Leading The Positive Action Campaign, Robert Sobukwe in Orlando, 21st March 1960. (Source: Peter Magubane)

The significance of March 21, 1960, in the history of the liberation struggle is often played down to the level of raising worldwide sympathy for victims of apartheid and to commemorate the Sharpeville-Langa massacre. For the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) it represented and still represents the beginning of the end of settler colonialism through a roll-out of the Positive Action Campaigns, until final victory, in terms of which the African people were urged to take their destiny into their own hands.

Positive action was a phrase, akin to mass action, that would lead to a groundswell of defiant activities which forms an insurrection until the apartheid system was brought to its knees. The pass book was a badge of slavery for Africans to carry around their necks as a daily reminder that they were temporary in white South Africa. The powers that be panicked and shot peaceful demonstrators who demanded to be arrested without bail, without defense, and without fine.

The pass system restricted Africans to reside in locations and Bantustans which served as reservoirs of cheap labour. The system degraded and dehumanized every black person and served to remind them of their slavery condition. Led by 36 year old Mangaliso Sobukwe, a university lecturer turned revolutionary thinker, the PAC took a strategic direction to shift the oppressed from appealing for the change of heart of their oppressors to a direct confrontation with the enemy. Before this, the congress movement (the ANC) collaborated with the system through serving in structures such as township advisory boards and the Native Representative Council. Thabo Mofutsanyane of the Communist Party, and Prof. Z.K. Matthews and Dr. James Moroka, both of the ANC, raised concerns with the pass laws in these dummy institutions to no avail.

The PAC approach was that the masses were to go into action and defy oppressors’ laws in large numbers. This was in direct contrast to the system of only a few volunteers in committees burning their passes in the glare of press personnel. Leaders who took lofty positions and were uncomfortable with the Positive Action Campaign were later driven by grassroots-based uprisings to make radical shifts to armed struggle after the banning of the PAC on 8 April 1960. The PAC leadership regarded the might and invincibility of Western-backed settler-colonial power structures in South Africa as a giant on thin mosquito legs. With the will of the people, it could be undermined and eventually overthrown. They chose Pan Africanism as a revolutionary tool of action against imperialism. Pan Africanism advocates a united continent with one government, in a union of socialist, democratic republics.

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