The African National Congress Turns 100

South Africa's ruling party has much to fete and more to consider, says Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

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But in 1955 the African nationalists, including Mandela, met in an interracial assembly just outside Johannesburg and created a document they called the Freedom Charter, which stated that “South Africa belongs to all who lived in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” And that manifesto has remained the guiding principle of the ANC.

But at the time, the white regime labeled the document “communist,” and that provided the excuse in early December 1957 to detain Mandela and more than 150 others, charging them with treason, a crime then punishable by death. The case was not settled until March 29, 1961, when Mandela and his so-called co-conspirators were found not guilty, with the judge remarkably stating that the ANC was neither violent nor criminal.

From Peaceful Protests to Armed Struggle

Meanwhile, beyond the courtroom, the struggle continued with demonstrations against the laws that required blacks to carry identity passes when traveling outside their segregated areas. Two protests in particular stand out. One was when more than 2,000 women, including Winnie Mandela (now the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela), marched on the seat of government in Pretoria, proclaiming, “When you touch the women, you’ve struck a rock. You will be crushed!” But before the regime could be crushed, the women were arrested, and a pregnant Winnie almost lost her baby. 

The second of those demonstrations, in Sharpeville in 1961, led to the deaths of 69 protesters, who were shot by police. And as South African writer Max du Preez recalled in his book The Rough Guide to Nelson Mandela, it was “a defining moment in South African history,” demonstrating to the world “that apartheid was a violent and racist policy, and dispelled all notions of it being a morally justifiable strategy of ‘separate development’ of races.”

Yet the government declared a state of emergency and banned all protest movements, including the ANC, which resulted in most of the organization’s leaders going underground or into exile.

It was then — in mid-1961– that Mandela persuaded the ANC of the efficacy of armed struggle, arguing, “If peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end.”

Once again, the ANC was torn by division over this approach. But in the end, most signed on and Mandela went underground, darting from place to place, earning the nickname “the Black Pimpernel.” During that time, he also traveled around the continent, drumming up support for the cause, though the commencement of armed struggle cost him much support in the West.

The ANC in Exile

Thousands of young South Africans — mostly black, but including whites, Indians and coloreds — followed Mandela underground, and over the next few years they launched sporadic attacks inside the country. But on Aug. 5, 1962, Mandela, dressed as a chauffeur, was caught and arrested. He was later tried and sentenced to life in prison, and the ANC would not be the same for the next 27 years.