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A brief history of South Africa

Beginning of the
Liberation Struggle

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The Cape Colony's constitution of 1853 and again of 1872 was "colour blind" in that any male, of a certain level of education and/or economic status could have the vote. The gateway to "freedom" for Black people therefore lay in the education route.

Indeed, education would entitle them to the vote and thereby would exempt them from laws which pertained to tribal Africans, although it is certainly true that Whites were always regarded as more equal than "exempted natives".

Although the Cape government officially scrutinised local legislation to maintain its colour blind status, local councils nevertheless managed to make inroads into this. East London, for example, managed to gain an Act of Parliament in 1895 which enabled the Town Fathers to pass blatantly discriminatory legislation, such as the regulation forbidding Black people from walking on the pavements in the town.


Because of this, Native Vigilance Associations began to arise in the various towns of the Eastern Cape. These associations aimed at serving as a watchdog for African interests but they also attempted to uplift the Black community by provision of better housing, sanitation, water supply and educational facilities.

By 1909, however, it became clear that the White community was moving in a political direction which would totally ignore Black rights. As a result, a national union of Native Vigilance Associations was formed, which evolved into a new political organisation in 1912 (after the Act of Union) to be known as the South African Native National Congress (changing its name to the African National Congress in 1923).

The early Black political organisations were essentially moderate in their demands, accepting the general inferior status of the Black people but working through diplomatic means for the maintenance of justice. The ANC was essentially a non-violent group which appealed particularly to the Middle Class (petite bourgeoisie) and firmly rejecting the Communist Party which appealed to the working class (proletariate).

The Black political organisations, however, were never able to make any headway against a steadily increasing tide of racist laws emanating from the South African government which slowly but steadily became dominated by the right-wing. From as early as 1911 anti-Black legislation would come out of the all-White parliament and African resentment rose in direct proportion to this legislation.


Matters came to a head after 1948 when the National Party came to power and introduced a policy that was both anti-English and anti-Black. Prime Minister Malan made it perfectly clear that the Black person would from now on hold no rights within White South Africa but only within the so-called reserves.

Prime Minister Verwoerd would later devise the scheme of Grand Apartheid whereby South Africa would become a segregated land, with reserves becoming "independent homelands".

At the same time the government tended to see all opposition in simplistic terms: it all emanated from communism and therefore opposition could be neatly silenced by means of the banning of communism (Suppression of Communism Act - 1950).

The government was wrong, of course, and merely caused the communists to take refuge within the ANC and so established a symbiotic relationship which exists to the present day. It also caused the emergence of more militant action, notably the formation of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC - 1958) which took as its battle cry "Africa for the Africans".


Protest against the fascist legislation escalated until 1958 when the tragedy of Sharpeville occurred. Soon thereafter the government tried to suppress opposition through the sledgehammer approach of bannings. The first to be hit were the ANC and the PAC, but such bannings merely caused the organisations to go underground and become militant.

The "armed struggle" therefore began in 1958 and by 1970 was beginning to affect the South African economy as greater and greater manpower was required to maintain an ever increasing army. At the same time, the "border war" led South Africa to become involved in Mozambique, Rhodesia and Angola, with a constantly escalating drain on financial reserves.

The crisis took new turns in the mid-1980s with the creation of the Tricameral Parliament. New political parties would instantly appear of which the most important would be the United Democratic Front (UDF - 1983 - a moderate non-racial organisation) and the Azanian Peoples Organisation (AZAPO - 1983 - a radical African nationalist body).

At the same time, the unbanning of the trade union movement saw bodies like the Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU - 1985) become militant and take to the streets in mass action and stayaways.

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