South African Native National Congress Meets Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The South African Native National Congress emerged in 1912 in opposition to discriminatory legislation passed by the recently created Parliament of the Union of South Africa.

Summary of Event

It was perhaps inevitable that expanding gold and diamond mining late in the nineteenth century would magnify the unequal status of the black African majority as compared with the minority white population. Never had this dilemma been so clearly demonstrated as during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), Boer War (1899-1902) Second Boer War (1899-1902) when both sides (the British and the Dutch Boers, also known as Afrikaners) pressed Africans into performing menial—but often life-threatening—service in a war in which their interests were largely not at stake. After the British prevailed, both the Orange Free State and the South African (or Transvaal) Republic became part of the Union of South Africa in 1910. The union’s new parliament introduced a series of legislative acts that were openly discriminatory, including the Land Act of 1912, which helped spark the formation of the South African Native National Congress, later renamed the African National Congress. South African Native National Congress [kw]South African Native National Congress Meets (Jan. 8, 1912) [kw]African Native National Congress Meets, South (Jan. 8, 1912) South African Native National Congress [g]Africa;Jan. 8, 1912: South African Native National Congress Meets[03020] [g]South Africa;Jan. 8, 1912: South African Native National Congress Meets[03020] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 8, 1912: South African Native National Congress Meets[03020] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Jan. 8, 1912: South African Native National Congress Meets[03020] Dube, John Langalibalele Seme, Pixley ka Isaka Plaatje, Solomon Tshekiso Makgatho, S. M. Tile, Nehemiah

Until 1912 black Africans had tended to rely on traditional leaders to voice grievances against unfair practices, especially labor conditions in the mines. In 1905 alone, more than thirty-five hundred complaints were registered against labor contractors in the gold fields; many of these grievances were lodged by tribal chieftains. Other attempts to speak out for native African rights came from African church leaders, most notably Nehemiah Tile, who had founded the Thembu Church in the 1880’s. The fact that Tile’s activities focused on a geographically limited region and were dependent on the patronage of the prominent Ngangelizwe family, however, underscored a basic reality: The voices of African dissent lacked both political and economic unity.

The fact that blacks could not present themselves for election to the South African parliament meant that they could not hope to have their views expressed when that body drafted new legislative acts. In 1911, the Parliament passed acts related to black African labor, especially in the mining industry, and the Defense Act of 1912 ruled that any and all military groupings in the union would be composed of only white recruits. By this time, however, black African personalities such as Pixley ka Isaka Seme, editor of the Johannesburg newspaper Abantu-Batho, had begun to spark reactions from the general populace. This paper already emphasized the need to recognize and appreciate multilingual diversity among native South Africans by publishing not only in the main languages of Zulu-Xhosa and Sotho-Tswana but also in less widespread dialects. Seme called for ending hostile rivalries between Zulus and other groups, which he said added to the backwardness of black African communities.

Seme joined forces with several other black African leaders in January of 1912, when the South African Native National Congress was founded. The SANNC provided for a two-house body: The Upper House consisted of seven traditional chiefs appointed as “honorary presidents,” but it was the Executive Committee of the Lower House that held real power in the organization. Reverend John Langalibalele Dube became president, and he was supported by Solomon Tshekiso Plaatje as secretary-general and Pixley ka Isaka Seme as treasurer. In addition, the organization included four vice presidents, four clergymen, a newspaper editor, lawyers, a building contractor, and at least one teacher.

The SANNC declared its dedication to several main causes, ranging from African domestic social problems (such as divorce and alcoholism), education, religious issues, and African labor and land rights. These two latter issues became especially important. In fact, passage of the 1913 Native Land Act, which guaranteed white minority landownership rights over about 90 percent of the total useful land in South Africa, sparked serious but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to pressure the Parliament to reverse its actions. In May,1914, just months before war broke out in Europe, a select SANNC delegation went to London to seek official, high-level British intervention against the Land Act. Although this form of opposition was suspended under wartime conditions (a period in which the SANNC pledged loyalty to Great Britain), Secretary-General Plaatje insisted in his 1910 book Native Life in South Africa that Britain’s sense of justice should condemn what he referred to as the “crushing” racial prejudices that black Africans experienced.

In 1917, a new turn of events pointed to possible radicalization of the SANNC. John Dube was asked to resign as president after disagreements over his apparent willingness to compromise on segregation-related issues. He was succeeded by S. M. Makgatho, coeditor of the Native Advocate in Pretoria. Whether because of Makgatho’s leadership or a confluence of circumstances, the movement soon became involved in activist strategies that brought new members into its ranks.

For one thing, creation of the Bantu Women’s League in 1918 under Charlotte Maxeke created a sister organization that campaigned against passing laws that limited women’s movements and protested the conditions in women’s prisons. By far the most important radicalizing trend, however, was in the area of labor protests. Following the largely symbolic attendance by some SANNC members at the founding meetings of the Industrial Workers of Africa in 1917, the SANNC rallied with the International Socialist League to support miners’ strikes in 1918. Five SANNC leaders were arrested and tried alongside white Socialist militants. As egalitarian ideology began to emerge as an alternative to true racial equality, the SANNC found itself interacting more and more with the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), which had been founded in 1919.

Some original SANNC founders, such as Henry Selby Msimang, ICU president from 1919 to 1921, made certain that the labor movement’s agenda was always presented to the SANNC annual conferences. ICU founder Clements Kadalie’s increasingly obvious association with the newly founded Communist Party in South Africa, however, combined with growing involvement of the congress with movements that had very broad international political agendas, began to cause divisions within SANNC leadership. Beyond contacts with the Communists, there were also overtures from the European-based League Against Imperialism. Such splits became one of several factors behind the 1925 adoption of the SANNC’s new name: the African National Congress.


The founding of the South African Native National Congress marked an initial step toward unifying political consciousness among black South Africans. In its early years, SANNC leaders gradually realized that opposition to particular legislative issues and formation of high level delegations were not sufficient for uniting native Africans. Instead, leaders had to find a single cause around which Africans could rally. Several paths toward mass mobilization in this early period were tried; organizers were especially interested in associating the SANNC with radical labor organizations that were driven mainly by ideology and therefore wanted whites and blacks to find common cause in a single movement. Although differences in leadership opinion over this dilemma contributed to splits both before and after adoption of the ANC’s new name in the mid-1920’s, a more fundamental issue was at stake: The rather simplistic, unity-oriented slogans that led to the SANNC’s founding in 1912 no longer applied to the changed world in which South Africa’s black population lived, especially after World War I. South African Native National Congress

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barber, James. South Africa in the Twentieth Century. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Author tends to emphasize the importance of inter-African ethnic relations as they relate to the intense political history of South Africa after the Boer War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davenport, T. R. H. South Africa: A Modern History New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. This long-recognized comprehensive history has been reedited to establish links between early twentieth century events and the ANC’s eventual success in gaining South African rights following apartheid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meli, Francis. A History of the ANC: South Africa Belongs to Us. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1988. This detailed account of the ANC takes developments from the early period of the SANNC through the transformations that made it more and more effective as an organization (still striving at the time of this book’s publication) for recognition of native African rights in South Africa.

Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War

Formation of the Union of South Africa

Advisory Councils Give Botswana Natives Limited Representation

Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia

West African Student Union Is Founded

Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations

Categories: History