spread there. In the course of waging struggles women in urban and rural areas were shedding deference to men and, as urged by Charlotte Maxeke four decades before, were “get(ting) themselves ready for the struggle”.

As in other countries agitation for the enfranchisement of women had been one of the key demands of progressive movements. During its second term as government after 1929, the NP had enfranchised white women as a device to increase the numbers of its supporter. Black women, like Cissy Gool, who had been involved in suffragette activity drew the appropriate lessons from this and became involved in liberation movement politics.

The Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 tied traditional chiefs even more firmly to the organs of the white minority government, and gave it the power to appoint and remove chiefs to suit its purposes. In terms of this law all african women in urban or rural areas, were reduced to the status of minors. In the highly skewed populations of the “reserves” women-headed household were the norm. They were invariably the principal victims of the powers that the chiefs acquired under this law. The situation of african women in urban and rural areas drew them into the liberation struggle at various fronts.

The collaboration of chiefs with apartheid laws and institutions was one of the causes of the Pondoland Revolt in 1960-61. A peasant’s assembly (Intaba – the mountain committee) created in opposition to the traditional structures controlled by the chiefs negotiated with the apartheid government. The peasants demanded full representation in parliament, equal rights, land reform, lower taxes and an end to Bantu Education. They agreed among themselves not to renew mining contracts as a protest.

Giving leadership to so broad a movement involved, among other things, managing the internal debates that animated the movement. As in all political movements, debate at a certain point has to make way for action. The tradition the ANC evolved through practice, is that while debate and ongoing discussion is the life-blood of the movement, differences of opinion should not undermine the movement’s capacity for collective action. This is achieved by the requirement that a minority viewpoint submits to the majority, though the minority may reserve the right to revisit these differences within the structures of the movement.

During the 1950s caucuses of like-minded comrades and lobbies for specific policy directions were not uncommon. Provided these did not crystalise into factions, they were allowed. The Africanists were one of the most vocal lobbies, networked across the country. When the Africanist lobby, led by Leballo, broke movement discipline by organising against a strike called by the movement in 1958, Leballo and Madzunya were suspended from the ANC. The following year, the majority of their supporters left the ANC voluntarily to establish the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

The racist state’s response to the african mineworkers’ strike set the tone for the following fourteen years. When the ANC and the CPSA called a stay-at-home strike in May 1950, the regime responded by killing six unarmed strikers. A strike protesting these killings and the Suppression of Communism Bill, then before the all-white parliament, was met with a massive build-up of police in the african townships of Johannesburg. Armed repression of peaceful protests, administrative repression through banishment, proscription and illegalisation became the standard response of the regime to any form of protest or resistance.

A decade of repression culminated in the massacre of more than 69 unarmed demonstrators at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. Ten days later the apartheid regime declared the ANC and the PAC illegal and instituted a state of emergency. The following year, 1961, after the apartheid state responded to a stay-at-home strike with the mobilisation of the police, the defence force and reservists, the leadership of the ANC took the decision to adopt armed struggle and created Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), the nucleus of a national liberation army.

An extra-ordinary conference of the now illegal ANC met in Lobatsi, Botswana, during the course of that year to endorse the decisions taken by the leadership in the aftermath of Sharpeville and the repression of the May 1961 strike. The ANC did not disband despite illegality. Its membership was instructed to constitute an underground, illegal movement that would continue the struggle, employing means adequate to the challenges of the day.

The decision to take up arms was made in response to the demonstrated intransigence of the regime which had used its armed might to repress an unarmed people and then made all forms of political protest unlawful by banning the ANC and PAC, proscribing the movements and actions of its leaders and members, and by banning the democratic press.

The international environment during the early 1960s was more conducive to the conduct of armed struggle in South Africa because the successes scored by other national liberation movements on the African continent and beyond had brought into being a number of governments that supported the struggle for freedom. That made the international isolation of the apartheid regime conceivable.

The possibilities of acquiring modern military skills and training became available as more and more ex-colonies attained their freedom. The advances of national liberation had created a climate of expectation among the oppressed people of South Africa who wanted to see change in their own country.

Because the system of white domination had systematically denied the African majority any access to modern military skills, creating the nucleus of a people’s army had to commence from scratch. MK announced its existence with a number of nationally coordinated attacks on government installations on 16 December 1961. From its inception, in its command structure, personnel and ranks, MK sought to reflect the non-racial ethos of the national liberation movement. Its first commander in chief was Nelson Mandela.


After the Rivonia arrests of 1963 and the mass repression inside South Africa, though it had not been the intention, the corps of ANC leaders outside the country were compelled by circumstances to assume leadership of the movement inside and outside South Africa.

The challenge facing this leadership was how to reconstruct the ANC as an underground political movement operating under conditions of totalitarian repression inside South Africa; keep alive the spirit of militancy among the oppressed; create a political environment that would be conducive to the infiltration of military personnel and materiel into the country; and revive mass struggles.

The ANC strategy entailed attaining four inter-related goals: making the ANC an organised presence among the people of South Africa; spreading among the mass of our people an appreciation that revolutionary violence was not only necessary but could be successfully deployed against what appeared to be a formidable enemy; stimulating among our people the understanding that without their active support and protection, the armed cadres of the movement could not hope to survive in the country; and stimulating their self-organisation in every form of mass organisation to actively engage in struggle to overthrow the apartheid regime.

The ANC characterised the armed liberation struggle as essentially a political struggle, employing other means. Armed force was therefore derivative of the political struggle and should always be subordinated to it. For its success the liberation struggle would have to be built on four interdependent pillars – the ANC underground; mass political mobilisation; armed struggle; and international solidarity.

At the heart of this strategy were the politically mobilised and active masses of our people. These masses had to be drawn into the mass political struggle in every conceivable way through the leadership and political guidance of the ANC underground, whose task was to mesh and coordinate these struggles for an effective political offensive against the apartheid regime and all its structures. The movement was therefore required to take advantage of whatever political space existed, even under the totalitarian apartheid regime, to further the struggle by encouraging the formation of organised popular structures at the local, regional and national levels and striving to bring them under the overall leadership of the ANC. The armed struggle would thus be based on and grow out of the mass political struggle.

The pace and level of struggle inside the country would stimulate international solidarity, whose effectiveness, in turn, would act as a further stimulus to mass struggles.

The ANC argued that as the struggle progressed, the coordination among these various planes would culminate in armed action to overthrow and dismantle all the machinery of the apartheid regime. Such a climax could arise as a result of the cumulative effect of armed and mass struggles or as a general insurrection of the oppressed, spearheaded by the people’s army, Umkhonto weSizwe.

The renewal of organised mass opposition to the apartheid state and the institutions of racial commenced during the 1970s. This was heralded by the massive strike wave of 1973, which marked the beginning of black working class self-mobilisation that grew steadily to become the decisive feature of the political landscape.

The events of 1973 unfroze politics, helping to stimulate political activity on a scale unknown for almost ten years. Organisation among tertiary students in the South African Students Organisation (SASO) inspired by the ideology of Black Consciousness, which borrowed from earlier radical nationalists and from the African-American freedom movement brought a new crop of young militants into the fold of liberation politics. Mobilisation of student’s representative councils among secondary school students brought liberatory politics to an even younger generation. The emergence and growth of structures among religious and other communities created an ever widening front of pro-democracy forces. The defeat of Portuguese colonialism in 1975 inspired the pro-Frelimo rallies in Durban and Johannesburg in 1976. The Soweto uprising and the nationwide revolt it sparked were high-water marks in this unfolding process.

The 1976 revolt was the first example for a decade of a mass assault on the institutions of racial domination. It placed our movement in a position to intervene for more effective shaping of events. 1976 also brought into the ranks of our movement a new generation of fighters who proved indispensable in the enhancement of our capacity to escalate the struggle on both the mass political and the military fronts.

The escalation of mass struggles was the central feature of politics during the 1980s. The founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF), largely on the initiative of ANC activists operating in the underground and in mass formations in 1983; the unification of the democratic trade union movement under the banner of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985; the proliferation of mass formations and organs of struggle among women, youth and within communities, led to the crystalisation of a Mass Democratic Movement made up of political formations as well as organs of civil society. Opposition to the racist regime assumed a host of forms, expressing itself in cultural, sporting, academic and other formations. A vibrant democratic media, funded through sources mobilised by the ANC in the international community, also made its appearance offering alternative sources of information to both the general public but especially to political activists.

The most enduring facet of the upheavals was the emergence of a broad strategic alliance, embracing the Mass Democratic Movement and the national liberation alliance under the leadership of the ANC. This strategic alliance, tempered in the heat of the mass struggles of the time, became the spearhead of the national democratic forces. Coalesced around the Freedom Charter, it gave overall leadership and coherence to the mass struggles of this period.

By the second half of 1986 the ANC had visibly established itself as the alternative centre of power in South Africa, directly contesting that of the white minority state.

This gave the ANC leadership the confidence to attempt implanting an ANC leadership corps, with both military and underground organisational capacity inside the country. The operation, code-named “Vul’indlela”, (literally ‘open the way’; figuratively ‘pathfinder’), was under the personal supervision of ANC President Oliver Tambo. Its purpose was to prepare the ground inside South Africa for a return to South Africa of a decisive element of the ANC’s leadership and to prepare for an armed insurrection.

Operating well-nigh 30 years from external headquarters, the ANC’s leading bodies were required to coordinate the operations of structures spread across the globe. In addition to its own membership and supporters, the ANC maintained a multi-faceted relationship with a host of other bodies – sister liberation movements, various political parties, governments and solidarity movements.

It was by the marshalling of all these forces, working in closer and more effective coordination, that the movement finally brought the apartheid regime to the table, compelling it to seek a negotiated settlement with the forces of national liberation.

The movement survived the most determined repression that included illegalisation, the execution of its members, the imprisonment of its most gifted leaders, the assassination of its cadres as well the “informal repression” of its supporters through the agency of mercenaries and counter-revolutionary vigilantes.

The terrain on which the ANC had to operate after it was unbanned in 1990 was not all of its own making. The regime had employed a plethora of counter-insurgency strategies in its attempts to defeat the liberation movement – including the use of surrogates directly in its pay; homeland political formations in its political orbit; and traditionalist/feudal political formations pursuing their own narrow ethnic agendas. Among the whites the regime presented itself as the champion of change and reform eager to discover reasonable (as against “extremist”) black leaders with whom it could negotiate.

To its right, the regime was faced with die-hard racists and neo-fascist formations, bent on preserving undisguised white supremacy. Among its security forces there were also hardline securocrats who thought it was possible to use more repression to defeat the liberation movement. Both these groupings threatened to sabotage any negotiated settlement. In this context the ANC had to devise a twin strategy – that would keep the negotiations on course, but isolating the regime at the same time; while strengthening the regime’s hand against the far-right and hardliners. Thus in 1992, when FW de Klerk decided to mount a “whites only” referendum on the issue of negotiations, though the ANC was critical of a “whites only” referendum, it encouraged whites to vote in support of keeping negotiations on track. Symbolically underscoring this posture, Helen Joseph was among the first to cast her vote.

On its part, the movement had to try to define an absolute bottom-line on which the majority of liberation formations could agree. This inspired the pursuance of a “Patriotic Front” to include the PAC, Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), and various progressive homeland parties (like Inyandza from kaNgwane). The upshot was that after agreeing to a Patriotic Front in 1992, both the PAC and AZAPO withdrew after a few months.

The movement’s efforts unfolded in the context of terrible violence, orchestrated by hardliners in the security services and involving the IFP’s supporters as shock-troops. The aim of the spoilers was to demoralise the ANC’s supporters and disrupt its efforts to reconstitute itself organisationally. The movement responded to this by placing maximum pressure on De Klerk and company to clean out the hardliners, compelling the IFP leadership to commit themselves to peace, while organising effective self-defence among the affected communities.

Despite the tense months of 1992 to ’94, the democratic elections took place in an atmosphere of peace. The ANC received a landslide majority and constituted the core of the democratic government.


The ANC that won the 1994 elections bore the hallmarks of the alliances the movement had built during the period of illegality and mass struggle of the 1970s and ’80s. Its constituency was disproportionately weighted in favour of the urban areas, it was overwhelmingly working class, and it was african in the main. This was reflected in the spread of ANC branches and structures. The elections brought to light the depth of support for the ANC among the rural population outside KwaZulu-Natal. The elections also confirmed that though the ANC enjoyed support among all black communities, the coloured and indian working classes did not identify with the ANC, preferring to support the NP. Sections of the indian middle classes supported the DP, while the coloured professional classes supported the ANC.

After the democratic breakthrough in 1994 the landscape changed. The ANC had evolved over time from a movement that hoped to extend the few rights that some blacks enjoyed under British colonialism into one that sought to overthrow the entire system of minority rule. Because it was involved in a dynamic, ever-changing situation, the movement itself constantly had to change. The very dynamism of the situation required the ANC to discover the means of maintaining continuity while always being open to change. The growth and evolution of the movement entailed the ANC gathering around itself allies, partners, associates and supporters. But the alliances the movement crafted were not all of the same character. Some were by nature short-lived; some were enduring; some were tactical; others were strategic. Its association with Marxists especially after 1928 led to the absorption of Marxist analysis alongside the Christian ethical teachings that had motivated most of its founders and the radical nationalism of the ANC Youth League. The movement consequently evolved as a hybrid that combined a number of intellectual traditions under its roof.

As a movement of the people, the ANC has since its inception been the political home of all strata and classes among the black people, the africans in particular. The relative numerical weight of the working people of town and country among the african population meant that this too was reflected in the ANC’s membership, among its support base and its electorate. Operating in an ever-changing environment, the movement had to require tactical resilience while maintaining a consistent strategic focus. These two qualities gave the ANC a capacity to accommodate diversity within its ranks and among its supporters while nurturing the unity of purpose and unity in action at decisive moments. Its evolution was not linear but characterised by periods of growth and advance, counter-pointed by others of retreat and decline. Repression at times threatened to destroy it but its inner strength enabled it to recover from these blows and move forward.

The question arises in the post 1994 environment: What threats, weaknesses and modes of operation could undermine the unity of the movement today? Political democracy brought with it the dividend of new opportunities for self-advancement for black South Africans, especially africans. Careers in professions hitherto closed to blacks, access to centres of the economy from which blacks had been excluded, etc. meant that they could now compete on more equal terms with their white counterparts – in the professions, in business, in sport, in the arts, for state and government posts and in the accumulation of wealth. Creation of equal opportunity was always among the objectives of the liberation movement and had motivated large numbers of its adherents. No serious person, even from among our opponents, can pretend that South Africa today is not a country of far greater opportunity than it was 15 years ago.

As a movement of a people struggling for their liberation, the ANC was not an isolated group of revolutionaries acting on its own. Even as an underground, the movement tried to coordinate unrelated struggles by mobilising millions of people into actions that converged on the apartheid state.

During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s membership of the ANC or even association with its aims entailed risk – imprisonment, loss of livelihood, even death. Even during the 1950s, when the ANC was not yet banned, its members and supporters were the victims of police harassment, job insecurity and proscription by the state. Arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and surveillance by the apartheid state’s security agencies were not uncommon. Active dissenters who were not easily intimidated, submissive or obsequious, were the distinguishing characteristics of movement members and supporters. Personal courage and a willingness to sacrifice in the service of a cause were valued qualities; personal ambition and self-seeking were traits that we disdained.

The opening up of new opportunities for many who never had a chance to pursue their own ambitions, aims and individual aspirations before has created an environment conducive to an emergence of a class of black capitalists, a stratum of very senior black managers and business executives, a stratum of black civil servants and bureaucrats, a stratum of black professionals, as well as a black lower middle class. And there is nothing wrong with this.

As the party of government, the ANC today is regarded by a small minority as the instrument for advancing individual careers, creating new opportunities, and the pursuance of personal ambitions. The ANC has inevitably drawn into its ranks a minority of people who joined it in pursuance of personal agendas. A new phenomenon, political careerism, has now become evident in the ANC, its allied structures and among its supporters.

We have witnessed people who do not win a seat in an ANC structure transferred to the SACP structure in the hope of winning one there, and vice-versa; persons who fare badly in the two transferring to SANCO, etc. There have even been instances of ANC members contesting local elections against ANC selected candidates. All these are manifestations of political careerism, which places the personal ambitions and agendas of individuals above the interests of the movement. An NEC paper, titled ” Through the eye of the needle”, setting out some basic considerations regarding the deployment of comrades to elected office, was written in 2000 in an attempt to deal with this problem.

The movement’s own non-racialism and non-ethnic ethos is not merely a matter of high moral principle. The endurance and sustenance of these norms, which many today take for granted, has not been unproblematic. The ubiquitous racism in South African society and the ethnic and tribal segmentation encouraged by the white minority state were powerful currents against which our movement has had to contend. It would be idle to pretend that we have routed them so completely that we can now rest on our laurels.

Historically the movement itself has been the site of intense politico-ideological struggles around the issues of ethnicity, race, class and gender. During the 1930s, for example, a conservative section among the ANC’s founding fathers led a campaign to expel communists from the movement and to move it closer to the liberal fraction of the white establishment. Shortly thereafter, John Dube led the bulk of the ANC branches of Natal out of the mother body to set up his own regional organisation in opposition to the ANC. During the late 1940s some of the ANCYL leaders again sought to drive communists out of the ANC, claiming that communism was antithetical to African Nationalism.

At the height of the struggles of the 1950s, the Africanists, led by Potlako Leballo, tried to manipulate the justifiable anger of africans against their oppressors on an “Africanist” platform, a large component of which was also opposition to communism. The majority of ANC members resisted these siren songs despite the evident emotional appeal of the “Africanist” slogans.

Feminist politics at one time were not widely accepted in the ANC, many even suggested that an emphasis on gender would be divisive or diversionary at a time when maximum unity was imperative. A struggle by the women inside the ANC and in society, with the support of President Oliver Tambo, finally forced the issue of gender onto the ANC’s agenda during the late 1970s.

There have been repeated attempts through the years by others to whip up residual ethnic loyalties and sectional inclinations as a means of mobilising support around platforms of dubious credibility. At the 1997 ANC National Conference in Mafikeng, for example, whispers circulated about the domination of one ethnic group and the need to resist it. Recently a columnist in ‘The Star’ alleged that the ANC takes certain provinces for granted and does not reward them with cabinet posts while retaining ministers from the Eastern Cape even when they do not have “impressive” performance records.

To the credit of the ANC’s membership, none of these attempts has thus far been successful. Which raises the question: Will that always be the case? Is the ANC leaving those of our people who identify ethnically to the political wolves of ethnic enterpreneurship? Or does the ANC have a responsibility to combat ethnic mobilisation in every aspect of our national life so as to render it a political irrelevancy?

Since 1994 the multi-class character of the ANC itself has not changed. But it has become a bit more complex than in the past. Whereas in the past there were no captains of industry in the leading organs of the ANC, today there are National Executive Committee (NEC) members who head some of the largest conglomerates trading on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange. These corporations, moreover, employ thousands of other ANC members as well as ANC supporters. Prior to 1994 Transnet, one of the biggest state-owned corporations, which employs thousands of ANC supporters and members organised in SARHWU, an ANC initiated trade union, was headed by one Johann Maree. Today its MD is a member of the ANC.

For the first time it has become conceivable that ANC members employed by state-owned enterprises could enter into conflict with an ANC member who heads that corporation; that ANC members who are members of a union could clash head-on with another who heads a large private corporation; that ANC members who possess skills and professional training could be separated, both in lifestyle and even spatially, from their comrades who lacked these.

Stratification within black communities is reflected in the ANC and can produce its corollary, class conflicts in which ANC members find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. This has already generated tensions between the ANC and its principal alliance partners, the SACP and COSATU, both working class formations, who have sometimes felt that the ANC, as a movement, should tilt in favour of the working class side of such conflicts.

These are tensions, which if not correctly managed could cause division within the movement. Denial of the conflict potential between ANC-aligned capitalists, company directors, MDs of corporations and the workers employed by them will neither dissolve such potential tensions nor offer a sound basis for managing the new contradictions that have arrived within society and consequently in our movement.

The ANC’s overwhelmingly african support base is sharply profiled in those provinces where black minorities are either a majority (as in the Western Cape) or a significant minority (as in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng). Commentators and some ANC members have been known to suggest that these minorities are disproportionately represented in ANC leadership structures, in government and in state institutions, virtually suggesting that comrades drawn from these communities are not members of the movement in their own individual capacities, but are representatives of these minorities.

Perceived thwarted personal ambitions, competition among ourselves for scarce resources, as well careerism are often linked to such changes. But it would be misguided to close our eyes to the real and palpable disparities in access to housing, services and other necessities among and between the various black communities. In the Western Cape, for example, the overwhelming majority of shack dwellers – with no running water, poor sanitation, no electricity – are africans. Equally, the principal beneficiaries of affirmative action have been the coloured working class and white women. The contest over the distribution of such resources can sometimes find distorted expression within movement structures, leading to racially defined blocs and lobbies that could undermine unity. The political opponents of the ANC are keenly aware of such possibilities and have unashamedly played to them for political gain.

The central issue in South African political debate is the most effective strategy for rolling back the frontiers of poverty in the immediate term, so that in the intermediate and long term we should be in a position to eradicate it. As the ANC and its allies strive for consensus about the swiftest course to follow to achieve economic growth and to wage a concerted struggle against poverty, we should be vigilant in negotiating between the reefs of capitulation and those of sectarianism. The ANC has not surrendered to free-market fundamentalism, nor has it stubbornly clung to dogmatic notions that would deny a developmental role for the private sector.

A key challenge facing South Africa’s democratic forces is how to grow and expand the productive forces of our country to enable us to narrow the gap between the urban and rural areas, release the resources to combat poverty, and create the social surplus necessary to address the huge deficits that are the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. There are no predetermined answers and strategies to guide us in defining the role we should assign to state-owned enterprises, the state and the private sector in such an endeavour. We have accepted that there will be instances where it will be necessary to create strategic partnerships between the state-owned and the private sectors; where it might be tactically wiser to permit the private sector to invest in and expand infrastructure where the state is no longer able to assume responsibility; and others where the state must intervene to stimulate the economy and foster growth where the private sector will not tread.

While accepting the need for partnerships with business, we should not entertain the illusion that private capital is motivated by altruism. The business of business is business. But we recognise that sometimes, precisely in their pursuit of profits, the private sector can be convinced or tempted and even spurred to provide or expand badly required services. There will be instances where there will be no other alternative than to harness the resources in the hands of the capitalist classes for our own purposes, but in the full and conscious realisation that their motive is to maximise profits.

An effective strategy must result in an objective social contract among business, the labour movement (in all its formations), elements of civil society and government around a South African growth strategy, recognising that its diverse elements pursue sometimes conflicting agendas, which can nonetheless come together into one stream.

The strategic importance of the ANC-led alliance for the success of such a project cannot be over-emphasised. The historic mission its components embraced make the mutual support the alliance offers its individual components an indispensable organisational tool for the pursuance of such a progressive national agenda. Nurturing the alliance and strengthening it, even if there are tactical differences among us, sustains the unity of the movement and that of its allies.

As the governing party the ANC has to take account of a host of national and international factors in determining policy options. Some of these have not sat comfortably with the ANC’s popular constituency and with its alliance partners. But the trade-offs made against the prospect of an improvement in the national and international environment have not consistently panned out.


These potential and actual points of tension within the ANC-led alliance and within its own ranks are not new to the movement’s experience. Except in the most intractable instances, as in the case of the Group of Eight of the 1970s, who constituted themselves into a political faction that pursued its own agenda in opposition to that of the movement, the ANC has fallen back on its traditions and tried and tested practices, avoiding expulsion, exclusion or suspension of dissident voices. The ethos of the ANC is that we debate and argue about contesting political positions, but once a majority view has emerged, the minority view submits to the majority.

The question arises: are these adequate to the problems that can arise in the new context of the exercise of state power?

The struggle to push back the frontiers of poverty and to create jobs requires the ANC in the present to enter into various alliances and coalitions. Coalitions and alliances always entail a measure of compromise to achieve mutually agreed goals. Such compromises, however, cannot involve the movement reneging on or repudiating its strategic objectives and its principles. Nor should they foster illusions about the nature and character of the partners and allies we may attract. As the survey of ANC political practice illustrates, some coalitions are tactical, some are strategic; some alliances are designed to be long-lasting, others will be short-lived.

In order to govern the Western Cape and to isolate the last ditch defenders of white privilege clustered around the Democratic Alliance (DA), the ANC entered into a tactical cooperation agreement with the NNP. The need for this agreement did not delude about the nature of the NNP. It was not now a progressive force, on par with the ANC strategic allies.

The tactical alliances the ANC has fashioned to draw AZAPO, the PAC and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) into cooperation around the struggle to eradicate poverty, has not raised any of these parties to the status of the ANC’s strategic allies.

The ANC at the age of 93 is a veteran of nine decades of struggle. It learnt the skills for growth, renewal and continuing relevance in the crucible of the struggle for freedom. Through participation in internal and public debate the movement armed itself with the courage to retrace its steps when necessary and to rethink strategy when required to.

Within the living memory of many veterans of the ANC, what was considered heterodoxy at one point has often been embraced as the new orthodoxy at another. Working in an ever-changing environment, the movement also acquired a remarkable tactical resilience.

But what has enabled the ANC to play this role is its understanding that diversity and unity are not diametrical opposites, but dialectical opposites; that these are mutually reinforcing aspects of democratic politics. The unity among its ranks and supporters is what has made this movement strong and imbued it with the capacity to give leadership to our diverse people and nation. But the movement never misconstrued unity as uniformity. The ANC has always valued the breadth of its appeal and the diversity of its ranks, but placed equal value on unity in action. The creative management of that tension is the secret of its success.

The ANC embraced certain key democratic political values, principles and practices to which it has consistently adhered, both in its public and its inner life. It is by remaining true to those ideals and values that the ANC has remained relevant to the people of South Africa and to the world.

The story of the ANC is that several thousands of ordinary South Africans, working and struggling together as comrades, to propound the vision of a South Africa that would be a better place for all its people. After ninety three years, the ANC lives and the ANC still leads.