Lessons for Uganda from South Africa’s Defiance Campaign

20 Feb

By Stephen Twinoburyo

The post-1948 period in South Africa saw the African National Congress (ANC) abandoning its traditional reliance on tactics of moderation such as petitions and representations. The 1950 -1952 period in particular saw the reshaping of opposition to apartheid and culminated in the Defiance Campaign, the largest scale non-violent resistance ever seen in South Africa and the first campaign pursued jointly by all racial groups under the leadership of the ANC and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC).


On 6 April 1952 while white South Africans celebrated the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652, Africans and Indians boycotted the day and instead held rallies in major cities under the theme “A National Day of Pledge and Prayer”.

Sunday 22 June 1952, a “Day of the Volunteers” was held and Volunteers signed the following pledge:

“I, the undersigned, Volunteer of the National Volunteer Corps, do hereby solemnly pledge and bind myself to serve my country and my people in accordance with the directives of the National Volunteer Corps and to participate fully and without reservations to the best of my ability in the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws. I shall obey the orders of my leader under whom I shall be placed and strictly abide by the rules and regulations of the National Volunteer Corps framed from time to time. It shall be my duty to keep myself physically, mentally and morally fit.”

On 26 June 1952, the Defiance Campaign was officially launched where the first group of volunteers, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, defied apartheid laws in Johannesburg and other major city centres. During the campaign more than 8 500 people went to jail for defying apartheid laws and regulations. The resultant repression by the apartheid government only contributed to building momentum for the campaign as more and more resisters joined the struggle. The Campaign generated a mass upsurge for freedom and the ANC’s membership rose by tens of thousands. Nelson Mandela, President of the ANC Youth League, was appointed Volunteer-in-Chief of the Campaign.

SA Defiance Campaign Pic 1

It was during the Campaign that the late Chief Albert Luthuli was deposed from the chieftancy to which he had been elected, for refusing to obey the orders of the regime to dissociate from the ANC. He was elected President-General of the ANC in December 1952 and earned the respect of world opinion for his steadfast resistance to apartheid until his mysterious death in 1967

The Campaign led to the foundation of the Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa by the late Reverend Canon John Collins in London and the American Committee on Africa by the Reverend George Houser in New York, initiating the international solidarity movement with the South African struggle.

The Defiance Campaign and the subsequent bus boycotts and other acts of non-violent resistance in South Africa were an inspiration to the black people in the United States in launching the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of the late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

SA Defiance Campaign Pic- Martin Luther

Although the campaign did not immediately overturn apartheid laws, it was successful in making the United Nations recognise that the South African racial policy was an international issue, saw the movement of the ANC from moderation to militancy, demonstrated the potential power of African leadership, organisational skills and discipline, and marked the beginning of non-racial co-operation in the resistance to apartheid. As the apartheid regime cracked down on the Defiance Campaign, its brutal nature became more noticeable to the rest of the world. This Defiance Campaign planted seeds that bore the fruits of freedom in the later years.

A major tactic employed by the resisters was choosing to be imprisoned, rather than paying a fine, after arrests. This allowed demonstrators to burden the government economically, while giving them a theater to voice their opinions on apartheid when they were tried in court.

Seeing what is happening in Uganda, more especially the manner in which the 2016 presidential election was conducted – described by EU and Commonwealth observers as falling below key democratic benchmarks, I think it is high time that Ugandans took a leaf from South Africa’s struggle history and in particular the methods applied to help the country to freedom. During President Obama’s last State of the Union address, he rightly said that America cannot put out all the world’s fires wherever they flare up – and definitely cannot physically uproot every dictator in the world. We should realise that much as America will issue statements expressing “grave concern” at human rights violations, they can only support local people who are advancing freedoms of their nations on their own and America should not be expected to do the job them.

M7 posters burnt

Protesters burning Museveni’s posters in Kampala

After every election, Ugandans will lament, a few will be shot, opposition leaders will be arrested but eventually life will go back to normal with the hope that things will change after 5 years but it’s an illusion that such will ever happen. Instead repression at the hands of Museveni’s government increases. The bottom line is that Ugandans will have to rise up and take the destiny of their country in their own hands.



Much of the information in this article was derived by the author from:

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Posted by on February 20, 2016 in Stephen Twinoburyo's blogs


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