The existing scholarly literature on the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party (CP) of South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s stresses the remoteness of these organizations from rural issues and rural constituencies. A good deal of support for this view has been found through an examination of the formal organizational reach, the programmes and the pronouncements of these parties. Bundy, with characteristic eloquence, has summed up the essential elements of this approach:
the national movements - physically located in urban centres, ideologically concerned either with the vanguard role of the proletariat or with wringing political concessions for modernizers - were structurally ill-equipped to respond to the inchoate and murmurous patterns of peasant resistance. They failed to lead - or to follow - them.(1)
Yet those who have probed the politics of the rural Transvaal in these decades have found - sometimes to their considerable surprise - evidence of organization and action clearly linked to the ANC and CP. The role of Alpheus Maliba - a CP member - and the Zoutpansberg Balemi Association (ZBA) in the northern Transvaal in the 1940s has attracted some attention.(2) But the most fully described episode involved Sebatakgomo, an ANC-linked organization founded in 1954, which played a pivotal part in a major episode of rural resistance in 1958 in the eastern Transvaal - the Sekhukhuneland Revolt. As I have shown previously, this movement was rooted in migrant worker networks, and its main strongholds were hostels on the Rand; but it also had a powerful influence in the villages from which the migrants came.(3) The precise nature of the movement's relationship to the organizations which helped launch it, the ANC and the CP, and the extent to which it drew on a previous lineage and experience of rural mobilization through the Zoutpansberg Balemi Association have not been adequately described.
This article explores Sebatakgomo's organizational genesis and qualifies the image of the remoteness of national movements from rural struggles. In the process the interaction of the ANC and the CP in the making of a mass-based movement in the late 1940s and the 1950s thrown into sharp relief. The picture which emerges provides a critical perspective on accounts of transformation of the ANC which have downplayed the contribution of the CP and have placed a decisive emphasis on the role of the ANC Youth League.(4) Sebatakgomo was formally launched from within the ANC when, in December of 1955, the National Executive Committee announced the formation of a new peasants' movement. The ANC was by then no stranger to Transvaal rural politics or to Sekhukhuneland, having a rich history of connection stretching back to the first decades of the century. Chiefs played a key role in the foundation and early years of the organization. Some of the most senior royals in the eastern Transvaal, such as Chief Sekhukhune II, Chief Tseke Masemola and Chief Sekwati Mampuru, maintained close connections and provided financial support, the latter two becoming members of the ANC House of Chiefs from the 1920S. The members of the educated elite who pioneered political organization often came from rural backgrounds, and some had strong connections to chiefly families. S. M. Makgatho, for example, who was prominent in Transvaal politics from the turn of the century and who became President of the ANC in 1917, was the son of a senior Sekhukhuneland chief, Mphahlele. And in this period rural issues, in particular the 1913 Natives Land Act, were of central concern to the ANC.(5)
Although most members of the ANC were drawn from this rather narrow educated and chiefly elite, Bonner has shown how in the period 1918 - 20 the leadership of the provincial level of the ANC, the Transvaal African Congress (TAC), was |swept away by an immensely, powerful upsurge of working class agitation, being radicalised and fragmented at the same time'.(6) Elements of this process and effect were evident in relation to rural areas in the 1920s, but the limited rural activities of the TAC were dwarfed by the campaigns of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union later in the decade.(7) Bonner also points out that the TAC de-radicalized as the 1920s wore on and that by the 1930s the relative pull of the countryside had diminished. The principal rural connections of the TAC remained the chiefs, but there was a significant decline in their role within the organization. Many were disillusioned by the failure of ANC campaigns round the land issue, and some questioned the purpose of their cash contributions. After the 1927 Native Administration Act, chiefs were also drawn into a tighter and alternative embrace by the Native Affairs Department (NAD), a trend little affected by the renewed attempts of the ANC during the presidency of Pixley ka Isaka Seme to woo royals. The focus of concern of the TAC leadership also became increasingly urban in these decades. This did not lead to a complete rupture, but there was only minimal organization in the countryside, so that by the early 1930s in Sekhukhuneland (and elsewhere) there was little evidence of ANC activity beyond intermittent contacts with leading chiefs.(8)
In fact, as Walshe and others have shown, the fortunes of the ANC reached a more general nadir in the early 1930s. It was not until 1936, when the Rev. James Calata became Secretary-General and in the context of the threat to African land and political rights constituted by the Hertzog Bills, that a gradual recovery took place, the impetus of which quickened in the 1940s under the leadership of Dr Xuma. The broad outlines of this revival are well known but the extent to which Transvaal rural organization was reconstructed as part of this process has remained unclear.(9)
The rural context in these years was one of mounting turmoil as Africans reacted to intensifying state intervention in the countryside in the aftermath of the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act. The key elements of these struggles can be briefly sketched here. In the late 1930s and early 1940s |Betterment' planning was enforced which imposed strict controls over communities - particularly those on land acquired by the South African Native Trust - and which led to the expansion of the powers of Native Commissioners and Agricultural Officers over daily rural life. |Betterment' included (in varying degree) prohibitions on the cutting of trees, the culling of cattle and the demarcation and reduction of fields. These measures engendered intense opposition, especially in the extensive Trust lands of the Northern Transvaal. This ferment was not, however, restricted to Trust lands. In Lydenburg district for example, the proclamation in 1938 of Chapter IV of the 1936 Act, which set out to regulate and extend the labour obligations of labour tenants, met bitter resistance amongst African farm workers which ultimately forced a retreat by farmers and the state.(10)
Conflicts also simmered in the more highly capitalized farming areas and in 1947 the appalling conditions suffered by compounded workers in Bethal were exposed and tenants in the same district resisted mounting demands for labour. In the older reserve areas tensions were inflamed by the perennial irritants of taxation and cattle dipping. The effects of the Second World War added further dimensions. The northern and eastern Transvaal had been major zones of the recruitment of African servicemen and many of these men returned after 1945 convinced that they had been duped or coerced into service by chiefs and officials; they were further outraged by their meagre rewards on discharge. There were also some petty traders and primary school leavers in pursuit of economic and political elbow room who increasingly questioned the suffocating authority of chiefs and - especially - officials.(11) There was thus ample fuel for organizational growth.
The ANC engaged with these protests only to a limited extent. The beginnings of the revival of the ANC in the late 1930s brought yet another attempt to draw chiefs into Congress. But, with no more than a handful of active supporters amongst the chiefs, this was an unpromising tactic. While some chiefs showed a degree of renewed interest many were fearful of the consequences of intensifying rural struggles for their own positions and most were wary of alienating an increasingly assertive NAD. Open chiefly political and financial support for the ANC therefore remained the exception rather than the rule.(12)
The stress on the role of the chiefs in rural organization continued after Dr Xuma assumed the Presidency of the ANC, but underwent a shift in emphasis. Xuma saw the incorporation of chiefs not primarily as an end in itself, but rather emphasized their role in the wider drive to establish branches and to develop membership in rural areas, most especially in the reserves. There is indeed some evidence of organizational growth in the Transvaal countryside in the early 1940s. Walshe and Hirson note ANC connections amongst the Bakwena ba Mogopa, and there was an ANC presence in Rustenburg. In Pietersburg and in Duiwelskloof/Zoutpansberg in 1942 steps were undertaken to establish local organization. At Witbank a branch was established which made some attempt to penetrate the town's rural hinterland and made contacts both with Sekhukhuneland and with labour tenants in the Middleburg district.(13)
Probably the best known ANC branch with rural connections was established in Bethal location. The ANC made attempts to organize African agricultural workers and in 1947 helped to expose the grim conditions under which they lived and worked on the farms. A key figure in the branch was Gert Sibande. Born on a farm in the Ermelo district in 1901, Sibande started work for a white farmer at the age of eight and spent the next twenty years labouring on various farms in the eastern Transvaal. He never stayed on any one farm for long, apparently because of his propensity to challenge employers about labour conditions. In the 1930s he settled in Bethal location and started a Farm Workers' Association. In 1939 the members of the Association sent Sibande to Johannesburg to meet the ANC, and this encounter led to the formation of an ANC branch in Bethal. Later, in the 1950s Sibande rose to prominence within central ANC structures.(14)
In the latter half of the 1940s the ANC …