- The Origins of Non-racialism: white opposition to apartheid in the 1950s
At the heart of David Everatt’s well-researched and provocative book is the vexed question of white activists’ role in the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1950s. As Everatt makes clear, the white opponents of the regime influenced the ideological and organisational development of the Congress Alliance in a fashion disproportionate to their small numbers. Much of Everatt’s account is devoted to dismantling the myths that have surrounded this fact since the 1950s, particularly the idea of white or Communist dominance of the Congress Alliance. He convincingly shows that the CPSA and then SACP were far more heterogeneous organisations than some accounts suggest, and that the Congress of Democrats was neither born nor functioned as a front group for the Party. At the same time, Everatt demonstrates the importance of the ANC’s complex and frequently contentious relationship with a number of other white political organisations, particularly the Liberal Party. Given its commitment to peaceful social change during the 1950s, the ANC struggled to create alliances that would appeal to white public opinion while at the same time guarding the primacy of African political leadership. Everatt’s account suggests that this dilemma inspired much of the Congress Movement’s idealism and political creativity during this crucial decade –even if it was, at least in the short term, insurmountable.
Divided into nine chapters, Everatt’s book starts in the early 1940s and follows the evolution of white politics until the end of the 1950s. During the war years, the Smuts government’s international Alliances and the relaxation [End Page 150] of the pass laws created a sense of optimism and a temporary opening for a more liberal racial politics among sections of the white population. Smuts himself spoke at the opening of a ‘Soviet Friendship’ conference in 1943. At the same time, two developments began to reshape oppositional politics in very different ways: the CPSA’s decision to search for broad-based alliances with non-socialist organisations and the emergence of a more assertive ANC, especially the birth of African nationalism within the ANC Youth League. The repression of the 1946 mine workers strike and the adjourning of the Native Representative Councils marked a rightward shift in the racial policies of the governing United Party. As a result, liberals within the UP were caught in an untenable position. Increasingly marginal within their own party and mainstream white politics as a whole, they also faced a generation of African politicians who rejected their ‘guidance’ and were openly hostile to white leadership. With the election of the National Party and the removal of coloured voters from the electoral roles, a significant wave of white protest emerged centred on the Springbok Legion, Torch Commando, and former servicemen’s organisations, but this movement was quickly absorbed into the UP’s doomed 1952–3 election campaign and then dissipated.
During this same period, the CPSA was riven by internal debates over its strategic orientation. While a Cape Town-based minority argued for the primacy of class struggle, the Transvaal and Natal groupings increasingly emphasised the importance of the ANC and the primacy of national liberation, a position that was codified in the idea of ‘colonialism of a special type’. The abrupt disbanding of the CPSA in 1950 created intellectual space for the development of this debate not only among groups of former members but also among a broader milieu of white radicals. When the SACP was founded in 1953, its membership and leadership were based in the Transvaal, and the new organisation had reoriented decisively in favour of a strategic alliance with the ANC. By this time, the ANC was driving the course of events. As Everatt shows, the formations of both the Congress of Democrats and the Liberal Party were in direct response to the ANC-led Defiance Campaign, which radically shifted the terrain of oppositional politics. The campaign stole the initiative from the UP-Torch-Commando-Labour Party electoral bloc, but the near absence of white public...