South Africa: Politics between 1910 and 1994

Extracted from: LODGE, T 2002, "South Africa" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 294-296.

Within this institutional framework a strong party system developed. The National Party could trace its origins to 1913 when it was formed as the heir to Afrikaner republican traditions. It found its social base among small farmers and white sharecroppers as well as a growing Afrikaans-speaking proletariat. Before the Second World War, South Africa was mostly governed by a succession of political organisations which embodied a social coalition between larger landowners and big business. The most enduring of these was the South African Party (later the United Party) which held power between 1910 and 1924 and again between 1933 and 1948. A small Labour Party enjoyed the affiliation of English speaking industrial workers and formed an administration with the National Party between 1924 and 1933. Afrikaner nationalists encouraged a process of local manufacturing based initially on the establishment of parastatal steel and electricity companies. Racially restrictive labour laws protected white workers' jobs and status.

The Second World War accelerated industrial growth and urban expansion. This process significantly enlarged the number of black industrial workers and magnified their potential threat to white livelihoods, through competition as a much cheaper source of labour. These wartime social developments helped to boost the popularity of Afrikaner nationalism which, from the 1930s, had become an advocate of much more stringent and codified forms of racial segregation. In 1948, the National Party was elected into government. It would retain power for the next 46 years.

Until the mid 1970s, National Party administrations were committed to the implementation of Apartheid, which was initially a vaguely defined programme of white racial supremacy. As it became systemised its measures included strict social segregation, a harshly repressive labour regime (including tight influx controls on the geographical movement of black labour) and the confinement of African land rights to the native reserves which had been established through earlier legislation in 1913 and 1936. During the 1960s, nearly three million people were forcibly removed from white farms and black peasant free hold land and were despatched to bleak settlements in the reserves. These were now dignified with the status of ethnic homelands. From 1959 efforts were made within the homelands to promote local political authorities which in four cases, Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana and Venda, eventually acquired independent national status.

Within the arena of white parliamentary politics, the National Party administration was confronted by a demoralised opposition initially led by the United Party. The first parliamentary organisation to offer white voters any kind of principled opposition to Apartheid was the Progressive Party, formed in 1959. Under various different names, the Progressives slowly expanded their electoral support. By the late 1980s, they had attracted the backing of approximately a quarter of the white electorate. A series of reforms, beginning with the official recognition of black trade unions in 1979 and the abolition of influx control in 1986, had narrowed the ideological gap between the government and its liberal parliamentary opponents. The administrations more important adversaries were outside the boundaries of institutional politics and were leading a popular insurrection in the factories and black townships.

The most important organisation to represent black South African aspirations was the African National Congress, which was established in 1912 in protest against the impending restrictive land legislation. Its formation was prompted partly by the relative success the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses had enjoyed (under the leadership of Mohandas Ghandi) in mobilising civil disobedience campaigns against racially discriminatory legislation. Until the 1950s, the ANC only occasionally employed militant tactics, relying instead on efforts to influence government policy through the Cape franchise and liberal intermediaries, and including after 1936, the "native representatives". From 1921 the Communist Party of South Africa represented an alternative source of popular political inspiration; by 1928 the Party had a mainly black membership, although it remained very small. During the 1930s and 1940s, both Communists and the ANC contested segregated elections for native representation as well as the local township Advisory Boards. The Communist Party enjoyed greater success in municipal politics. In the Cape, coloured voters returned several communist councillors to office during the 1940s and, more remarkably, a communist was elected to the Johannesburg Council, by white voters in Hillbrow. During this period Communists, Gandhists in the Indian Congresses and the ANC leadership worked increasingly closely with each other, and under pressure from a militant Africanist ANC Youth League, began to embrace a more militant range of tactics.

The ANC's radicalisation was hastened by the official suppression of the Communist Party in 1950 whose African members thereafter concentrated on strengthening the ANC. At this stage the ANC confined its membership to Africans even though it headed a multiracial Congress Alliance which included the Indian Congresses, a white (and mainly communist) Congress of Democrats and a non-racial South African Congress of Trade Unions. A ten year period of strikes, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and boycotts directed against the unfolding apartheid measures culminated in the government banning the ANC and its more radical offshoot, the Pan-Africanist Congress in 1960. In 1961 the ANC, in conjunction with the Communist Party, began planning armed insurgencies. Within four years most of their leadership was either in prison or in exile. In exile, the ANC established headquarters first in Dar es Salaam and later in Lusaka. In 1969 whites, Indians and coloureds were admitted to membership of the exiled organisation and from 1985 non-Africans were elected to its National Executive.

In 1976 a schoolchildren's revolt against compulsory instruction in Afrikaans spread across the country. This helped to create the opportunities which enabled the ANC to rebuild its clandestine networks and initiate a modest programme of urban guerilla warfare. Advancement in skills and education enabled black workers to build a trade union organisation throughout the 1970s, which obtained legal sanction in 1979. This organisational base, together with the charismatic inspiration embodied by the ANC's guerillas, supplied the essential ingredients for the most massive and sustained revolt ever experienced by any South African government. This rebellion assumed a diversity of forms including: insurrectionary assaults on local governments, school boycotts, general strikes and military confrontations. Its impact was magnified by an international movement in favour of economic sanctions against South Africa. By the mid 1980s, discreet talks had begun between government representatives and both the imprisoned and exiled ANC leadership.

In 1990, after most whites had voted in favour of the National Party reform proposals, FW de Klerk repealed the bans on the ANC and other prohibited organisations. He ordered the release of the ANC's leaders, including the guerilla leader Nelson Mandela, who was first imprisoned in 1962. One year later, Mandela was elected as President of the ANC. In this role he helped lead a multi-party negotiation process which resulted in the adoption, at the beginning of 1994, of a Transitional Constitution under which South Africa's first fully democratic elections were to be held. This Constitution reflected a widespread recognition of the merits of compromise amongst the most significant political actors. The resulting elections were to be held under a system of proportional representation and all parties which achieved a 10% share in the vote would be entitled to Cabinet positions. Nine elected regional governments would share power with the central administration and allow smaller parties the possibility of executive control. A final Constitution was to be negotiated after the elections of both houses of Parliament serving as a Constituent Assembly. This second Constitution would have to conform to many of the essential principles contained in a liberal Bill of Rights. To ensure such continuity, and to safeguard constitutional rights more generally, the transitional legislation established a permanent Constitutional Court.