Although their role has often been overlooked in historical accounts of resistance to apartheid, black South African women played an important part in opposing the system of racial segregation. (White and “coloured” women were part of the resistance, but the vast majority were black South Africans.) In the early 1900s, black South African women successfully resisted proposed legislation that would require them to carry passbooks. After a setback in 1918, women organized again to end the practice altogether under the leadership of Charlotte Maxeke, a gifted singer, social worker, and activist—a hero of the early days of protest. She was called “the mother of African freedom in this country” by A. B. Xuma, who served as the president of the ANC in the 1940s.
The multiracial Federation of South African Women was formed in the 1950s, representing hundreds of thousands of women. Together with the ANC Women’s League, the federation organized many local demonstrations against the pass laws, culminating in the March on Pretoria. On August 9, 1956, about 20,000 women peacefully gathered in front of the city’s Union Buildings. They stood in silence for 30 minutes and then, breaking the quiet, chanted a call to the prime minister: “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo!” (Now that you have touched the women, you have struck a rock!) Alerted to the protest ahead of time, the prime minister, J. G. Strijdom, had slipped out of town. Before they concluded their protest, activists left on the prime minister’s door a petition bearing the signatures of 100,000 women. Their chant became the slogan for future women’s protests. The reading Women Rise Up against Apartheid and Change the Movement features a firsthand account of the 1956 women’s march
By the late 1950s, a growing number of activists questioned the tactics of the African National Congress. The young founders of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), formed in 1959, believed that only an all-black African organization, in league with anti-colonial Africans throughout the continent, could adopt the forceful posture necessary to overcome apartheid. The time had come, these firebrands believed, to reclaim the land stolen by whites. In his inaugural speech, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, head of the PAC, outlined their approach:
[W]e reject both apartheid and so-called multi-racialism as solutions of our socio-economic problems. . . . To us the term “multi-racialism” implies that there are such basic insuperable differences between the various national groups here that the best course is to keep them permanently distinctive in a kind of democratic apartheid. That to us is racialism multiplied, which probably is what the term connotes. We aim, politically, at government of the Africans by the Africans, for the Africans, everybody who owes his only loyalty to Afrika and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.
Questioning the effectiveness of nonviolence against apartheid, the PAC set up a military wing, Poqo, that was feared by the white establishment.
The PAC announced to authorities that it would lead a peaceful demonstration against pass laws in the township of Sharpeville on March 21, 1960. Some 5,000 protesters gathered in the town center and then marched toward the police station to turn themselves in for defying pass laws.
Around midday, the police panicked and opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 69 people and wounding another 180. Most were shot in the back as they fled.
Black South African leaders called for a day of mourning and a “stay-at-home” strike on March 28, 1960. Hundreds of thousands of black South Africans did not show up for work that day, making it the first successful national strike in the nation’s history. Marches took place in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town; the largest included a group of 30,000 who marched from Langa to Cape Town, led by 23-year-old Philip Kgosana. Fearing that black protests might spread, the government acted decisively in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre. It declared a state of emergency and arrested more than 11,000 people, including the leaders of both the ANC and the PAC. On April 8, the government banned both organizations. This put an abrupt end to the protests and ushered in a period of harsh repression that lasted for more than a decade.
During the 1960s, the government intensified its policies against the anti-apartheid movement by severely restricting the ability of the movement’s leaders to speak in public and to mobilize the population. The government went on to scrap what few rights non-white workers had, including the rights to organize, bargain, and strike, and it also intensified efforts to shut down surviving black urban neighborhoods and move the black population to the townships and homelands.
Although officially banned, the ANC continued to function clandestinely. The young leadership of the ANC, having seen their hopes for change dashed so violently, began to discuss a new approach to resistance. Despite opposition from the old guard, in 1961 the young upstarts prevailed: while there would never be official ANC approval, the creation of an armed wing was tacitly accepted. Named Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation,” known as MK), the clandestine group had Nelson Mandela as its commander.
Such a group needed new skills and new partners. Mandela and the other militant ANC members formed an alliance with the South African Communist Party, a multiracial political organization with ties to the Soviet Union that had been banned in 1950 but remained active underground, working primarily to support the interests of workers. They based MK operations at a farm in Rivonia, not far from Johannesburg. Setting up a network of operatives committed to terror permitted MK, over a year and a half, to carry out approximately 200 attacks on government facilities. By January 1962, Mandela had traveled to Algeria, where he learned the basics of guerrilla warfare from members of that nation’s National Liberation Front. A fortnight after his return to South Africa, he was arrested on the charges of inciting workers to strike and leaving the country without a passport. A year later, Mandela’s MK comrades were arrested at their Rivonia training camp.
In 1963, three years after the terror of the Sharpeville massacre carried out by government forces, the Rivonia Trial began with the government seeking to accuse its opponents of fomenting violence. Ten defendants, including six black Africans, three white Jews, and the son of an Indian immigrant, were charged with sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government of South Africa.
During the trial, the defendants decided not to deny the charge of sabotage. They wanted the world to know what they had done and why. Their lawyers expressed misgivings about their decision, because it meant that they could be put to death for treason. But the revolutionaries felt that they had to take the risk, using the trial to make their positions known to every person in South Africa.
When he took the stand at the Pretoria Supreme Court, Mandela described his personal journey within the resistance movement, explaining the reasoning behind the adoption of a militant approach. (The reading Mandela on Trial includes the text of this testimony.) The prosecutor attempted to prove that the group, which he labeled communist, was plotting to overthrow the government of South Africa. He played on Afrikaner fears of Soviet revolutionary plots. The government had long presented itself as a true ally of the West, securing generous financial and military support—a position unusual among African states, many of which adopted socialism as a reaction against the colonial powers they had thrown off.
When the trial ended in June 1964, two men had been acquitted. Six of the remaining eight, including Mandela, were found guilty on all counts and sentenced to life in prison.
In the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre and the government crackdown that followed, the ANC leadership charged Oliver Tambo, the organization's deputy president, with the task of beginning to organize overseas. With protest nearly impossible within the country and so many top ANC leaders in prison, Tambo looked for new ways to fight against the apartheid regime. Making use of a home base in London, he lobbied international leaders to speak out against the brutality in his homeland. Almost immediately, Tambo and British anti-apartheid movement activists organized to have South Africa removed from the British Commonwealth, an intergovernmental organization made up of countries that were formerly part of the British Empire—a move that succeeded in 1961. At the same time, activists began to lobby against South Africa in the United Nations, winning a 1962 vote at the UN General Assembly for a trade ban on South Africa. A partial arms ban followed a year later. Further international pressure against South Africa’s discriminatory policies came from the International Olympic Committee, which first suspended South Africa from participating in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and then formally banned the country from the Olympics in 1970. The ANC, with Tambo’s leadership, eventually set up 27 overseas missions.
However, diplomacy was only one part of the strategy. In 1965, the countries of Tanzania and Zambia agreed to let the ANC’s unofficial armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), set up paramilitary training camps. Under the leadership of Abongz Mbede and Joe Slovo, a South African Jew whose family emigrated from Lithuania, the MK sought to bring what they called an “armed struggle” to South Africa. In the late 1960s, though, South Africa was surrounded by neighbors that were allies of the apartheid government, making it difficult for fighters to make it into the country. An official history of the ANC describes the situation:
The ANC consultative conference at Morogoro, Tanzania in 1969 looked for solutions to this problem. . . .The Morogoro Conference called for an all-round struggle. Both armed struggle and mass political struggle had to be used to defeat the enemy. But the armed struggle and the revival of mass struggle depended on building ANC underground structures within the country. A fourth aspect of the all-round struggle was the campaign for international support and assistance from the rest of the world. These four aspects were often called the four pillars of struggle. The non-racial character of the ANC was further consolidated by the opening up of the ANC membership to non-Africans.