This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
1956. Riotous Assemblies [Amendment?] Act No 17
This act was presumably passed in response to the Congress of the People, which was held at Kliptown near Johannesburg in June 1955. Following a call from the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People's Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the South African Congress of Trade Unions, some 3,000 people showed up, "representing a large and somewhat haphazard range of organisations which happened to send delegates" (Davenport 1987: 387; see also Riley 1991: 47t). Its purpose was to adopt a Freedom Charter, which eventually became the manifesto of the ANC (Lapping 1986: 170ft). "The Charter itself, which had been hurriedly drawn up and not distributed in advance to the branches of the participating bodies, had been checked by most members of the A.N.C. executive ... It affirmed that South Africa belonged to all its inhabitants, black and white. It demanded a non-racial, democratic system of government, and equal protection for all people before the law. It also urged the nationalisation of the banks, mines and heavy industry, as well as land redistribution. Finally, it sought equal work and educational opportunities, and the removal of restrictions on domestic and family life" (Davenport 1987: 387).
Both the RIOTOUS ASSEMBLIES ACT of 1956 and the Freedom Charter surfaced in the so-called Treason Trial, which lasted from December 1956 to March 1961. 156 persons "were arrested on treason charges for having attended the Congress and signed the Freedom Chart.er" (Riley ~991: 48). "The prosecution sought to prove a treas~nable conspIracy by placIng the ~reedom Charter in a context of 'the world-wIde communIst movement and the hIStOry of the extraparliamentary opposition in South Africa'.. Its ~rgumen~ can ?e summarized as follows. The Freedom Charter was radIcally IncompatIble wIth the existing political set-up. The government would never be moved by non- violent and lawful political action. Therefore those who supported the Freedom Charter must be committed to, and engaged in a conspiracy to promote, violent and illegal political action with the objective of overthrowing the State" (Dyzenhaus 1991: 44). The accused were also charged with being communists (under the SUPPRESSION OF COMMUNISM ACT of 1950), although this charge was apparently a big mistake (see Lapping 1986: 172). By August 1958, the prosecution had dropped all charges against 65 of the accused, while restricting charges to treason for the remaining 91, and by November 1960 the number of accused had droped to 30 (Davenport 1987: 388). The trial turned out a big defeat for the Government "and all without exception were eventually acquitted of the charge of treason by three judges of the Supreme Court on 29 March 1961" (Davenport 1987: 388).
Although little to do with this act, the Treason Trial "revealed remarkable political qualities in one of the accused, Nelson Mandela" (Lapping 1986: 173). Among his many responses and speeches to the bench he made the following oft-quoted statement: "We demand universal adult franchise and we are prepared to exert economic pressure to attain our demands, and we will launch defiance campaigns and stay-at-homes, either singly or together, until the government should say, 'Gentlemen, we cannot have this state of affairs, laws being defied and this whole situation created by stay-at-homes. Let's talk.' In my own view, I would say, 'Yes, let us talk.' And the government would say, 'We think that the Europeans at present are not ready for a type of government where there might be domination by non-Europeans. We think we should give you sixty seats - the African population to elect sixty Africans to represent them in Parliament. We will leave the matter over for five years and then review it.' In my view that would be a victory, my lords. We would have taken a significant step towards the attainment of universal adult suffrage for Africans, and we would for five years say, 'We will suspend civil obedience' ... At the end of the period if the government says, 'We will give you again forty more seats,' I might say, 'That is quite sufficient, let's accept it' and still demand that the franchise be extended, but for the agreed period we should suspend civil obedience ... In that way we should eventually be able to get everything that we want" (quoted by Lapping 1986: 173f).