Lesser-Known South African Anti-Apartheid Activists


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – While the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, it is also important to remember other significant anti-apartheid activists who contributed greatly to the cause of black South African emancipation.

Bishop Desmond Tutu (1931-), ordained as an Anglican priest in 1961, became the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches in 1978 and was a top spokesperson for the end of the apartheid regime and for the rights of black South Africans. Tutu states, “I realized that I had been given a platform that was not readily available to many blacks and most of our leaders were either now in chains or in exile. And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to use this to seek to try to articulate our aspirations and the anguishes of our people.’”

In 1984, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, “…not only as a gesture of support to him…but also to all individuals and groups in South Africa who, with their concern for human dignity, fraternity, and democracy, incite the admiration of the world.” He became the first black Archbishop of Cape Town and was chosen by Nelson Mandela to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He remains a global leader in the fight against oppression.

Oliver Tambo (1917-1993) was one of the founding members of the ANC Youth League and, in the 1950s and 1960s, served as Deputy and Acting President of the ANC. In 1959, he was served a “banning order” from the government, so the ANC sent him abroad to mobilize the global community against apartheid in South Africa. He is credited with raising the ANC’s international reputation and globally being one of the most respected black South African leaders. He lived in London during his 30-year long exile, and returned to South Africa in 1991, where he became the National Chairperson of the ANC. The city of Johannesburg’s airport bears his name.

Helen Suzman (1917-2009) was the sole representative from the opposing Progressive Party in the South African parliament in 1959. The party advocated for equal rights for all South Africans during the period when it was uncommon for whites to do so. Not only was she the only voice of the oppressed in government, she was also an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament of primarily Afrikaaner men.

While in parliament, she visited prisons, including Robben Island, to see the prisoners’ conditions, spoke against banning organizations such as the Communist Party, and took measures against gender discrimination, especially against black women. In a heated exchange with Prime Minister Both in the late 1970s, she stated her opposition confidently: “I am not frightened of you — I never have been, and I never will be. I think nothing of you.” She was a member of parliament for 36 years and continued to advocate for human rights after her tenure in government. She won the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1978.

Steve Biko (1946-1977) was an activist and leader of the Black Consciousness movement, which Biko considered to be the “cultural and political revival of an oppressed people.” By the 1970s, the movement had become a pervasive ideology, and Biko was banned from public and political activities. In 1977, fearing the Black Consciousness Movement would lead to further revolt, the security police detained Biko. He was severely beaten and died of resulting brain damage. He is considered to be a martyr to the anti-apartheid movement. He is famous for the phrase, “Black is beautiful.”

Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada (1929-) left school at 17 to work at the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council, where he participated in the South African Indian Congress’ Passive Resistance Campaign against the “Ghetto Act,” which limited where Indians could live and limited their political participation.

He became the chairperson for the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress which, in conjunction with the ANC (African National Congress), led the Defiance Campaign that targeted specific apartheid laws. Because of his political activities, he was found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life in jail on Robben Island. He was released in 1989, after 18 years, and the ANC bestowed their highest honor, Isitwalandwe, on him in recognition of his service to the cause of ending apartheid.

Albert Luthuli (1898-1967) is Africa’s first winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and was President-General of the ANC from 1952 until he died in 1967. In his work “The Road to Freedom is Via the Cross,” Luthuli stated his belief in non-violence, which included the idea that apartheid degrades everyone involved.

During his political career, he was often subject to governmental bans from travel, publishing, and attending political meetings. Luthuli was the spokesperson for the civil disobedience campaign and led demonstrations and strikes against the government. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Luthuli stated that the prize was “a recognition of the sacrifices made by the people of all races in South Africa – particularly the African people who have endured and suffered so much for so long.”

Lillian Ngoyi (1911-1980) joined the ANC during the Defiance Campaign in 1950 and was arrested for using accommodations reserved for whites. She was elected as the president of the ANC Women’s League and became the president of the Federation of South African Women in 1956. In August of that year, she was the leader of the women’s anti-pass march in Pretoria, which was one of the largest demonstrations in South African history.

That December, she became the first woman to be elected to the ANC national executive committee. During her political career, including after she returned from an illegal trip abroad, she was subject to bans, confinement, and arrests. She is affectionately called Ma Ngoyi.

Joe Slovo (1926-1995) was a member of the South Africa Communist Party and founding member of the Congress of Democrats in 1953. Under the Suppression of Communism Act, Slovo was banned from public events, though he still remained active clandestinely. He was an early member of the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, for which he was chief of staff until 1987. He was the first white member of the ANC’s national executive. After the 1994 national elections, Slovo served as the Minister of Housing but he died shortly after in 1995.

Other significant anti-apartheid figures include but are not limited to: Chris Hani, Beyers Naude, Tokyo Sexwale, Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe, and Joe Modise.

Kaylie Cordingley

Sources: Biography.com, ANC, SA History, SA History, New York Times, CBC, SA History, SA History, SA History, Nobel Prize, SA History, SA History
Photo: The Telegraph


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