African National Congress (ANC)

By: Katie Martin


Founded in 1912, the ANC’s main goal has been to end the segregationist apartheid system and start a new, democratic, non-racial government in South Africa. For much of its existence, it worked through non violent methods, such as peaceful protests, boycotts, and lobbying. The ANC became a mass movement in the 1940s and the Defiance Campaign was launched in 1952. The main goal of this campaign was to force the repeal of the Pass Laws Act, Group Areas Act, Suppression of Communism Act, Bantu Authorities Act, Separate Representation Act, and the Stock Limitation Act. ANC activists would publicly break the law with crowds surrounding them for support. The protesters hoped to be arrested so they would overflow the jails, flood the system, and force the government to negotiate with the ANC. The campaign failed to achieve any of its main objectives before it was terminated in 1953, but the ANC did gain global recognition. The ANC joined the Congress of the People (COP) in 1955 and members helped to write the Freedom Charter, which was the most iconic document of the freedom struggle. It called for the end of the apartheid government and system and the creation of a new, democratic government which allowed all races to be equal. Starting in 1956, many ANC leaders were tangled up in the Treason Trial, but they were eventually acquitted in 1961 because the government had no real evidence against them.

On March 21, 1960, ANC members were protesting peacefully outside of a police station in Sharpeville when policemen opened fire on the crowd. 69 demonstrators were killed and 186 were injured. This was an event that shocked the world and led the ANC to abandon its strategy of peaceful protest and begin a campaign of armed struggle. An armed wing of the ANC, called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was created in 1961 and it began operations on December 16th of the same year. MK mostly carried out sabotage operations in order to financially damage the apartheid state. However, the government retaliated by making it illegal to execute any act of sabotage, giving them the right to hunt down and dismantle the MK. Its leaders were faced with serious charges at the Rivonia Trial in 1963, and all but one person were found guilty. They were sent to serve life sentences in 1964, and it would take nearly a decade for the ANC to recover from this terrible blow.

Excerpt of a speech by Ahmed Kathrada at a Meeting of People's Defence Committee held after the Arrests of Leaders on Charges of High Treason - December 20, 1956

"The people of South Africa have seen too much blood. Western civilisation has shown us too much blood. Western civilisation has shown us the horrors of machine guns and of atomic bombs. Ever since Jan van Riebeeck came to this country we have seen nothing else but blood. We don't want to spill our blood unnecessarily, and if in the past, as the result of provocation blood has been spilled, that provocation has not come from you people; all the blame rests at the door of Mr. Swart. We have our peaceful meetings and I think we will get on very well without ugly brutes standing in uniform around us.

"Yes, they say our leaders will be tried for Treason. We know what our leaders have said. You know what our leaders have been saying all these years. Our children playing in the streets are hungry. The big beautiful homes that are built are not for us. All the facilities of this country are not for us. There are thousands and thousands of our children dying in the Ciskei because they have no food, and our leaders have said that all these things are wrong.

"We have said that the time is coming when we must begin to change these things and that the time is past for us to just sit. We want to be up and about. We want to be doing things in a peaceful manner, not in the uncivilised manner of Mr. Swart, not by brute force. We want to change this country into a happy country; a beautiful country. Instead of breaking down Sophiatown we want to build up Sophiatown. Instead of dividing this country into group areas we want all the people to live more and more together and if that is Treason, then tell Mr. Swart that as far as I am concerned, as far as the people of South Africa are concerned, we will continue to commit Treason and no force on earth is going to stop us."

Significance to the Anti-Apartheid Movement

The ANC was inarguably the most dominant force in the anti-apartheid struggle from 1948 to 1964. It may have failed in its main objective of bringing the apartheid system down, but it was a movement that represented the aspirations of the majority of South Africans and gained global attention. The ANC’s main achievement was uniting the people under a common cause, which allowed the anti-apartheid movement to become powerful and united enough to challenge the government. Many years after the leaders were sent to their life sentences, the perseverance of the ANC led to their release and the eventual creation of a democratic system in South Africa. They gained power at the first elections in 1994, meaning that they finally achieved their goal of a free, democratic, non racial South Africa. Their success proves that they were the most influential anti-apartheid group by far.


"African National Congress." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

"African National Congress (ANC) | Political Party, South Africa." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Kathrada, Ahmed. "Speeches." Speech by Ahmed Kathrada at a Meeting of People`s Defence Committee Held after the Arrests of Leaders on Charges of High Treason. 20 Dec. 1960. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

"South Africa." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.