"United Nations must take action to destroy Apartheid"

Oliver Tambo's statement at the meeting of the Special Political Committee of the United Nations General Assembly

New York, 29 October 1963

Mr. Chairman,

I wish once again to thank you and this Committee for this opportunity.

In South Africa, since the earliest days of white rule, our people have not had the opportunity of being heard by the tribunals of State, by the people who formulate the policies of that country, by the people who make laws determining the nature and character of the lives we are expected to live in that country.

This year, and this occasion, is the first time, therefore, that we are being heard directly. Its significance is that this distinguished and august audience is not one of a group of people in South Africa, representatives of organs of State, it is the governments of the world - all of them. It is all the more a pity that I am the only one who is taking advantage of this great offer. There are others who in many respects could have more appropriately represented my people, and all the oppressed people of South Africa, but who are languishing in jail, serving long sentences or facing trial.

Some of them, who were the subject of resolutions adopted by this Committee and the General Assembly three weeks ago, to abandon the Rivonia Trial and release all political prisoners, are at this very moment facing trial in the Supreme Court in Pretoria, charged with offences allegedly committed over a period of eighteen months, involving acts of sabotage in 221 or 222 instances, and alleged violations of South Africa's Suppression of Communism Act. Not only are they facing trial, but they are doing so in circumstances which make that trial largely farcical. Hence the significance and the importance of the resolution adopted by the General Assembly. They come before trial after going through a phase of persecution, ill-treatment and torture that is new in the South African situation, a fact which is an element of the tensions and the crisis that now characterise the life of the people of South Africa of all races.

Here is an extract from a letter written by a person who sat in the courtroom when these accused appeared three weeks ago. It says:

"The atmosphere in court was chilling, almost terrifying. Iron gates barred the way. Police - hundreds of them, uniformed and armed - and Special Branch men - masses and masses of them - amongst the spectators in the courtroom, watching every move we made, and stationed between us, listening to every word spoken on the spectators' benches".

In that kind of atmosphere, even for the best of judges, for the most impartial among them, it must be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to be impartial, to remain immune to the effects of that type of atmosphere. And that will be the atmosphere that will characterise the trial throughout. This is a description of the atmosphere inside a courtroom; it is also an accurate description of the atmosphere in the entire country.

In this letter the writer says:

"Some of the African accused amongst the eleven maintained most definitely that they had been tortured in different ways - suffocated with wet bags, given electrical and other treatment";

and a letter smuggled out of jail makes special reference to Nelson Mandela. It says:

"He is graded `Category D', the worst for privileges and rights, although the police state: `He is a very well-disciplined prisoner'. He spends twenty-three hours a day in a cell twelve feet by seven feet. He is prohibited from talking to any other prisoner. He is allowed no reading matter whatsoever, neither books nor newspapers, except such textbooks as are prescribed for the course of study which he has been permitted to embark on by correspondence at his own expense. He is allowed one thirty-minute visit from his wife every six months and may write and receive one letter every six months. He may not purchase or receive any food other than prison rations, which are: breakfast - mealie meal, plus the option of sugar or pea soup, no milk; lunch - mealie meal and a few cubes of meat on top; supper - mealie meal. He sleeps on a concrete floor, on a mat approximately three-eighths of an inch thick."

I mention these facts not for the purpose of inducing any pity for any of these accused. They believe in the cause they are fighting for; they are prepared to suffer for it, even to be tortured for it. I mention them simply because the condition of these men, who are leaders and for whom representations are now being made in the court, is perhaps an indication of the fate of thousands of others, also detained, to whom there is no access of any kind. It will take a long time before the world knows what has been the fate of these people, why some of them have died and what is even at this moment happening to them. In the meantime the trial against these eleven is proceeding, and there are other trials also due to proceed.

Unanimity against Apartheid

All this is happening in spite of the resolution that has been adopted. What the United Nations does about any further acts of defiance by the South African Government is part of the issues to which representatives are addressing themselves at this gathering. For us in South Africa it is a matter of great interest exactly for how long the United Nations can entertain this type of conduct by a Member State. We are grateful for what has been done by the various groups represented here and for the unity that has been expressed in their condemnation of this system. You have here the African States, which form a group of their own, the Asian nations, the East European countries, the Latin American nations, Western Europe, the Nordic countries, the Commonwealth, the Western Powers - all bound together variously by one circumstance or another and perhaps differing among themselves on one ground or another. But they all have declared, as one man, their condemnation of the policy of apartheid. It is common cause that there has been no change in spite of this unprecedented unanimity of the world on this one issue; it is common cause also that in spite of this persistent attack on their policy, the perpetrators of it have gone ahead heaping misery upon misery on those whom they hold in subjugation, this also in defiance of world opinion and despite the efforts of the people directly affected by their policy.

The question that arises in our minds is: How far is the United Nations able to watch this happening? We have in the past suggested a possible answer. We have furnished facts indicating the nature of apartheid but also giving a hint of what the ultimate results are going to be if apartheid is allowed to continue. We have had occasion to listen to statements made by representatives which expressed this fear, statements not drawn from the imagination but based on facts. This year in particular this Organisation has established the Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid(1), which has done a tremendous amount of work in placing at the disposal of the delegations and of the whole world an accurately detailed documentation of these facts so as to ensure that any statements made, any decisions taken, are based on an objective examination of the situation in South Africa.

This has made it unnecessary for us to bring facts to be considered afresh by this body; but it has raised the question of what our attitude might be to possible solutions that this Committee or the United Nations as a whole might decide upon - because we are part of this situation and some of the delegations here have indicated, perfectly rightly, that a great deal of attention, even of care, must be taken in the steps contemplated for the solution of this problem.

Appeals for Sanctions

As early as 1958, we in South Africa were convinced that if nothing was done to bring pressure to bear upon South Africa in addition to what we were doing, so as to compel abandonment of this policy, the stage would be reached which is contemplated in a paragraph of the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I quote from that paragraph:

"... it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law..."

We were aware that the rule of law in South Africa was fast becoming a dead letter, that our own pressures internally were not bringing about the peaceful changes in which we believed, and that it had become necessary to supplement these pressures with what could be done from outside. So, in 1958, at the first meeting of the All-African People's Conference(2) the South African delegation tabled a resolution for an international boycott of South African goods. That resolution was adopted and picked up in a number of countries by various organisations.

In 1960, at the Addis Ababa Conference,(3) another delegation of South African political leaders submitted a memorandum to that conference of African Independent States. In that memorandum, they asked for sanctions and for the isolation of South Africa from Africa and the rest of the world. Their appeal was received by the African States there assembled. A resolution to that effect was adopted,(4) and this was subsequently tabled for discussion at the fifteenth session of the General Assembly. In 1959, the Secretary-General of the United Nations was sent a memorandum by the African National Congress in South Africa, which asked, amongst other things, for sanctions against South Africa.

We did all these things because we felt that the world and the United Nations had a distinct role to play in South Africa. We knew that what we were asking for would involve suffering on our part, but we also knew that apartheid would never be abandoned, that racial discrimination in South Africa would never cease to be the official policy of that country, until and unless there were sacrifices, and the sacrifice of going hungry, of going without jobs because factories had been closed was a very elementary kind of sacrifice in the situation in which we were. It could hardly be compared with the ravages of apartheid on our people, who even then were being treated like unwanted animals in their own country.

We also knew that a boycott of South African goods through sanctions imposed from outside would also involve sacrifices for others outside South Africa, but we believed that it would be a minor sacrifice, negligible in comparison with the ultimate sacrifice which the whole world, we felt, would have to give and to make if apartheid was allowed to stay in South Africa.

We have been reproached, perhaps indirectly, with being so childish as to invite the world to inflict pain on us. It has been said that sanctions will hurt us first and foremost. I have given this historical background in the hope that we will not again have the discomfort of this kind of pity and paternalism, because it is a type of pity and paternalism which hurts us even more than sanctions would hurt us.

There was another reason why we thought of sanctions. We do not believe in violence; we do not think that anybody believes in it. We do not want it; nobody wants it. We did not think of invoking the world to invade South Africa. We were convinced, living in South Africa and having lived there all our lives, that if South Africa were effectively isolated through economic and diplomatic measures, and others which have been mentioned in these debates, it would be impossible for the South African Government to operate apartheid. Apartheid would then have to be abandoned. We also believed, and knew, that it is impossible to separate racial discrimination in South Africa from the economic structure of that country. Racial discrimination, South Africa's economic power, its oppression and exploitation of all the black peoples, are part and parcel of the same thing. Sanctions would attack the economy, which could only be attacked from outside through sanctions. We know of nothing else. We can attack it from the inside, but the only method, as the representatives are aware, which has been allowed us and left open to us is the type of method which is a last resort. By that method, we could destroy the economy of the country. In the process, we would destroy life as well, our own life included, but in the end, however tragic it may have been, there would be no apartheid.

We believe that the world, too, can destroy apartheid, firstly by striking at the economy of South Africa. But if that failed, then the world would have to sacrifice, as I have indicated, in a more elaborate and more costly way. The mere possibility of the peoples of the world having less to eat, less to clothe themselves with because of a boycott has led to various problems being raised in regard to the implementation of sanctions. Fears have been expressed that it would not work because the main trading partners of South Africa are involved and are unwilling to support sanctions. They have said so. But we do not think that this is any reason why there should be no sanctions.

First of all, very correctly, the African States, and perhaps before them other States as well, such as India, have decided to have no economic relations with South Africa, and no trade or diplomatic relations. This has its own effect, except that it is being undermined to a greater or lesser degree by those countries which persist in having trade relations with South Africa. But they have decided to make this sacrifice. Last year a resolution was adopted which, if it were implemented only by those countries which supported it, would be most effective.

Attitude of South Africa's Trading Partners

In the final analysis, it may be that apartheid brings such stupendous economic advantages to countries that they would sooner have apartheid than permit its destruction. It may be that some countries are faced with this cruel choice. This is still no reason why those who are prepared to make the sacrifice should not do so. However, we are worried about the difficulties voiced by South Africa's trading partners as regards severing their trade relations with South Africa. One of the sources of worry is that we owe racial discrimination in South Africa, in so far as it is supported by the constitution of that country, to an Act passed by the United Kingdom Government, the South Africa Act of 1909, which legalised racial discrimination. Today the United Kingdom is South Africa's greatest trading partner. Because it is South Africa's trading partner, it is, therefore, the greatest source of strength for apartheid. I do not think that this position should be defended. We should be happy if we knew that the United Kingdom was at least doing something about it, trying to extricate itself from its complicity in the practices and policies of apartheid. What we have instead is a boast by British firms that in 1962, of all countries trading with Britain, South Africa was the source of its greatest profits. I shall quote from a pamphlet called The British Stake in South Africa, issued in 1962. It says:

"Of all individual countries in which we hold private direct investment, South Africa last year was the one from which we drew the biggest returns."

It is an uncomfortable feeling that the United Kingdom should have to depend on apartheid for its biggest returns, particularly when one comes across a statement such as that made by Basil Davidson in his book, Black Mother, in which he says that by the end of the eighteenth century

"the value of British incomes derived from trade with the West Indies was said to be four times greater than the value of British income derived from trade with the rest of the world."

At that time, it will be recalled, there was a very heavy concentration of slaves in the West Indies, and trade with the West Indies was the lucrative enterprise it was because there was available this large mass of people who worked without pay. There is some similarity between that situation and what we find in South Africa, where millions of people, as Dr. Verwoerd(5) has so eloquently said, cannot rise above the level of certain forms of labour and are held in conditions which we describe as conditions of slavery, and which, if we wanted to be modest, we would describe as semi-slavery.

Representatives will recall the report, which came through yesterday, of a large number of Africans being trapped in a mine in Johannesburg, with little hope that they could be saved. The first question which occurs in the mind of an African is: what were they doing in that mine? They were working. For how much and for whom? The answer is disturbing, if there is any likelihood that the laws and policies which compel them to work under those conditions and to face death for nothing are going to endure because the big Powers are living and thriving on that system.

There is another disturbing aspect which relates to the question of sanctions. South Africa is encouraging immigrants from countries with white populations - from Britain, from France, from Germany, from Italy, but a large number of these people come from Britain. Firms in Britain are also moving to South Africa. That might not be such a bad thing. If they like to live in South Africa, our attitude is: that is very reasonable. It is a beautiful country. But the country which invites these people is also deporting from South Africa what are described as foreign natives. Africans, some of whom have lived there for over thirty years, are being uprooted and deported to Tanganyika and other countries. Their place, as far as the population of the country is concerned, is being taken by the whites. Therefore this emigration to South Africa is of a racialist character. It serves the interests of apartheid. One would have expected some attempt on the part of countries to discourage their citizens from going to South Africa - if for nothing else, at least because we say that it is an explosive situation and we cannot guarantee the safety of these families. Yet we should hate to do anything likely to alienate the rightful support which we have enjoyed from European peoples.

From our point of view, if sanctions are impracticable on any grounds, then nothing remains for anybody. I am using the term "sanctions" in a broad sense, covering all the various methods by which South Africa could be isolated. I should like to plead to this Committee to do the least that we expect of it, to work out how sanctions can be effectively employed - the details of it - how the trade which various countries are conducting with South Africa can be diverted and dispensed among the over one hundred countries that should be in a position to take it up. That would involve a sacrifice, but it is difficult to reconcile the powerful statements which are made here in condemnation of apartheid with the determination to sustain that same apartheid by giving it the means of survival.

No Change of Heart of South African Government

May I refer to other problems in which we are interested and which have arisen in the course of the debate on this question at this session. Reference has been made to, and we ourselves were very interested in, the statement made by the South African representative in the General Assembly. It has been felt that the statement offers some hope and that perhaps there is a rethinking by South Africa of its policies. I should like to quote from an editorial in the Rand Daily Mail of 12 October, which refers to that statement:

"Mr. Jooste Permanent Representative of South Africa to the United Nations occupied the rostrum and a substantial audience heard him through.

"Carefully they listened, weighing up his words. But alas, there was no single, tiny indication of a change of heart. It was the same old South African line which everyone had heard before a dozen times. South Africa would use, Mr. Jooste declared, all available means to defend the policies and possessions of her white population."

The editorial goes on:

"For Britain, America and other important countries of the West, there is now no longer any adequate excuse for stalling. All have condemned apartheid roundly and publicly in the past - now they are being called upon to match their practices to their pronouncements. The bans on arms shipments to South Africa are the first responses to the mounting pressure on them.

"With the continued thawing in the cold war, the South African issue is moving steadily to the top of the world's immediate concern. No longer is it third, or fifth or eighth on the list of priorities. It is desperately close to being the world's number one preoccupation."

We could not agree more with these comments. If any further value would seem to attach to the statements made on behalf of the South African Government, I think it is effectively disposed of by what Dr. Verwoerd himself has said. I shall quote his words, which are reported in the Hansard, House of Assembly Debates of the Republic of South Africa, Second Session. The statement was made on January 25, 1963. Dr. Verwoerd was replying to a vote of no-confidence moved by the Leader of the Opposition in South Africa:

"What does he mean" - that is, the Opposition Leader - "with 'control' when he says the United Party must retain control? The United Party wants to 'retain control over the entire South Africa'... What does he honestly mean the white man must do there under United Party policy? The word 'control' is a word which means nothing else than white supremacy or white domination. Control cannot have any other meaning than domination, supremacy. You can call it what you like. Control is domination, domination is supremacy, supremacy is domination, supremacy is domination. You cannot get away from that, Sir. Control means that the white man will remain the real controller."

Then he states later:

"I now want to deal with what seems to me the crucial point in respect of which this nation must say whether they have confidence in us or in the Opposition, whether they have confidence in the National Party or in the United Party.

"I maintain that judgment was given in 1961. Reduced to its simplest form the problem is nothing else than this: We want to keep South Africa white. The United Party also say they want to keep South Africa white. `Keeping it white' can only mean one thing, namely white domination, not `leadership', not `guidance', but `control', `supremacy'."

Bantustans and Partition

Now, the bantustan theory or practice or policy has been referred to as a possible way out.The Transkei was the first territory to be granted self-government. The Transkei is cited as a glorious example of people marching happily to independence. What Dr. Verwoerd said in January of this year makes it clear that there is no independence contemplated. There cannot be. Happily the majority of delegations have seen through the trick and fraud of the bantustans.

But partition is also being worked up, mainly from outside the United Nations, and partition is a kind of bantustan policy because it is based on the trick, which has been resorted to, of talking about Bantu nations in South Africa and a white nation, of talking about homelands for the Africans in South Africa, but, also, about a white South Africa. These "homelands" are like the locations that we already have, patched outside cities where Africans are concentrated and kept in subjugation, available as labour. Whether it is called "homelands" or bantustans or countries in terms of partition, it is still racial discrimination and apartheid - it is still white domination.

In fact, although it has not been stated in so many words, we are worried by any suggestion of partition. Just as we have rejected the bantustans, we reject partition even more, because that would be an acceptance of racism after all. It would be its entrenchment. You would then have established in Africa a system which propagates and is allowed to propagate racism. You would have a portion of the country, the greatest portion of South Africa, surrounded by little, isolated, poor, miserable patches of land called States, a strategy for keeping the African people in permanent servitude. That is no answer to apartheid. There is no answer to apartheid apart from striking directly at its head.

It is so evil and has been condemned so forcibly and so genuinely that the only way to handle it is by destroying it.

Freedom for all

Fears have been expressed, however, that if apartheid were destroyed, the lot of the white people in South Africa would become a doubtful one. We think it is right that the United Nations should concern itself with the welfare of all peoples, even groups of peoples. The Charter states that every individual, whatever his colour, shall be protected from victimisation on the basis of that colour. We ourselves have been worried about the fact that in South Africa there is a group of people, or individuals, or a racial group, which have been subjected to torture and indignity because of the colour of their skins or their origins. That is what we are fighting against.

I should like to refer to statements which have been made by South African leaders, other than myself, indicating our concern in ensuring that South Africa will be a happy country when apartheid has been abandoned. Chief Albert Luthuli made a statement recently from which I quote because it happens to be available. He said:

"The main thing is that the government and the people should be democratic to the core. It is relatively unimportant who is in the government. I am not opposed to the present government because it is white; I am opposed to it only because it is undemocratic and repressive. My idea is a nonracial government chosen on the basis of merit rather than colour. Appeals to racialism at elections should be a legal offence."

Nelson Mandela said at his trial:

"I am no racialist and I detest racialism because I regard it as a barbaric thing whether it comes from a black man or a white man."

May I say that these are leaders of people and are expressing the feelings of their people. The only way to ascertain the feelings of people is through what is said by those whom they have chosen to be their leaders and their spokesmen.

Walter Sisulu, who is among those who are facing trial today, has stated:

"The fundamental principle in our struggle is equal rights for all in our country, and that all people who have made South Africa their home, by birth or adoption, irrespective of colour or creed, are entitled to these rights."

Robert Sobukwe, who, after serving for a period of three years, is still in detention indefinitely - perhaps for the rest of his life unless we do something in the meantime, which we hope to be able to do - stated:

"Freedom of the Africans can only be established when the African group comes into its own. Freedom of the Africans means freedom for everyone, including Europeans in this country."

Any other leading personality in the South African liberation movement would have expressed himself in similar terms. The Committee may be aware of a document known as the Freedom Charter which was adopted at a conference to which political parties and all organisations from every racial group were invited.allied organisations which accepted it as a basic policy document. My recollection is that I had written the letters, one of which was addressed to the National Party of South Africa which was then in power.

The Freedom Charter purports to express the views of all South Africans of every race, and the gathering which was held in 1955 represented all races. Everyone was invited. The Freedom Charter begins with these words:

"We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people."

That statement, which declares South Africa to belong to all who live in it, is a drastic concession on the part of the African people, but it is a demonstration of the willingness of the African people to live in South Africa with everybody who wants to live there on the basis of absolute equality - no racism, no racial discrimination, no superior race, no inferior race. On that basis South Africa belongs to all who live in it.

It has been suggested by a group of Nordic countries, whose peoples have made great sacrifices for South Africa, that apart from any pressures, such as those which have been referred to in the past, the United Nations should give some attention to the question of what will replace apartheid.

We welcome these suggestions, if it is felt that the time has come to work out the details. But the effort would be entirely wasted if it were not also recognised that unless the pressures which have been suggested by delegations and in resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly are intensified, in other words, unless the sanctions in the broadest sense are applied, or an act which is of the nature of sanctions in its effectiveness is undertaken, then it is irrelevant what kind of proposals we may have for the future. The Freedom Charter, the document to which I have referred, and the other official statements made by prominent leaders in South Africa have been treated by the South African Government as not even worth the paper they are written on - an attitude South Africa will maintain until it finds itself unable to practise the policy of apartheid.

In my own view, we have not yet reached the stage at which we can go into details about what will supplant apartheid, over and above the statements which have been made in explanation of our official policies and over and above the provisions of the Charter itself, which are a protection of individuals. But, needless to say, whatever the United Nations and the countries which have supported us, and the delegations here which have attacked apartheid, feel should be done, we will cooperate with them. I cannot go into the question of when and by what machinery this should be done. I should merely like to say that if we have the opportunity of discussing this - that is, any of our people, any of our leaders - with either the Nordic countries or the African States, or any body which will be established, we will be willing to participate.

But may I repeat that it will be dangerous for the United Nations to get itself bogged down in the pursuit of solutions which are irrelevant to the present situation in South Africa, in concentrating on the details of how to protect the whites in the future and abandoning the more urgent modes of action in the interest of peace, in South Africa and externally; namely, the problem of how to intensify the pressures which have been mentioned in the debates that have been the subject of resolutions adopted by the Assembly.

Challenge to the United Nations

Finally, I should like to say that we have said in the past that the South African situation is approaching a crisis. We said so in 1960 in an unofficial memorandum that we distributed at the United Nations, and there can be no doubt now that South Africa is in a crisis. But this is not the end. That situation is deteriorating rapidly and is capable of any developments any day. The fact that in the last five weeks, or five months, or eight months, on the face of it things have been quiet and peaceful, that investments have been increasing and mounting, that investors have been drawing greater and greater profits, and super-profits, and that people have been flowing into the country - families from everywhere except from Africa - that fact should not blind the world to the realities of the situation.

We cannot be expected to sit side by side with it. We have come to the United Nations because of our belief in it. But if the United Nations finds any real difficulties, we are bound, most naturally, to explore every other avenue that is open to us, whatever that is, to strengthen ourselves in every way that is conceivable. There is no question from our point of view of postponing anything. Apartheid has outlived its time in the world and most certainly in Africa. What would encourage people who like to see changes come about in a peaceful way would be to feel that, now that the question is in the capable hands of the world's governments, through the machinery of the United Nations, we shall begin to see dawn in South Africa. We thought we saw that dawn when 106 countries voted unanimously against South Africa. We saw so much of the dawn that cables were sent to President Kennedy congratulating the United States. Cables of that kind are not sent to President Kennedy every week or every year. This was a demonstration on the part of people who felt that the United Nations was at long last seizing the bull by the horns.

Cables were even sent to Lord Home, then Foreign Secretary [of the United Kingdom]. It was possibly the first cable he has received from any African people about British policy, certainly in South Africa. But this again was a reaction to what appeared to be a decision on the part of the big Powers in the West to join hands with the ordinary people and save the world from an approaching disaster.

But if we got too excited about that decision, and if in fact nothing still is going to be done, then may I repeat that that seems to us to indicate the need to seek other avenues, whatever those may be. Needless to say, in my view - and I may be entirely wrong, but I believe this faithfully - the United Nations cannot allow South Africa to continue acting in defiance of its expressed views, without undermining confidence on the part of the world in the ability of the United Nations to deal with the situation of which it is seized. I also believe that South Africa is imposing a severe strain on the United Nations. But that strain can increase with fatal results, even for a world organisation, unless action is taken immediately. Hence our appeal for action.

  1. Changed in 1974 to "Special Committee against Apartheid".
  2. The Conference was held in Accra in December 1958.
  3. Mr. Tambo led the ANC delegation to this Conference.
  4. United Nations under Article 41 of its Charter.
  5. Prime Minister, 1958-66. Assassinated in 1966.


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