On 2nd November 1958 the speaker of conference of the Transvaal African National Congress held in Orlando in Soweto received a historic watershed letter signed by the regional secretary, Selby Themba Ngendane, announcing the parting of ways from the group disenchanted with ANC conference proceedings.

They were known as the Africanists – a political tendency within the ANC – that stood for unadulterated African Nationalism.

The contents of the letter said, in sum: “In 1949 we mobilised the African people to accept the nation building programme … We consistently and honestly stuck to that programme.

“In 1955 the Freedom Charter was adopted, which is in irreconcilable conflict with the 1949 programme, seeing that it claims that land no longer belongs to the African people, but it is auctioned for sale to all who live in this country.

“We have come to the parting of ways. And we are here and now giving notice that we are disassociating ourselves with the ANC as it is constituted at present in the Transvaal.

“We will [however] continue on our own, as custodians of the policies of the ANC as formulated in 1912.”

Oliver Reginald Tambo was the speaker of the Transvaal conference. The letter is said to have been drafted by Wits University academic, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

At the heart of the issue was the contentious debate on the national question.

The Africanists explained South Africa as an indivisible part of the African continent. They said resistance was not a matter of sorting out colour or race, but of dealing with vital material and spiritual interests of the African people.

The liberation movement, they argued, should not be nominal in attending to the needs of the oppressed and dispossessed majority.

The ANC on the other hand saw the internal divisions and the issues raised by the Africanists as a ploy to weaken and undermine the incumbent leadership.

They pointed to elements of the All Africa Convention – the African intelligentsia that held contradictions with the ANC methods of struggle – as the hidden hand waiting to take over leadership of the ANC.

The die was cast. The Africanists movement became a social phenomena emanating from this incident, increased their footprint and went on to influence the national agenda for transformation and change.


Sixty years later, in 2018, the question of land reform and redistribution in South Africa continues to be a political hot potato.

The National Assembly has voted to explore methods of expropriating land without compensation in the public interest, in line with Section 25 of the property clause in the constitution.

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe and his panel of experts on land use, have riled the Zulu king and an assortment of other land owners, after releasing their research findings. The research identifies the paucity of communal land and that in the hands of traditional leaders the system was open to abuse, disadvantaging the intended beneficiaries. The report identifies a range of other weaknesses in the land reform policies.

Former president Thabo Mbeki recently released a critique of the ANC’s resolution at its December 2017 conference. Mbeki made the hairline distinction between the Charterists and the Africanists on the national question and warned the ANC not to straddle land policy by adopting the Africanist movement’s stand point.

The general elections in 2019 will certainly have new and old political parties grappling with the national question. The true champions of the fight to return the land are the Africanists.

Perhaps the outcome of the elections will provide a national mandate within the framework of the laws to begin to attend to the contentious land question.


The Africanists are chiefly inspired by the tenets of the 1949 Programme of Action which states that

• Africa is the black man’s continent, and like all other people the Africans claim the right to self determination;
• Africans are heterogeneous peoples out of which one nation guided by African Nationalism can be established;
• The leaders of the African people must come out of their own loins;
• Africans in South Africa suffered oppression from colonial conquest and foreign exploitation; and,
• As a colonised people, the oppressed African people must organise themselves into a powerful liberation movement – in other words, become their own liberators.

The African National Congress then started out in 1952 to launch the Defiance Campaign against unjust laws. The African people took up agency and participated in greater numbers in protest action. The ANC roped in volunteers to sign up and to lead the defiance campaign in their communities. They used the Congress Youth League as a base of recruitment to lead the Defiance campaign.

It increasingly became a mass-based movement, driven by unity in action. Dr James Moroka, ANC president at the time, petered out of the campaign before it could even mature. He so liked the Free State Afrikaners families who had set him up in his studies and life that he was not ready to be seen to defy them. He was roundedly condemned by the people until he resigned the leadership position.

Chief Albert Luthuli took up the presidency and his leadership was fused with the new Congress Youth League inspired personalities like Walter Sisulu, OR Tambo, Peter Raboroko and others.

The organisation foxily changed policy and began to form pacts with others on a multi-racial basis. They first had the Doctors Pact of Xuma, Naicker and Dadoo. They were then moved into a relationship with former CPSA members masquerading as the Congress of Democrats. The CPSA disbanded itself in 1950 when the Suppression of Communism Act was promulgated. The South African communists defied the Communist International’s 1923 resolution on the black republic thesis – which supported the African Revolution and national liberation.

The congress alliance of black, white, Indians and Coloured political formations congregated in Kliptown near Johannesburg in 1955 and committed to what the Africanists called a Charter of Slavery.

The Africanists criticised the Freedom Charter as a pious document that was a misdirected wish list. It basically contradicted the 1949 Programme of Action. The Africanists disagreed that South Africa belongs to all who live in it – the coloniser and the colonised, the master and the slaves.

That gold deposits were discovered in 1876 in Witwatersrand and a large diamond belt was also found in Kimberley, did not mean Southern Africa was a different geopolitical space from the rest of the continent – the gist of Africanism stated.

On April 1959, the Africanists held an inaugural convention to launch the Pan Africanist Congress. They integrated the programme of action in their aims and objectives, but went further to want to establish an Africanist Socialist Democracy.

Sobukwe neatly mapped out the road to turn these ideas into concrete activities. He took an internationalist stance and associated the struggle with the Pan African movement inspired by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah. He called on the agency of the African people to lead.

The central idea was to rid South Africa of the 1909 Act by the British parliament, “a fossilized relic of colonialism,” and return the usurped land to its rightful owners. Broad national unity was the key link and basic principle to execute the African revolution.

The racist government would be obdurate and repressive, it was acknowleded. The struggle would increase its tempo and continue to seize unforeseen opportunities as they arose to advance the cause. But friction with the authorities was clearly inevitable.

The leadership needed to serve the people, sacrifice themselves for the cause upfront to inspire courage and stimulate new waves of leaders until final victory. The leadership needed to take the standpoint of those who suffer most in the equation of finding a mechanism for change.

The Africanists could be likened to revolting slaves in the Caribbean islands who escaped from the master’s camp and established their own independent and free communities, in the inaccessible mountains and elsewhere, without tutelage and domination by white supremacy. These revolting slaves are known in history as the maroons.

The other compliant slaves meanwhile could not imagine a future without the helping hand of the master. They wanted a permanent relationship with the slave master.

The Africanists first launched the status campaign to raise consciousness among the oppressed. Mental liberation was the first port of call.

The positive action campaign against the pass laws resulted in the massacres in Sharpeville and Langa. The PAC was subsequently banned from operating legally.

It launched an insurrection of rural folks fighting for the return of the land in 1961 until 1967. It then operated an armed struggle from the rear base in exile, with military training from Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Peoples Republic of China and other progressive countries.

The rise of the Black Consciousness movement in 1968 was on the whole seen as a continued Africanist advancement under different circumstances. The new leaders in the black consciousness movement regarded the fallen of 1960 as intrepid heroes of the struggle and they celebrated March 21 every year as heroes day.

The black consciousness movement overtly dominated the struggle period in racist South Africa when the PAC was banned.

The Black Peoples Convention rooted for Zeph Mothopeng as its president in 1975 at its conference but the PAC underground leadership had different party duties for him. The proposal was unfortunately turned down.

The 1976 uprising was led by the Black Power movement. This movement entrenched the Africanist phenomenon.

The PAC and the Black Consciousness organisations stand for a political theory now known as the Azanian Tendency. It unequivocally states that Azania is the land of the Black man. A study group led by Peter Raboroko in 1967 had recommended the name Azania for South Africa. It caught on mightily inside the country and worldwide.

Racist South Africa prime minister, John Vorster, unleashed a ruthless system to weaken the Azanian political movement. They liquidated most of the leaders through death in detention, long term imprisonment and banning orders to scare off new generations wanting to pick up the struggle.

In the 1980s the ANC in exile upped the ante. They had the backing of the USSR. With the advice of Vietnam’s leaders, they formulated a four pillar strategy of armed propaganda, international diplomacy, internal front organisation, and the underground, which resulted in mass based approvals.

Their rallying point was the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island and once he was outside prison his rapproachment strategy eased relations for the ANC with the Pretoria administration during negotiations at the Kempton Park trade centre. However they compromised themselves hastily to enter parliament.

Sabelo Phama, chief commander of Apla forces, referred to this compromise as undue eagerness to occupy “the kitchen of parliament,” rather than ensuring to take state power and control the land.

More than seventy five PAC leaders were the last to be detained in May 1993 under apartheid’s draconian laws, such as Section 29 of the Internal Security Act. This operation included the triad of military and civilian intelligence and the security branch of the South African Police.

The Africanists were never the same again. They subsequently failed to make an impact with the electorate and support declined at each general election since 1994.

Nevertheless, this marked the swing of the pendulum to the right of the PAC and put the Africanists on the quite backwater.

None of modern political analysts hardly mention the social phenomenon of the Africanists in the struggle for change because they do not know and understand its potential and promise.

The Africanists are here to stay. Their subject matter – the national question – has not been adequately addressed. That’s the sticky point.


In sixty years, since the break from the ANC, the pendulum swings again in favour of the Africanist and their agenda on the national question.

The complex nature of a national liberation struggle to end settler colonialism in its entirety indicates the need to hear the arguments of the Africanists movement on the subject of the property clause in the constitution of South Africa.

That day on 2 November 1958 when a motley group of Africanists leaders sat at Dr Nthato Harrison Motlana’s medical rooms to draft the letter disassociating themselves with what they regarded as a betrayal of the liberation movement is now a matter of history. But the content and the issues they raised still remain.

A new democratic dispensation is at play, with constitutional guarantees for human rights and basic freedoms to express dissent whenever the need arises. But issue of access to land by the African majority still remains.

The Africanists movement is itself woke and rising up to meet up with its own historical challenge.

By Jaki Seroke

Jaki Seroke is Secretary for Political and Pan African Affairs in the PAC.