The ‘Defiance Campaign’ ostensibly sought the abolition of ‘five unjust laws’ that embodied the National Party’s apartheid programme. These laws elaborated urban segregation, imposed passes on black women, banned the Communist Party, removed mixed-race coloureds from the common voters’ roll and gave to rural chiefs new authoritarian powers to implement highly unpopular land conservation measures.
The first stage of the campaign opened in June 1952 with small bands of black resisters in the main towns, broadening the movement to embrace smaller centres and larger groups. In subsequent stages it was intended to extend the movement to the countryside and to support passive resistance with general strikes.
Action began with groups around Johannesburg challenging curfew regulations and for six months civil disobedience mainly targeted ‘petty apartheid’ regulations in railway stations and post offices, as well as the rules governing entry into black townships.
More than 8 000 people were arrested countrywide in the Defiance Campaign, nearly 6 000 of them in the eastern Cape. In Port Elizabeth, a one-day strike in November to protest curfews and a ban on meetings brought armoured cars onto the streets. Thousands lost their jobs afterwards.
But protest was not confined to workers. In the eastern Cape nearly half the volunteers were women. In parts of the Ciskei the campaign attracted peasant participants. Reaching a peak in August, the movement lost impetus after violent riots in its main two centres, East London and Port Elizabeth.
In December, just before the campaign’s end, a particularly well-publicised act of defiance took place in Germiston when 40 volunteers entered the black township without the required permits. The group included seven whites and was led by Mahatma Gandhi’s son Manilal and Patrick Duncan, the son of a wartime governor-general. The seven whites also served prison sentences, the first white South Africans convicted for civil disobedience against the NP government.
Despite some expressions of sympathy for black grievances in English-language newspapers, though, the campaign elicited either hostility or indifference within most of the white community. The black press helped to extend the campaign’s impact, particularly given the advent of photojournalism with the appearance of Drum magazine in 1951. Drum was to provide generally sympathetic coverage of the ANC’s undertakings through the decade, helping to develop the messianic status of its leaders, especially Chief Albert Luthuli, the ANC president, and his deputy, Nelson Mandela.
During the campaign the ANC began to receive funding from sympathisers in Britain, the first signals of the international support that would later play such an important role in anti-apartheid resistance. In early 1953, the Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed. The new law prescribed a prison term, as well as whipping, for ‘offences committed by way of protest’. Younger volunteers had already been subjected to floggings in several towns. Most activists were unprepared for such severe punishment. For ANC leaders, despite their command of an organised following now swollen to 120 000, civil disobedience no longer seemed a practical option.