South African’s National Liberation Movement

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Treason trial



Author : Enuga Reddy

20 December 1956

Thirty years ago, in December 1956, one hundred and fifty-six leaders and activists of the freedom movement in South Africa were arrested in pre-dawn raids all over the country and charged with high treason, an offence punishable by death.

The charge was based on the “Freedom Charter” – adopted by a multi-racial “Congress of the People” in 1955 – which proclaimed that “South Africa belongs to all those who live in it, Black and White” and called for a democratic state, based on the will of the people and ensuring equal rights for all the people, without distinction of colour, race or belief.

The prosecution tried to prove that “the holding of the Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter are steps in the direction of the establishment of a Communist State and the necessary prelude to the revolution.”

If the apartheid regime hoped to intimidate, discredit and disrupt the liberation movement through this mass trial, it failed miserably.

In fact, it brought together leaders and militants of all racial origins and of varied ideologies and virtually organised a convention in which they could become better acquainted, discuss the strategy of the struggle and attain greater unity.

The great majority of the accused were, as the regime well knew, not affiliated to the Communist movement. They included the late Chief Albert Lutuli, who was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize; the late Dr. Z.K. Matthews, the prominent educator; Oliver Tambo, the present President of the African National Congress; Nelson Mandela, the Volunteer-in-Chief of the 1952 non-violent Defiance Campaign; the late Dr. G.M. “Monty” Naicker, the Gandhian leader of the Natal Indian Congress; Helen Joseph, the White trade unionist and women`s leader; and Archie Gumede, now leader of the United Democratic Front.

They also included a number of Communists like Moses Kotane, the ANC delegate to the Asian-African Conference in Bandung; Joe Slovo, now chairman of` the South African Communist Party; the late Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, leader of the South African Indian Congress; and Alex La Guma, journalist and writer. Moosa Moolla, now ANC representative in India, was one of the accused.

The long trial contributed immensely to the building of a multi-racial national liberation movement. It also led to closer cooperation between African nationalists, pacifists and Communists.

The trial itself proved abortive. In 1958, after a protracted preparatory examination, the prosecution was obliged to drop charges against 65 of the accused, including Chief Lutuli and Oliver Tambo. The indictment against 61 others was quashed in 1959. After listening to hundreds of witnesses and studying tens of thousands of pages of “evidence” in the marathon trial, Justice Rumpff acquitted the remaining 30 accused in March, 1961. He declared that the prosecution had failed to prove that ANC advocated violence or that it had become a Communist organisation or had been infiltrated by Communists.

Meanwhile, the Sharpeville massacre of March, 1960 had outraged world opinion and ANC`s call for a boycott of South Africa found ready response among newly-independent States. ANC itself was banned in April 1960 and was forced to go underground.

Soon after the end of the treason trial, Nelson Mandela led a campaign in May, 1961, against the move to proclaim a White racist republic and for a national convention of representatives of all the people of the country. When that was put down with the mobilisation of the armed forces and massive repression, leaders of ANC took the fateful decision to prepare for an armed struggle and to build a multi-racial military wing – Umkhonto we Sizwe – with the cooperation of the Communist Party. Nelson Mandela became the leader of Umkhonto, which made its appearance twenty-five years ago on Heroes Day, December 16, 1961, with simultaneous acts of sabotage in Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth. Leaflets appeared in all major cities proclaiming that Umkhonto had been established, since government violence necessitated a new road for liberation. They added:

“We hope that we will bring the government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that the government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate stage of civil war.”

The apartheid regime learnt nothing .from the treason trial or its aftermath and continued to rely on violence against the entire freedom movement which it persisted in branding as Communist. Since June this year, when it decided to reject the Commonwealth efforts for a negotiated solution, it launched an extensive propaganda campaign that it cannot negotiate with ANC as it is Communist and terrorist. It has found little support for its propaganda except among the ultra-conservative cold warriors in the United States, but it is among them that it has sought dependable allies for many years.

When it came to power in 1948, the apartheid regime was unpopular in the West because of the pro-Nazi antecedents of its leaders, the rabid racism of its election campaign and its hostility to English-speaking capitalists. It tried to join the Western alliance by taking advantage of the Cold War and the McCarthyism in the United States and by participating in the Berlin airlift and the Korean War.

It enacted the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950, with an eye on American opinion, not only to outlaw the Communist Party but to silence all leaders of the freedom movement, including opponents of the Communist ideology. The result was to bring the victims of repression closer. African leaders, who disagreed with the Communist ideology, were persuaded to work with the Communists and were impressed by the diligence and sacrifice of many Communists. The equivocation of the West as regards international action against apartheid, and the constant support of the Communist States, increased sympathy toward Communism.

If the apartheid regime is incapable of learning from experience, will it be able to persuade the United States to be equally short-sighted?

The “Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act”, enacted by the United States Congress in September, not only imposes selective sanctions against South Africa but calls for active American intervention to ensure that the liberation movements break any ties with the South African Communist Party. The amendments which the conservative Senators managed to insert in the law will only divert attention from the crimes of the apartheid regime. They may lead the United States to promote groups like Chief Gatsha Buthelezi`s Inkatha against ANC and its allies, giving solace to the regime for which freedom itself is treason.

The task of the international community is to exert concerted pressure to bring the apartheid regime to its senses and promote a transition to a democratic society. It cannot afford to be diverted from that urgent task.



Four decades of discussion and action on the problem of racism in South Africa provide perhaps the best illustration of the limitations as well as the potentialities of the United Nations for the promotion of freedom and human rights in the world. They are also indicative of the response of the community of nations to the aspirations of the African continent — above all, for the dignity of the African person — which has emerged from centuries of humiliation and oppression.

The United Nations has been seized with the problem since the first General Assembly session in 1946, when India complained of discrimination against people of Indian origin in the Union of South Africa, and particularly since 1952 when in the wake of the non-violent defiance campaign in South Africa, Asian and African states requested UN consideration of the “question of race conflict resulting from the policies of apartheid.” Since then, the matter has been discussed in many organs of the United Nations and its specialised agencies, resulting in a record number of debates, reports and resolutions.

Apartheid is far from abolished. Indeed, there has been no diminution of racist oppression, but growing tension and polarisation in South Africa, resulting from the stubborn determination of the authorities to consolidate and perpetuate white domination; the forcible removal and resettlement of 3.5 million Africans, Coloureds, and Indians; and the enactment of draconian repressive laws. Massacres of peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960, Soweto in 1976, and Uitenhage in 1985 have shocked the world. The freedom movement in the country, which inspired the world by its non-violent resistance against a ruthless regime and was honoured by the award of two Nobel Peace Prizes in a generation – to the late Chief Albert J. Lutuli in 1961 and Bishop Desmond Tutu in 1984 – was reluctantly obliged to resort to armed struggle.

Moreover, South Africa has been engaged in a colonial war in Namibia since 1966 when the United Nations terminated Pretoria’s mandate over that territory. It has committed aggression, terrorism and subversion against neighbouring independent African states, causing enormous human and material losses and undermining the hopes of the newly independent countries for economic and social development.

White Domination

It has built up a powerful military machine, increasing its military budget a hundred-fold since 1960 and acquiring nuclear capability. It seeks not only to maintain white domination in most of the country by creating caricatures of independent states for the African majority, but also to be recognised as the dominant power in the region.

The achievements of the United Nations in dealing with the problem are less tangible. Apartheid is now universally condemned, but there has not been sufficient international pressure even to persuade the regime to initiate discussions with the genuine leaders of the black majority on transition to a non-racial system. But it would be short-sighted to conclude that the United Nations has failed.

The United Nations has been a significant factor in ensuring that the balance of forces steadily turned against the racist regime and in favour of the movement for freedom and in enabling the latter to secure the widest international support from governments and organisations. It has helped avert a bloody racial conflict which would have shattered all hopes for a non-racial society in South Africa.

Despite its military power, the Pretoria regime has been unable to suppress the resistance of the black majority or enforce its master plan for perpetual white domination. It has been forced to recognise the need for a change of course, although it resorts to manoeuvres to preserve the essence of white domination. It is now confronted with a grave political and economic crisis, while the resistance is stronger and more determined than ever.

There is a grave danger that in its desperation the regime may precipitate a catastrophic conflict. But this crisis also represents an opportunity and a challenge to the United Nations which has helped over the decades to develop an international consensus for the elimination of apartheid.

An Affirmation of International Concern

The United Nations is an organisation of sovereign states, created primarily to deal with disputes and conflicts among states and maintain international peace and security. Only in the case of threats to peace, breaches of peace and acts of aggression is the Security Council authorised to decide on coercive measures, with the concurrence of its five permanent members, and make them binding on all member-states.

Although born at the end of a ghastly world war amid hopes for a new world order and a desire to eliminate the causes of war, the Organisation could only promote economic and social development, freedom and human rights through the slow and laborious process of the development of norms of international law and cooperation. The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states has remained almost sacrosanct.

South Africa was a founding member of the United Nations and its Prime Minister, Jan Christian Smuts, played a significant role in drafting the UN Charter. It was influential in the British Commonwealth and had developed extensive economic and other relations with Britain and the U.S., as well as with other colonial powers in Africa. Africa, on the other hand, was mostly under colonial rule and had little influence within the international community.

The National Party, which came to power in South Africa in 1948 with apartheid as its policy, tried to overcome its unpopularity in the West by participating in the Berlin airlift in 1948 and the Korean War in 1950. It was invited to discussions on military, economic and other cooperation in Africa and the Middle East, and signed the Simonstown military agreements with Britain in 1955. It could thus count on the Western states as dependable allies.

When India’s complaint against South Africa was brought up in the United Nations in 1946, many countries supported the South African contention that the question should be referred to the International Court of Justice. Even in 1952, a number of countries were wary of specific criticism or condemnation of the South African government and preferred a general declaration against racial discrimination.

Jurisdiction of the UN

For many years, therefore, the main task was to affirm the jurisdiction of the United Nations to consider the situation in South Africa as a political problem of international concern rather than one of many human rights violations in the world, and to develop an international consensus against apartheid. While Asian and African states argued that the situation was bound to lead to internal conflict and international friction, they asked for no more than universal condemnation of apartheid and diplomatic pressure by the Western states on the South African government. The annual discussions in the United Nations, however, played an important role in promoting sympathy and support for the freedom movement in South Africa.

The Sharpeville massacre of 1960, followed by a nation-wide upsurge of the black people and massive repression by the regime – including the outlawing of African liberation movements, the declaration of a state of emergency, and the detention of thousands of people – aroused world opinion and heralded a new stage in the UN deliberations. For the first time, the situation was considered by the Security Council as one likely to cause international friction. With the admission of many African states to the UN, there was pressure for a move from appeals and condemnations to concrete measures against the South African government.

A turning point was General Assembly Resolution 1761 of November 6, 1962, sponsored by the African states, which urged member states to impose economic and other sanctions against South Africa and established a Special Committee (now the Special Committee against Apartheid) to keep the situation under constant review.

Many African, Non-aligned and Socialist states had already imposed diplomatic measures against South Africa, which was obliged to leave the Commonwealth in 1961. Since then, their main role has been to provide material assistance to the liberation movements, to promote wider support to the liberation struggle and, above all, to press for action by the Western states and other main trading partners of South Africa.

Threat to International Peace

The debates in the United Nations became increasingly focused on demands that the Western powers and Japan recognise the situation as a threat to international peace and support universal sanctions against South Africa. Behind the assertions that those states were responsible for the perpetuation of apartheid through their “business as usual” relationship with the racist regime was recognition that only they could exert sufficient economic and other pressures to oblige the Pretoria government to seek a peaceful solution and thereby avert immense suffering.

At the same time, the UN has been actively engaged in promoting a variety of measures to develop international norms against apartheid, to isolate the authorities in South Africa, and to assist the victims of apartheid and their liberation movements. It has done this not only through resolutions, declarations and diplomatic measures, but also by efforts to reach public opinion and encourage action by public organisations all over the world. In fact, on no other issue has the UN been as activist and its initiatives on apartheid have created many precedents for the functioning of the organisation. Its efforts have been supplemented by those of many of its specialised agencies.

The failure to reach agreement on mandatory economic sanctions, primarily because of the opposition of the three Western permanent members of the Security Council, has tended to obscure progress in other areas and undermine the image of the UN. While sanctions are the strongest measures under the UN Charter, it should be recognised that they cannot by themselves solve the situation. Sanctions should rather be seen in the context of other means to lend encouragement and support to the struggle in South Africa.

Progress in International Action

In a series of unanimous resolutions, the UN has condemned apartheid as a crime and recognised that the elimination of apartheid is of vital concern to the international community; called for the release of Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners and for an end to repression; and recognised the legitimacy of the struggle of the oppressed majority for its inalienable rights. It has denounced the so-called “independence” of bantustans and no state has recognised those entities, thus, undermining Pretoria’s plans to deprive the African majority of its citizenship and create a fait accompli. Both the General Assembly and the Security Council have declared the 1984 constitution, which excludes the African majority, invalid.

The United Nations has defined its objectives as the total elimination of apartheid and the establishment of a non-racial democratic society in an unfragmented South Africa in which all its people would enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms, irrespective of race, colour, sex or creed. It has called for consultations among the genuine representatives of all South Africans and offered appropriate assistance toward that end. In resolutions adopted by large majorities, it has recognised the right of the liberation movements to resort to armed struggle, declaring that “freedom fighters” are entitled to prisoner-of-war status.

The South African government has been excluded from the General Assembly since 1974 when its delegation’s credentials were rejected. It is also excluded from other UN organs and conferences, as well as from most specialised agencies and inter-governmental organisations. Only about a score of the 157 members of the United Nations maintain diplomatic missions in South Africa.

On the other hand, the liberation movements of South Africa were granted Observer status by UN organs in 1974 and recognised by the General Assembly in 1975 as the authentic representatives of the overwhelming majority of the people of the country. They attend UN meetings and other international conferences, and exercise considerable influence on decisions concerning South Africa.

The United Nations and its specialised agencies have developed extensive information programmes to inform public opinion of the inhumanity of apartheid and to promote support for the struggle against apartheid. The persistent efforts of African and other states in the UN have led to some progress even on sanctions and related measures.

The Security Council called for an arms embargo against South Africa in a non-binding resolution in 1963. In the aftermath of the Soweto massacre, the death in detention of Steve Biko, and the banning of black consciousness organisations, it decided unanimously on a mandatory arms embargo.

Many Types of Boycotts

Several smaller Western countries began taking action to prohibit loans and new investment in South Africa. Sweden has also banned the transfer of technology to South Africa. Most of the oil-exporting countries, including Norway, have prohibited the supply of oil to South Africa. Beginning with the Nordic states in 1966, some Western countries began to support sanctions in principle and they now constitute a large majority of the Western and other states.

The non-economic measures — especially the sports and cultural boycotts — have been effective in demonstrating abhorrence of apartheid. They have involved millions of people in many countries and have helped to educate public opinion.

Equally important is assistance to the victims of apartheid and their liberation movements. The United Nations has set up funds and programmes for this purpose and has constantly encouraged bilateral and multilateral assistance through other appropriate channels.

Set up in 1965 to assist political prisoners and their families, the United Nations Trust Fund for South Africa now receives nearly $2 million a year in voluntary contributions from governments. The United Nations Educational and Training Programme for Southern Africa, which provides scholarships for higher education abroad, receives over $3 million a year. Both programmes have unanimous support in the General Assembly. Assistance programmes have been established by the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNESCO, the International Labour Organisation and other agencies.

Assistance by governments, through national programmes and non-governmental agencies and direct grants to liberation movements, encouraged by the UN, is even larger in scope, as is assistance to the African frontline states which have suffered grievously because of their support for the liberation of South Africa and Namibia. No freedom movement has ever received moral and material assistance from so many governments and organisations all over the world.

Unanimity has been achieved at three levels: the condemnation of apartheid, the arms embargo and humanitarian assistance to the victims of apartheid. Overwhelming support, including that of a majority of Western countries, has been given to the principle of sanctions against the apartheid regime and on non-military assistance to liberation movements. Lastly, a number of states — although not the Western powers — have endorsed the legitimacy of armed struggle by the liberation movements and supported assistance to that struggle.

Growing Crisis

International action, however, has proved far from adequate in dealing with the determination of the South African regime to defend and consolidate white domination. Utilising its control over the economic and other resources of the country and the continued cooperation of various foreign interests, it has been able to build up its military repressive apparatus and resist demands for the abandonment of apartheid.

The international community, moreover, missed opportunities to exert decisive influence when the South African regime was confronted with serious problems with the independence of Mozambique and Angola in 1975, the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 and the resurgence of resistance by the black majority.

Hopes that the mandatory arms embargo of 1977 would be followed by other sanctions were frustrated as the major Western powers opposed any coercive action on the grounds that they sought to persuade the Pretoria government to facilitate the independence of Zimbabwe. Expectations that the independence of Zimbabwe would help focus attention on pressure against the South African authorities to secure the independence of Namibia and the elimination of apartheid proved illusory with the espousal of the policy of “constructive engagement” by the new American administration in 1981.

This policy is essentially antithetical to the UN strategy of pressure against the minority regime, support to liberation movements and encouragement of world public opinion toward these ends. It has been a source of distress to those who had expected the United States to be more responsive to appeals for action against apartheid than the major Western European powers because of its own historical experience with racism. Instead, they see a new “American dilemma.”

The U.S. has not hesitated in opposing many resolutions on apartheid. With the support of conservative governments in the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany, it has retarded progress on international pressure against the authorities in Pretoria.

The South African regime proceeded to blackmail neighbouring African states with impunity in an effort to establish its hegemony in the whole region and undermine the liberation movements. While professing readiness to abandon some apartheid measures in response to persuasion by the U.S., it imposed a new racist constitution in the hope of dividing the blacks and consolidating white supremacy.

In fact, the new constitution led to the unprecedented mobilisation of the black people against the regime, an escalation of repression and resistance, and large-scale violence. The unwillingness of the major powers to exert the strongest pressure on Pretoria appears to have increasingly persuaded blacks that their only hope is massive and violent resistance.

Explosive Situation

The regime has been unable to control the situation despite its recent imposition of a state of emergency, its show of force against the townships and its mass detentions. There is a grave danger that unless the UN can respond with a new level of international action against apartheid, the situation in South Africa will become explosive.

Fortunately, the recent developments have led to greater public support and pressure in the West for effective measures to persuade the South African regime to end repression and seek a solution by negotiations with the genuine leaders of the majority of the population.

At the 1985 General Assembly session, several Western countries joined African and other states in co-sponsoring a resolution calling for sanctions and other measures against South Africa, which obtained an overwhelming majority of votes, including a substantial majority among Western states.

More recently, after the state of emergency was proclaimed in South Africa in July, 1985, France took the initiative to convene a meeting of the Security Council to decide on a series of voluntary sanctions against South Africa. A number of Western countries — Australia, Canada, France and the Nordic countries — have announced concrete, albeit limited, measures without waiting for mandatory decisions by the Security Council.

At the same time, pressure for divestment and other measures has greatly increased in the US, reflected by the actions of a number of states and cities, as well as legislation in Congress. It is most encouraging that proposals for such action have received bipartisan support. While limited sanctions that are not universally implemented are hardly adequate, these initiatives give hope for concerted international action.

Cooperation in All Measures

The potentialities of the UN as a forum for harmonising the attitudes of states must be utilised with a sense of urgency to prevail upon the major Western powers to cooperate in all appropriate and feasible pressures on the South African regime to persuade it to end repression, release political prisoners and negotiate with the genuine representatives of the black majority on a programme for the elimination of apartheid and the establishment of a state in which all of the people will enjoy equal rights. So-called changes or reforms by that regime, imposed unilaterally or with the support of its hand-picked black leaders, are totally irrelevant.

There should be no illusions that change will come easily, even with economic sanctions. But the South African regime is highly vulnerable to pressure, especially from the United States, the United Kingdom and West Germany on which it has become dependent. It is also dependent for its economic strength on black labour. With the rising resistance of the black majority and effective international action, a negotiated solution in the interests of all the people of South Africa may come sooner rather than later. The United Nations may contribute not only to the demise of an evil system, but also to averting immense bloodshed and suffering in the process of change.