'The Struggle for a National Convention'

Article written by Nelson Mandela for Fighting Talk, April 1961

'I am attending this conference as delegate from my village. I was elected at a secret meeting held in the bushes far away from our kraals simply because in our village it is now a crime for us to hold meetings. I have listened most carefully to speeches made here and they have given me strength and courage. I now realise that we are not alone. But I am troubled by my experiences during the last weeks. In the course of our struggle against the system of Bantu Authorities, we heard many fighting speeches delivered by men we trusted most, but when the hour of decision came they did not have the courage of their convictions. They deserted us and we felt lonely and without friends. But I will go away from here refreshed and full of confidence. We must win in the end.'

These words were said at the All-in African Conference held at Pietermaritzburg on 25 and 26 March. The man who said them came from a country area where the people are waging a consistent struggle against Bantu Authorities. He wore riding breeches, a khaki shirt, an old jacket, and came to conference bare-footed. But his words held fire and dignity and his remarks, like those of other speakers, indicated that this conference was no talking shop for persons who merely wanted to let off steam, but a solemn gathering which appreciated the grave decisions it was called upon to take.

The theme of the conference was African unity and the calling, by the government, of a national convention of elected representatives of all adult men and women, on an equal basis, irrespective of race, colour or creed, with full powers to determine a new democratic constitution for South Africa.

Conference resolved that if the government failed to call this convention by 31 May, countrywide demonstrations would be held on the eve of the republic in protest against this undemocratic act.

The adoption of this part of the resolution did not mean that conference preferred a monarchy to a republican form of government. Such considerations were unimportant and irrelevant. The point at issue, and which was emphasised over and over again by delegates, was that a minority government had decided to proclaim a white republic under which the living conditions of the African people would continue to deteriorate.

Conference further resolved that, in the event of the government failing to accede to this demand, all Africans would be called upon not to co-operate with the proposed republic. All sections of our population would be asked to unite with us in opposing the Nationalists.

The resolution went further and called upon democratic people the world over to impose economic and other sanctions against the government. A National Action Council was elected to implement the above decisions.

Three other resolutions were passed in which the arrests of members of the Continuation Committee were strongly condemned; and in which conference called for the lifting of the ban imposed on the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress. The system of Bantu Authorities was attacked as a measure forcibly imposed by the government in spite of the unanimous opposition of the entire African nation.(1)

These resolutions were adopted unanimously by more than fifteen hundred delegates, from town and country, representing nearly one hundred and fifty political, religious, sporting, and cultural organisations.

Members of the Liberal Party, the Inter-Denominational African Ministers' Federation, the Eastwood Advisory Board, the Zenzele Club, and scores of other organisations from all over the country, spoke with one voice and jointly faced the political changes introduced by the Nationalist Government.

For thirteen hours they earnestly and calmly considered the grave political situation that has arisen in South Africa as a result of the disastrous policies of the present regime.

Now and again, discussions were interrupted by stirring tunes sung with intense feeling and tremendous enthusiasm by the entire conference. The favourite song was 'Amandla Ngawethu', composed by the freedom fighters of Port Elizabeth during the recent bus boycott in that city.

The gathering was a moving demonstration of comradeship and solidarity and was acclaimed by the South African press as an outstanding success.

The main resolution showed that the delegates visualised much more than a token demonstration on the chosen dates. The people contemplated a stubborn and prolonged struggle, involving masses of the people from town and country, and taking different forms in accordance with local conditions, beginning before 31 May and which would continue unabated until democratic reforms are instituted.

Delegates fully appreciated that the above decisions were not directed against any other population group in the country. They were aimed at a form of government based on brute force and condemned the world over as inhuman and dangerous. It was precisely because of this fact that conference called on the Coloured and Indian people and all European democrats to join forces with us.

It will indeed be very tragic if, in the momentous days that lie ahead, White South Africa will falter and adopt a course of action which will prevent the successful implementation of the resolutions of conference.

In the past we have been astonished by the reaction of certain political parties and 'philanthropic' associations which proclaimed themselves to be anti apartheid but which, nevertheless, consistently opposed positive action taken by the oppressed people to defeat this same policy. Objectively, such an attitude can only serve to defend White domination and to strengthen the Nationalist Party. It also serves to weaken the impact of liberal views amongst European democrats and lays them open to the charge of being hypocritical.

All the democratic forces in this country must join in a programme of democratic changes. If they are not prepared to come along with us, they can at least be neutral and leave this government isolated and without friends.

Finally, however successful the conference was from the point of view of attendance and the fiery nature of the speeches made, these militant resolutions will remain useless and ineffective unless we translate them into practice.

If we form local action committees in our respective areas, popularise the decisions through vigorous and systematic house-to-house campaigns, we will inspire and arouse the country to implement the resolutions and to hasten the fall of the Nationalist government within our lifetime.

For the National Action Council, Mandela, who was now working underground, toured the country secretly during April and May, with Walter Sisulu, organising for the anticipated three-day stay-at-home. During this period he also addressed appeals to various sections of the population, calling for their support for the proposed National Convention; among these appeals are three letters printed here and the letter to Prime Minister Verwoerd, cited during Mandela's 1962 trial.

1. See the resolutions of the All-In African Conference, held in Pietermaritzburg, 25-26 March 1961. Adopted by the Orlando Conference, they formed the basis for the later All-In Conference, though the final document from there only embodied the fundamental demand for a National Convention.


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