Appeal for Action to Stop Repression and Trials in South Africa

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Appeal for Action to Stop Repression and Trials in South Africa


By: Oliver Reginald Tambo

Date: October 8, 1963

Source: Apartheid and the International Community, Addresses to United Nations Committees and Conferences, edited by E. S. Reddy. New Delhi, India: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1991.

About the Author: Oliver Reginald Tambo was the Acting President of the African National Congress between 1967 and 1978. In 1952, in partnership with Nelson Mandela, Tambo opened the first legal partnership run by black Africans in South Africa. A lifelong political activist, he worked both within his homeland and by traveling to other countries to meet with world leaders to gather global support to end apartheid. He played a pivotal role in making the voice of black South Africans heard and in gathering the momentum necessary to end apartheid and to free South African political prisoners.


Colonialists from the United Kingdom and Holland settled in South Africa during the seventeenth century, with the British exerting political domination over the Dutch settlers. Colonial rule was in effect until the end of the Boer War (1899–1902), when South Africa achieved independence from British colonialism. There was a strife-laden relationship between the white and black populations for centuries, finally culminating in the imposition of apartheid against black South Africans in 1948 by the ruling white South African Afrikaner National Party. In effect, the most extreme forms of racism and racial segregation were given credence and institutionalized through the imposition of apartheid. Socialization between the races was prohibited; inter-racial marriage was strictly outlawed. Whites were given preferential jobs, with blacks being prohibited from many occupations.

All South Africans were required by the Population Registration Act of 1950 to be classified into one of three racial/ethnic groups: white, black African, or colored. Categorization was based upon physical appearance as well as some demographic (educational and socioeconomic, primarily) characteristics. People who were deemed colored were neither black nor white; they were either of mixed race or were of Indian or Asian heritage. Each person's classification was recorded at the Department of Home Affairs, and all blacks were required to keep with them at all times a pass book containing a photograph, fingerprints, and personal information, which must be shown upon request by a government official, or whenever the individual needed to gain entrance to a geographic or business area prohibited to blacks.

By the early 1950s, South Africa had been divided into four geographic regions referred to as homelands. Every black African living in South Africa was assigned a specific homeland based upon data contained in government records. The homelands became their designated place of citizenship, effectively stripping black Africans of any civil rights previously accorded them as citizens of the country of South Africa.

Apartheid rule became progressively more stringent and punitive toward the black Africans. The government used enactment of harsh legislation as a means of limiting the ability of black citizens to protest the conditions under which they were forced to exist. Penalties for civil disobedience or for any form of protest were meted out under the umbrella of the Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment, and could consist of incarceration, financial penalties, or public beating or whipping. Many former political activists were arrested and held in police custody for many months without any criminal charges or adjudication. Others were tortured, sentenced to death, exiled from the country, or sentenced to life in prison. Nelson Mandela was among the latter group.



Statement at the meeting of the Special Political Committee of the General Assembly, New York, October 8, 1963 I wish to express my deep gratitude for the privilege accorded to me to address this important body. It was with considerable reluctance that I applied for leave to appear before this Committee, recognising, as I did, the supreme effort which the United Nations is making to induce the South African Government to abolish and abandon policies which are a cruel scourge on the conscience of every civilised being and an unequalled example of man's inhumanity to man. But we feel we cannot too frequently appeal to the nations of the world to call South Africa to sanity, nor do we feel we can be too emphatic in pointing out what a great deal of the damage which the Government of South Africa and its White supporters are doing daily, consistently and with arrogance may prove impossible to repair and thus remain an enduring source of anguish for future generations.

The readiness with which my request was granted by your Committee, Mr. Chairman, confirms and is consistent with the declared desire of the nations and peoples of the world to see the end of apartheid and white domination, and the emergence of a South Africa loyal to the United Nations and to the high principles set forth in the Charter—a South Africa governed by its people as fellow citizens of equal worth whatever the colour, race or creed of any one of them. This kind of South Africa is the precise goal of our political struggle.

In thanking you and your Committee, therefore, Mr. Chairman, I wish to emphasise that I do so not on my own behalf, but also on behalf of my organisation, the African National Congress, and its sister organisations in South Africa, on behalf of the African people and all the other victims of racial discrimination, together with that courageous handful of white South Africans who have fully identified themselves with the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed people of South Africa.

I should also like to take this opportunity to place on record the deep appreciation of my people for the steps which have been taken by various governments against South Africa, which alone can give any meaning to condemnation of the policies practised by the Government of South Africa. On the other hand, I cannot exaggerate the sense of grievance—to put it mildly—which we feel towards those countries which have done and are even now doing so much to make apartheid the monstrous and ghastly reality which it is, and which have thereby created in our country the conditions which, if nothing else happens, will ensure an unparalleled bloodbath. Assured of the support of these countries the South African rulers, who boast openly of this support, are not only showing open defiance for the United Nations and treating its resolutions with calculated contempt, they are liquidating the opponents of their policies, confident that the big Powers will not act against them.

This brings me to the special matter which, with your permission, Mr. Chairman, I beg leave to submit to the distinguished members of this Committee for their urgent consideration. It arises out of news of the latest developments in the South African situation.

Trials of Mandela and Other Leaders By a significant coincidence, this, the first day of this Committee's discussion of the policy of apartheid happens also to be the first day of a trial in South Africa which constitutes yet another challenge to the authority of the United Nations and which has as its primary aim the punishment by death of people who are among South Africa's most outstanding opponents of the very policies which the General Assembly and the Security Council have in numerous resolutions called upon the South African Government to abandon.

Today some thirty persons are appearing before a Supreme Court Judge in South Africa in a trial which will be conducted in circumstances that have no parallel in South African history, and which, if the Government has its way, will seal the doom of that country and entrench the feelings of bitterness which years of sustained persecution have already engendered among the African people.

The persons standing trial include Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, which are household names throughout South Africa, Nelson Mandela being known personally to a number of African Heads of State; Govan Mbeki, a top-ranking African political leader and an accomplished economist who has borne the burdens of his oppressed fellow men ever since he left the university; Ahmed Kathrada, a South African of Indian extraction who started politics as a passive resister in 1946 at the age of seventeen, since when he has been consistently a leading participant in the struggle of the Indian and other Asian South Africans against the Group Areas Act and other forms of racial discrimination, and has, with other Indian leaders, joined the Africans in the liberation struggle; Dennis Goldberg, a white South African, whose home in the Western Cape was the scene of a bomb explosion in 1962, when Government supporters sought to demonstrate their disapproval of his identifying himself with the African cause; Ruth Slovo (alias Ruth First), a South African white mother of three minor children, author of a recently published book on South West Africa, and one of South Africa's leading journalists. I could enumerate several others, and as I have shown, they consist of outstanding African nationalist leaders as well as others who have for long been associated with every conceivable form of protest against injustices perpetrated in the name of Christian civilisation and white supremacy. Trials against well over a hundred others are due to start at other centres in different parts of the country.

The charge against the accused is said to be "sabotage." This means in fact that they have contravened a law, or a group of laws which have been enacted for the express purpose of forcibly suppressing the aspirations of the victims of apartheid laws which no active opponent of the policies of the South African Government can evade. A study of the statutory definition of "sabotage," which distinguished delegates will find in official documents which I believe have been circulated to members, will show that a person accused of sabotage can be sentenced to death for one of the least effective and most peaceful forms of protest against apartheid.

Genocide Masquerading under Guise of Justice The relations between the government and those it rules by force in South Africa have never been worse. The law of the country has since the 1956 Treason Trial been altered so as to make it practically impossible for an accused person to escape a conviction. Lawyers who accepted briefs in political trials have been subjected to increasing intimidation and it has now become difficult to find counsel to appear in such trials. This has been particularly true in the case of the accused who are now facing trial. The law of procedure has also been altered with the result that whereas the State allows itself any amount of time to prepare its case against accused persons, the accused, held in solitary confinement, are kept ignorant of the charge against them until they appear in court. The time allowed them to prepare their defence is subject to the discretion of the court, and in the majority of cases the State insists on proceeding with the trial with as little delay as possible. Preparing a defence from a prison cell hardly enables an accused person to make any proper preparation.

An atmosphere of crisis has been whipped up and its effects have been reflected in the severity of sentences passed by the judges and, not infrequently, in the statements they make in the course of pronouncing sentence. Of special significance in this regard is the judgement passed last week by a Pretoria judge on seven Africans whom he found guilty of allegedly receiving training in the use of firearms in a country outside South Africa. In sentencing each of the accused to twenty years' imprisonment, the judge stated that he had seriously considered passing the death sentence, but had decided not to do so because he felt the accused had been misled. This judgement and these remarks are a sufficient—and deliberate—hint as to what sentences the South African public and the world are to expect in the new trials where leaders of the political struggle against the apartheid policies of the South African Government are the accused. It is known that the State will demand the death sentence.

Already more than 5,000 political prisoners are languishing in South Africa's jails. Even as recently as the month of September of this year and after the Security Council, in its resolution of 7 August, had called for the release of "all persons imprisoned, interned, or subjected to other restrictions for having opposed the policy of apartheid," three detainees have died in jail in circumstances strongly suggesting deliberate killing. All these are the direct victims of a situation which would never have arisen had the South African Government taken heed of the many appeals which have been addressed to it by the world public and expressed in resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council.

Call for Immediate Action I cannot believe that this world body, the United Nations, could stand by, calmly watching what I submit is genocide masquerading under the guise of a civilised dispensation of justice. The African and other South Africans who are being dragged to the slaughter house face death, or life imprisonment, because they fearlessly resisted South Africa's violations of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because they fought against a Government armed to the teeth and relying on armed force, to end inhumanity, to secure the liberation of the African people, to end racial discrimination, and to replace racial intolerance and tyranny with democracy and equality, irrespective of colour, race or creed.

If you, Mr. Chairman, and the distinguished delegates here assembled, consider, as I urge you to accept, that the developments I have referred to are of a nature which calls for immediate action by the United Nations, then I am content to leave it to you and your distinguished Committee, Sir, to decide on the action which it deems appropriate.

For our part, I wish to observe that every single day spent in jail by any of our people, every drop of blood drawn from any of them, and every life taken—each of these represents a unit of human worth lost to us. This loss we can no longer afford. It is surely not in the interests of South Africa or even of the South African Government that this loss should be increased any further.

Thank you, Sir.


It is important to note that apartheid rule was imposed by a minority racial and ethnic group upon the majority of South African citizens. In general, whites made up about one fourth of the population, yet they controlled nearly ninety percent of the land and made three quarters of the total national income.

Apartheid codified and institutionalized segregation and racism, depriving black South Africans not only of virtually all of their civil rights, but also of the power to protest the conditions under which they were required to live and work. In 1961, a group of black South Africans living in an area called Sharpeville staged a peaceful protest by refusing to carry their passbooks. In response, the government declared a state of emergency, allowing them to invoke martial law and take aggressive action in response. By the end of what has become known as the Sharpeville Massacre, sixty-nine black South Africans were killed and nearly two hundred more injured by law enforcement authorities.

The passbooks were a very effective means of maintaining control of the population. In addition to the photograph, fingerprints, and extensive personal data contained in them, they were linked to a rather sophisticated computerized database system that detailed information about whether an individual had a history of anti-government expression or protest. All black South Africans were issued passbooks when they turned sixteen years of age. The passbooks and computerized database were part of what was called an influx control system, monitoring the movements of black South Africans throughout the country. It was also used as a means of funneling black workers into menial jobs at remote locations on an as-needed basis. Virtually every aspect of the black South Africans' lives were controlled by the government under apartheid, including how and where they were allowed to live. The workers were separated from their families and made to live in hostel-type housing. Rents and taxes were much higher for blacks than for whites, so most black individuals lived in poverty. It was difficult to maintain social ties and family structure because of the forced housing restrictions, and there was little communication between family members who lived under those conditions. Often, individuals viewed as political dissidents or threats to the apartheid government were apprehended by the police and held in legal custody for months, with no charges filed or hearings held. Rarely were employers or family members notified of those circumstances—in fact, they almost never knew what had happened to the individual until he was released from custody—if and when that occurred.

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, global anti-apartheid reached a point where other nations began to impose sanctions and take action directed at ending apartheid. In 1974, South Africa was barred from involvement with the United Nations until apartheid was abolished. In 1976, there were student uprisings staged in the townships of Soweto and Sharpeville, in which schoolchildren and youth attempted a peaceful protest of a Ministry of Education mandate requiring them to be taught half of their school curriculum in Afrikaans—the dominant language of the white government. In both places, the police opened fire on the students, using live ammunition rather than crowd control blanks or rubber bullets. By the end of the protests, the police had killed more than six hundred black South African children and youth. The Soweto Uprising, in particular, attracted attention from the rest of the world, which began to actively mobilize to put an end to apartheid.

During the 1980s, the anti-apartheid protests within black South Africa, as well as the response from the white government, grew progressively more violent. In an effort to maintain control, the government began to have armed police officers cruise through townships, shooting dissidents and quelling riots by using force. The dissidents were led primarily by the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress. In 1984, many of the apartheid laws were repealed, including the use of passbooks. Because of the enormous amount of civil unrest and internal violence and destabilization, the economy of South Africa grew progressively more unstable as well. The government declared a state of emergency in 1985, which remained in force until 1990. Between 1990 and 1991, the apartheid government was completely dismantled. In 1993, a new anti-discriminatory constitution was drafted, and democratic all-race elections were held in South Africa in 1994.



Culverson, Donald R. Contesting Apartheid: U.S. Activism, 1960–1987. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999.

Eades, Lindsey Michie. The End of Apartheid in South Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Kunnie, Julian. Is Apartheid Really Dead? Pan-Africanist Working-Class Cultural Critical Perspectives. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000.

Mandela, Tambo, and the African National Congress: The Struggle Against Apartheid, 1948–1990, edited by Sheridan Johns and R Hunt Davis, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Pomeroy, William J. Apartheid, Imperialism, and African Freedom. New York: International Publishers, 1986.

Price, Robert M. The Apartheid State in Crisis. Political Transformation in South Africa: 1975–1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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Appeal for Action to Stop Repression and Trials in South Africa

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