In the mid-1940s the transformation of the ANC into a mass organisation began. President A.B. Xuma devised a constitution that laid the foundations for a grassroots structure, allowing branches to retain a portion of subscriptions and paying from his own pocket for full-time officials. A young group of Fort Hare graduates established the Congress Youth League in 1944. Its objectives were to reorient the ANC towards a militant nationalism emphasising black race pride and cultural autonomy, and to persuade their elders to endorse a militant mass-based strategy. Youth Leaguers were inspired by the emergence of black labour organisations, as well as the collective force represented by the direct action of the urban poor manifested in bus boycotts and squatter movements.
A black mineworkers’ strike in 1946, though crushingly defeated, helped to foster within the League the conviction that organised black workers constituted a potentially powerful force that could be harnessed to a nationalist programme. Youth Leaguers won commanding positions in the 1949 ANC executive elections and succeeded in winning the organisation’s support for their Programme of Action.