Any account of the polarisation of African society into distinct white and black polarities, on the right and left wings of the political spectrum respectively, between 1960 and 1964 must be considered in the light of pre-existing relationships between whites and non-whites in South Africa, which manifested themselves in microcosm with events at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. Critical to the discussion will be the role played by the National Party government, particularly relating to the creation of the Republic of South Africa in 1961, withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations in the same year, the 1961 General Election and the government’s racial policy. The function of the United Party, as the party of Official opposition, will also be scrutinised, together with the role of the Liberal Party and the Progressive Party. Analysis of the ideologies of the African resistance movements, including the African National Congress, with Umkhonto we Sizwe, and the Pan-Africanist Congress, with Poqo, will further reveal reasons for the adoption of extreme opposing attitudes. Moreover, these diametric attitudes were subjected to influence from, and response to, international events both within Africa and globally.
Events at Sharpeville demonstrate in microcosm the pre-existing state of affairs between whites and non-whites in South Africa, highlighting the gulf between black political and socio-economic aspirations and white supremacy and might in the “race-obsessed fantasies of apartheid South Africa.” Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was correct in at least one aspect of the killing of sixty–nine pass law protesters and the wounding of a further one hundred and eighty at Sharpeville, inasmuch that it “had all happened before.” The extent of the carnage wrought at Sharpeville may not have happened before, but government repression of peaceful African national protest was not a phenomenon which was new to 1960s South Africa. Witness the brutal repression of a black mineworkers’ strike in the Witwatersrand by the Smuts’ government in 1946,and numerous Anti-Pass Campaigns repressed by overwhelming government subjection to ‘baaskap.’ Nevertheless, Sharpeville, and similar disturbances at Langa and Nyanga, were instrumental in creating diverse extremes in South Africa in the early 1960s. Verwoerd was partly culpable for the polarisation of South Africa with his blinkered attitude that the disturbances of March 1960 “should not be seen in terms of our policy of apartheid” but “as the result of incitement in regard to some or other matter of law.” Therefore, the refusal to accept that the root cause of the persistent race problems was the policy of apartheid was instrumental in the polarisation of society.
According to Suttner, “the rupture between mass democratic politics of the 1950s and ANC revolutionary politics started earlier than 1960.” This argument is not favoured because the agents of African nationalism, particularly the African National Congress, had persistently attempted to achieve political and economic parity with whites throughout the latter part of the 1940s and the 1950s by peaceful protest and demonstration. However, this had consistently met with government authoritarianism in the form of either suffocating legislation or brutal state repression. Instead, Barber and Barratt’s assertion that Sharpeville marked African nationalism’s revolutionary change “in its aims and methods as protest turned to resistance” is preferred. At Sharpeville, Africans reached their “point of no return,” a scenario that African National Congress Depute President Oliver Tambo had forewarned of in 1959 as being inevitable in the anti-liberal climate of the era. Therefore, in 1960 black South Africans fully comprehended the futility of passive protest. The genesis of reality was that “fifty years of non-violence had brought African people nothing but more oppressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights,” with the caveat that some African nationalist followers “were developing disturbing ideas of terrorism.” The realisation, therefore, in the early 1960s of the failure of non-violent campaigns as the sole means of pressurising the government was an instrumental part of the polarisation process as it forced Africans to seek more extreme forms of protest.
Events in African townships had drastic effects on both white and black South Africans, which contributed to the contrariety in South Africa. Kenney argues that “Sharpeville was no reflection of a state of revolution” because “South Africa was still remote from so drastic an upheaval.” Nevertheless, Sharpeville and its aftermath reinforced the laager mentality of Afrikaners, whilst simultaneously demonstrating to Africans that even suggestions of violence could impact significantly on the South African political and economic climate. The rebellious threat from thirty-thousand Africans marching on the parliamentary buildings in Cape Town – only dissuaded from achieving their goal by the duplicitous promise to Kgosana, the African leader of the march, of an imaginary meeting with the J.B. Vorster, Minister of Justice, together with a crowd estimated at fifty-thousand attending the funerals of the dead from the Langa disturbances, sent shock tremors throughout white South Africa. Despite Acting Prime Minister Paul Sauer’s declaration that “the old book of South African history” was “closed” at Sharpeville, to the disdain of the recovering Verwoerd following an assassination attempt in April 1960, and the open dissent from members of the Dutch Reformed Churches by rejecting apartheid in the Cottesloe Declaration in December 1960, Afrikanerdom retreated to the security of its apartheid policy. The imposition of a State of Emergency, the sanitisation of Langa and Nyanga townships, the banning of meetings and the arrest of over 1900 political suspects, reinforced Verwoerd’s white Afrikaner supremacy. Meanwhile, Pan-Africanists may have been “ready to die for our cause” but were “not yet ready to kill for it.” Nonetheless, Sharpeville and its aftermath demonstrated the potential of black insurrection to undermine the nationalist government and the economy. By way of illustration, in the eighteen months prior to June 1961 R248 million left South Africa, in comparison to only R20 million between 1957 and 1960, and foreign exchange reserves fell from R315 million to R142 million over the same eighteen months. Confidence in the South African economy had, therefore, been seriously undermined. 1960 may not have been overtly revolutionary, but the signs were there that a more extreme African nationalism had the potential to achieve results that failed passivism could not. Consequently, the two nationalisms of Afrikaners and Africans became more polarised. Afrikaners retreated to their apartheid bastion and Africans realised the full potential of extremism over peaceful protest.
The policies of the National Party government contributed to the polarisation process – particularly relating to the creation of the Republic of South Africa in 1961, the subsequent withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations and the 1961 General Election results. Whilst issues of black unrest, as discussed above, were crucial to the outcome of the referendum on the Republic and the National Party victory in the General Election of 1961, these results must also be examined in the light of the de-colonisation of African states. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s forthright intimation in the South African parliament in February 1960 that the “wind of change is blowing through the continent this growth of national consciousness is a political fact” brought a sharp reality to white South Africans. The very survival of white South Africa was at stake and that continued international support was in danger of being withdrawn if South Africa continued with its apartheid policy. Verwoerd’s assertion that independence for African states did not “only mean being just to the black man of Africa but also being just to the white man of Africa” resonated strongly with white South Africans as they sought protection from the perceived increasing threat from black Africans. The spectre of ‘swart gevaar’ in South Africa was heightened by sixteen African colonies being granted independence in Africa in 1960 alone, together with events in the Belgian Congo where whites had been forced to flee from violence following independence and the loss of control by the black authorities. Support for the Republic may not have been overwhelming. Nonetheless, the 52.14 per cent majority in the Republic referendum on 5 October 1960, an “issue …. decided by the White voters” alone, was vindication of the National Party’s white-unification policy. The result of the Republic referendum gave the Nationalists “the green light to go ahead on the straight issue of White versus Black.” South Africa’s subsequent withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations, under pressure from both the Commonwealth and United Nations Security Council “to abandon its policies of apartheid,” was an invitation to white South Africans, “English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking” alike that “we shall have to stand on our own feet” for the sake of white unity in South Africa. Increasingly, white South Africans, irrespective of historical differences, were seeking the haven of protection offered by the National Party in the maelstrom that was sweeping Africa. By way of illustration, “a mobilization order for the struggle that lies ahead” appealed to both English and Afrikaans-speakers and the first National Party General Election victory with a clear majority, 53.3 per cent of the votes cast, further reveals the importance of Afrikaner right wing nationalism to an increasing number of white South Africans, thereby increasing the polarisation of society.
 The “Liberal Opinion” newspaper quoted in Van der Westhuizen G., “The Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953 – 1958” in Liebenburg I., et. al. (eds.), The Long March: The Story of the Struggle for Liberation in South Africa, (Pretoria: Kasogo – HAUM, 1994) p. 82.
 Anthony Delius of the “Cape Times” newspaper quoted in Kenney H., Power, Pride & Prejudice: The Years of the Afrikaner Nationalist Rule in South Africa, (Johannesburg; Jonathan Ball, 2006) p. 140.
 Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd, Union of South Africa: House of Assembly Debates Volume 104, (Cape Town: Parliamentary Printers, 1960) column 3878.
 Suttner R., “The African National Congress (ANC) Underground: From the M-Plan to Rivonia,” South African Historical Journal, 49 (November 2003) p. 129.
 Barber J. and Barratt J., South Africa’s Foreign Policy: The Search for Status and Security, 1945-1988, (Cambridge: University Press, 1990) p. 70.
 Oliver Tambo quoted in Van der Westhuizen G., “The Liberal Party of South Africa, 1953 – 1958” in Liebenburg I., et. al. (eds.), The Long March: The Story of the Struggle for Liberation in South Africa, (Pretoria: Kasogo – HAUM, 1994) p. 88.
 Nelson Mandela, “I am prepared to die.” Defence Statement at the Rivonia Trial in 1964 at http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?doc=ancdocs/history/mandela/1960s/rivonia.html
 Kenney H., Power, Pride & Prejudice: The Years of Afrikaner Nationalist rule in South Africa, (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2006) p. 150.
 Acting Prime Minister Paul Sauer quoted in O’Meara D., Forty Lost Years: The Apartheid State and the Politics of the National Party, 1948-1994, (Randburg: Raven Press, 1996) p. 104.
 Strangeways-Booth J., A Cricket in a Thorn Tree: Helen Suzman and the Progressive Party of South Africa, (London: Hutchison, 1976) p. 181.
 M. R. Sobukwe, President of the Pan-Africanist Congress’ “Press Release: Call for Positive Action,” Carter G. and Gerhart G.M. (eds.), From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882 – 1964 Volume 3, (California: Hoover Institution Press, 1977) p. 567.
 Davenport T.R.H., South Africa: A Modern History, (London: MacMillan, 1991) p. 360.
 British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Great Speeches of the 20th Century: Winds of Change, (London: The Guardian, 2007) p.7.
 H. F. Verwoerd quoted in Kenney H., Power, Pride & Prejudice: The Years of Afrikaner Nationalist Rule in South Africa, (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2006) p. 134.
 Davenport T.R.H., South Africa: A Modern History, (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1991) p. 360.
 H.F. Verwoerd, “The Rebublican Ideal”, Krüger D.W., South African Parties and Politics 1910 - 1960: A Select Source Book, (Cape Town: Human & Rouseau, c1960 ) p. 228.
 The “Rand Daily Mail” newspaper quoted in Kenney H., Power, Pride & Prejudice: The Years of Afrikaner Nationalist Rule in South Africa, (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2006) p. 157.
 Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary-General of the United Nations, quoted in Carter G.M. and Karis T. (eds.), From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882 – 1964, Volume Three, Challenge and Violence, 1953 – 1964, (California: Hoover Institution Press, 1977) p. 360.
 H. F. Verwoerd quoted in Kenney H., Power, Pride & Prejudice: The Years of Afrikaner Nationalist Rule in South Africa, (Johanessburg: Jonathan Ball, 2006) p. 135.
- Quote paper
- Murray Baird (Author), 2007, Account for the polarisation of South African society between 1960 and 1964, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/203304