This year marks the centenary of the African National Congress (ANC); the South African national liberation movement created in response to a brutal British and Boer colonisation (white rule).
A century after its establishment, the ANC is now the largest political party in the South Africa, after sweeping to power in 1994; the year that also signified the end of apartheid.
More recently, the party has been accused of compromising the dream of economic liberation and black economic control, and it is widely acknowledged that South Africa still has a lot of work to do in building a stable economy, fighting a high crime rate due to a one-sided economy and controlling the AIDS epidemic that blights the country.
But this week, we look at the birth and growth of one of the most famous political movements in world history, through the speeches and unique oratory of its leaders.
Although white settlers arrived in South Africa from the 17th Century, the wars between the native Africans and Europeans for control of the land did not ensue for another 200 years.
In the 1860’s the British brought huge armies, modern rifles and canons to crush the resistance of the South African people, most notably the Xhosa and Zulu tribes.
By 1900, the might of the British army had defeated the vast African kingdoms, bringing them under English rule.
Giving independence to the Boer and British settlers in 1910, the British government handed control of the colony over to the newly formed white Union of South Africa, which denied all rights to the black population.
It was in response to this desperate social climate that lawyer and political activist Pixley Ka Isaka Seme made his stirring announcement, calling on Africans to unite together as one national organisation. In 1911, he said:
“We are one people. These divisions, these invaders are the cause of all our woes today.”
With these few but powerful words, the seeds of collective rebellion were planted in the hearts of the conquered Africans.
Bringing together activists, tribal chiefs and church organisation leaders, Seme joined with other prominent writers Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje and John Langalibalele Dube to create the South African Native National Congress (later renamed the African National Congress in 1923) on January 8, 1912.
The first president of the ANC, John Dube, was a renowned orator. Through his words, he had the ability to combine his God given intellect with traditions and local customs of the people. Here is an extract from one of Dube’s speeches, given on February 10, 1912.
“Although, as a race, we possess the unique distinction of being the first born sons of this great and beautiful continent; although as a race we can claim an ancestry more ancient than almost any round us, yet as citizens in our own country, we are the last-born children, just awakening into political life, born on January 8, in this year of grace 1912.
“Yes politically, new-born babes, we are still very young and inexperienced, and as such it behoves us to fell our way slowly and warily. While teaching ourselves to walk boldly and upright before all mankind, we must still be careful ever to seek out the way where wisdom (not mere sentiment or desire) leadeth, treading softly, plodding along the bright path illuminated by righteousness and reason- the steep and thorny path, yet only one that will safely and surely lead us to our goal, the attainment of our rightful inheritance as the sons of Africa and citizens of South Africa.
“Many are the difficulties I foresee in our way – enemies without, fierce and frank dangers within, undersigned perhaps but still more harmful. It will be an uphill fight but out watchword shall be “Excelsior!” onward, higher, cautiously ploddingly! By dint of our perseverance, our patience, our reasonableness, our law abiding methods and the justice of our demands, all these obstacles shall be removed and enemies over come.
“We have been distinguished by the world as a race of born gentleman- a truly glorious title, bestowed on few other people- and by the gentleness of our manners (poor through we may be, unlettered and ill-clad), and by the nobility of our character shall we break down the adamantine wall of colour prejudice and force even our enemies to be our admirers.”
Not only a man who could rouse support through his use of words, Dube created the first Zulu/English newspaper Ilanga, helped establish the Zulu literature, and was one of the first published Zulu authors.
It was a long hard struggle for the ANC and the people of South Africa, who had to fight oppressively severe laws such as the 1913 Land Act, which prevented Africans from buying, renting or using land not in government specified reservations. Black people immediately lost their land, which led to overcrowding, poverty and starvation.
For years, the party toiled away peacefully, trying to bring equality to the country, but they made little headway. During these years, words held little comfort with the people who were treated brutally by a white colonizing power. After the Sharpeville Massacre, when police killed 69 people after a peaceful demonstration, the armed wing of the ANC Umkhonto we Siwe was formed in 1961.
A subsequent ban of the ANC followed, but the acts of rebellion and sabotage only led to harsher treatment by the establishment, who brought in the death penalty for sabotage and allowed police to detain people for 90 days without trial.
It was during this explosive time of underground fighting and militancy that Nelson Mandela gained popular prominence within the movement. In 1962, he was arrested and sentenced to life for sabotage. He served 27 years in prison, leaving his wife Winnie to continue the fight of the ANC.
Crackdowns by the white regime were atrocious but effective, in reducing the wave of militant disruption, but it did not mean an end to the struggle. Where guerilla warfare was ineffective, strikes and demonstration came back into force. The ‘80s saw the rise of anger against the government, when individuals took to the struggle, in the community, the schools and work places. International support for the native Africans also grew during this decade, most notably the United Nations General Assembly’s trade embargo against the South African government that had the support of 130 countries.
Finding it unable to break the spirit and determination of the people and with added pressure from international sources, the president Frederik Willem de Klerk began negotiations to end apartheid in 1990, which cumulated in the release of Nelson Mandela in the same year.
Four years later, with Mandela at the helm of the ANC, the country held its first free, racially inclusive and democratic elections. Winning a landslide 62 percent of the votes, Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa in May 1994.
This extract from Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech was watched by millions all over the world and is still considered by many to be one of the most famous speeches of all time:
“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.
“We succeeded to take our last steps to freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace. We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people.
“We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity, a nation at peace with itself.”
During the past 100 years the ANC has had to overcome many obstacles and they still have many more to come. But in looking forward to the next century, many South Africans will never forget their past.
Also See: Apartheid Did Not Die in South Africa