About this site

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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Labour Party (LP)

The Separate Representation of Voters Act of 1956 removed the Cape coloured voters (the only "non-whites" who could vote together with whites) from the common voters' roll. In its pursuance of the policy of apartheid later renamed "parallel development" regarding coloureds, the NP created a Coloured Council in 1959.

In 1968 the coloureds, who at the time had indirect representation in the House of Assembly through four white representatives, lost their "parliamentary vote" completely. The Labour Party was formed by Dr Richard van der Ross in 1965 in anticipation of the establishment of the Coloured Persons' Representative Council (CRC) in 1969.

The CRC was composed of 40 members chosen by the registered coloured voters, and 20 members appointed by the State President. During the first CRC

election the LP was the only anti-apartheid party, and succeeded in winning 26 of the 40 elected seats. Despite this victory, the Federal Party was appointed as the governing party, since none of the 20 members appointed by the State President supported the Labour Party. After the second election in 1974 the LP gained such an overwhelming victory that it was able to come to power in the CRC without the support of the 20 appointed members.

Initially the Labour Party's policy on constitutional and racial matters aimed at the effective participation of all citizens in government, and the consolidation of the position of all "oppressed South Africans". The leaders of the party appealed for a political alliance between blacks, coloureds and Asians. Coloureds considered themselves as being black and not "coloured". The LP also demanded the scrapping of all discrimination based on colour, including discrimination against blacks, and opposed forced labour and the exploitation of workers. Other aims of the party under the general description of racial policy were: compulsory school education for all children, equal pension benefits and minimum wages for all labourers.

From the outset the Labour Party used the CRC as a springboard for coloured resistance. It also adopted a policy of confrontation and boycotts, boycotting sessions from 1977 to 1979. At the same time it appealed for the abolition of the CRC, resulting in the disbanding of that body in March 1980.

In 1978 the LP formed a political alliance, the South African Black Alliance, with Inkatha, Inyandza and the Indian Reform Party. To the left of the spectrum the LP also tried to establish ties with organisations such as Azapo and Cosas. However, the party soon allowed itself to be pressured by the government into participating in the tricameral parliamentary system. Saba was dominated by Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of KwaZulu. He forced the Labour Party to withdraw from the alliance in April 1983, after the LP decided to vote on the 1983 constitution. This was the follow-up to the so-called Eshowe decision in January 1983, at which the LP decided to substitute its boycott strategy for a policy of cooperation. In 1991 there was an attempt to restore ties between the LP and the Inkatha Freedom Party an indication of a possible alliance between the two groups.

During the period preceding the 1984 election of the House of Representatives many of the Labour Party's meetings were forcibly disrupted. In a landslide victory, the LP was chosen as the governing party in the House of Representatives. However, the parties participating in the election were able to draw only 30 per cent of the coloured voters to the polls, leaving the legitimacy of the election open to question. Many of its earlier supporters joined community-based organisations with UDF ties. It was alleged that the LP was nothing more than the NP's "junior partner" in the tricameral system. The LP also lost financial support from major capital and business organisations because of its co-operation with the government, and because of pressure from within the UDF.

According to the Labour Party's leaders, the party was moving into a phase of negotiation and action, and away from its former boycott strategy. They believed the boycott strategy failed to distinguish between people who wished to cooperate with the government and those who wanted to participate in the system to promote the interests of the "freedom struggle" and democracy. They added that the LP held the "key to change in South Africa", and that the party would increase the pace of change. They made it clear that their participation in the new system was based on a five-year trial period. Their minimum requirement was the abolition of the Prohibition of Political Interference Act, Section 16 of the Immorality Act, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Separate Amenities Act. They also demanded the eventual scrapping of the Group Areas Act.

From the outset, the government disregarded the grievances of the Labour Party in the House of Representatives and of the Indian parties in the House of Delegates. The slow pace at which discriminatory laws were being abolished caused further tension between the LP and the government. After the King's Beach incident early in 1987, when the Reverend Allan Hendrickse, leader of the LP, led a group of bathers to a so-called white beach in Port Elizabeth as a form of passive resistance, the relationship deteriorated still further. In a dramatic altercation with P W Botha in August 1987, Hendrickse resigned from the Cabinet; Botha in turn maintained that he had fired Hendrickse.

The influence of both the LP and the other parties in the House of Representatives is limited. As soon as they challenged the insurmountable constitutional obstacles of built-in National majorities, they lost and were forced to be satisfied with participation in the system.

In 1985 an important shift occurred in LP policy. It decided to accept a non-racial federal system as a constitutional policy for South Africa. This was a move away from the earlier idea of a unitary state. It accepted a so-called social market economy as an economic policy, a mixture of free-market and socialist principles.

Although some progress was made with the removal of apartheid legislation, this was not ascribed to the efforts of the LP. In the 1989 election the legitimacy of both the LP and of the House of Representatives received a further set-back when only 20 per cent of the coloured voters went to the polls

At the Labour Party congress at the end of December 1990 in Cape Town, Allan Hendrickse was unanimously re-elected as leader. The congress rejected the notion of a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution, and adopted a motion that all parties should contribute to constitutional reform.

There is no doubt that the party's future is threatened by the initiative taken by the De Klerk government. Continuing internal disputes have also discredited the party's image. Difficulties experienced with the leadership style of the Reverend Hendrickse led to the resignation from the party of a number of MPs early in 1991. These members joined the NP. In May 1991, members of the United Democratic Party, under the leadership of a former member of the LP, Mr Jac Rabie, first debated their position with regard to joining the NP and then joined the NP. It is doubtful whether the Labour Party will survive the political shifts of the early nineties.

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.