What Method Was Used by the African National Congress to Fight Apartheid?

ANC activist Nelson Mandela later become President of post-apartheid South Africa.
... Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Although the African National Congress, or ANC, was formed in 1912, it did not play a significant role in South African political life until the 1940s. From then onward, the ANC used a variety of strategies to resist the imposition of apartheid in South Africa. This system of government, implemented in 1948, introduced racial segregation. White South Africans lived privileged lives while the black majority was discriminated against in virtually all areas of life.

1 Early Resistance

During the 1940s, the Communist Party of South Africa organized political resistance to the government, for example through bus boycotts and protests against housing policies. In 1944, the ANC set up a youth wing which began to get involved in these mass protests. Official ANC policy changed in 1949 when it adopted the youth-wing-influenced “Programme of Action,” a pledge to resist the recently imposed apartheid system through strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience.

2 Nonviolent Confrontation

ANC resistance remained largely nonviolent throughout the 1950s. The 1952 Defiance Campaign involved people volunteering to break the law, for example by entering “whites only” parks, breaking curfew and refusing to carry their identity passes. Around 8,000 people were arrested. The campaign did not meet its goal of breaking apartheid, but ANC membership rose from 7,000 to 100,000. State action in heavily fining or even jailing participants forced the ANC to abandon the campaign after a few months. ANC leader Albert Lutuli was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 for his role in this nonviolent campaign of resistance.

3 Armed Resistance

After the Sharpville massacre in 1960, when police killed 69 protestors and wounded a further 180, attitudes within the ANC began to harden. The following year, ANC activists, including Nelson Mandela, formed an armed wing called “Umkhonto weSizwe,” or Spear of the Nation, popularly known as MK. Although the armed resistance campaign initially focused on acts of sabotage, such as the destruction of electricity pylons, in the 1970s and 1980s the campaign escalated to include attacks on police stations and car bombs.

4 Mobilizing the International Community

The ANC encouraged the international community to pressure the South African government for change by imposing a series of boycotts. Playwrights refused to let their works be performed in South Africa, actors refused the right to broadcast TV programs and films on South African stations, and the 240,000-strong Associated Actors and Artists of America unanimously agreed not to work in South Africa. Overseas tours by all-white South African sports teams were met with protests, and South African athletes were unable to compete in the Olympic Games between 1964 and 1992.

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.