June 26th is South Africa Freedom Day, a day on which we rededicate ourselves to the fight for liberation.
1950 The May Day Strike
When we look back to the year 1950 the Afrikaner government had been in of lice for two years, and it was already engaged in its now familiar practice of passing a series of more and more repressive laws; laws designed to make more rigorous the system of racial discrimination already in force in the country, and to safeguard white economic privilege; laws intended to paralyse political opposition. For by that time political opposition had become a matter in which the mass of the people were concerned.
The African National Congress in particular, from its beginning as an organisation in 1912, had become a mass organisation; the South African Indian Congress had gained wide support among Indians during the Passive Resistance Campaign in 1946 against legislation which further circumscribed the rights of the Indian people. In the Unlawful Organisations Act, the regime was framing legislation against organisations which seemed likely to become a real threat to its security.
May Day Strike
The Defend Free Speech Convention was formed to organise black protest against the new legislation of 1950, and it represented a number of organisations. A mass rally held in Durban at this time, under the auspices of the ANC, the Natal Indian Congress, the African People's Organisation and the Communist Party of South Africa, was the first occasion on which all these organisations had come together to make a joint protest against the racial policies of the government. The Convention made plans for a national stoppage of work on May 1st, l950, and for meetings and rallies all over the country.
Then began a pattern of events that has become familiar to us in South Africa; when faced with a show of hostile opinion, the regime threatened to take 'forceful, action against its opponents. The statement made by the Defend Free Speech Convention certainly did not call upon the people to show any violence. It said simply: 'We request all South Africans, irrespective of race or colour, to lodge a protest by demonstrating ... and by demanding freedom of speech'.
However, the then Deputy Commissioner of Police, J P Coetzee, announced that the police would protect those who wished to go to work on 1st May, and said that 'force will be met with force when necessary'. C R Swart, then Minister of Justice and later President of South Africa, told the House of Assembly that he had banned the May Day rally arranged for Pretoria, and if he received representations from magistrates on the Rand he would ban the protest meetings there as well.
18 People Killed
White South Africans in the cities first became aware of the stoppage of work on May 1st when the milk was not delivered in the morning. The South African progressive weekly, The Guardian of May 4th, reported a successful stoppage in most cities and peaceful rallies and demonstrations throughout the country. In the late afternoon, however, there was violence and on the Rand eighteen people died. On May 11th, The Guardian printed three eyewitness accounts of the killings. One, from Benoni, told the story of how a crowd, told to disperse, had begun to do so when the police moved in with bayonets and guns: 'They slaughtered the people like cattle, stabbing them from behind and shooting them in their backs as they ran. I swear there was no provocation from the people'. Another, from Sophiatown, told of another crowd that had been told to disperse, and of one eighteen-year old boy who had not moved away with the others, but had remained where he was and was shot dead. The eye witness, who ran to pick him up, was struck down with a baton and arrested. Another account from Alexandra Township described how a woman had thrown a stone at a passing police van. This was evidently enough provocation for the police, who then opened fire and in a few seconds eight people were dead, including one fifteen-year-old schoolgirl.
First Freedom Day Protest
These events caused deep resentment and indignation among the people. The ANC called a national day of protest and mourning on June 26th. This call was supported by the African People's Organisation (an organisation of Coloured people which was later replaced by the South African Coloured People's Organisation) and the South African Indian Congress.
The Guardian of June 29th reported another successful stoppage of work most successful in Port Elizabeth and Durban. The National Day of Protest Co-ordination Committee issued a statement afterwards in which it spoke of its satisfaction at the splendid response to its call.
Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws
In 1951, the conference of the ANC adopted a resolution to rally the people into mass action in defiance of apartheid laws. This resolution had been drawn up by the Joint Planning Council, a body which had previously been appointed at a meeting of the executives of the ANC and the South African Indian Congress, and representatives of the Cape Franchise Action Council, a body which had been organising protests against the Separate Representation of Voters Bill. The mass action, which was planned for the following year, was intended as a protest against such laws as the Pass Laws, the Group Areas Act, the Separate Representation of Voters Act, the Bantu Authorities Act and the Suppression of Communism Act (under which the Communist Party of South Africa had already been banned in 1950).
The situation was beginning to harden into the one familiar to us today. The Separate Representation of Voters Bill became law, and the Suppression of Communism Act became harsher as a result of further amendments. In July the police intensified their persecution of organizations opposed to the government by raiding the offices of the ANC, the Indian Congress, the Iron and Steel Workers' Union, the Bakers' and Confectioners' Union and the Newspaper and Publishing Workers' Union all African unions. The Guardian of July 12 reported that during such a raid the then Secretary General of the ANC, Walter Sisulu (later sentenced and still serving life imprisonment), had been 'removed under the escort of two detectives to Marshall Square police station for questioning', and added that: 'Detectives have visited the head office of the ANC on several occasions recently demanding to know the race of Mr Sisulu and the names of the members of the Congress national executive'.
1952 was the year of the Defiance Campaign. At meetings held in April in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth, it was decided that groups of volunteers would defy apartheid, and that this action should spread throughout the country. When arrested, the volunteers would serve sentences rather than pay fines. This action was, as the Congress emphasised, based on disciplined non-violence. At a press conference on April 17th, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, President of the South African Indian Congress, was asked: 'Do you think there will be any incidents?' He replied: 'Not from our side. Ours will be a controlled, disciplined movement'.
Early in 1952 certain leaders of the ANC, the South African Indian Congress and the trade union movement were 'named' under the Suppression of Communism Act. Under this law they were forced to resign from their organizations and were forbidden to attend meetings. On June 26th, Yusuf Dadoo, Moses Kotane and others defied this ban by addressing a meeting and were brought to trial.
The Defiance Campaign began on June 26th, when the first volunteers including Nelson Mandela, Yusuf Dadoo, Walter Sisulu and others defied apartheid laws in Johannesburg and other major city centres. The movement continued to spread. From June till December groups of volunteers all over the country defied the law by entering African areas without permits, entering the European sections of post offices and railway stations, defying the nightly curfew for Africans in the cities. Volunteers' comments were that they were defying unjust laws that have oppressed our people for three hundred years. When brought to court the volunteers pleaded not guilty and made statements explaining why they had done what they did. Some parties of volunteers were acquitted it was found, for example, that those who defied railway apartheid had not, in fact, broken the law at all but the rest served various terms of imprisonment. As the early volunteers began to come out of jail, there were reports of political prisoners being maltreated. As the jails grew full the authorities tried to force payment of fines by confiscating the money of prisoners. By October 9th, the number of volunteers had passed the 5 000 mark, and magistrates began to sentence volunteers to corporal punishment. Sentences grew harsher, and there were other reprisals as well. The police carried out more raids on the offices of the organizations concerned and on the homes of the leaders.
Luthuli Dismissed as Chief
The home of Ahmed Kathrada (then an Indian youth leader in Johannesburg, subsequently sentenced and still serving life imprisonment), was raided while he was not present. One of the detectives involved reportedly said: 'It is our country, we can do what we like'.
The Department of Native Affairs told Chief Luthuli he must resign either from the ANC, of which he was then Natal President, or from his chieftainship of the Amakholwa tribe. He later made a statement saying: 'As a chief I regarded myself as a servant of my people and I therefore decided that I could not withdraw from the struggle for freedom by resigning either from Congress or the chieftainship'. The paper Advance (successor to The Guardian which by then had been banned) reported that 'When the tribe was told that Luthuli was dismissed because of his association with the ANC spokesmen asked the Native Commissioner what would happen when the new chief was appointed because all the tribesmen were members and supporters of the African National Congress.
This persecution of leaders was intended to intimidate them, and to find charges to get them out of the way. Twenty leaders were brought to trial in September for their part in the Defiance Campaign. Of the offence they were charged with, the People's World said: 'The Crown must prove that the campaign aims at bringing about a change in the industrial and social structure of the country through unconstitutional and illegal methods'. The twenty accused were eventually sentenced to nine months' imprisonment, suspended. Police action grew more brutal. In Durban they carried out a baton charge against people from the spectators' gallery leaving a Defiance Campaign trial. White personnel of the Defence Force had been put on emergency duty. The regime was determined to crush the campaign by the use of violence against the people. Congress decided that the police and army must be given no excuse to exercise their armed strength against the people, who were neither armed nor prepared for armed action. The National Action Committee, of which Chief Luthuli was president, issued a leaflet appealing to all Black people not to be provoked and 'avoid rioting, follow the lead of the Congress, be peaceful, disciplined and non-violent'.
In 1953 Chief Luthuli, who had by then been elected President General of the ANC, called on the African people and their allies to mark June 26 as a national day of commemoration and dedication to the cause of freedom. Each family was asked to commemorate the day by recounting in its own home the story of the struggle for freedom of the black oppressed people of South Africa. Each family was asked to light a bonfire outside its home at nine in the evening, or to place a lighted candle or lamp as 'symbols of the spark of freedom we are determined to keep alive in our hearts, and a sign to other freedom lovers that we are keeping vigil on that night'.
In 1954, June 26 and 27 were marked throughout South Africa by mass meetings and by an antiapartheid conference in Johannesburg. The call went out for organisers for the forthcoming Congress of the People. The year before the Congress of the People was one of extensive nation-wide activity: preparatory meetings were held all over the country and the people gave concrete expression to their aspirations, which became embodied in the Freedom Charter. The emblem of the campaign was a four-spoked wheel, representing the four organizations in the Congress Alliance, namely the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People's Organisation and the Congress of Democrats. The South African Congress of Trade Unions, after its formation in 1955, became the fifth member of the Congress Alliance. This emblem was to be seen chalked on many a wall during late 1954 and 1955, and was to be seen on the banner over the speakers' table when the Congress of the People took place in Kliptown on June 26, 1955. Delegates came from virtually every centre in the country, from the reserves and locations, the farms and the cities. They came by train, car, lorry and bus, even on foot. Delegates entered the closed strip of veld where the Congress was held, marching and singing, under their banners and ANC flags. In one way or another the delegates wore the Congress colours.
The highest award of the people of South Africa that of Isitwalandwe-Seaparankoe was made to ANC President, Albert Luthuli, South African Indian Congress President, Yusuf Dadoo, both of whose banning orders prevented their being present, and Trevor Huddleston, who was then working in Johannesburg. The Congress adopted the Freedom Charter, the document that enshrines the wishes and aspirations of our people in a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa.