South African Native National Congress (pre - 1950)

South African Native National Congress
South African Native National Congress

The South African Native National Congress was the predecessor of the African National Congress (ANC). It changed its name in 1923 to reflect a growing demographic that included members outside of South Africa.

The South African Native National Congress was founded on January 8, 1912, in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (now the Free State), by John Dube, Pixley Seme, and Sol Plaatje in opposition to the South African Native Land Act.

The group had existed for almost a century under various auspices with similar goals. However, it was not until 1912 that the group was able to formally gain recognition in South Africa and abroad as a counter to the repressive white rule.

Opposition to the land act began in 1909 when a group of black delegates met in Bloemfontein to object to the act's predecessor, the South Africa Act. This act and those that would come after centered on South Africa's land tenure system.

The land act, eventually passed in 1913, was the first law in the 20th century to create group areas. It declared that the whole of South Africa would be exclusively for white South Africans, with the proviso that certain "scheduled areas" would be kept in trust solely for the welfare and benefit of black South Africans.

The scheduled areas made up approximately 13 percent of the total land area and were mainly occupied by tribal communities. The act facilitated the formal establishment of African reserves, which would later become a political behemoth under apartheid's separate development policies as Bantustans.

Although the population of black South Africans vastly outnumbered white South Africans, only 7 percent of South Africa's land area was set aside as reserve land. The economy of South Africa during this period was highly dependent on the gold discovered in the high veld.

With little else to sustain the growing South African economy, the South African government encouraged mining companies and the resulting offshoots in big cities such as Johannesburg to draw migrant labor from the reserves.

In addition to addressing the labor needs of the mines, the act also set out to eliminate independent rent-paying African tenants and cash croppers residing on white-owned land by restricting African residence on white land to labor tenancy or wage labor and prohibiting African land ownership outside of the reserves. Initially, the South African Native National Congress aimed to express dissatisfaction with the Native Land Act as well as the treatment of black South Africans during the South African Boer War.

The founding members of the congress were of an educated and elite background. John Dube was a minister and a schoolteacher; Sol Plaatje (the secretarygeneral) was a court translator, author, and newspaper editor; and Pixley Seme was a lawyer with degrees from Columbia University in the United States and Oxford University in Great Britain. In contrast to later calls by the African National Congress, the trio was not pushing for the end of British rule in South Africa, just the beginning of equality and representation.

In order to express the group's discontent with the present government in South Africa, they sent a delegation led by W. P. Schreiner to London to try to convince the British government not to accept the Union of South Africa that was being put forward by the Afrikaner government in Pretoria. While it was a futile effort on the part of the South African Native National Congress, it did strengthen the bonds of the members of the new organization.

Although initially the organization was elitist, only representing those black Africans with education, it did attempt to represent both traditional and modern elements of African society. Like most groups and organizations worldwide at the time, however, women were not admitted.

The draft constitution of the South African Native National Congress that was put forth in 1912 outlined five basic aims:
  • To promote unity and mutual cooperation between the government and the South African black people
  • To maintain a channel between the government and the black people
  • To promote the social, educational, and political uplift of the black people
  • To promote understanding between chiefs and loyalty to the British Crown and all lawful authorities, and to promote understanding between white and black South Africans
  • To address the just grievances of the black people
Although the contents of the constitution were not radical, the official constitution was not passed until 1919. The South African Native National Congress would send another delegation to Britain in 1913 led by Sol Plaatje to officially protest the Native Land Act.

Plaatje would travel later to Canada and the United States, where he would meet Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. DuBois. The efforts of the group would have little effect until the group became the African National Congress.