From International Socialism (1st series), No.5, Summer 1961.

A Critical Discussion
South Africa: Ten Years of the Stay-at-Home

Source: Revolutionary History.
Proofread: Anoma Cartwright (April 2008).
The following two articles published in International Socialism No.5 in the Summer issue 1961 and No.6 Autumn issue, were, for obvious reasons attributed to the Socialist League of Africa at the time. In fact they were by Baruch Hirson. It has been OCRed and corrected by Ted Crawford to whom the blame of any errors of transcription may be attributed. It is republished here with the kind permission of the present editor of the IS second series. There are many very stimulating articles from this magazine whose early issues are now extremely difficult to get hold of and it would be a service to the movement if a great many more of them were available on-line.

Socialist League of Africa

For obvious reasons we can say nothing about the Socialist League of Africa other than that it is a militant organization orientated on class struggle. The SLA publishes Spark, the first underground newspaper in South Africa.

‘The general strike is only a means of organising the working class and calling them to struggle against their enemy, the state. But a strike itself cannot solve the problem, because it fires the worker sooner than it does the enemy, and this sooner or later forces the worker to return to the factories.

‘The general strike has its greatest importance only when it is the beginning of the fight between the workers and the capitalists: that is, only when it is the opening move in the revolutionary rising of the worker. Only when such action wins over part of the army to the worker can the worker think of winning his struggle. And it is this winning of the struggle that is the problem of every working class movement.

‘The general strike leads to the organisation of both sides, and shows how prepared the ruling class is to break the organisation of the workers. It shows what force will have to be used in order for victory to be won in the struggle. It shows how much blood the state is prepared to shed in order to keep its power...’.
(Taken from the German Socialist paper Neue Zeit)

‘Our movement knows that when we withdraw our labour the whole structure (in South Africa) will come falling down’.
(Mr Malotsi of PAC quoted in Contact 18 June, 1960.)

In March and April 1960, the African population staged a series of demonstrations, marches and stay-at-homes in all the large towns of South Africa. In the month of action that followed the shootings at Langa and Sharpeville, the African working class emerged as the only force capable of leading the fight against oppression in this country, and showed that it was capable of paralysing the economy of South Africa by withdrawing its labour.

The one dominant feature that emerges from these happenings is that it was the worker who stood at the head of events; also a specific working class method (the withdrawal of labour) was used, and the action was confined to the large industrial centres of South Africa.

And yet the events centred around an anti-pass campaign, and drew in the entire African township population, so that it would appear that this was a national fight rather than a working class struggle.

Because of this there has been endless confusion in the ranks of the liberation movement. To some the fight has appeared to be simply that of African versus White. To others who have tried to examine events more deeply, the events seem to show that the fight is a broad liberation struggle of the whole African people. Because the pass laws are the symbol of colour oppression, it has been argued that the people as a whole are fighting a nationalist cause.

And of course there is truth in this argument. The entire African population – every single African man and woman feels the burden of the pass laws above every other colour bar law. It is no accident that every major fight since 1919 has been against the pass laws. This piece of paper has stood as the greatest single barrier against the advancement of the whole people-and it has been the greatest source of bitterness throughout the country.

Nevertheless we want to say that the nature of our struggle goes even deeper. In our fight for democracy and for full equality, in our demand that the people shall govern, we believe that the basic clash is between the working class and the governing capitalist class. At the present stage, the specific working class aspect of the struggle is hidden by the apparent clash of colour. The dominant note in all our struggles seems to be that of an oppressed people against a white minority. But we must beware of so simple an explanation. The first stages of political struggle in any country are always based on the broadest democratic demands and give no indication of the way events will move. To examine the course that events will take in a political struggle we must show clearly what class forces exist and examine their strength, for only then will we understand their direction. The nature of any struggle depends on the relative class strengths in society and in South Africa the major force is the working class of the towns and the farms. This group, when it draws closer to the people of the reserves, will act as the natural leaders of the struggle for liberation.

Already in South Africa the methods used in the struggle are those of the working class and as the struggle develops it will become clearer to all that it is only the worker that can give the lead to our fight for democracy.

We also believe that, as it will be predominantly a working class struggle, the aims of this struggle must be for the realisation of working class demands. This must be socialism, and at no time can we allow this aim to be obscured

Are we not being over simple, as some of our critics suggest? Is the final fight not going to be between the African, oppressed as a people, and the white ruler? Is there not going to be a growing nationalism which must sweep away all other ideologies? This is a grave possibility. The growing frustration; the never-ending suppression on racial grounds, can lead in this direction. But there is only one way to direct the course of South African history along a different path. And that can only come from the construction of a strong militant working class movement that will provide the only possible alternative to African chauvinism.

But before we can even discuss the problem seriously, it is necessary to look back into the past period of South African history and show why we maintain that this is a workers’ struggle; why working class methods must be used, and then return to our opening quotation and discuss the nature of the methods that can be used to secure our aims.

The first beginnings

The struggle in South Africa has a long history, but there can be little doubt that an entirely new phase opened up as a result of the Second World War.

The war of 1939-45 led to a remarkable change in the economy of the Union of South Africa, and in the process there was an equally remarkable development of the African urban working class. The restrictions on entering the towns were partially lifted by Smuts in order to supply the labour force that was needed to man the ever-growing industries. The main industrial centres grew at a greatly accelerated pace and thousands of workers were needed to man the machines. The townships and locations grew at a fantastic rate, as more and more workers came into the towns. Semi-skilled jobs were opened to Africans and the black proletariat became a force in the economy.

The overcrowding of the townships (and the complete lack of new houses) erupted into the shanty towns movement started by Sofosonko Mpanza; the problems of transport led to the first great bus boycott in Alexandra; the new Political awareness was expressed by the formation of the African National Congress Youth League under Lembedi, the starvation wages led to the series of illegal strikes among the VFP (power) workers, the milling workers, the coal distributive workers, the timber workers, and the building of the Powerful Non-European council of Trade Unions under Makabeni, Tlooma, Marks and others. These wage struggles culminated in the great Mineworkers’ strike in 1946 and tentative plans for a general strike in sympathy.

The workers of the post-war period were building a new tradition of industrial action, and although they obviously drew strength from the earlier struggles in the 1930’s, an entirely new generation of workers were being drawn into Trade Union action.

The overall inexperience and the rootlessness of the young working class was not able to sustain this rapid growth of Trade Unionism; and weakened as they were by the anti-strike laws of Smuts, the movement went into decline after 1946. This partial decline can only be explained if we take into account the fact that the worker was preoccupied with the sheer problem of living, which was so overwhelming. He lacked transport, houses and food. His daily struggle to exist in the squalor of the war-time locations exhausted him, and his immediate needs led him to embark on struggles over rent, houses, bus fares, etc. in the process, the trade union struggle was overshadowed and tended to decline in relative importance.

During this period there was a growing political awareness that was accelerated by the news from overseas of the anti-imperialist struggles in Asia; by the resounding charter of human rights that came from the United Nations, and from the slogans of democracy that had come out of the war. Hadn’t Smuts himself, when faced with a possible invasion from Japan, declared that ‘segregation had fallen on evil days’?

In this climate the young students of Fort Hare gathered around the radical solutions offered by the Youth League: many of the town workers were attracted not only by the Trade Unions, but also by the radical program of the Communist Party. There was also general discontent with the backwardness of the ANC leaders like Dr Xurna, Thema, Vundla, and several splinter movements arose as an expression of the radical mood.

It was the 1946 mine workers’ strike that led to a radical change in the political scene. The brutal violence of the Smuts government led to the permanent adjournment of the Native Representative Council; led to the first of the series of political trials (when the Transvaal executive of the Communist Party was arrested); and led to the growth of a new spirit inside the ANC – most particularly inside the young Youth League.

At the 1949 conference of the ANC this new spirit came to the fore. Led by the Youth Leaguers, the movement adopted a program of action aimed at non-collaboration, a disobedience campaign and a general withdrawal of labour. The old leadership was replaced; Dr Moroka took the place of Dr Xuma; a plan was proposed for revitalizing congress after years of inactivity; and Congress said boldly, that it ‘demanded control of the government by Africans themselves’.

In this document a new spirit was discernible, but there were also strong signs of racialism, and the Pan African Congress (PAC) can claim to be the heirs of much of the sentiment that governed that Conference.

The new spirit and the Nationalist government

The 1949 Conference makes a distinctive break with the earlier phase of Congress. Reasons for this development have been partially listed above. Briefly restated this new direction was the result of:

The economic and industrial development of South Africa with the subsequent growth of the African population;

The development of the Trade Union movement and the subsequent strike action — the most important being the 1946 mine workers’ strike;

The influence of the post-war national struggle in Asia that fired the young students at Fort Hare and elsewhere, and finally (for we must add a fourth factor);

The 1948 victory of the Nationalist party and the formation of the Nationalist government.

The new government came to power on a loaded vote that favoured the white rural population. In many ways the Nationalists merely continued the old path of the United Party. The policy of segregation with its pass laws, poll taxes, beer raids etc. was now called apartheid with the same passes, taxes, and raids. The old land and labour laws were taken over and plans made to extend all the colour bar legislation. The old residential system of locations and bazaars; the old pegging act that tied the Indians down, were all consolidated and extended into the Group Areas Act. The previous bars on inter-racial marriage between Whites and Africans were extended to forbid all inter-racial sexual contact. The list is never-ending. The tradition was not new, but the severity of the Nationalist Government’s laws surpassed anything known before.

The reason for this increasing severity stems from the class composition of the new ruling group. Their broader popular base came from the Afrikaans-speaking section of the white community. Their nationalism incorporated the worker, the farmer, and the young Afrikaner financier. But there must be no mistake about this group. They had the approval of a section of the English-speaking whites. This has grown over the years, because they promised the complete suppression of the non-white population, and many capitalists, seeking to protect their interests, accepted these Nationalists as the only safeguard of the profits system.

But the fundamental basis of this government came from men who had not yet made full inroads into the economy of South Africa. They were as yet not represented in the mining houses. They control less than 10 percent of commerce and industry in the country. Their banking and finance were still young and represented a small percentage of the total economy. It was because they were so largely outside the mainstream of commerce and industry and the mines that they could turn against the African working class without fear of upsetting their own labour needs. This disregard of the urban labour force was to play a big part in the events of the coming decade.

On 26 June 1949, the ANC called a day of prayer against the Nationalist government, and in December adopted the program of action. The oppressive legislation then and later was to intensify the hatred of the people against the government. It is questionable whether the Nationalists accelerated the growth of the liberation movement, or whether the growth of the movement led the white population to return the Nationalists to power. But there can be little doubt that the natural growth of the movement for freedom would have led the United Party to be as vicious in its police actions as the Nationalists have been. South Africa has always been ruled by violence no matter which government ruled!

Then in 1950 the Nationalist government banned the public appearance of two men who played a prominent part in the non-white struggle of the time. Using the provisions of the Riotous Assemblies Act they banned Dr Y. Dadoo (President of the South African Indian Congress) and Sam Kahn (Native Representative in Parliament) from addressing meetings on the Witwatersrand. Both were members of the Communist Party of South Africa – and both were closely connected with the African National Congress.

The ANC, now under new, even if vacillating, leadership, called on the people of Johannesburg to observe 1 May 1950 as a day of protest and stay-at-home. The response was immediate – the new urban proletariat was ready for a call to action and the result was overwhelming. Many areas (Sophiatown in particular) stayed at home in large numbers and the day appeared to pass peacefully. In the evening crowds collected at street corners in Sophiatown and the police appeared and started firing. 18 people were killed, and many more injured. The government followed with drastic action and declared a ban on all meetings in order to clamp down on the anger that resulted. A pattern was established that was to be enacted on a larger scale ten years later.

The ANC called for a new protest and 26 June 1950 was set aside as a day of mourning for the dead. Once again the people of the Witwatersrand responded, and on the day there was a large-scale stoppage of work. However, the response was uneven and demonstrated that Congress was organized only in isolated towns. There was certainly no possibility of moving all the urban centres, and the vast rural hinterland was unaffected by the emerging struggle.

There could be little doubt that in the stay-at-home the Congress movement had forged a new and powerful weapon. It was easy to organize such a campaign in the compact, crowded townships where thousands of workers were concentrated. By closing a few entrances (or stationing pickets appropriately) an entire town’s working population could be organized into mass defiance. The working force of a town could be withheld by stopping labour at its very source.

The compactness of the townships made contact easy; organizational work which was primitive (and unfortunately still is primitive) was overcome by the solidarity of these vast working class slums. A new-found strength was discovered, and an effective stoppage of industrial and commercial work had become possible.

Even more particularly, as Trade Unions were weak (and often non-existent) and as industrial strikes were illegal under the old war measure 1425, this new industrial action in the residential areas seemed to offer a solution to the problem of effective working class action.

This was the second successive use of 26 June as a day of protest, and it now became established as a national day of struggle (later to be called Freedom Day). It also established the tradition of the stay-at-home as a weapon of the struggle. Since 1950 the African worker has come to look upon the stay-at-home as the possible answer to government oppression.

Whereas previous strike action had been brutally suppressed (Mine workers and VFP), or had failed through mass arrests, this new method seemed to provide the answer. That it was indeed a powerful weapon is beyond question and it was to be used more and more in the years to come. However, we will come back to the question of this tactic below, and discuss its use more fully.

The Defiance campaign

For the past ten years two main methods of struggle have been used in South Africa. The first is the stay-at-home (or political strike), and the second is the method of passive resistance (or defiance campaign). The first passive resistance campaign took place against the United Party pegging act. Indians in Natal opposed the UP legislation which denied them land outside certain areas, and organized a campaign of defiance. They occupied land illegally and offered themselves for arrest. The campaign failed against a government that was arrogantly determined to force the legislation through. However this tradition of non-violent defiance was to be taken up again by the ANC, in co-operation with the Indian Congress in 1952.

Congress singled out for attack seven unjust laws that included the Group Areas Act and the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. The latter having defined communism in such a way as to effectively outlaw any movement that proposed change in the form of government in South Africa.

Passive resistance is open to criticism on many fronts, and particularly as it was to be used again in 1960 by the PAC, an understanding of this tactic is necessary. For the record it must be stated that there is no instance in the history of struggle where this tactic has succeeded. In India, where it was used on a large scale by Gandhi, it did not by itself win freedom, and in fact, as Palme Dutt points out in his India Today, it served as a means of tying down or restraining the mass movement of workers and peasants.

The philosophy of passive resistance is one that flows from a middle class leadership and which places no reliance on the masses and their ability to pursue militant tactics. It is a glorification of the leaders and elevates them as political martyrs. Its stress is on the leaders surrendering themselves to the police in protest against bad laws, without at the same time calling for mass action in support of the campaign, for in this way the tactic assumes that it can lead to a change of heart on the part of the ruling class.

Passive resistance stems from the religious philosophy that there can be a moral re-awakening of the rulers, and it calls in effect for negotiations and concessions that exclude the broad mass of the people. As such it is a class tool of a particular stratum of the oppressed – and we must clearly designate a class that thinks this way as being the aspiring bourgeoisie.

But not only do we think that the methods of Gandhi and Tolstoy are wrong; it is also doubtful whether the scope of the 1952 campaign itself was well thought out. To set itself the goal of removing seven unjust laws was far beyond the organizational strength of the ANC, and it was bound to fail. Nonetheless, reviewing this campaign today it is obvious that the African masses were ready to struggle against apartheid. Although there were only 8,000 arrests in the entire campaign, Congress won the support of many young people and many of their active members of today entered the political movement during this period.

The government’s answer to this campaign was to introduce the Criminal Laws Amendment Act and the Public Safety Act which made it a crime to propose disobedience of any law. This brought the defiance campaign to an abrupt end, for Congress had no answer to this new legislation with its savage clauses of lashes and five years imprisonment.

The campaign to end the seven unjust laws thus failed in its objective, and for several years there was a depressing quiet on the African political front. It was a time of retreat, while the people sought to regain their confidence and re-establish their organizational strength.

The Freedom Charter

In 1954 there was a call for a people’s convention to draw up a charter of rights. The declared aim was to elect representatives from every district who would come together as a true convention of the people. This was an excellent project, but it never came to fruition. As the day of the meeting drew close, the nature of the project was changed, and on 26 and 27 June several thousand Congress supporters met at Kliptown (Johannesburg). At this rally the Freedom Charter was presented and enthusiastically received.

The Freedom Charter is basically a program of democratic demands. It starts on the key note that ‘the people shall govern’, declares that ‘all national groups shall have equal rights’, that ‘all shall be equal before the law’ and ‘all shall enjoy equal human rights’, and lists a comprehensive set of civil and legal demands.

In the economic sphere the programme declares that ‘the people shall share in the country’s wealth’ and that ‘the land shall be shared among those who work it’.

This was the most radical program of change yet offered by the National Liberatory Movement in South Africa. Its terms call for a complete redivision of the land and the breaking of the reserve system. It called for the nationalization of the mines, the banks and the large industries. It offered social security to the workers and new hope for every man, woman and child in all the social services, in education and health services.

No wonder that the Freedom Charter was to earn the wrath of the ruling class. No wonder that the Rally was raided by the police on its second day, and that the Charter’s contents were to become the main basis of the charge of treason against 156 men and women in 1957.

But, radical as its contents were, and no matter how revolutionary some of its proposals were, this programme was not socialist, nor was it ever represented as such. Its demands could well fit into the framework of a capitalist democratic state, and this was how the leadership meant it to be interpreted. The program was a mixture of demands taken over from a large number of ideologies. The economic demands were a mixture of ‘welfare state’ concepts and very ordinary capitalist demands such as the ‘right to trade’. The political demands, on the whole, did not exceed those that are common to every western capitalist society.

This program presents the demands of a rising nationalism and its main aim was that of political change – a target common to most national movement throughout Africa. Because the proposals were of a radical nature, they could be readily accepted by socialists as representing the immediate demands that had to be pressed for. They were the short-term demands that could lead the people towards a deeper understanding of the tasks needed to transform the country into a true democracy – that is, an economic as well as a political democracy.

The Charter ends up with the words: ‘These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives, until we have won the liberty’. Bold words these, but nowhere in the Charter is there any indication of how we are to fight. Nor perhaps is it to be expected that these methods will be given in the Charter itself.

However it was stated subsequently, after the ANC had accepted the Charter as its own program, that this replaced the Programme of Action of 1949. In many ways tactics must be elastic, and must be chosen to suit the needs and conditions of the time. But the Congress movement needs guidance in the methods of struggle. The 1949 program offered civil disobedience, boycotts and general strikes as the method of campaigning. There has been no word since 1952 to suggest that this remains the policy of the movement, and in fact we have indication that passive resistance is to become the main method and that the stay-at-home will be employed as a demonstration of protest.

The Congress movement has never yet analysed the nature of the South African state. It has never examined the force that this state controls, and because of this it has not yet suggested the methods to be employed to achieve this ‘freedom in our lifetime’.

The class composition of the leadership has led it to prefer methods of moderation at every stage of the liberatory struggle, reflecting the mood of the most conservative elements of the middle class. They have kept away from mass action wherever possible and have preached a strictly pacifist ‘non-violence’ – as if violence has ever been our choice. Thus they proffer the methods of conciliation and negotiation. This was to be seen most clearly in the way the Congress leadership handled the Alexandra bus boycott in 1957.

The bus boycott

Since 1953, when the defiance campaign collapsed, there has been no struggle that captured the popular imagination as much as the bus boycotts.

The first took place in Evaton in 1956. The people of Evaton boycotted the buses for months, but unfortunately never received the support they needed from the rest of the country. That they won their demands is a tribute to their resolution, their courage and their discipline. However, their isolation and the failure of the national Congress movement to come to their aid are contributory factors that led this corner of the Transvaal (Vereeniging–v.d. Bijl Park–Evaton) to turn most readily to the PAC at a later date.

The people were now emerging from the lethargy that followed the previous defeats, and full emergence was to come from some bold campaign. The people of Alexandra were to provide the basis for the resurgence of confidence.

The issue of struggle in Alexandra itself was the attempt at the beginning of 1957 to raise the bus fare from Alexandra to Johannesburg central (a distance of nine miles) from four pence to five pence. A united front committee composed of representatives of every organization in the township called for a boycott of the buses and received a unanimous response. For the next three months the township population walked 18 miles a day to prevent this rise in fares. The issue was the penny fare, and the people stood determinedly together to fight this issue.

To understand this determination we would have to look at the mood in South Africa at this time. Wages had lagged severely behind the rising cost of living, and averaged £10 per month. Whole families depended on this paltry sum for survival. The penny rise was the bitter end for the worker who was unable to provide sufficient food for his family. There was one place where he knew, from his efforts in the earlier boycott, he could fight with some chance of success. Furthermore, there was the example of Evaton to support the worker in his determination. But perhaps more than this there was the obvious turbulence throughout the country that followed the stories of both Suez and Hungary. Also there was the arrest of 156 Congress men on charges of High Treason followed by the mass demonstrations in Johannesburg when the preparatory examination started.

There was a feeling of disturbance in Johannesburg and this mood must have affected the population of 80,000 in Alexandra as well as the rest of the country which came to the assistance of the marchers. Lady Selbourne residents in Pretoria joined the boycott marchers in a similar protest against an increase in their bus fares, and people as far away as Bloemfontein and Port Elisabeth staged sympathy boycotts.

The committee that led the Alexandra boycott was, as we said above, a united front of all political groups in the township. But the ANC had the largest single group of delegates and at first played the dominant role in policy formulation. Due to the treason arrests the ANC leadership was composed of relatively inexperienced men and women. They looked to the national leadership concentrated in Johannesburg at the trial, for guidance.

The national leadership showed itself to be out of contact with the new mood in Johannesburg. They failed to give any real guidance, and at a very early stage pressed for negotiations and an early end to the boycott. So eager were they to compromise that they supported the bus company’s phoney solution of paying the full fare and later refunding the extra penny.

This was indignantly rejected by a mass meeting in the township, and the leadership passed to a small group of militants who came from small political groupings inside the township.

The ANC leadership did not seem to grasp the significance of this development. They were unable to respond to the new militancy, to the new determination that defied the government (who had threatened to smash the boycott with all their power) and the police (who used every tactic of provocation).

In the end the people of Alexandra won their demand, but instead of concluding on the triumphant note of victory, there were overtones of defeat. Lady Selbourne residents were left out of the unilateral settlement, and to this day the people of Pretoria feel that they were deserted. The buses were boarded in Alexandra itself in a state of confusion instead of in a spirit of victory.

Nonetheless, here was a victory, and throughout the country the people were heartened. The mood in Johannesburg itself was high and when a stay-at-home was called for 26 June, as a day of freedom, there was an 80 percent response. The people were celebrating the opening of a new era. They were testing their new-found confidence. This was the beginning of a new rallying to struggle, and the people were using the only strength they knew – the township organization for the mass withdrawal of labour.

Over-enthusiastic leaders inside congress misinterpreted the signs however. They believed that the people were only too ready to stay at home, whenever they were called upon to do so. They failed to see that what could happen after a victory such as Alexandra could not be repeated at the whim of a call from Congress. This lesson was to be learnt only too soon, when the following year Congress men thought that a call for a stay-at-home to mark the general election would get a spontaneous response. To examine this we must look at the £1 a day campaign that was about to begin.

The £1 a day campaign

Despite the success of 26 June 1957, Congress as a whole made little organizational headway, and there was a complete lack in initiative in providing a lead to the discontent that was evident everywhere.

The Transvaal ANC was split internally, and the ANC Conference in the Transvaal ended in confusion with rival groups hurling abuse at each other. Strife had emerged internally for a number of reasons. On the one hand there was genuine resentment at the bureaucratic mismanagement of the movement. On the other hand Africanism was emerging again to demand an African ANC free of all interracial co-operation. In the Western Cape the Africanist grouping was even able to take over the machinery of the Congress for a short time.

The Africanists had no clear program at the time, and their demands were largely negative, viz. an attack on the Freedom Charter and the leadership of Congress. Despite denials by some individuals, they were avowedly racialist, and only later were they to open their ranks to Coloureds and some Indians. They claimed to be the one link with the pan-Africanist movement that emerged from the Accra conference. They rejected any concept of class struggle and based their call on the unity of interest of the African people as a whole. They were out to reconquer Africa on the slogan ‘Africa for the Africans’.

The struggle between rival factions brought all Congress work to a standstill and the national leadership was unable to offer a solution and direction out of this factional bickering.

Yet the militancy in the country was high and the people were in every respect way ahead of their leaders. This was borne out by the one Congress campaign of the time. The attempt of the government to force the women to take the pass was opposed vigorously by the militant women’s organization. In the course of a determined struggle 20,000 women converged on Pretoria in convoy to voice their protest.

And yet here too, when the women showed the greatest militancy and organized demonstrations in Johannesburg the campaign was suddenly called off by the national leadership. There is no document explaining this miserable ending to the heroic women’s struggle, and so we can only assume on the basis of the talk of the time that Congress was not prepared to embark on a militant struggle over this issue.

All this time the South African Congress of Trade Unions was organizing the workers, and definite progress was being recorded. At the end of 1959 SACTU launched a new organizing campaign under the slogan of £1 a day. This wage demand was modest enough and yet it was not even realisable at the time on a large scale. To achieve this wage would have meant a 50 percent or greater increase for many workers, but the growing militancy of the workers called for a bold imaginative slogan and ‘£1 a day’ caught on as an immediate demand.

SACTU was enthusiastic and at the December 1957 conference there was talk of strike action to achieve this demand. A mass national conference of workers was called for in Johannesburg in March 1958 to start a general campaign for this minimum wage demand.

However, what started out as a Trade Union matter was soon extended to become a united Congress campaign. And with this also came new slogans. At first £1 a day headed the demands, and to it were added demands against Group Areas and the slogan ‘The Nats must go’. By April 1958, however ‘The Nats must go’ had become the major slogan and ‘£1 a day’ took second place.

The leadership of Congress had transformed an essentially working class campaign into a broad political front and placed at the fore a false slogan which related to the coming general election. And yet the ANC itself refused to put its name to the call for a stay-at-home. Confusion reigned throughout the preparation for 15 April. In Natal the Congress movement was completely divided over the decision and there was no united preparation for the campaign. Yet the national leadership did not intervene. In other provinces organization was half-hearted and, except for isolated areas, no directives were even given.

15 April was a complete fiasco. Except for Sophiatown and a few other areas the response was poor. Leading Congress officials in many Rand towns openly broke the call, and the workers were left in confusion. At the end of that day, however, an ANC top official called off the whole campaign which was scheduled for 3 days, thus raising the question -was it, or was it not a Congress campaign.

Why did this campaign fail after the obvious enthusiasm of the workers’ conference? The Congress never offered an analysis of those days, and the workers were to pay for this failure to learn the lesson just two years later.

We cannot say definitely that the campaign would have succeeded – that must remain unanswered because that would take us into the realm of speculation. But there could have been a greater response if the slogan had been confined to ‘£1 a day’ – a slogan which had the support of the entire urban working class. It could have been more successful if the trade union movement had been the centre of the campaign and if the appeal had been directed mainly to the industrial worker.

Whereas an economic struggle can get a response when the demand has the support of the workers, a political strike, directed at affecting an all-white election cannot get the response that was needed to keep the workers at home. And the workers said quite openly that they failed to see how a strike called for one day, or even three days, could win them their wage demands.

We cannot overlook the intense intimidation by the police and army during the week that preceded 15 April. This large-scale show of armed force by the state certainly played a part in influencing the people. But we cannot accept the Congress statements that ascribed most of the failure to this police action. However, as we will show below, this force is a factor we will have to come to grips with, and we dare not overlook the power of the state in preparing our fight.

The result of this defeat was to act as a check in the growth of the liberation movement, and SACTU suffered as well. This body made little effort to explain the reasons for failure to their workers, and the working class never learned the reasons.

We cannot leave this episode without placing a share of the blame for the confusion of these events on a group inside Congress who professed to be Marxists. They kept discreetly silent, stifled open criticism, and never explained the importance of independent working class action.

This group of people have concealed all their ideas behind the front of democratic demands. They have never played an independent role, and have opportunistically shielded their ideas behind talk of national unity, of broad democratic struggles etc. They have surrendered the working class to the mercy of a middle class leadership and abdicated the right of the worker to his own independent organization. The worker will still pay clearly for this class negation in the interests of a clique of careerists, who sully the name of Communism, unless a clear working class party comes forward and gives a lead for independent class action.

The rural struggle

Throughout the long history in South Africa, there have been two parallel sets of activity – in the rural areas and in the towns. To date they have remained largely separate. The fight has flared up in the reserves over the rehabilitation scheme, the culling of cattle, the dipping tanks, and, more recently, over the Bantu Authorities and the issue of passes to women. It is not our purpose to investigate the specific campaigns here. The more recent, in Zeerust and Sekhukhuneland have been discussed fully in Fighting Talk, Africa South, and elsewhere.

We mention them here because the struggles of Zeerust and Sekhukhuneland took place while the urban areas were quiet, and helped restore confidence to the working class. But we must state explicitly that they have never been organized by Congress (or any other political group), and these events took the ANC by surprise. It will be essential, if our struggle is to succeed, to draw closer to the reserves, to organize these areas, to plan joint campaigns of town and country, and to direct the militancy of the reserve areas so that the struggle advances more uniformly in the future.

In many ways, the reserves offer us a base for activity that might become impossible in the towns. The solidarity of the people, their desire for fight, their obvious capacity for resourcefulness, together with their desperate need to break down the reserve system and the restrictions on movement will make this section of the population fighters of the utmost importance.

It was not accidental that the fight in Harding (Natal) against the dipping tank fired the whole Congress movement in that province, and that the result of the militant women’s campaign led to a 16-fold increase of the ANC membership in the course of a few months. Unless we call get to this vast section of the population there will be no chance of our ultimate success in South Africa.

March 1960

The ANC declared 1959 an anti-pass year. From the beginning this campaign can only be called phoney because there was no campaign. At first a scheme was produced that called for the boycott of beer-halls, the holding of several mass-meetings, the summoning of regional and national conferences etc. Either they were irrelevant or, as in the case of the national conference, they produced nothing. The only positive step – the calling of the potato boycott – emerged from a set of legal cases against enforced farm labour for pass offences. The credit for this was undoubtedly due to the zeal of a Johannesburg attorney not connected with Congress. The revelations which aroused such widespread publicity rallied the man-in-the-street as never before against this convict labour. Congress, sensing this, was able to offer the one and only positive lead in the whole year of so-called anti-pass campaigning.

When pressed, the ANC leadership said that this was a year of propaganda arid education. We must say with all honesty that there was little evidence of education, but propaganda did lead to a positive response. The people at all conferences grew impatient and demanded a lead. By December there were again calls from the rank and file for a general strike against the passes. This demand became pressing and at a workers’ conference early in 1960 there was again talk from the delegates of a national stay-at-home.

The Africanists, organised as the Pan-African Congress had till now concentrated on a campaign known as the ‘status campaign’, and had announced its intention of organizing economic boycotts against firms that discriminated against Africans. This was their answer to the ANC boycott of Nationalist products.

However, the status campaign never eventuated, and early in 1960 they suddenly announced their own anti-pass campaign. The offered a strictly Gandhist campaign of voluntary invitation to arrest for non-possession of passes, and declared 21 March 1960 as the opening date.

By this new move the PAC scored a notable victory psychologically. As a movement they were unprepared for a national campaign of such magnitude, and in fact on a national scale they failed miserably. In Johannesburg a small handful of PAC members responded. Only in the Vereeniging complex did they get a response in the Transvaal. In Natal just less than 150 responded. But in Cape Town the two major African townships did rally to PAC organization arid these areas were to become for the corning weeks the centre of the new struggle.

Even then it was police provocation that produced the events which followed 21 March. At Sharpeville a trigger-happy police force, backed by Saracen armoured cars, shot down hundreds of peacefully demonstrating Africans. 87 were killed. In Langa (Cape Town) further shooting accounted for some 17 dead. The revulsion, both in South Africa and externally, is too well known to be discussed here. The ANC which had stood aside before 21 March, now called for a national day of mourning on the following Monday 28 March and the national stay-at-home followed. In most large industrial areas the workers stayed at home and in most areas where this occurred there was a 90 percent response. In Sharpeville and Langa themselves the stay-at-home was not for a day, but over an extended period, and lasted for more than a week.

At first the government seemed to waver – the pass laws were even suspended – and ANC president Luthuli called for the burning of all passes.

On 30 March the police swooped and detained hundreds of men and women. Events followed rapidly. A young PAC organizer in Cape Town led 30,000 men and women in a march into the centre of Cape Town. Durban followed and there were soon 1,700 detainees in jail and a total of 18,000 arrested in the countryside. At the same time the PAC and ANC were outlawed.

The army was mobilized; the active citizen force kept at the alert, all police leave was cancelled. The authorities moved to break the strike and were soon able to do so. They regained their old arrogant confidence and the struggle gradually died down. Once again the authorities had shown their obvious superiority – but not before admitting to indecision and a marked nervousness.

However, the overall result of this campaign was a failure despite the great lifting of morale in the earlier stages. It is to this failure that we must direct our attention.

Why did we fail ?

There must be no illusion about the outcome of the March and April days. We must admit failure or we will deceive ourselves grievously. We must also say that we could not have hoped to succeed in a campaign to remove the passes at this stage. Let us look at some of the main causes.

Firstly, no organization was prepared for a full-scale attack on the government – not on the pass issue or any other of the apartheid laws. The way in which the organizations collapsed when the government swooped is an indication of the lack of preparation. Only in Cape Town did the townships stand firm and then only for a short time, and without the necessary support from the surrounding districts. When an important bastion of the colour bar like the passes is at stake, the government will always bring out its entire forces – and, unless we can meet their attack we cannot expect success. The fight against the pass laws is something which must continue; we must never stop until they are gone, but we must choose, our timing and methods more carefully in the future.

Secondly we face a strong, arrogant and confident ruling class. It is fortified by a state machine on which it can rely. Above all else it has an army, a police force and auxiliaries like the skiet kommandos upon which it can rely at all times. The present government and its supporters are also not immediately hit by the withdrawal of labour, because they are not the direct owners of the mines, or the factories, or the large commercial houses. As the Nationalist party’s financial bases are the farms and the finance houses, they do not look upon the labour force in the same way as the Chamber Mines, Commerce and Industries. They are intent on controlling the labour force, but the effects of strike action act as a secondary factor in their own profit structure. This is another reason for urging that farm labour be organized so that the Nationalists feel more directly any action of ours in the future.

On tactics

Both ANC and PAC call for methods of non-violence and passive resistance. But the way they make this claim can only lead to confusion. The people as a whole never urge violence. For the most part they are peaceful. They are aware of the dangers of violence and do not wish to initiate it. They do not have arms, and do not think in these terms. However the police and the army are ever ready to use violence in order to protect the government. Once violence is introduced by the authorities – and it invariably is – the workers can not sit by passively. They have to move in some way to protect themselves. And when they do so non-violence ceases to have meaning.

Nor can there be passive resistance in the Gandhi-ist form. When the people of Sharpeville offered themselves up for arrest the answer was spelt out in bullets. But even if this could be avoided we have no confidence in this limited kind of action. Sooner or later the masses must be called on to demonstrate their demands, and this means that they must come into action. This is alien to Gandhi’s methods.

The national movement thought it had the reply to the problem by calling on the people to stay peacefully at home. But this cannot work and the events of April amply demonstrate this. Firstly, the people of the townships cannot stay home indefinitely. To do so is to starve. Even if food is stored in advance the families cannot hold out for long because of the presence of the children, the sick and the aged. The townships can be scaled off and starved out only too effectively by small detachments of the army and the police. But, far worse, the army and police showed in Langa and Nyanga that they could go from house to house, drag the inhabitants out, beat them up and force them to work. Our basic weaknesses, which have led to our present tactics, cannot be turned into strength merely by a movement claiming that it is strong.

Secondly, by staying in the townships, the worker surrenders all initiative. He cuts himself off from his fellow-workers in other townships. He divides himself from his allies in the rural areas, and lie surrenders the entire economic centre to his enemies. It was this realisation, whether consciously stated or not, that led to the mass protest marches in Cape Town and Durban. Once we leave the townships, then there must be clearly stated objectives, or else the demonstrations are empty of meaning, and once we march out of the townships, talk of peacefully remaining at home ceases to have meaning!

By using the stay-at-home and by claiming as they do that we can bring the country to a halt by withdrawing our labour both the ANC and the PAC have called for the use of the traditional workers’ weapon. This follows from the general recognition that the largest and most capable force ready for struggle in the country is the working class.

But there is no analysis of the consequences of this recognition. It is vital that we accept once and for all the fact that future of the struggle rests on the organization of the worker as a class; that it will be this body of men and women in alliance with the rural worker that will lead to eventual victory.

In that case it is urgent that the workers be organized into their own party, with their own aims, and with their own methods of struggle. The Trade Unions must organize the industrial worker, and the strike weapon must be used to secure higher wages and better living conditions. Industrial action must be centred on the factories rather than on the townships – as distinct from the National Liberatory movement itself which has its base in the townships.

A close co-ordination of the two movements can lead the township organization into support of any future industrial action either by picketing or by introducing subsidiary campaigns, such as boycott action against factory produce etc.

The strike is one of our most powerful weapons. Its first use is in the field of economic struggle. Its use as a political weapon is very much more difficult and must be reserved for special periods. We must stop believing that the workers can be called out for each and every political occasion. And when we do in the future wish to employ the general strike, it must be supplemented by other methods of struggle or else we will find that a trigger-happy police force will be able to break it up far too easily. We are at a stage in our struggle where we have to face a ruthless ruling class. We cannot possibly win over to our side the police or the army – in fact we cannot even neutralize them. No matter how peaceful we may be they are ready to shoot. We repeat – no matter how peaceful Sophiatown was on 1 May 1950 the police shot. No matter how well the people of Langa stayed indoors in 1960 they were brutally beaten up. In fact the police walked through the streets of Cape Town beating up any man with a dark skin irrespective of what he was doing!

Once the worker is organized as an independent force, he will be in the forefront of the struggle for freedom, and there will be no clash of interests between his first loyalty to the socialist movement and his work inside the national movement. By knowing his own strength, he will be able to lead the whole population through to democracy and be able to show that socialization of the means of production provides the answer to a new economic order.

But in order to reach this organizational stage the worker must clearly understand both the strength and the limitations of the general strike. He must know that this is a constant testing ground – against the employers first and at a later stage against the entire state machinery.

If the worker is prepared for this struggle and if there is a clear understanding of the nature of the weapons open to us, we shall truly achieve freedom in our lifetime!

Memorandum of ANC Congress, December 1949
Nationalists, the Afrikaner-based governing party


The above document was issued as a discussion article in order to record the history of the past ten years – and in order to discuss the tactics of the Stay-at-home. It is as far as we know the only such record and original documents are not available. This is due to the destruction or concealment of all papers and files as a protection against police raids. Because of this there are some errors in our account. It is only by recording the history now that these errors will be corrected, and it is the duty of every participant to get the record straight.

Soon after the document appeared the newly announced South African Communist Party (SACP) produced a pamphlet attacking our document. The SACP came to the defence of the ANC leadership and claimed that we were intent on destructive criticism. While they admitted that some criticisms of past events would be justified (though they have not mentioned what these might be) we were condemned for inaccuracy, falsity and confusion. We were linked with all the opposition groups that ever emerged in the USSR, and a host of other apparent dissidents in Europe and South Africa.

The authors of this attack seem to believe that all political arguments are won by those who can conjure up the greatest store of political slander, character assassinations and vituperations. Let us get the record straight. We have appeared as defenders of the ANC against the government. We are nearly all inside the Congress Alliance. We produced the only pro-ANC paper during the entire emergency. But that does not mean that we will stay silent when we believe that Congress has made a mistake. As socialists we reserve the right to independent activity if we see fit, and we will certainly criticise anybody if and when we deem it necessary. This does not make us less loyal members than those who might see mistakes but deliberately keep silent.

We offer no excuse for some of the inaccuracies. We regret that many documents that are ten or so years old are not available. Because of this we readily admit that it was a combined executive meeting of ANC, of the SA Indian Congress, of the African Peoples Organisation and the CP that jointly called the protest in June 1950, and that the protest was called in conjunction with the campaign against the Anti-Red Bill. There are other cases where we erred in detail, but we have left our original text in this reprint in order that the reader can decide whether our ‘errors’ are of such a nature as to invalidate our general theme. Other corrections are of a lesser calibre.

But nowhere in the sustained attack on our article have we found any serious discussion on our analysis of the stay-at-home. We would have welcomed this as we believe it to be urgent that we examine our overall strategy in this country. We must re-assert that we believe the stay-at-home to be a powerful weapon. It can and will be used to test the response of the people to calls from the liberation movement. It will continue to be a very sensitive thermometer of the political temperature of the people’s struggle. We also believe that when such calls are answered the government can be shaken, and important concessions can be won. But by itself a general strike can not bring freedom. It is even doubtful whether it can break down any major bit of apartheid legislation. Only when it is possible to make a call for a general withdrawal of labour, coupled with an intent to further action can this method of struggle topple white supremacy.

It was in this sense that we claim above that past campaigns have failed in their ostensible objectives-namely the removal of some unjust laws, or the ending of the pass laws. We never said (as implied by the SACP) that the campaigns had no effect, nor have we said that no such campaign should take place. The SACP has not helped us in trying to clarify our ideas. And so it will be left to future events to test out our ideas. If we are proved wrong, and if there are easy ways to the freedom we all want, we will be the first to recognise our mistakes. But if our analysis is correct, and if we have to find new ways to bring down this iniquitous system, then at least let us learn from historical events. Without renouncing the general strike – on the contrary – we will learn to supplement it and, if necessary, to replace it with superior methods. To quote from other sources: History alone will absolve us.

South Africa: Once Again on the Stay-at-Home


Last updated on 3.5.2008