African National Congress Essay

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Following a decade of political activism for the rights of blacks, Coloreds, and Indians in South Africa, the South African Native National Congress—later renamed the African National Congress (ANC)—was formed on January 8, 1912, in Bloemfontein. It unified the fragmented efforts of various organizations in the struggle against racial discrimination, political disenfranchisement, and economic exploitation of the majority of blacks in South Africa. Over the course of almost 80 years, the ANC used various means ranging from writing letters to the British king, negotiations, strikes, and boycotts to armed struggles and nonviolent mass actions to fight the apartheid system. Change came only after South African president F. W. de Klerk outlawed the discriminatory apartheid laws in 1990. As the ban against the ANC was lifted, the organization became the first ruling party in a free and democratic South Africa in 1994 with Nelson Mandela as its first black president.

The ANC began its long battle against the political disenfranchisement and socioeconomic marginalization of blacks in courts of South Africa. As an economic upswing hit South Africa and intensified the need for a black work force in the early 1920s, the ANC attempted to include the dwindling rights of workers in their agenda. But the economic depression and new legislation prevented this. New laws released by the government systematically stopped the economic rise of a small black bourgeoisie. With the Land Act, the government denied black Africans the right to own land and pushed them into economically dependent positions. The government initialized the foundation of the Native Representative Council, which was meant to represent the Africans but which was effectively controlled by the white government. It actually decentralized and weakened the movement to such an extent that some pronounced the ANC literally dead in the early 1930s.

The repressive legislation introduced by the government of Prime Minister Hertzog in 1935 led to renewed political activism on behalf of the ANC. In conjunction with 39 other organizations including those of coloreds, Communists, and Trotskyists, the ANC became active in the All Africa Convention (AAC) that fought racial discrimination and economic exploitation.

The conservative approach of the ANC lasted until the late 1940s. With the candidacy of Jan Smuts in the presidential race of 1948, there was hope that discrimination would cease and real change would take place. This hope evaporated when Smuts was defeated and an even more discriminatory legislation was introduced. With this new legislation racial discrimination was officially legitimized and the apartheid system was born. Marriages between whites and individuals of color were prohibited (1949) and the Immorality Act (1950) forbade interracial sexual relations. The new legislation required a national roll according to racial classifications in the Population Registration Act (1950), and the Group Areas Act (1950) enacted demarcation of land use according to race, which secured the most fertile, resourceful, and beautiful land for the whites and assigned marginalized areas of land to blacks as homelands.

When the apartheid laws were introduced in 1948, a conflict between the older and younger generations in the ANC deepened. While the old guard wanted to continue their struggle with the same methods, but only broaden its base, the ANC Youth League envisioned a much more radical change.

In 1952 the old guard of the ANC adopted the approach of the youth and joined other organizations in the National Defiance Campaign. In these campaigns the ANC activists deliberately broke the unjust apartheid laws to draw attention to them and have them examined in the courtroom. On June 26, 1955, the Congress of the People, which consisted of the ANC and other civil rights and antiapartheid organizations, formulated the so-called Freedom Charter at Kliptown. It demanded equal rights for people of all skin colors and no discrimination based on race. In 1956 the government arrested 156 leaders of the ANC and its allies and charged them with high treason using the Freedom Charter as the basis of its charge. All the accused were eventually acquitted.

In the spring of 1960, the ANC began its campaign against the pass laws, which had required all blacks to carry their identification card with them at all times to justify their presence in “white areas.” On March 21 about 300 demonstrators marched peacefully against the law. The police first fired tear gas and then aimed directly at demonstrators; 69 people were killed and 180 injured. This incident became known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

Internationally, the apartheid regime of South Africa faced increasing opposition in the 1950s and 1960s. The newly independent states in Africa, organized since 1963 in the Organization of African Unity (OAU), used diplomatic and political pressure to help end apartheid. In the United States, the Civil Rights movement shed attention on global issues of segregation and discrimination. The leader of the ANC, Albert Lutuli, led millions of activists in the nonviolent campaigns and believed in the compatibility of the African and European cultures.

However, some of the ANC members concluded that nonviolent acts were not suitable for South Africa and that more aggressive actions had to be applied. In 1961 the ban on the ANC forced the movement to go underground. The military wing, Umkonto de Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), was formed to commit acts of sabotage. Mandela and nine other leaders of the ANC were arrested in 1962 and charged in the so-called Rivonia Trial with 221 acts of sabotage initiated to stage a revolution. Mandela’s verdict was imprisonment for life plus five years beginning in 1964. The rest of the leadership of the ANC was forced into exile.

The ANC had the backing of the masses and was able to stage actions of mass resistance against apartheid in the late 1970s and 1980s. It trained its guerrilla force in neighboring countries. In 1973 workers’ strikes beginning in Durban spread to other parts of the nation. At the segregated black universities a new movement, similar to the black consciousness movement in the United States, emerged. Strikes and class boycotts at the University of Western Cape, at Turfloop near Pietersburg, and at the University of Zululand erupted. Resistance against the so-called Bantu education, which ordered that Africans were to be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the white oppressors, exploded in June 1976 in the Soweto Uprising. In the Soweto Uprising thousands of black students marched to protest the governmental decree. The police shot and killed at least 152 demonstrators. By the end of 1977, the government had killed over 700 young students in similar incidents. In the same year, the government retreated and decided that African schools did not need to instruct their students in Afrikaans any more.

During the 1980s the fight against apartheid included all areas of life. The armed wing of the ANC received increasing support for the guerrilla fight within South Africa and the organization used propaganda to create a mood for resistance. Grassroots organizations emerged all over South Africa and created the mass organization called the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983. Finally, on February 2, 1990, new president F. W. de Klerk introduced change to the system. He had held secret conversations with the imprisoned Mandela before assuming the presidency. Once in office, he lifted the ban on the ANC and announced Nelson Mandela’s imminent release after 27½ years of imprisonment. De Klerk not only ended the censorship of the press but also invited former liberation fighters to join the government at the negotiation table and to help prepare for a new multiracial constitution. Both Mandela and de Klerk were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1993.

Still, in the early 1990s, even after the end of apartheid, the armed struggle in South Africa had not ended. The black organization Inkatha, led by Gatsha Butelezi, challenged the ANC. In 1994 the ANC became a registered political party and won the first elections, which were open to individuals from all races, with over 60 percent of the votes. Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first postapartheid president and Thabo Mbeki followed him in 1999.


  1. Ellis, Stephen. “The ANC in Exile.” African Affairs 90, no. 360 (1991);
  2. Feit, Edward. “Generational Conflict and African Nationalism in South Africa, 1949–1959.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 5, no. 2, (1972);
  3. McKinley, Dale T. The ANC and the Liberation Struggle. London and Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997;
  4. Nixon, Rob. “Mandela, Messianism, and the Media.” Transition 51 (1991);
  5. Official website of the ANC, lists/links.html (cited April 2006).

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