Uncovering Apartheid: The Defiance

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Ian Cata

This article is the second of a three-part series that dives deep into the nearly five decades of Apartheid in South Africa and the movements of non-violence that impacted it. If you have not already read the first article, I suggest exiting this article and doing so, as it will provide additional context and clarity.

The Defiance Campaign

Following the 1948 election and the subsequent implementation of apartheid, the African National Congress saw that its policy of indirect action was no longer an effective tool in the battle for racial equality. In 1949, new leadership was elected with the support of the ANC Youth League, and with it came a new policy. Rather than petitions and strongly worded letters, the ANC finally listened to the younger members who, for years, argued for direct action to be taken. The new policy of the ANC was fighting apartheid utilizing direct action methods such as boycotts, strikes, and other acts of civil disobedience.[1]

The first act of mass disobedience came on April 6th, 1952, the three-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Dutch to Capetown. The day was billed as a large country-wide celebration, but when the day arrived, it was only white South Africans who were celebrating. The ANC as well as the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) called upon black South Africans to boycott the festivities. In addition to the boycott, mass rallies were held in cities across South Africa.[2]

After the success of the April 6th boycott, the ANC began planning the Defiance Campaign. The campaign would be a planned program of disobedience aimed at intentionally and peacefully breaking apartheid laws. On June 26th, the Defiance began. 52 Africans and Indians walked into a city without permits and were immediately arrested.[3] They were soon joined by others who violated apartheid laws such as walking through white-only entrances, sitting on white-only benches, and staying out past curfew. The campaign slowly picked up steam and spread to other towns and cities. By the end of September, over 5,000 volunteers had been arrested and the South African government was panicking.[4] In October, at the peak of the movement, a series of riots broke out that killed over 30 people. The cause of the riots was unclear and when the leaders of the ANC requested an inquiry into their cause the South African government refused. There were suggestions that the riots were triggered by agents of the government to bring down the campaign. Regardless of their cause, the riots significantly dampened the efficacy of the movement, as it soon became associated with the non-violent Defiance campaign. In addition to the riots, the campaign was further hampered by the passing of several laws. By the end of November 1952, the government banned meetings of more than ten Africans and additionally passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the Public Safety Act. The laws allowed the government to specifically target members of the campaign, as well as suspend any and all laws whenever they declare a state of emergency.[5]

In April 1953, the head of the ANC officially called off the Defiance Campaign.[6] While many saw the termination of the Defiance Campaign as a loss in the battle against Apartheid, the campaign did help win the war against it. In the end, more than 8,000 people had voluntarily been arrested and ANC membership skyrocketed from 7,000 to over 100,000.[7] In addition, the Defiance Campaign inspired the United Nations to begin discussing the apartheid as well as attracted the press from around the world who reported on the repression that nonwhite South Africans were facing.[8] The world was now watching.

The Freedom Charter

Following the Defiance Campaign, the ANC decided that a clear vision of the future of South Africa must be presented to the world. Together with their allies, the ANC invited South Africans, regardless of race and status, to list their demands so that they may be included in a common document. Thousands participated and provided their visions of what they wished South Africa looked like. Their wishes and demands became incorporated into what was known as the Freedom Charter. On June 25th and 26th, 1955, over 3,000 South Africans from a wide range of backgrounds met in Kliptown to form the Congress of the People. It was the single most representative gathering in the history of South Africa.[9] In Kliptown, the Freedom Charter was created and served as a vision for a united, non-racial, democratic South Africa. In the words of the Freedom Charter, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black or white, and no Government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.”[10] In addition to the Congress of the People, a coalition of liberation organizations came together to form the Congress Alliance and all organizations within it formally adopted the Freedom Charter as their official long-term aim. The government eventually caught wind of the meeting and broke it up, arresting 150 people and charging them with high treason. The trial dragged on until 1961 when all were eventually acquitted.[11]

Sharpeville Massacre

Black and white image of a group of people burning their passbooks.
South Africans burning their passbooks in protest.[14]

In 1959, a group of people broke off from the ANC and formed the Pan-Africanist Congress. They believed that the ANC’s alliance with non-black organizations had distracted it from the ultimate goal of black liberation.[12] The first large campaign by the PAC targeted the pass laws that were put in place by the Pass Laws Act of 1952 which required any black person over the age of 16 to have a passbook on them at all times when inside urban areas. The passbook acted as an internal passport designating how long the individual was allowed to stay and what they were in the area for, if they violated any of the terms they would be subject to arrest.[13]

Black and white image of a crowd of alarmed people running in grass towards the camera.
Children and protesters flee from gunfire at Sharpeville.[17]

On March 21st, between 5,000 and 10,000 people marched to the police station located in the township of Sharpeville to offer themselves up for arrest for not carrying their passbooks. The atmosphere was described as peaceful at first, but the crowd eventually grew to over 20,000 and police reinforcements were brought in.[15] At around 1:00 PM police tried to arrest a protester and the crowd surged forward, what followed was a chain reaction of consistent gunfire. For 40 seconds, the police fired into the crowd, shooting many in the back as they ran away. When the dust settled, 69 people lay dead, including 10 children, and 180 were injured. None of the protesters were armed.[16] The event became known as the Sharpeville massacre, and it immediately sparked outrage and unrest from within South Africa.

On March 26th, the president of the ANC, publicly burned his pass, as did many other members.[18] The ANC announced a nationwide stay-at-home strike on March 28th.[19] On March 30th, 30,000 protesters marched through Cape Town to protest the shootings. In response, the government declared a state of emergency and arrested 2,000 people.[20] On April 8th, 1960, the ANC and PAC were banned, making it illegal to be a member of either organization.[21] Outside of South Africa, Sharpeville sparked global condemnation. On April 1st after a complaint from 29 member states, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution strongly condemning the events and called upon the South African government to abandon apartheid.[22]

A Call to Arms

After Sharpeville, both the ANC and PAC came to the conclusion that non-violent methods weren’t enough to topple the current regime and end apartheid. In 1961 the ANC created a paramilitary wing called uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) which translates to “The Spear of the Nation.”[23] The PAC formed its own paramilitary group the same year called their group Poqo.[24] Between 1961 and 1963, over 200 acts of sabotage occurred against the South African government, mainly led by The Spear of the Nation. In 1963 MK headquarters were raided, and the entire leadership was arrested. Eight members were sentenced to life in prison, among them was Nelson Mandela.[25] By 1970, the MK and Poqo were effectively neutralized. The liberation movement was at a crossroads. Non-violent tactics had thus far seemed ineffective, and violent tactics were just as ineffective, if not more so. So what could be next? Check out the third and final volume of Uncovering Apartheid!

[1]Defiance Campaign 1952,” South African History Online.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stephen Zunes, “The Role of Non-Violent Action in the Downfall of Apartheid,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 37, no. 1 (1999): 137–69.

[5] Ibid.

[6]Defiance Campaign timeline 1948-1952.” South African History Online.

[7] Anthony Phalen and Max Rennebohm, “South Africans Disobey Apartheid Laws (Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign), 1952-1953,” Global Nonviolent Action Database, 2011.

[8] Zunes, “The Role of Non-Violent Action in the Downfall of Apartheid.”

[9]Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter,” South African History Online, 2022.

[10]South Africa – Resistance, Activism, Liberation,” Britannica.

[11]Treason Trial 1956 – 1961,” South African History Online, 2021.

[12]Pan Africanist Congress (PAC),” South African History Online, 2021.

[13]Apartheid Legislation 1850s-1970s,” South African History Online, 2022.

[14]SAHA.” South African History Archive.

[15]SOUTH AFRICA: The Sharpeville Massacre – TIME,” TIME, 1960.

[16] Matthew McRae and Albert Mbongo, “The Sharpeville Massacre | CMHR,” Canadian Museum for Human Rights, 2019.

[17] Michelle Miller, “Sharpeville massacre marked turning point in South Africa’s history,” CBS News, 2013.

[18]Foundation remembers Sharpeville Massacre victims – Nelson Mandela Foundation,” Nelson Mandela Foundation, 2010.

[19]Aftermath: Sharpeville Massacre 1960.” South African History Online, 2016.

[20] McRae and Mbongo, “The Sharpeville Massacre.”


[22] United Nations Security Council Resolution 134, April 1, 1960.

[23]uMkhonto weSizwe (MK),” South African History Online, 2022.

[24]Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).”

[25]RESISTANCE TO APARTHEID,” Apartheid Museum.