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Defiance Campaign: After 50 years, the spirit of service and sacrifice lives on

21 June 2002

"Our Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign began on 26 June. It is going smoothly and according to plan; though there have been minor setbacks, like the arrest of Y. Cachalia, SAIC General Secretary, and myself, which was not according to plan." This was how Nelson Mandela described the launch of the historic defiance campaign which took place 50 years ago next week.

Organised by the ANC and the South African Indian Congress, the campaign saw more than 8,500 volunteers imprisoned for peacefully refusing to obey apartheid laws. The campaign, which carried on into 1953, attracted thousands into political activity. The membership of the ANC alone grew from a mere 7,000 to over 100,000.

Half a century after this event, the spirit of service and sacrifice which motivated thousands to volunteer themselves to face imprisonment and police violence continues to motivate the thousands of South Africans who have answered the call of President Thabo Mbeki to volunteer their time and energy in the service of their communities.

Since January, ANC branches and communities have been involved in projects and programmes to improve the lives of South Africans. This month, young people across the country celebrated youth month by forming themselves into a youth volunteer corps and getting involved in voluntary work.

Through the efforts of the volunteers of 50 years ago, and the hard-fought struggles of the intervening decades, there are no longer unjust laws in South Africa. But there are massive challenges, such as poverty, unemployment, landlessness and disease, which face the country. To overcome these challenges will demand a similar mobilisation of the South African people to volunteer and to serve in the selfless, disciplined manner of 50 years ago. The Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign was a turning point in the struggle against apartheid. Today we have the opportunity to make the Letsema volunteer campaign a turning point in the struggle against poverty and underdevelopment.

MP Naicker, writing in 1972, recalls that the campaign of defiance was conceived towards the middle of 1951, after the all-white parliament had passed no less than 75 pieces of apartheid legislation. The ANC Annual Conference in December that year decided "to embark on mass national action, based on non-cooperation, against certain specified unjust and racially discriminatory laws of the Union Government, unless these laws were repealed before March 1, 1952". The South African Indian Congress (SAIC), meeting in January 1952, voted unanimously in favour of joining the ANC in the campaign.

The campaign was launched on 26 June 1952, the second anniversary of a protest strike by black workers against poor living conditions. The Freedom Charter was adopted on the same day, 26 June, three years later in 1955. The day was know for many years as South Africa Freedom Day.

The campaign was launched with planned acts of defiance by bands of volunteers in all the main centres of the country."For the first time in South African history, Africans, Indians and Coloured persons went into action side by side, under a common leadership," Naicker wrote.

"This pattern of resistance continued throughout the campaign and when sentenced, resisters chose imprisonment, rejecting the tempting option of a fine. Nor did they plead in mitigation. Instead group leaders used the Court to restate their abhorrence of apartheid and all that this vicious form of racism stands for and demanded full freedom and democratic rights for all in South Africa."

Exactly two months after the start of the campaign, on 26 August, twenty national leaders of the ANC and SAIC were arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. Far from slowing down the campaign, the arrest and trial of the leaders aroused greater interest and determination. Over 600 volunteers courted arrest in the week following the arrest of the leaders.

Towards the end of November 1952, the apartheid government issued a proclamation banning all meetings of more than 10 Africans anywhere in the country. Soon thereafter the government enacted two laws designed to suppress the Defiance Campaign, which threatened severe penalties for people who broke any law in protest. In the light of these laws, ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli announced in April 1953 that the campaign would be called off. This meant, he said, "studying our programme and the new situation in which we find ourselves, to adapt our plans and to see what we could now do to achieve our freedom".

According to MP Naicker, the campaign transformed the ANC from a loose-knit body into an effective mass movement, with branches in almost every single area in the country and with offices staffed by full-time personnel in all the major centres. The SAIC likewise greatly consolidated its ranks and its position as the sole spokesperson of the South African Indian community.

The Defiance Campaign left an indelible mark on a variety of individuals and organisations. More importantly it changed forever the nature of the struggle for democracy and established a culture of political action that survives and thrives to this day.