Birth of the African National Congress

Lord, Bless Africa

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 2

The early twentieth century saw the emergence of many new forms of indigenous political organisation in Southern Africa. The first, and perhaps the most important, was the African National Congress (ANC).

Founded in 1912, and originally named the South African Native National Congress, the ANC looked to unite Africans from all over colonial Southern Africa. The need for such a movement can be seen in abhorrent conditions experienced by the general Southern African population. Conditions that were permitted by colonial laws, enforced by colonial authorities and supported by the colonial community.

In the face of such circumstances, Africans responded with shows of resistance, organisation and collaboration.

The early success of the ANC was, in fact, dependent on the cross-fertilisation of African ideas. The migration of labour, across Southern and Central Africa in particular, saw workers from Mozambique, Nyasaland, Southern Rhodesia, Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland (modern-day Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Botswana and Eswatini) gather together to share their experiences, their struggles and their intentions. This appreciation for other Africans created new forms of unity in the fight against white oppression.

To get a feel for the struggles facing Africans around the time of the ANC's formation, we can look at two laws in particular:

  • The Mines and Works Act of 1911: excluded Africans from many skilled occupations and enforced different pay scales for labour, dependent on race. By 1935, a white miner was receiving on average eleven times that of an African miner.

  • Natives' Land Act of 1913: reserved 88% of the land in South Africa for the exclusive use of whites, who constituted only 20% of its population, the remaining 12% was distributed as 'native reserves'. The Act also prevented Africans from buying land outside these reserves; causing the immediate displacement of thousands of independent Africans from their traditional homes and lands.

These abuses were not without reprisal and led to some of the earliest examples of mass protest movements in the Union of South Africa. One example is the 1918 boycott by African miners in Transvaal, who rejected the shops through which mine owners sold food and manufactured goods to workers.

Another example took place in Johannesburg and involved African sanitation workers, who went on strike over pay and working conditions. Authorities quelled the strike, putting its participants on trial and sentencing 152 protestors to two months of forced labour.

The strike and its subsequent suppression triggered a wider movement, where the idea emerged of calling a general strike of African workers. This strike would also demand the increase of daily wages by one shilling. Faced with this pressure, the South African government repealed their sentences on the strikers and agreed to receive an African delegation - the general strike was subsequently called off.

Organised strike action had shown that the labour of any group of African workers was essential for the normal life of South Africa's ruling class.

In 1925, the African National Congress adopted their new name, a new anthem and a new flag. The anthem was called Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, which translates to 'Lord, Bless Africa', while the flag's black, green and gold design represented the people, the land and the wealth of the country.