The Defiance Campaign in South Africa, recalled
The “Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws” – launched jointly by the African National Congress of South Africa and the South African Indian Congress – was one of the greatest non-violent passive resistance campaigns in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi.
It was the largest mass action by the newly-formed alliance of the two congresses, confronting the apartheid regime which had come to power in 1948 and had enacted a series of racist and repressive laws.
Over 8,500 volunteers courted imprisonment by contravening pass laws and curfew regulations, orders segregating whites and non-whites in railway stations and post offices, and other oppressive and humiliating measures. Fears expressed by many people, racists as well as some liberals, that Africans were somehow incapable of non-violent resistance were disproved. Some whites were moved to join the passive resistance. They included: Patrick Duncan, son of a former Governor-General; Miss Bettie du Toit, an Afrikaner trade union leader; Miss Freda Troup, an author; and Albie Sachs, then a law student and now professor of law in Mozambique.
The Campaign generated a mass upsurge for freedom. The membership of the A.N.C. increased from 7,000 to 100,000 during the campaign and it became a truly national organization of the people. The Campaign also led to the formation of the Coloured People`s Congress and the Congress of (white) Democrats, and then a "Congress Alliance" which played a crucial role in promoting multi-racial resistance to apartheid in subsequent years.
It was during the Campaign that the late Chief Albert Lutuli was deposed from the chieftancy to which he had been elected for refusing to obey the orders of the regime to dissociate from the ANC. He was elected President-General of the ANC in December 1952 and earned the respect of world opinion for his steadfast resistance to apartheid until his mysterious death in 1967.
Nelson Mandela, President of the ANC Youth League, was appointed Volunteer-in-Chief of the Campaign. His outstanding qualities as a mass leader led to his election as the Transvaal President and Deputy National President of the ANC in 1952. He was to assume ever greater responsibilities in the struggle, especially after the ANC was banned in 1960, and despite his incarceration for twenty-five years since August 5, 1962, he remains the inspiring symbol of resistance.
The Campaign led to the foundation of the Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa by the late Reverend Canon John Collins in London and the American Committee on Africa by the Reverend George Houser in New York, initiating the international solidarity movement with the South African struggle.
The Defiance Campaign and the subsequent bus boycotts and other acts of non-violent resistance in South Africa were an inspiration to the black people in the United States in launching the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of the late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was during the Defiance Campaign that the Government of India, led by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, took the initiative for a joint request by thirteen Asian-African States to the United Nations General Assembly to consider "the question of race conflict in South Africa resulting from the policies of apartheid of the Government of the Union of South Africa."They declared that apartheid "is creating a dangerous and explosive situation, which constitutes both a threat to international peace and a flagrant violation of the basic principles of human rights and fundamental freedoms which are enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations." They called for international action "to prevent an already dangerous situation from deteriorating further."
The apartheid regime met the non-violent resistance of the people with physical violence, resorting to the flogging of many volunteers. It enacted new laws providing for long terms of imprisonment and ten lashes for such resistance. It proceeded in subsequent years to close all avenues of peaceful protest, restricting the leaders of the movement, charging them with high treason and banning their organizations.
The United Nations and the international community proved unable, despite growing abhorrence of apartheid, to take decisive action to counter it, primarily because of the callousness and obstruction of major Western Powers, so that the black people had to bear enormous suffering in continuing their resistance by all possible means. Their leaders were obliged, after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the massive repression that followed, to decide on an armed struggle.
The deliberate massacre of African schoolchildren in Soweto on June 16, 1976, led to two results contrary to the calculations of the racist regime. On the one hand, it sparked mass non-violent defiance as the people lost fear of imprisonment, torture and death. On the other hand, it persuaded the militants that armed struggle was indispensable as part of the strategy for liberation, and thousands of youth enrolled as freedom fighters with a determination to fight unto death.
Soon, tens of thousands of people began to march in funeral processions for fallen freedom fighters, defying the laws banning the flag and other symbols of the ANC. They have rendered those laws virtually inoperative and frustrated the hopes of the regime that censorship and repression can make the movement and its leaders forgotten. Indeed, the oppressed people became more attached to the ANC and its leaders than ever before, and Nelson Mandela has become the most honoured political prisoner in history.
The South African people have, in a sense, enriched Mahatma Gandhi`s concept of Satyagraha, the term he coined eighty years ago in 1907 when led a batch of volunteers to defy anti-Asian legislation in the Transvaal.
Non-violent defiance now continues alongside the armed struggle: they reinforce each other.
The international solidarity movement, by governments and peoples, has developed with the struggle inside South Africa and has become a powerful force.
The vision and faith of the leaders of the Defiance Campaign, and the solidarity of people around the world, including the West, has so far averted a ghastly black-white racial conflict in South Africa. There is now a possibility that apartheid can be destroyed and a truly non-racial society built in that country – though a more determined effort is required by the liberation movement and the international community to overcome the madness of the unscrupulous, desperate and heavily-armed regime in Pretoria.
Published in Asian Times, London, June 26, 1987