In July 1962, Nelson Mandela returned from the conference, having gathered support for the newly formed Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was arrested and charged first for leaving the country without a passport and sentenced to Robben Island and later charged in the Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment.
This is a lightly edited excerpt of his address, published with permission.
The delegation of the African National Congress, and I particularly, feel specially honoured by the invitation addressed to our organisation by the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa (PAFMECA) to attend this historic conference and to participate in its deliberations and decisions. The extension of the PAFMECA area to South Africa, the heart and core of imperialist reaction, should mark the beginning of a new phase in the drive for the total liberation of Africa – a phase which derives special significance from the entry into PAFMECA of the independent states of Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.
It was not without reason, we believe, that the secretariat of PAFMECA chose as the seat of this conference the great country of Ethiopia, which, with hundreds of years of colourful history behind it, can rightly claim to have paid the full price of freedom and independence. His Imperial Majesty, himself a rich and unfailing fountain of wisdom, has been foremost in promoting the cause of unity, independence and progress in Africa, as was so amply demonstrated in the address he graciously delivered in opening this assembly. The deliberations of our conference will thus proceed in a setting most conducive to a scrupulous examination of the issues that are before us.
At the outset, our delegation wishes to place on record our sincere appreciation of the relentless efforts made by the independent African states and national movements in Africa and other parts of the world, to help the African people in South Africa in their just struggle for freedom and independence.
The movement for the boycott of South African goods and for the imposition of economic and diplomatic sanctions against South Africa has served to highlight most effectively the despotic structure of the power that rules South Africa, and has given tremendous inspiration to the liberation movement in our country. It is particularly gratifying to note that the four independent African states which are part of this conference, namely, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Tanganyika, are enforcing diplomatic and economic sanctions against South Africa. We also thank all those states that have given asylum and assistance to South African refugees of all shades of political beliefs and opinion. The warm affection with which South African freedom fighters are received by democratic countries all over the world, and the hospitality so frequently showered upon us by governments and political organisations, has made it possible for some of our people to escape persecution by the South African government, to travel freely from country to country and from continent to continent, to canvass our point of view and to rally support for our cause. We are indeed extremely grateful for this spontaneous demonstration of solidarity and support, and sincerely hope that each and every one of us will prove worthy of the trust and confidence the world has in us.
We believe that one of the main objectives of this conference is to work out concrete plans to speed up the struggle for the liberation of those territories in this region that are still under alien rule. In most of these territories the imperialist forces have been considerably weakened and are unable to resist the demand for freedom and independence – thanks to the powerful blows delivered by the freedom movements.
Although the national movements must remain alert and vigilant against all forms of imperialist intrigue and deception, there can be no doubt that imperialism is in full retreat and the attainment of independence by many of these countries has become an almost accomplished fact. Elsewhere, notably in South Africa, the liberation movement faces formidable difficulties and the struggle is likely to be long, complicated, hard and bitter, requiring maximum unity of the national movement inside the country, and calling for level and earnest thinking on the part of its leaders, for skilful planning and intensive organisation.
South Africa is known throughout the world as a country where the most fierce forms of colour discrimination are practised, and where the peaceful struggles of the African people for freedom are violently suppressed. It is a country torn from top to bottom by fierce racial strife and conflict and where the blood of African patriots frequently flows.
Almost every African household in South Africa knows about the massacre of our people at Bulhoek, in the Queenstown district, where detachments of the army and police, armed with artillery, machine guns and rifles, opened fire on unarmed Africans, killing 163 persons, wounding 129, and during which 95 people were arrested simply because they refused to move from a piece of land on which they lived.
Almost every African family remembers a similar massacre of our African brothers in South-West Africa when the South African government assembled aeroplanes, heavy machine guns, artillery and rifles, killing a hundred people and mutilating scores of others, merely because the Bondelswart people refused to pay dog tax.
On 1 May 1950, 18 Africans were shot dead by the police in Johannesburg while striking peacefully for higher wages. The massacre at Sharpeville in March 1960 is a matter of common knowledge and is still fresh in our minds. According to a statement in parliament made by CR Swart, then Minister for Justice, between May 1948 and March 1954, 104 Africans were killed and 248 wounded by the police in the course of political demonstrations. By the middle of June 1960, these figures had risen to well over 300 killed and 500 wounded. Naked force and violence is the weapon openly used by the South African government to beat down the struggles of the African people and to suppress their aspirations.
The repressive policies of the South African government are reflected not only in the number of those African martyrs who perished from guns and bullets, but in the merciless persecution of all political leaders and in the total repression of political opposition. Persecution of political leaders and suppression of political organisations became ever more violent under the Nationalist Party government. From 1952 the government used its legal powers to launch a full-scale attack on leaders of the African National Congress. Many of its prominent members were ordered by the government to resign permanently from it and never again participate in its activities. Others were prohibited from attending gatherings for specified periods ranging up to five years. Many were confined to certain districts, banished from their homes and families and even deported from the country.
In December 1956, Chief AJ Lutuli, president-general of the ANC, was arrested together with 155 other freedom fighters and charged with treason. The trial which then followed is unprecedented in the history of the country, in both its magnitude and duration. It dragged on for over four years and drained our resources to the limit. In March 1960, after the murderous killing of about 70 Africans in Sharpeville, a state of emergency was declared and close on 20 000 people were detained without trial. Even as we meet here today, martial law prevails throughout the territory of the Transkei, an area of 16 000 square miles with an African population of nearly two and a half million. The government stubbornly refuses to publish the names and number of persons detained. But it is estimated that close on 2 000 Africans are presently languishing in jail in this area alone. Among these are to be found teachers, lawyers, doctors, clerks, workers from the towns, peasants from the country and other freedom fighters. In this same area and during the last six months, more than 30 Africans have been sentenced to death by white judicial officers, hostile to our aspirations, for offences arising out of political demonstrations.
On 26 August 1961 the South African government even openly defied the British government when its police crossed into the neighbouring British protectorate of Basutoland and kidnapped Anderson Ganyile, one of the country’s rising freedom stars, who led the Pondo people’s memorable struggles against apartheid tribal rule.
Apart from these specific instances, there are numerous other South African patriots, known and unknown, who have been sacrificed in various ways on the altar of African freedom.
This is but a brief and sketchy outline of the momentous struggle of the freedom fighters in our country, of the sacrifice they have made and of the price that is being paid at the present moment by those who keep the freedom flag flying.
For years our political organisations have been subjected to vicious attacks by the government. In 1957 there was considerable mass unrest and disturbances in the country districts of Zeerust, Sekhukhuneland and Rustenburg. In all these areas there was widespread dissatisfaction with government policy and there were revolts against the pass laws, the poll tax and government-inspired tribal authorities. Instead of meeting the legitimate political demands of the masses of the people and redressing their grievances, the government reacted by banning the ANC in all these districts. In April 1960 the government went further and completely outlawed both the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress. By resorting to these drastic methods the government had hoped to silence all opposition to its harsh policies and to remove all threats to the privileged position of the whites in the country. It had hoped for days of perfect peace and comfort for white South Africa, free from revolt and revolution. It believed that through its strong-arm measures it could achieve what white South Africa has failed to accomplish during the last 50 years, namely, to compel Africans to accept the position that in our country freedom and happiness are the preserve of the white man.
But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown of white supremacy in South Africa. The banning and confinement of leaders, banishments and deportations, imprisonment and even death, have never deterred South African patriots. The very same day it was outlawed, the ANC issued a public statement announcing that it would definitely defy the government’s ban and carry out operations from underground. The people of South Africa have adopted this declaration as their own and South Africa is today a land of turmoil and conflict.
In May last year a general strike was called. In the history of our country no strike has ever been organised under such formidable difficulties and dangers. The odds against us were tremendous. Our organisations were outlawed. Special legislation had been rushed through parliament empowering the government to round up its political opponents and to detain them without trial. One week before the strike 10 000 Africans were arrested and kept in jail until after the strike. All meetings were banned throughout the country and our field workers were trailed and hounded by members of the Security Branch. General mobilisation was ordered throughout the country and every available white man and woman put under arms. An English periodical described the situation on the eve of the strike in the following terms:
“In the country’s biggest call-up since the war, scores of citizens’ force and commando units were mobilised in the big towns. Camps were established at strategic points; heavy army vehicles carrying equipment and supplies moved in a steady stream along the Reef; helicopters hovered over African residential areas and trained searchlights on houses, yards, lands and unlit areas. Hundreds of white civilians were sworn in as special constables, hundreds of white women spent weekends shooting at targets. Gun shops sold out of their stocks of revolvers and ammunition. All police leave was cancelled throughout the country. Armed guards were posted to protect power stations and other sources of essential services. Saracen armoured cars and troop carriers patrolled townships. Police vans patrolled areas and broadcast statements that Africans who struck work would be sacked and endorsed out of the town.”
This was the picture in South Africa on the eve of the general strike, but our people stood up to the test most magnificently. The response was less than we expected but we made solid and substantial achievements. Hundreds of thousands of workers stayed away from work and the country’s industries and commerce were seriously damaged. Hundreds of thousands of students and schoolchildren did not go to school for the duration of the strike.
The celebrations which had been planned by the government to mark the inauguration of the republic were not only completely boycotted by the Africans, but were held in an atmosphere of tension and crisis in which the whole country looked like a military camp in a state of unrest and uncertainty. This panic stricken show of force was a measure of the power of the liberation movement and yet it failed to stem the rising tide of popular discontent.