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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

'General Strike' - Statement by Nelson Mandela

Statement by Nelson Mandela on behalf of the National Action Council following the stay-at-home in May 1961

The call of the All-in African National Action Council for a stay-at-home on 29, 30 and 31 May 1961 received solid and massive support throughout the country. This magnificent response was the result of the hard work and selfless devotion of our organisers and activists who had to overcome formidable difficulties very often involving personal risks to themselves. Defying unprecedented intimidation by the State, trailed and hounded by the Special Branch, denied the right to hold meetings, operating in areas heavily patrolled by government and municipal police and teeming with spies and informers, they stood firm as a rock and spread the stay-at-home message to millions of people throughout the country. Ever since the All-in African Conference at Pietermaritzburg, the issue that dominated South African politics and that attracted pressmen from all over the world was not the Republican celebrations organised by the government, but the stirring campaign of the African people and other non-White sections to mark our rejection of a White Republic forcibly imposed upon us by a minority.

Few political organisations could have succeeded in conducting such a stubborn and relentless campaign under conditions which, for all practical purposes, amounted to martial law. But we did so. The steps taken by the government to suppress the campaign were a measure of our strength and influence in the political life of the country and of its weakness. The government was alarmed by the tremendous impact of the demand for a national convention and the call for countrywide anti-Republican demonstrations. It realised that there would be overwhelming support for the call if the campaign was not immediately suppressed through open terror and intimidation. It also realised that the organisational machine built up to propagate the campaign was of so high a standard, and support for the idea so firm and widespread, that the situation could only be controlled by resorting to naked force. Only by mobilising the entire resources of the State could the government hope to stem the tide that was running so strongly against it.

A special law had to be rushed through parliament to enable the government to detain without trial people connected with the organisation of the stay-at-home. The army had to be called out, European civilians armed, and the police force deployed in African townships and other areas. Meetings were banned throughout the country, and the local authorities, in collaboration with the police-force, kept vigil to ensure that no strike propaganda should be spread amongst the masses of the people. More than ten thousand innocent Africans were arrested and jailed under the pass laws and terror and intimidation became widespread. Only by adopting these strong-arm measures could the government hope to break the stay-at-home. By resorting to these drastic steps the government has in fact conceded that we are the country's most powerful and dangerous opponents to its hated policies.

On this issue, the radio, the press, and European employers played a thoroughly shameful role. At the beginning of the campaign the press gave us fairly objective coverage and, acting on information supplied by their own reporters in different parts of the country, they reported growing support for the demonstrations and correctly predicted unprecedented response to the call. Until a week or so before the stay-at-home, the South African press endeavoured to live up to the standards and ethics of honest journalism and reported news items as they were without slants and distortions. But as soon as the government showed the mailed fist and threatened action against those newspapers that gave publicity to the campaign, the Opposition press, true to tradition, beat a hurried retreat and threw all principles and ethical standards overboard.

On 18 May 1961, the Johannesburg Rand Daily Mail published a front-page news item alleging that the National Action Council had secret plans to bring thousands of non-whites into the central areas of cities. It also announced that the NAC had held a secret meeting the week before at which it decided to extend the duration of the stay-at-home beyond the three-day period. According to the same report, the announcement of the extension of the period would be made at the last moment to retain the element of surprise. In a front-page leading article of the same issue of this newspaper its editor stated that he and the police possessed information that some of us planned violent disturbances on the eve of the Republic.

On behalf of the NAC I immediately replied in writing and refuted all the allegations contained in the news item as sensational journalism and as the inventions of an over-enthusiastic reporter who had sucked things out of his thumbs. We reiterated that this particular campaign was planned to be disciplined and non-violent and that we had no intention whatsoever of exposing our unarmed people to situations whereby they could become targets for the trigger-happy police. In regard to the leading article, we agreed that violence was an unfortunate thing. We felt, however, that appeals for non-violence should be addressed to the government who were spoiling for a showdown and massacre and not to the African people who had repeatedly protested the peaceful and non-violent character of their campaign. We also felt it to be our duty to place on record that, if people in history had listened to appeals to drop political campaigns launched to back up the demands of an oppressed people simply because violence might occur in the course of such a campaign, the world today would still be languishing under the despotic rule of the Middle Ages. Although honour and duty obliged him to publish my reply the editor deliberately decided to suppress it. I spoke to him twice thereafter and, although he promised to attend to the matter, the reply never saw the light of day. We suspected that more was involved than met the eye.

In the evening of 29 May 1961, I made a statement to the same newspaper. I pointed out that in the light of the conditions that prevailed then, the response to the call of the NAC had been solid and substantial and that hundreds of thousands of our people had stayed away from work. I pointed out, however, that the overall response had fallen short of expectations and that we had, consequently, given instructions to our regional and local Action Committees throughout the country to swing into action and to work hard during the night to ensure greater success the following day. This statement was distorted to give the impression that we had conceded defeat and, in this distorted form, it was distributed by the Rand Daily Mail to other morning newspapers throughout the country-a deliberate act of sabotage.

This sudden somersault was not confined to the Rand Daily Mail only. With the exception of Contact, Post, New Age, Drum, the World and a few other newspapers, the Opposition press changed suddenly and simultaneously.

Undue prominence was given to statements made by government leaders, mayors of cities, managers of Non-European Affairs departments, and by employers' organisations, in which the stay-at-home was condemned and appeals made to workers to ignore the call. Statements made by the NAC were either distorted, watered down, or even suppressed deliberately. For example, on May 1961 the NAC issued a press statement strongly protesting at the unwarranted arrest of more than ten thousand innocent Africans. We condemned this police action as a blatant persecution of our voteless people by a European minority which we could no longer tolerate. We placed on record that we were deeply incensed by this provocative action and demanded the immediate stopping of the arrests and the unconditional release of all those detained. Not a single Opposition newspaper published this statement, notwithstanding the extensive publicity they gave this police operation and the unwarranted compliment they paid to the same police for the courteous manner in which they were alleged to have carried out the operation. These arrests were made for the purpose of forestalling demonstrations planned by us. We had gone through numerous road blocks in various parts of the country, and it was our people who had been rounded up under a system which is rejected by the entire African nation, and which has been condemned by every government commission which considered it. Was it not important for the country to know what our views were on a matter of such importance?

The press was even more treacherous on the morning of the first day of the stay-at-home. The deliberate falsehoods spread by the police and radio were reproduced. At seven o'clock in the morning of that day, Radio South Africa broadcast news that workers throughout the country had ignored the call for a stay-at-home. The country was told that this news was based on statements made at six o'clock the same morning by Colonel Spengler, head of the Witwatersrand branch of the Special Branch. Similar statements made at approximately the same time by other police officers in different parts of the country were quoted. This means that long before the factory gates were opened and, in some areas, even before the workers boarded their trains and buses to work, the police had already announced that the stay-at-home had collapsed. I cannot imagine anything more fraudulent.

The Rand Daily Mail issued a special edition in which it almost echoed police reports. But the truth could not be suppressed for long. The Johannesburg Star of the same day reported that 'Early estimates of absenteeism in Johannesburg ranged from 40 per cent to 75 per cent.' This admission was only a small portion of the truth. As the days rolled by, news came through that hundreds of thousands of workers and students throughout the country had given massive support to the call. On 3 June 1961, Post, a Johannesburg Sunday newspaper with a huge circulation, published reports from its team of crack reporters and photographers who had kept a continuous watch on townships in different parts of South Africa and who conducted detailed personal investigations inside and outside of these areas. Said the newspaper: 'Many thousands of workers registered their protest against the Republic and the Government's refusal to cooperate with non-Whites. THEY DID NOT GO TO WORK. They disrupted much of South African commerce and industry. Some factories worked with skeleton staffs, others closed, and many other businesses were shut down for the three days.' The leading article of the New Age of 8 June 1961 acclaimed the stay-at-home as the most widespread general strike on a national scale that this country had ever seen.

Contact of 1 June 1961 wrote: 'On Tuesday 50 per cent of Indian workers in Durban were still out. Some factories showed 100 per cent success with some clothing factories 100 per cent unattended. In Durban and Pietermaritzburg most Indian businesses were closed on Monday and open again on Tuesday. Large numbers of schoolchildren kept away from school. There were attacks on buses at Cato Manor and a bus to Pietermaritzburg from a Reserve was fired on.' Sam Sly, writing in the same paper on 15 June 1961, observed: 'In defiance of that sickening and sterile rule, there were plenty of politics on plenty of campuses. Enough to bring large bands of armed police to five campuses. There was defiance, leadership, and courage amongst the students. There was political awareness, even non-racial solidarity. Before, what had one heard but minority protests lost among the sounds of the inter-varsity rugby crowd or the chatter in the students' cafeteria.'

A Port Elizabeth daily newspaper estimated that about 75 per cent of that city's non-White population stayed away on 30 May 1961.

The truth had come out. From various parts of the country news came through testifying to widespread support for the call.

Students at the University College of Fort Hare, at Healdtown and Lovedale all stayed away from classes. At the University of Natal, which has about five hundred non-White students, less than fifty attended classes. Throughout the country thousands of students in primary and secondary schools stayed away from classes and boycotted republican celebrations. The Transkeian Territories have been under martial law for many months now. The barbarous and cruel policies of the Nationalist Government find expression in extremely savage attacks on the innocent and unarmed people of these areas. Many have been murdered by the government and their stooges, thousands have been beaten up and injured, uprooted and driven away from their lands and homes. Hundreds of freedom fighters are languishing in jails for demanding freedom and justice for the people of the Transkei. Even in this area of death and hell, the flames of freedom are scorching meadows. Umtata, the capital of the area, bore witness to this fact the other day. Students of St John's College, in a militant and inspiring demonstration, showed that the days of despots and tyrants are numbered.

A detailed survey conducted by the South African Congress of Trade Unions shows that in Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and other centres, the clothing, textile, laundry and dry-cleaning, food and canning, and furniture industries were severely hit.

In the light of the conditions that prevailed both before and during the threeday strike, the response from our people was magnificent indeed. The failure of the government, the employers, and the press to break us down pays tribute to the matchless courage and determination of our people and to the skilful and speedy manner in which our organisational machine was able to adapt itself to new conditions, new obstacles, new dangers.

The stay-at-home was also opposed by former membersof the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), the Society of Young Africa and the Sons of Zululand. The name of Peter Makhene was also mentioned. He was described as leader of the Bantu National Congress and claimed a membership of fifty thousand. The newspaper that published his statement made it clear that this gentleman is a supporter of the government and its policies. It is, therefore, part of his functions to sell apartheid to Africans. He is compelled to oppose all political organisations which fight for the defeat of the Verwoerd fascist republic. But what we want to know is where and when was this organisation established. Has it any constitution? Who are its officials? Has it had any conferences or meetings? If so, when and where? People will be excused if they feel that this organisation went underground long before it was established. It simply does not exist.

The Sons of Zululand and the Society of Young Africa are not genuine organisations but cliques and sects which are completely unknown to Africans and which have never had any following whatsoever amongst our people.

The Society of Young Africa (or SOYA), like its parent body the Unity Movement from which it broke away a few years ago, is an insignificant sect of bitter and frustrated intellectuals who have completely lost confidence in themselves, who have no political ambitions whatsoever and who abhor serious political struggle. In the whole history of their existence they have never found it possible to rise above the level of saboteurs and scandal mongers. Together with the Peter Makhenes and the Sons of Zululand they invariably disappear from the political scene and suddenly come to light fighting side by side with the police to oppose the just struggles of the African people. Africans know who their friends and enemies are and these cliques are treated throughout the country with the contempt they deserve. No useful purpose will be served by wasting more ink and paper on bogus organisations which, under the pretext of ultra-revolutionary language, permit themselves to be used by the police against the struggles of their kith and kin.

The attitude of former members of the PAC on the stay-at-home has been one of shocking contradiction and amazing confusion. Nothing has been more disastrous to themselves than their pathetic attempts to sabotage the demonstrations.

First, they attended the Consultative Conference of African leaders held in Orlando in December 1960 as delegates, took part in the deliberations and fully supported the resolution adopted at that conference calling for unity amongst Africans and for a multi-racial national convention. At this conference a Continuation Committee was elected to prepare for the All-in African Conference which was subsequently held at Pietermaritzburg. Their representative served on this committee for several months with full knowledge that its main function was to unite all Africans on an anti-Republican front and for a sovereign convention of all South Africans to draw up a new democratic constitution for the country. Towards the end of February this year, and without so much as a hint to their colleagues on the Continuation Committee, they issued a press statement announcing that they would not take part in the Pietermaritzburg talks. Their failure to raise the matter in the committee before they withdrew betrays the underhand and traitorous nature of this manoeuvre and indicates that they well knew that they could find no political justification whatsoever for their action.

Secondly, there was a sharp conflict between former leaders of the PAC on the South African United Front overseas, and the local leaders. Whilst the latter opposed, the former gave support. A message from Dar-es-Salaam, signed by J J Hadebe and Gaur Radebe, former members of the ANC and PAC respectively, said:

'The South African United Front congratulates the Continuation Committee of the people's conference held at Pietermaritzburg for organising demonstrations on the eve of the South African Republic which threatens to further oppress and persecute the people.'

Even locally there were many former PAC people who bitterly disagreed with their leaders and who felt that they could not follow the stupid and disastrous blunders they were advocating.

But there was something even more disastrous and tragic than their mean and cowardly behaviour in stabbing their kith and kin at a time when maximum unity had become a matter of life and death to Africans. What shocked most people was the extent to which they completely identified themselves with the action of the police in the repression of the demonstrations. We have already indicated the unprecedented measures adopted by the government to deal with our campaign. These measures provoked strong protests from many organisations and individuals, but there was not a single word of protest from the former PAC people. Why? Precisely because their main function was to ruin African unity and to break the strike. To protest against these savage onslaughts on the African people would have been an unfriendly act to the government with whom they were now allied. They purchased collaboration with the government as the price of turning a deaf ear to the sufferings of the African people.

Authentic reports from different parts of the country revealed that the police did not interfere with the distribution of PAC leaflets and, in some areas, members of the police force even distributed leaflets purporting to have been issued by the PAC and attacking the strike.

This collaboration was not confined to negative acts of passivity. In its positive form it expressed itself in desperate attempts both by the police and the PAC people to track down the people behind the campaign. For security reasons, the identity of members of the NAC was kept a closely guarded secret. The police conducted extensive investigations to find this information in order to arrest members of this body. At the same time the PAC people called on us to publish the information and protested that we had to communicate with the press from public telephone booths. Why were they interested in this information? They knew all the members of the Continuation Committee. They withdrew from that committee and from the campaign not because they did not know its members but in spite of that knowledge. Such information was useless to them because they were out of the campaign but extremely useful to the police. On which side of the fence are these people? What sort of political organisation is this that deliberately sets traps for leaders of another political body? Who are they trying to bluff by pretending that they are still against the government and fighting for the welfare of the African people?

Differences between rival political organisations in the liberation camp on tactical questions are permissible. But for a political body which purports to be part of the liberation struggle to pursue a line which objectively supports a government that suppresses Africans is treacherous and unforgivable. We called on the African people to reject the Verwoerd republic not because we preferred a monarchical form of government, but because we felt that the introduction of a republic should only take place after seeking the views and after obtaining the express consent of the African people. We felt that the foundations of the republic, as of the State that existed prior to the proclamation of the republic, would be based on apartheid and the exploitation of the African people. The government rejected our demands, called upon the African people to ignore our call and to participate fully in the republican celebrations and to co-operate with the new government. The Africanists echoed the government by asking Africans to ignore the call but deliberately elected to remain silent on the vital question whether or not they should co-operate with the republic. An ingenious way of saying that we should participate and co-operate.

A political organisation that is forced by opportunism and petty political rivalries into allying itself with the enemies of an oppressed community is doomed. The African people demand freedom and self-rule. They refuse to cooperate with the Verwoerd republic or with any government based upon force. PAC has ruined its future by opposing this dynamic demand. That is why most Africans, including many who once supported them, are so strong in condemning their treachery.

But all this discussion has now become academic because for all practical purposes the PAC has lost considerable support even in areas where only last year it achieved spectacular success. In February this year they announced plans to stage demonstrations from 21 March 1961. Leaflets were issued in Cape Town and were widely distributed in Langa and Nyanga African townships calling upon people to stock food and to prepare themselves for action on this date. In Johannesburg and Vereeniging stickers appeared here and there calling upon Africans to observe 21 March as the day of struggle. The whole thing fizzled out long before the much-heralded day, and when the date arrived not a single person responded either in Cape Town, Vereeniging, or Johannesburg. The episode was not regarded as sufficiently newsworthy even to be mentioned as a failure by the press either here or abroad. For the second time in two months they have suffered yet another defeat. Their efforts to sabotage the recent strike misfired badly. Hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the country, businessmen in town and country and thousands upon thousands of students in primary and secondary schools, treated the PAC with utter contempt and responded magnificently to our call. The results prove that no power on earth can stop an oppressed population determined to win its freedom. In the meantime, the PAC has been shocked and stunned by this rebuff and they sit licking their wounds, unable to look people in the face and haunted by the enormity of their outrageous crime.

One of the most significant factors about the stay-at-home was the wide support it received from students and the militant and stirring demonstrations it inspired amongst them. African students at Fort Hare, Natal University, Lovedale, Healdtown and in many other institutions throughout the country demonstrated their support for the call and stayed away from lectures. In primary and secondary schools throughout the country, scholars boycotted republican celebrations, refused commemoration medals, and stayed away from schools. There were militant and inspiring demonstrations at St John's College at Umtata and at the Botha Sigcau College in the Transkei. There were equally impressive ones in Kilnerton and Bloemfontein. This is an extremely significant development because students are the life-blood of a political movement and the upsurge of national consciousness amongst them spells death and destruction to those who oppose the claims and legitimate aspirations of the African people.

European students at the University of Rhodes, and at the Witwatersrand University, also played a prominent part in the demonstrations. Their support showed that even amongst the Whites the forces of challenge and opposition to White supremacy exist and are ready to join battle whenever the call is made.

On 1 June 1961, the NAC issued a press statement strongly condemning the victimisation of students who participated in the strike and demanded that the tyrannical orders for the closing of some of the colleges should be withdrawn and the colleges reopened at once. We congratulated the students for their public spirited action in which, as befits the intellectual youth, they gave a courageous lead to the nation at a time when courage and leadership were qualities we needed most. However much the authorities may try to play down the importance and significance of this development amongst the African youth, there can be no doubt that they realise that the writing is on the wall and that the days of White supremacy in our country are numbered.

The response of the Coloured people was equally impressive. They showed immense courage and militancy. In a country where they have always been treated as an appendage of the ruling White group and in which official policy had tended to treat them differently from the rest of the non-White population, it is significant and most heartening that they decided to make common cause with us by coming out clearly against the Verwoerd republic. This development marks a landmark in the political struggles of the non-Whites in this country.

The entire Indian community threw its powerful resources behind the campaign. Indian workers stayed away from work. Businessmen closed their businesses and students stayed away from schools and refused medals.

The forces of liberation are strong and powerful and their numbers are growing. The morale is high and we look forward to the future with perfect confidence.

It would, however, be a mistake to exaggerate our success. In spite of the magnificent courage shown by our people, numerical response fell below expectations. Mistakes were committed and weaknesses and shortcomings were discovered. They must be attended to. We must make adjustments in our methods and style of work to meet contingencies which we did not anticipate.Only in this way shall we build more strength and increase our striking power.

People expressed the view that the issue on which the people were asked to strike, namely, the demand for a national convention, lacked emotional appeal and was, in any event, too complicated an issue to arouse enthusiasm. Facts contradict this viewpoint. The success of the Pietermaritzburg conference and the deep and widespread support for the eve of the Republic demonstrations, testified to not only by our organisers and activists, but by the South African press, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people stayed away from work notwithstanding fierce intimidation by the government and threats of dismissal by employers, indicate that this issue aroused the greatest enthusiasm. What reduced the scope and extent of what would have been an unprecedented response were the drastic measures taken by the government to suppress the strike, intimidation by employers, and the falsehoods spread by the radio and the press.

A closely related argument is that the demand for a national convention does not deal with bread-and-butter issues. Of course the African people want bread and butter. Is there anybody who does not? We demand higher wages and we want more and better food in our pantries. But we also need the vote to legislate decent laws. This is the importance of the demand for a national convention. One man, one vote, is the key to our future.

Another argument is that the strike was called by an ad hoc committee whose members were unknown to the public, that the voice of Chief A J Lutuli, the most powerful and popular leader of the African people, and that of the African National Congress, the sword and shield of the African people for the last fifty years, were never heard. The argument continues that the public may have doubted whether the African leaders were in fact behind the demonstration. In the first place, Chief Lutuli was a member of the Continuation Committee which organised the Pietermaritzburg conference and he sent a dynamic message to that gathering which was loudly cheered. In the second place, the names of members of the NAC were, for obvious reasons, never published and the public may never know whether or not Chief Lutuli was a member. It would have been naive for us to have stood on the mountain tops and proclaimed that he was a member directing his forces as he has always done in previous campaigns. His courage and devotion to the cause of freedom is known in every household in this country. Inside and outside committees he remains the undisputed and most respected leader of the African people and a source of tremendous inspiration to all South African freedom fighters. He is a fearless opponent of the Nationalist government and leader of all the anti-Republican forces.

Of all the observations made on the strike, none has brought forth so much heat and emotion as the stress and emphasis we put on non-violence. Our most loyal supporters, whose courage and devotion has never been doubted, unanimously and strenuously disagreed with this approach and with the assurances we gave that we would not use any form of intimidation whatsoever to induce people to stay away from work. It was argued that the soil of our beloved country has been stained with the priceless blood of African patriots murdered by the Nationalist government in the course of peaceful and disciplined demonstrations to assert their claims and legitimate aspirations. It was the government that should have been told to refrain from its inhuman policy of violence and massacre, not the African people. It was further argued that it is wrong and indefensible for a political organisation to repudiate picketing, which is used the world over as a legitimate form of pressure to prevent scabbing.

Even up to the present day the question that is being asked with monotonous regularity up and down the country is this: is it politically correct to continue preaching peace and non-violence when dealing with a government whose barbaric practices have brought so much suffering and misery to Africans? With equal monotony the question is posed: have we not closed a chapter on this question? These are crucial questions that merit sane and sober reflection. It would be a serious mistake to brush them aside and leave them unanswered.

Numerous other observations were made by members of the public, by organisations and individuals, by sympathetic journals who have given us support and encouragement and by our own followers. All these have been noted. We appreciate that they were made in all humility with a view to better planning and more efficiency next time.

In rounding up this review we wish to congratulate once again all those patriotic workers, businesssmen and students, black and white, who took part in this dynamic and historic demonstration and we compliment them most heartily for their courage in the face of fierce opposition and intimidation. This patriotism, this unity and this fearless spirit are the most precious investment this country has.

The strike at the end of May was only the beginning of our campaign. We are now launching a full-scale, countrywide campaign of non-co-operation with the Verwoerd government, until we have won an elected National Convention, representing all the people of this country, with the power to draw up and enforce a new democratic constitution.

Details of the campaign will be given from time to time. But let me say now that people without votes cannot be expected to go on paying taxes to a government of White domination. People who live in poverty cannot be expected to pay rents under threats of criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Above all, those who are oppressed cannot tolerate a situation where their own people man and maintain the machinery of their own national oppression. Africans cannot serve on school boards and school committees which are part of the Nationalists' Bantu Education. This is meant to deprive Africans of true education.

Only traitors can serve on tribal councils. These are a mockery of self government. They are meant to keep us forever in a state of slavery to Whites. We shall fight together tooth and nail, against the government plan to bring Bantu Authorities to the cities, just as our people in the rural areas have fought.Africans cannot continue to carry passes. Thousands of our people are sent away to jail every month under the pass laws.

We ask our millions of friends outside South Africa to intensify the boycott and isolation of the government of this country, diplomatically, economically, and in every other way. The mines, industries, and farms of this country cannot carry on without the labour of Africans imported from elsewhere in Africa.

We are the people of this country. We produce the wealth of the gold mines, of the farms, and of industry. Non-collaboration is the weapon we must use to bring down the government. We have decided to use it fully and without reservation.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.