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African National Congress, Historical Documents Archive

The African National Congress

Reviewed by:
Benedict Carton, Robert Edgar
George Mason University, Howard University
August 2003

This archive contains hundreds of speeches by African National Congress (ANC) leaders, press releases, conference proceedings, and articles and pamphlets. These materials, some of which are scanned in original form, trace the development of this leading South African liberation organization from its origins in 1912 to the present. The ANC is often identified with Nelson Mandela—a legendary figure of protest and reconciliation—whose efforts to win democratic freedoms for his country made him a hero throughout the world.

As these sources illustrate, Mandela’s well-deserved praise can sometimes obscure the broader context in which the first black president of South Africa emerged. Indeed, many of Mandela’s predecessors featured here pioneered his “long walk to freedom.” Through several overviews that chronicle shifts in ANC structure and outlook (800-25,000 words), the site reflects different, even conflicting, perspectives. Many of the writings not only chart policies over the past century, but also highlight strategies that succeeding generations of activists tailored to suit changing political environments.

For instance, the ANC’s forerunner, the South African Native National Congress, founded in 1912, adopted the stance of its moderate leaders whose fiery rhetoric revealed more about their Christian mission education than their radical politics. In an 1892 pamphlet, Reverend John Dube, ANC’s first president, preached the spiritual glories of emancipation in Africa: “Christianity will usher in a new civilization, and the ‘Dark Continent’ will be transformed into a land of commerce and Christian institutions.”

In the 1940s, younger, more assertive secular men and women came to the fore in the ANC, demanding aggressive demonstrations against segregationist laws. The 1944 ANC Youth League Manifesto became their touchstone, resting on a critique of the older generation’s message of temperance. The Youth League urged new militant African leaders to wage a campaign against both white paternalism and racial discrimination.

By the 1950s, ANC members reacted even more forcefully to tightening segregation. They launched a series of mass protests that deliberately violated the laws of white supremacists. An important written appeal of this era was carried by a large procession of ANC women and presented to the Prime Minister’s office in August 1956. The petition called on the government to abolish a cornerstone of apartheid, the pass laws.

During the next decade, the South African regime banned major black political movements, including the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress. Key ANC strategists embraced armed struggle, creating a guerilla wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK or the Spear of the Nation). The South African government arrested ANC leaders and MK commanders, tried them for sedition, and condemned them to long jail terms. One of the most compelling statements is Mandela’s 1964 “I am Prepared to Die” courtroom speech before receiving his life sentence for treason.

In 1968, as more young guerillas left South Africa to train in camps, the ANC publicly adopted a non-racial philosophy, welcoming all South Africans who shared its goals to join the organization regardless of perceived color or designated race. This philosophy prevailed until recently. Interestingly, a user combing through the latest proceedings from conferences convened in the new millennium might detect a swing away from openly supporting non-racialism to endorsing a loosely defined “African Renaissance,” a body of ideas promoted by current South African president and ANC head, Thabo Mbeki.

There are no bells and whistles in this straightforward site; nor are there video and audio clips. Some scanned documents appear in color. Yet the compelling writings from ANC stalwarts, as well as activists from other liberation fronts, need no enhancement. A site-wide search engine enables users to locate materials by person (from foot soldier and protestor to path-breaker); event (e.g., the treason trials and major boycotts); white supremacist legislation (e.g., racial pass laws and States of Emergency); international links (e.g., the anti-apartheid movement and United Nations initiatives); and affiliated organizations (United Democratic Front and Congress of South African Trade Unions). One can supplement these documents by consulting a magnificent collection of relevant sources in From Protest to Challenge.1

Teachers will find the Archive indispensable for gaining insight into the growth of the ANC, an organization that ranks among the most significant civil rights movements in recent history. Starting with the period after 1960, this site can also be used in tandem with the Digital Imaging of South Africa website, which contains journals and periodicals of political groups opposing apartheid.

Students may want to explore a fascinating chapter in ANC history after 1960, when it was banned by the South African government. Outlawed ANC leaders debated nonviolence and guerilla tactics. In the end, they formed an underground military wing but asked its combatants not to attack civilians, targeting government installations as well as soldiers and police who swore to defend the laws of apartheid. Although the white-minority regime and some Western governments branded the ANC as “terrorists,” most black South Africans regarded Mandela’s organization as an emancipator. Thus, students might want to consider several questions: What defines a “terrorist” or “freedom fighter?” Did the ANC have a legitimate right to take up weapons, or did apartheid rulers have justification for outlawing vocal opponents and suppressing armed dissidents on home soil?

1 Gwendolyn Carter, Thomas Karis & Gail Gerhart, eds. From Protest to Challenge: a documentary history of African politics in South Africa, 1882-1990, Vols. 1-5 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1972).

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