History and heritage


South African history: Union and the ANC

Many blacks saw the British victory in the Anglo-Boer war as the hoped-for opportunity to put all four colonies on an equal and just footing, but the treaty left their franchise rights to be decided by the white authorities. The ex-Boer republics retained the whites-only franchise.

In 1909 a delegation appointed by the South African Native Convention, including representatives of the coloured and Indian populations, went to London to plead the case of the country's black population.

But when the Union of South Africa came into being on 31 May 1910, the only province with a non-racial franchise was the Cape, and blacks were barred from being members of parliament. Of the estimated 6-million inhabitants of the Union in that year, 67% were black African, 9% coloured and 2.5% Asian.

The South African Party, a merging of the previous Afrikaner parties, held power under the premiership of General Louis Botha.

The 1913 Land Act and the ANC

Repressive measures to entrench white power were not long in coming the Masters and Servants Act, the reservation of skilled work for whites, pass laws, the Native Poll Tax and the 1913 Land Act which reserved 90% of the country for white ownership.

By the time this Act was passed, the African National Congress (ANC) had come into being on January 8 1912, in Bloemfontein, in an act of unity joining an educated elite, the rural classes and tribal structures. The committee included Sol Plaatje as secretary; the first president of the ANC was the Rev John L Dube. Both formed part of a second unsuccessful delegation to London, this time to protest the land grab.

Resistance started to assume a more outspoken and militant form, especially when several hundred black women marched in Bloemfontein to protest against being forced to buy passes every month. Similar protests were held in other places, and participants arrested. The women were harshly treated in jail.

Mohandas Gandhi

The Indian community were also suffering under viciously racist treatment in 1891 they had been expelled from the Orange Free State altogether. Mohandas Gandhi, then a young lawyer who had arrived in South Africa in 1892, had become a leading figure in Indian resistance.

The struggle against the 3 Indian poll tax in Natal involved a mass strike in which a number of Indians were killed, but achieved success when the tax was removed in 1914 the year Gandhi, then known as Mahatma, left the country.

Afrikaner polarisation

In the white camp, Botha and Smuts were in favour of reconciliation with English South Africans. But they did not represent the whole of the embittered Afrikaner nation, and JBM Hertzog formed the more conservative Nationalist Party. Afrikaner polarisation assumed dramatic form when South Africa entered the First World War in support of Britain and anti-British Afrikaners unsuccessfully rebelled.

Still hoping for support from the British government there had been further delegations the ANC supported involvement in the war and unknown numbers of black soldiers died.

(South Africa gained control over the previously German-held South West Africa now Namibia as a result of the war; the territory became a Union mandate.)

Black workers, white workers

With the inspiration of the October Revolution in Russia, the post-war period was marked by strike action. In 1918, a million black mine workers went on strike for higher wages, and 71000 did the same in 1920 the latter strike successfully extracting a wage increase.

Between those strikes, 1919 saw the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union of South Africa and the convening of the South African Indian Congress. In the same year, Botha died and Smuts became Prime Minister.

If official (white) South Africa was taking its place in the wider world as a result of the First World War, the ANC was beginning to see itself as part of the wider African efforts against colonialism in Africa. In its 1918 constitution it referred to itself as a "Pan African Association" and the organisation attended the second congress of the international Pan African Movement in 1921 (not to be confused with the later South African Pan-Africanist Congress).

Another strike was looming on the mines by a different group of miners. Rising costs and a falling gold price led the Chamber of Mines to allow the lower-paid African miners to do semi-skilled work. White miners reacted violently in a 1922 strike, militarily suppressed by Smuts. Hertzog's Nationalists found increased support in the white Labour Party, and an election pact saw Smuts ousted and Hertzog as Prime Minister in 1924.

The next decade saw Hertzog successfully working for increased independence from British control and greater job reservation security for whites. Franchise acts extended the vote to all white men and women, but left the still existing black vote in the Cape restricted to men.

Birth of the Nationalist Party

The government's popularity with its voters declined, however, with economic depression in the early 1930s, forcing Hertzog into a Smuts coalition government in 1933 (the year before South Africa became independent from Great Britain). Their parties fused as the United Party, but Hertzog's move was balanced by the breaking away on the right of DF Malan's new Nationalist Party as a political home for the more extreme Afrikaner nationalists.

Not that the new government displayed any noticeable leftist tendencies: in 1936 black Cape voters were removed from the common roll; in the following year laws were passed to stem black urbanisation and compel municipalities to segregate black African and white residents.

The Hertzog-Smuts coalition fell apart with the Second World War, Smuts winning the power battle to form a government that took South Africa into the war. Afrikaner opposition to the war strengthened Malan's support base.

ANC Youth League, Natal Indian Congress

At the same time, developments in the ANC symbolically marked the start of what was to be nearly 50 years of head-to-head conflict between that organisation and the Nationalist Party.

In April 1944 the ANC Youth League was formed. Its first president was AM Lembede (who died three years later); Nelson Mandela was its secretary. Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu were among those who came to the fore as the influence of the Youth League in the broader ANC increased.

It was a time of rapid industrial expansion, but skilled work remained the domain of whites. On the other hand, the black influx into urban areas combined with the continuing repression strengthened black resistance. A Bill introduced by Smuts in 1946, for instance, aimed at curtailing the movement, residence and property ownership of Indians led to mass defiance and the rapid expansion of the Natal Indian Congress.

Apartheid entrenched

The ideals of the United Nations cast a spotlight on the country's racial inequity, and the first of many attacks on the country in the General Assembly came from the Indian government in 1946.

The Nationalist Party, however, was gathering strength and, in a surprise result, gained power in the 1948 election power that it would not relinquish until 1994. Apartheid became official government ideology.

SAinfo reporter

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The South African Native National Congress objects to the 1913 Natives Land Act

In 1914 a delegation from the South African Native National Congress, the forerunner of today's ruling African National Congress, went to England to convey the objections of the African people to the ruinous 1913 Natives Land Act. In the back row, from left, is Walter Rubusana and Saul Nsane, and in the front row Thomas Mapikela, John Dube, and famous author and linguist Sol T Plaatje (Image: University of the Witwatersrand Library, Department of Historical Papers)

1922 Rand Revolt

Union leaders appearing in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court, supported by mineworkers in the streets outside, during the 1922 Rand Revolt. The slogan on the placard urges white workers to unite (Image: South African History Online)

Indians arriving for the first time in Durban

Indians arriving for the first time in Durban, South Africa. The date is unknown, but very likely before World War One (Image: South African History Online)

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