The introduction of apartheid policies coincided with the adoption by the ANC in 1949 of its programme of action, expressing the renewed militancy of the 1940s. The programme embodied the rejection of white domination and a call for action in the form of protests, strikes and demonstrations. There followed a decade of turbulent mass action in resistance to the imposition of still harsher forms of segregation and oppression.
The Defiance Campaign of 1952 carried mass mobilisation to new heights under the banner of non-violent resistance to the pass laws. These actions were influenced in part by the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi.
A critical step in the emergence of non-racialism was the formation of the Congress Alliance, including the ANC; South African Indian Congress; the Coloured People’s Congress; a small white congress organisation (the Congress of Democrats); and the South African Congress of Trade Unions.
The alliance gave formal expression to an emerging unity across racial and class lines that was manifested in the Defiance Campaign and other mass protests, including against the Bantu education of this period, which also saw women’s resistance take a more organised character with the formation of the Federation of South African Women.
In 1955, the Freedom Charter was drawn up at the Congress of the People in Soweto. The charter enunciated the principles of the struggle, binding the movement to a culture of human rights and non-racialism. Over the next few decades, the Freedom Charter was elevated to an important symbol of the freedom struggle.
The Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), founded by Robert Sobukwe and based on the philosophies of “Africanism” and anti-communism, broke away from the Congress Alliance in 1959.
The state’s initial response, harsh as it was, was not yet as draconian as it was to become. Its attempt to prosecute more than 150 anti-apartheid leaders for treason, in a trial that began in 1956, ended in acquittals in 1961. But by that time, mass organised opposition had been banned.
Matters came to a head at Sharpeville in March 1960, when 69 anti-pass demonstrators were killed when police fired on a demonstration called by the PAC. A state of emergency was imposed and detention without trial was introduced.
The black political organisations were banned and their leaders went into exile or were arrested. In this climate, the ANC and PAC abandoned their long-standing commitment to non-violent resistance and turned to armed struggle, combined with underground organisation and mobilisation as well as mobilisation of international solidarity. Top leaders, including members of the newly formed military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) (Spear of the Nation), were arrested in 1963. In the “Rivonia Trial”, eight ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were convicted of sabotage (instead of treason, the original charge) and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In this period, leaders of other organisations, including the PAC and the New Unity Movement, were also sentenced to long terms of imprisonment and/or banned.
The 1960s was a decade of overwhelming repression and relative political disarray among blacks in the country. Armed action was contained by the state.
State repression played a central role in containing internal resistance, and the leadership of the struggle shifted increasingly to the missions in exile. At the same time, the ANC leadership embarked on a campaign to infiltrate the country through what was then Rhodesia.
In August 1967, a joint force of MK and the Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra) of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) entered Zimbabwe, and over a two-month period engaged the joint Rhodesian and South African security forces.
Although the joint MK-Zipra force failed to reach South Africa, this was the first military confrontation between the military forces of the ANC led alliance and white security forces.
The resurgence of resistance politics from the early 1970s was dramatic. The Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steve Biko (who was killed in detention in 1977), reawakened a sense of pride and self-esteem in black people.
News of the brutal death of Biko reverberated around the globe and led to unprecedented outrage.
As capitalist economies sputtered with the oil crisis of 1973, black trade unions revived.
A wave of strikes reflected a new militancy that involved better organisation and was drawing new sectors, in particular intellectuals and the student movement, into mass struggle and debate over the principles informing it. Rallies at black universities in support of Frelimo, the Mozambican liberation movement, also gave expression to the growing militancy. The year 1976 marked the beginning of a sustained anti-apartheid revolt. In June, school pupils of Soweto rose up against apartheid education, followed by youth uprisings all around the country. Despite the harsh repression that followed, students continued to organise, with the formation in 1979 of organisations for school students (Congress of South African Students) and college and university students (Azanian Students Organisation). By the 1980s, the different forms of struggle – armed struggle, mass mobilisation and international solidarity – were beginning to integrate and coalesce.
The United Democratic Front and the informal umbrella, the Mass Democratic Movement, emerged as legal vehicles of democratic forces struggling for liberation. Clerics played a prominent public role in these movements. The involvement of workers in resistance took on a new dimension with the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the National Council of Trade Unions.
Popular anger was directed against all those who were deemed to be collaborating with the government in the pursuit of its objectives, and the black townships became virtually ungovernable. From the mid-1980s, regional and national states of emergency were enforced.
Developments in neighboring states, where mass resistance to white minority and colonial rule led to Portuguese decolonisation in the mid-1970s and the abdication of Zimbabwe’s minority regime in 1980, left South Africa exposed as the last bastion of white supremacy.
Under growing pressure and increasingly isolated internationally, the government embarked on a dual strategy, introducing limited reform coupled with intensifying repression and militarisation of society, with the objective of containing the pressures and increasing its support base while crushing organised resistance.
An early example of reform was the recognition of black trade unions to try to stabilise labour relations. In 1983, the Constitution was reformed to allow the coloured and Indian minorities limited participation in separate and subordinate houses of Parliament.
The vast majority of these groups demonstrated their rejection of the tricameral dispensation through massive boycotts of elections, but it was kept in place by the apartheid regime despite its visible lack of legitimacy. Attempts to legitimise community councils as vehicles for the participation of Africans outside the Bantustans in local government met a similar fate.
Militarisation included the ascendancy of the State Security Council, which usurped the role of the executive in crucial respects, and a succession of states of emergency as part of the implementation of a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy to combat what, by the mid-1980s, was an endemic insurrectionary spirit in the land.
However, by the late 1980s, popular resistance was taking the form of mass defiance campaigns, while struggles over more localised issues saw broad sections of communities mobilised in united action. Popular support for released political prisoners and for the armed struggle was being openly expressed.
In response to the rising tide of resistance, the international community strengthened its support for the anti-apartheid cause. Sanctions and boycotts were instituted, both unilaterally by countries across the world and through the United Nations (UN). These sanctions were called for in a co-ordinated strategy by the internal and external anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
FW de Klerk, who replaced PW Botha as State President in 1989, announced at the opening of Parliament in February 1990 the unbanning of the liberation movements and release of political prisoners, among them, Nelson Mandela. A number of factors led to this step. International financial, trade, sport and cultural sanctions were clearly biting.
Above all, even if South Africa was nowhere near collapse, either militarily or economically, several years of emergency rule and ruthless repression had clearly neither destroyed the structures of organised resistance, nor helped establish legitimacy for the apartheid regime or its collaborators. Instead, popular resistance, including mass and armed action, was intensifying.
The ANC, enjoying popular recognition and legitimacy as the foremost liberation organisation, was increasingly regarded as a government-in-waiting.
International support for the liberation movement came from various countries around the globe, particularly from former socialist countries and Nordic countries as well as the Non-Aligned Movement(NAM).
The other liberation organisations increasingly experienced various internal and external pressures and did not enjoy much popular support.
To outside observers, and also in the eyes of growing numbers of white South Africans, apartheid stood exposed as morally bankrupt, indefensible and impervious to reforms.
The collapse of global communism, the negotiated withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola, and the culmination of the South-West African People’s Organisation’s liberation struggle in the negotiated independence of Namibia – formerly South-West Africa, administered by South Africa as a League of Nations mandate since 1919 – did much to change the mind-set of white people. No longer could they demonise the ANC and PAC as fronts for international communism.
White South Africa had also changed in deeper ways. Afrikaner nationalism had lost much of its raison d’être. Many Afrikaners had become urban, middle class and relatively prosperous.
Their ethnic grievances and attachment to ethnic causes and symbols had diminished. A large part of the NP’s core constituency was ready to explore larger national identities, even across racial divides, and yearned for international respectability. In 1982, disenchanted hardliners split from the NP to form the Conservative Party, leaving the NP open to more flexible and modernising influences.
After this split, factions within the Afrikaner élite openly started to pronounce in favour of a more inclusive society, causing more friction with the NP government, which became increasingly militaristic and authoritarian.
A number of business, student and academic Afrikaners held meetings publicly and privately with the ANC in exile. Secret talks were held between the imprisoned Mandela and government ministers about a new dispensation for South Africa, with blacks forming a major part of it.
Inside the country, mass action became the order of the day. Petty apartheid laws and symbols were openly challenged and removed. Together with a sliding economy and increasing international pressure, these developments made historic changes inevitable.