[The JRB Exclusive] ‘What African Nationalism Is’—Read an excerpt from Africa’s Cause Must Triumph: The Collected Writings of AP Mda

The JRB is proud to present an excerpt from Africa’s Cause Must Triumph: The Collected Writings of AP Mda.

Africa’s Cause Must Triumph: The Collected Writings of AP Mda
Robert Edgar and Luyanda ka Msumza
Best Red, 2018

About the book

The Class of ’44, the founders of the African National Congress Youth League (CYL) in 1944, includes a remarkable list of names: Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede and Ashby Peter (AP) Mda.

While much has been written on the others, relatively little attention has been paid to Mda, the Youth League president from 1947 to 1949 whom his peers regarded as the foremost political intellectual and strategist of their generation. He was known for his passionate advocacy of African nationalism, guiding the ANC into militant forms of protest, and pressing activists to consider turning to armed struggle in the early nineteen-fifties.

In his late teens Mda began leaving a rich written record—through letters and essays in newspapers, political tracts and speeches, and letters to colleagues—that allows us to chart the evolution of his views throughout his life not only on politics but also on culture, language, literature, music, religion, and education.


Read an excerpt:

What African Nationalism Is

Printed in Inkundla ya Bantu, 25 September 1948¹

In the ‘Inkundla’ of 21st August, Mr. R.S. Canca, a senior student of Cape Town, launched a bitter attack upon me.² In spite of Mr. Canca’s school boyish arrogance, I believe, however, that his attack was honest. For his benefit and for the benefit of other sincere men and women of all political camps, I shall state our position as briefly and as clearly as possible.


About 200 years ago our forefathers were called upon to defend their father-land against the European Settlers and expansionists. In spite of bravery and unparalleled heroism, they had to surrender to the Europeans. Two main factors contributed to their defeat. Firstly the superior weapons of the white man, and secondly, the fact that the Africans fought as isolated tribes, instead of attacking as a co-ordinated force. The division of the tribes facilitated the northward and east-ward advance of European Imperialism. A critical situation arose for the tribes, in fact some were faced with the prospect of annihilation. It thus became imperative to continue the old resistance, only with new weapons of struggle and novel modes of organisation.


Thus the year 1912, saw the birth of the African National Congress. The event marked the end of the old era of isolated tribal resistance, and ushered in a new era of struggle on a national rather than on a tribal plane. On the surface of it, the Colour Bar Act of 1909 and the Land Act of 1913 were factors which brought about the establishment of the National Congress. Yet on the other hand, the creation of a National Congress was a concrete expression of inner forces which operated towards a tribal synthesis on the economic, political and organisational plane. However imperfectly it did it the ANC was in fact an outward expression of the people’s deep-seated desire for a militant National Liberation Movement, capable of directing the resistance to white oppression, and ultimately winning the African’s national freedom.

In spite of this, however, the ANC suffered from serious defects. The founders had no clear grasp of the situation, and they were obsessed with imperialist forms of organisation. As a result the ANC suffered from defects both of form and of matter, and as long as these remained the ANC could not (i) create an effective machinery for waging a national liberatory struggle (ii) have a central creed of African Nationalism which could be a rallying point for the teeming millions of Africans, and be a cementing in consolidating the African Nation in the course of the liberatory struggle.

In spite of these defects, however, the founders of the ANC, (great patriots they were) had provided a concrete basis for inter-tribal solidarity, and for a nationally organised struggle against white domination. It remained for rising generations to give the National Congress such form and content as would suit the organisations to its historic mission.


Meanwhile the All-African Convention had come into existence during a period of grave weakness in the African National Congress. Yet although high hopes were placed in the AAC when it was first called in 1935 and 1936, it soon became apparent that the AAC was doomed to disintegration. In spite of their avoidance in convincing the form of the new organisation, the founders fell into the elemen-tary error of 1912. They failed to grasp the material forces which had given birth to the situation, and they therefore not only failed to give the organisation clear content and substance, but they totally failed to grasp the significance of African Nationalism in the struggle not only against this or that segregation or discrimi-natory measure, but against white domination as a whole. It is only within very recent years, that some young Africans have made serious efforts to give what remains of the original Convention a set of principles which constitute the stock-in-trade of their political philosophy. Presently, these young men are making a bid to stage a come-back for the All-African Convention. And whether one agrees with them or not, one must admit that the young men are engaged in a serious study of the political situation in this country. But that is not to say that their stand or position is necessarily correct. That is not to say that they should make wild and sweeping claims for themselves.


Within recent times, and especially during the regime of Dr. A.B. Xuma, important changes have taken place in the organisational form of the African National Congress. Xuma’s centralisation policy has corrected some of the mistakes of 1912, and provided a base for a unified National Congress knitting all tribes into one whole for the purpose of the National Liberation struggle. There is of course room for still more drastic and sweeping changes. At the same time, there has emerged the Congress Youth League which from the very onset set itself the task of imparting matter and substance to the organisational form of the ANC. This takes the form of the creed of African Nationalism, whose first clear exponent was the late Anton Muziwakhe Lembede.


The starting point of African Nationalism is the historical or even the prehistoric position. Africa was, has been and still is, a black man’s continent. The Euro-peans who now occupy large tracts of Africa dispossessed the rightful owners by force of arms, and they began to exploit the labour power of the Africans and the natural resources of the country, for their own benefit, and for the benefit of their countrymen across the seas. Although the Africans were defeated and subjugated, they did not give up their claim to Africa, and the fact that their land was taken away and their human rights whittled down, did not take away their right to Africa. The European’s claim to the land is in fact based on force and power, and the Africans themselves will tolerate European domination as long as they have not got the material force to overthrow it. The only basis of a compromise would be an equitable re-division of land [and] the granting of full democratic rights to the Africans. On that basis the Africans would be prepared to admit the right of the Europeans to a share of Africa, seeing that thousands of them know no other home to-day except our Black Continent, Africa; and seeing that also their contri-bution to African development is sorely needed just now. African Nationalism is therefore the militant outlook of a dispossessed people; a people oppressed in their own country, on the grounds of their being the rightful owners of the land, on the grounds of their belonging to a group with a particular colour. In short, a group that is nationally oppressed. If is a dynamic, nation-building outlook.


Now it has to be noted that there are two brands of African Nationalism. The first brand is extremist and ultra-revolutionary. Extreme African Nationalists demand that Europeans must ‘quit Africa’ and that all the white men are to be thrown into the sea.

The other brand of African Nationalism is comparatively moderate. It is totally opposed to white domination and to foreign leadership of Africa; but it takes account of the concrete situation, and recognises that the different racial groups have come to stay in South Africa. It insists that a condition for inter-racial cooperation is the abandonment of white domination, the complete national freedom of the African people, and such changes in the basic structure of South African Society that those relations which breed exploitation and misery shall disappear. Therefore the ‘goal’ of moderate African Nationalism is the winning of National freedom for the African people, and the inauguration of a people’s free society where racial persecution and oppression will be abolished. The C.Y. League at present professes moderate African Nationalism.


Space does not allow me to make a comprehensive size-up of the relative posi-tions of peoples in South Africa. This cursory summary will sufficiently indicate our position.

(a) Europeans:- The vast majority of them share the spoils of white domination. They have a vested interest in the exploitative caste society of South Africa. A few of them have the courage to condemn racial oppression; but their voice is negligible, and in the last analysis they count for little or nothing. In the fight for national freedom the Africans will be wasting their time and deflecting their focus if they look up to Europeans either for assistance or for inspiration. This is not anti-whiteism; it is simple and pure realism.

(b) Indians:- They are a distinct group with a different situation, historical and cultural background, from the Africans and Europeans. However, they did not come to Africa as exploiters and conquerors; they came as the exploited. They have their own motherland, India; but thousands of them have made South Africa their home. They are being denied democratic rights, and they as a group suffer national oppression. In spite of the parasitic activities of a few of them, we should not regard them as enemies. On the contrary, on points where our suffering is common, we should establish some basis of co-operation.

(c) Coloureds:- Their position is more or less like that of the Indians’ their oppres-sion differing in degree. There is the further difference that the Coloureds have no mother country to look up to. They would be nearer the Africans, if there was not such a divergence in the cultural and historical background of the two groups. The Coloureds as a group also suffer national oppression, although perhaps not to so intense a degree as the Africans do. On matters of common interest a basis of co-operation may be established as between the Coloureds and Indians on the one hand and the Africans on the other.

(d) Africans:- they are the greatest single group and they are a key to the move-ment for democracy in South Africa. That is not so merely because Africa is the Continent of the teeming black millions, but also because by bringing the full force of their organised numerical strength, they could alter the basic position of the struggle for democracy in South Africa. All the different tribes although differing in languages and dialect, have a common historical and cultural back-ground. With the advance of the outlook of African nation-alism, they will come to think more and more in terms of their national interest than in those of their sectional and tribal interest. It is clear of course that the Africans suffer a particular oppression on account of their colour. They are nationally oppressed.


The above summary shows that South Africa is a land of four chief nationalities, three of which (the Europeans, Indians and Coloureds) are minorities, and three of which (the Africans, Indians and Coloureds) suffer national oppression. One of the four groups, the European group, maintains a position of supremacy; and furthers its interests chiefly at the expense of the Africans, when we talk of the ‘national Question’ in South Africa, we refer to the problem of adjusting rela-tions between different nationalities. But a sine qua non to a permanent solution of the problem is the ending of white domination and the guaranteeing of secu-rity to every national group, large or small.


The different oppressed nationalities referred to above, can win their respective national freedom by following this course:-

(a) Africans:- They should create a powerful national freedom movement led by the Africans themselves and imbued with an African Nationalistic Spirit; which should act as its cementing and driving force.

(b) Indians and Coloureds:- They should each create their own united national front to fight for their national freedom. It is not for me however to concern myself with how they form it. That is their business. As an African Nation-alist, I am concerned with the Africans, first and foremost.

(c) Non-European Co-operation:- African Nationalists are not opposed to Non-European Co-operation on common issues. What they are opposed to is the creation of mush-room Non-European organisations, where Non-European leaders with no mass backing pretend to co-operate or unite. African Nationalists insist that the National Organisations of the Non- Europeans should co-operate on some clear basis and some specific points. But the emphasis should be on the respective masses who supported their national organisations and not on the bare form of co-operation. In the case of the African people, for instance, the urgent task should be the rallying of the masses under the banner of African Nationalism, and not the canvassing of help among Indians and Coloureds. Dr. Dadoo’s Non-European United Front collapsed because it was not based on the above principles, and other Non-European Fronts will also collapse and disintegrate unless their leaders fall back to Nationalism as a basis for Non-European Co-operation.

(d) Europeans:- As the struggle develops and takes serious form the true friends of the oppressed will emerge. African nationalists do not propose to turn down genuine allies in the struggle for freedom. Europeans may come forward of their own accord, but African Nationalists should not pin their faith on Europeans, and look up to them for freedom. The freedom of the African people lies in their own hands. The presence or absence of allies is of secondary importance. That is why African Nationalists emphasise the need for the national solidarity of Africans as Africans. Without being anti-White, anti-Indian or anti-Coloured, the African Nationalists are openly pro-African. For them African National freedom is the all-absorbing concern.


Here are some distortions of African Nationalism.(a) People accuse us of being racialists and sectionalists. We are not against other racial groups. We are only concerned with our freedom.

(b) There is a pseudo-African Nationalism which is mouthed by people who want to defend their vested interests, and who only mouth Nation-alistic slogans in order to mask or buttress reactionism. Hence the neces-sity for again and again re-stating the stand-point of pure unadulterated Nationalism.

(c) There are still more dangerous reactionary elements which employ National-istic slogans to screen openly Fascist tendencies. These elements are a mortal danger to the cause of freedom, because of the possibility of their alliance with the pseudo-Nationalism of the Nazis and Fascists in South Africa. Hence the need for their ruthless exposure.

(d) There are also the vendors of ‘foreign ideologies’ who want to impose cut-and-dried formulas which are not related to the South African scene, but imported whole-sale from Europe. Europe is our teacher in many things. We have no objection to any group learning from Europe as so many other peoples of the earth are doing. But the wholesale and indiscriminate import-ation of methods and tactics which are unrelated to the local situation, may harm the cause of our people’s struggle. African Nationalists have to be perpetually on the lookout.

(e) Some people pretend to see in our position a tribalist reaction. They fail to see that African Nationalism is a higher development of a process which was already in progress when the white-man arrived. But Nationalism can only reach its highest development on the ruins of centrifugal tribalism. Therefore sectional and reactionary tribalism is the mortal foe of genuine African Nationalism.


The outlook and position of African nationalism have been clearly indicated. It is now possible to draw general conclusions from this survey.

Firstly, it has become clear that the historic mission of African nationalism is the building of a self-confident and strong African Nation in South Africa. Therefore African Nationalism transcends the narrow limits imposed by any one organization. It is all embracing in the sense that its field is the whole body of African people in this country. The germ of its growth is within the bosom of the ANC, and it found its crystallization in the Congress Youth League. It should now find concrete expression in the creation of a single African National Front. The strength and permanence of such a front will of course depend not on mere chance or accident. It will depend on the correctness of our stand and on the political orientation of our National Front. Granting that this would be anchored on pure African Nationalism, we should build the most powerful front in our history.

Secondly, it will be clearly seen that with such an outlook on Africa, African Nationalists cannot admit the claims of the whites to perpetual domination. Regarding the whole of South Africa as their land, African Nationalists cannot agree for instance that only the Reserves are their fatherland. They cannot admit that there is any part of South Africa where Africans can be said to have no rights merely because they are Africans. They reject the idea of white domination and demand full democracy. But they know that the dominant white group will not surrender its position of superiority voluntarily. It has never happened anywhere. Therefore the African Nationalists call for the formation of a powerful National Front, and the setting up of the stage for a prolonged ‘many sided struggle’ which should gain momentum and increase in intensity as the masses swing in to action, and as the implications of African nationalism are being increasingly grasped by the broad masses of the people. With such a clear-cut outlook, the formulation of a common programme and the adumbration of methods and tactics becomes a comparatively easy task. The Congress Youth League has now such a clear-cut programme.


What is the relation between this exposition and the various suggestions which have been made by different people in the ‘Inkundla’? To answer that question it would be necessary for me to clarify some aspects of my suggestions for instance; and even to refute some statements made by both ‘Kanyisa’ and Mr. R.S. Canca. But here I have been concerned with stating our position and general outlook. Having done so, it will be easy to develop our argument and relate it properly to the National Emergency facing us.


1. This document was obtained from the National Library of South Africa, Pretoria.

2. Richard Canca (1924–2009) received a MA from the University of Cape Town. He was a leading figure in the AAC and Non-European Unity Movement and was an AAC delegate to the unity talks with ANC in 1949. He taught in the Transkei during the 1950s, but because the government was dismissing teachers who engaged in political activities, he decided to serve his articles with Wycliffe Tsotsi. In 1963, the government arrested him during the state of emergency and then placed him under a banning order the same year.

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