The Long March: The story of the struggle for liberation in South Africa

The roots of the ANC

“For 250 years the struggle in South Africa was mainly between expanding forces of colonialism on the one hand and various African Chiefdoms seeking to defend their land and their independence on the other hand. This phase was however put to a stop after Bhambatha was defeated in 1906. Resistance took a different shape. The colonialists defeated blacks and took much of their land away. These two groups now lived within the same boundaries, under the same government. Capitalism took over, everyone became integrated into a single economy.”

It took a while for black people to organise themselves and form trade unions. National movements were spearheaded by young intellectuals who had been educated in mission schools. From the 1880s, people became more politically aware as they started to write to newspapers, petitioning parliament and mobilising organisations to fight for black rights. The methods of resistance used at this time were deputations, mass meetings, petitions and protests.

The first modern black political organisation was formed in 1882 in the Eastern Cape. It was called the Imbumba yama Nyama (Union of Black people) named after the words of the prophet Ntsikana who said that Africans should be Imbumba yamanyama or inseparably united with the arrival of whites. This organisation was aimed at uniting Africans in political matters so that they could band together in fighting national rights. This organisation was also a direct response to the Afrikaner Boederbond, the first Afrikaner political movement.

Thomas Mzosoyana said: “How come they take our name and call us kaffirs? When they arrived Africa was already standing”.

Other organisations similar to Imbumba emerged in the Eastern Cape, known as Native Vigilance Associations, or Illiso Lomzi – the eye of the nation. Political mobilisation took a big step forward when the first independent black newspaper was established, the Imvo Zabantsundu in 1884. This was used to link up struggles in different areas and articulate their grievances. This newspaper was used as a platform to debate political issues and report on activities of their organisations.


The Eastern Cape was the birthplace of these new forms of politics because:

·         The Eastern Cape was the area which black people had the longest contact with colonialism,
·         People in this area had a strong consciousness as a result of the nine wars of dispossession that were fought over a period of 100 years,
·         The first and well known mission schools were started in this region, producing the first literate Africans and
·         The earliest African Christians were from this area.

Education was used as an alibi to prevent blacks from having an input in government affairs as only educated blacks were allowed to vote. They were seen as the upper class of the black population since they had skills such as writing, reading and comprehending.


The roots of the African National Congress can be traced as far back as early organisation in the Eastern Cape in the 1880s. Although the Imbumba Yama Nyama did not survive long, a new organisation called Imbumba Eliliso Lomzi Ontsundu was formed in 1887. It united 13 organisations and was formed to resist attempts to take the vote away.

In 1890, the South African Native Congress was formed. This organisation is seen as the driving force towards the establishment of the ANC in 1912. Although it was based in the Cape, its name shows that it wanted to unite all blacks in South Africa as it played a crucial role in the establishment of The Transvaal Native Congress.

After the Anglo-Boer War, the whole country fell under the hands of British. Black political leaders held that if a new government was to be formed, they wanted their rights to be protected. They were angry that despite their services in the war, Britain still signed the Peace Treaty with the Boers and black people were not represented. More organisations were formed in other parts of the country to make black people politically aware.

It was only after the whites only National Convention which released the draft constitution that black people from all different parts of South Africa came together. This draft took away political rights of all black people as well as the right to vote for Africans in the Cape. Africans then held numerous meetings discussing the draft constitution. The Native National Convention then decided to send a delegation to London to discuss the draft with the British government since they had the last say. The British however turned a deaf ear to their plea and the new whites only Union of South Africa came into being on 31 May 1910. When they realised that their pleas fell on deaf ears, the delegation which had gone to London toured the country to report back and persuade the people that a permanent political organisation for blacks was necessary.

In 1911, Pixley ka Seme sent a circulation in which he called for a new South African Native National Congress. He said only such a congress will enable the black grievances to be taken seriously. In a famous appeal, Seme called on African leaders to forget about their personal differences and selfishness. He said:

“The demon of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa-Fingo, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tsongas, between the Basotho and every native, must be buried and forgotten; it has shed among enough blood. We are one people. These divisions, these jealousies are the cause of all our woes and all our backwardness and ignorance today”.

On 8 January 1912, the founding conference of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) took place. This makes the ANC the longest national liberation movement on the whole African continent. The delegation which met in Bloemfontein rejected the new white Union of South Africa and demanded a state that gave equal rights to all people. More than 60 delegates from all parts of South Africa cheered as the decision to form the organisation was made.

The executive office was chosen at this conference which included

·         J.L Dube who was chosen as President in his absence,
·         Seven vice-Presidents were elected which was aimed at representing the different tribes, regions and founding organisations
·         Sol Plaatje was elected Secretary,
·         Pixley kaIsaka Seme was elected as treasurer,
·         Thomas Mtobi Mapikela was junior treasurer.

The first National Executive Committee of the ANC consisted of lawyers, ministers of religion, journalists, teachers, interpreters, and building contractors. These were people who went to mission schools and some of them had studied overseas. The chiefs were however also included since they represented people in rural areas. Therefore two houses were created in the new “Native Parliament”, a lower house of commoners and the Upper House of chiefs and dignitaries. Among the 22 chiefs who made up the Upper House were the:

·         Dalindyebo of the Thembu
·         Dinizulu, the Zulu chief who was banished to Transvaal by the British,
·         Khama of Bechuanaland,
·         Lewanika of Barotseland, part of Zambia,
·         Letsie II of Basutoland
·         Marelane of Mpondoland and
·         Moepi of Bakgatla.

The only non-chief in the Upper House Dr Walter Benson Rubusana who was the only African to hold an elected legislative position in South African history. He also helped translate the Bible into Xhosa.

Issues discussed at the conference were: ill-treatment of workers and the high death rate at the mines, the harassment of women, the land question and education. The congress was ended by a note by Philip Modise who represented the King of Lesotho. He said that “everyone must return home and tell their people that they were identified with different tribal names just as the different tribal names and dialects just as the different trees in the woods were known by different names… they were now trees of one and the same forest”. 

These are extracts from the Book: The Long March: The story of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. I Libebenberg et al.


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