The 1952 Defiance Campaign by the African National Congress, that protesting against racial laws saw workers throughout the country respond in large numbers. It was the first time that Africans, Indians, Coloureds and Whites participated together in resisting apartheid laws. As a result of this successful campaign, a nation-wide movement was launched to convene a 'Congress of the People' (COP) bringing together South Africans of all races to put forward their demands for a free South Africa which was to be included in the Freedom Charter.
The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was formed a few months prior to the COP and played an active role in collecting demands from workers in the factories and townships, especially in Natal and the Eastern Cape. At its inaugural Conference SACTU welcomed the COP and endorsed the submission of workers' demands for inclusion in the Freedom Charter. These included the need for higher wages and better working conditions.
On 25 June 1955 in Kliptown, 3000 delegates from COP Committees all over South Africa came together to coordinate their demands. South Africans representative of all races and class positions from doctors, ministers, shopkeepers to labourers, domestic servants, peasants, students and teachers attended this historic meeting which gave birth to the Freedom Charter.
Representatives from the African National Congress (ANC), SACTU, South African Indian Congress (SAIC), South African Coloured Peoples Organisation (SACPO) and the Congress of Democrats came together to form the Congress Alliance.
The Alliance waged a boycott strategy in the struggle for equality. This economic boycott was a powerful weapon which the masses could use without fear of victimization. The Alexandra Bus Boycott in 1957 saw the combined might of the masses succeed in halting the state in its attempt to increase transportation of the poorly-paid African workers. Other campaigns include the boycott of beer-halls and dipping tanks, initiated by the militant women of Natal. Consumer boycotts proved to be very successful counter-attacks on the government and this inflicted a dent in the economy. People were beginning to realize the might that lay in their purchasing power. A mass boycott of the products of Nationalist-controlled business was initiated in 1957. Among the products listed in the boycott were Rembrandt cigarette products, Senator Coffee, Braganza Tea, Glenryck Canned Fish, Neptune Canned Fish, Laaiplek Farm Feeds and Protea Canned Fish. The boycotts drew international attention to what was happening in the country and shortly afterwards anti-apartheid groups in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand initiated boycott campaigns against a variety of Rembrandt/Rothmans controlled tobacco and other products.
The potato boycott, however, stands out as one of the most successful of all the joint Congress campaigns initiated during these years. Young children and adults were forced to dig for the potatoes with their bare hands. There were many accounts of workers being beaten to death and left to die and be buried in the fields. This prompted the boycott of the Bethal farms, commonly known as the potato boycott. The effectiveness of this boycott paralysed the potato farming industry and drew attention to the inhumane working and living conditions of potato farm labourers in Bethal.
Gert Sibande, the son of a labourer tenant in the Eastern Transvaal, played an active role in organizing exploited farm workers. He joined the ANC and formed a Bethal branch and became its Chairman in 1942. Sibande’s role in exposing the conditions in the Betal potato farms in the late 1940s was crucial. In 1947, Sibande decided to try to publicize the conditions of workers there. He dressed up as a farm labourer and experienced first hand the brutal practices on the farms. He called on a journalist, Ruth First, and a priest, Michael Scott to investigate the conditions. They exposed the inhuman conditions in a publication called New Age. The story was later taken up by Drum Magazine in 1952, when journalist Hendry Nxumalo and photographer Jurgen Schadeberg went to the farms to capture the plight of the workers. Despite the overwhelming response to the article it was dismissed in parliament by H F Verwoerd, then Minister of Native Affairs. It was described as being “a most unjust attack by unwarranted generalisations.” The state refused to act against the exploitation of the workers. In the 1959 ANC conference, 12 years after Sibande’s expose of the Bethal farmers, reports indicated that conditions on maize and potato farms remained the same, if not got worse.
SACTU took a leading role, recognizing that the plight of these workers was the responsibility of all South African workers and that farm workers must be organized to resist low wages and the degrading living standards being forced upon them. Calls went out across South Africa: 'If you eat a potato, you are eating the blood of a fellow worker who has been killed and buried on these farms.' SACTU and the Congress Alliance saw the struggle as one which was directed against both the state and agricultural capital. In actively encouraging the continuation of the forced labour system, the state assisted the White, racist farmers in their exploitation of Black workers and their families.
The boycott was a resounding success and demonstrated that African workers and consumers were prepared to sacrifice their cheap source of a staple food to fight together to end the exploitation of their brothers and sisters in the rural areas. Potatoes piled up in markets all over the country and rotted in the fields. Sympathetic merchants refused to stock their shelves. Fish and chip shops sold only fish as African workers stood strong in their refusal to eat potatoes. Many shopkeepers who continued to stock potatoes were forced to close down as the local people created angry scenes outside their stores. Despite government attempts to confuse the people with leaflets (for example, suggesting they should boycott mealie-meal (maize), they could not break the solidarity and strength of the people in their commitment to the boycott.
“POTATO BOYCOTT LIFTED. A VICTORY FOR THE PEOPLE. A WARNING FOR THE FARMERS.” This was the message on posters issued by the Congress Alliance in August 1959, explaining that the campaign which was planned as a short-term one, had been successful in calling attention to the conditions of farm labourers. Subsequently the government was forced to introduce limited changes in the farm labour system and White farmers could no longer get away with the same, inhumane treatment of their workers.
A significant outcome of the use of the boycott weapon by the Congress Alliance in the 1950s was its transference to the international scene. In 1960, anti-apartheid groupings in Britain called for a boycott of imported South African goods. In January of the same year, the Second All African People's Conference resolved to boycott South African products. As the international boycott campaign developed, it provided encouragement to the people of South Africa to continue their struggle against exploitation and inhumanity.