Speech by Ahmed Kathrada at a Meeting of People`s Defence Committee held after the Arrests of Leaders on Charges of High Treason
5 July 1960
[This statement was to have been made to the court before the passing of sentence, after which I had been found guilty of burning my pass, guilty of disobeying a law by way of protest, and not guilty of incitement. At the time I voluntarily accepted the advice of my lawyers, and because of the very poor state of my health I did not make it. I am still not sure whether I made the right decision. I place it on record here and leave the reader to decide. Whether he applauds or derides, he will know what I feel.]
I stand before you, your Worship, charged with the destruction of my Reference Book (or Pass) and because of that with the crime of inciting my people to do the same. I have pleaded legally not guilty to all the charges.
What I did, I did because I, together with the overwhelming majority of my people, condemn the pass system as the cause of much evil and suffering among us. We charge that it is nothing less than an instrument of studied degradation and humiliation of us as a people, a badge of slavery, a weapon used by the authorities to keep us in a position of inferiority.
It cannot be very easy for you, sir, to understand the very deep hatred all Africans feel for a pass. I say this not as a mark of disrespect to your person, sir, but because only a direct experience and contact with a pass and all that it means can make one really understand and appreciate the justice of our charge against the evil thing, the pass. We are deeply conscious of, and grateful for, the fact that there is a growing number of fellow white South Africans who appreciate our situation and feel deeply about it; but they, too, can never really fully understand the depth of our suffering. Can anyone who has not gone through it possibly imagine what has happened when they read in the Press of a routine police announcement that there has been a pass raid in a location? The fear of the loud, rude bang on the door in the middle of the night, the bitter humiliation of an undignified search, the shame of husband and wife being huddled out of bed in front of their children by the police and taken off to the police cell.
If there is a law in any country in the whole wide world which makes it a crime in many instances for husband and wife to live together, which separates eighteen-year-olds from their parents, I have yet to learn of it. But the pass does so in the Union of South Africa.
Each year half a million of my people are arrested under the pass laws. Government Annual Reports tell of this tragic story. But statistics can tell only half the tale. The physical act of arrest and detention with the consequence of a broken home, a lost job, a loss of earnings, is only part of this grim picture. The deep humiliation felt by a black man, whether he be a labourer, an advocate, a nurse, a teacher or a professor, or even a minister of religion, when, over and over again, he hears the shout, “Kaffir, where is your pass? – Kaffir, waar`s jou pas?” fills in the rest of this grim picture.
Our feelings about the pass laws are not new or something born in recent years. The whole history of the African people since Union is studded with our complaints, petitions, mass demonstrations, pass burnings, etc.
In all these campaigns, sir, over the years, other sections of the South African population have gradually come to see the justice of our claim that the Pass Laws are oppressive in the extreme. One way or another, large and varied sections of the population have come to understand that the well-being of South Africa, no less than the cause of humanity and justice, demands the abolition or the drastic curtailment of these laws. I will refer you, sir, only to such well-known facts as these: that in the war years the late Mr. Deneys Reitz, then Minister of Native Affairs, spoke publicly of the need to repeal these laws, and in fact, for a time, virtually suspended the system of summary arrest on which these laws are based; then in 1948 the Fagan Commission, presided over by a man who as Minister of Native Affairs had administered these laws, and as judge had punished those who broke them, recommended a drastic revision and curtailment; that in more recent years these views have been echoed by churches, by the South African Institute of Race Relations, by at least two recognised political parties in the country, the Liberal Party and the Progressive Party, and by many hundreds of people and organisations of different kinds. In fact, sir, most public commissions appointed since 1912 by successive governments have been, to say the least, highly critical of it. World opinion generally has been critical too, and some sections of it, at times, outspokenly condemnatory. It has been a cause of regret and even bitterness amongst our people that in spite of such widespread condemnation, internal and external, of the inhumanity of these laws, the present Government has not only not seen fit to curtail or abolish them, but has extended and intensified their operation, cancelled all exemptions from these laws and, to add insult to injury, extended them, for the first time in the history of our country, to our womenfolk. All this is done in terms of the “Abolition of Passes and the Co-ordination of Documents Act.” We are asked to be grateful for this. Grateful for what? For stitching neatly into a single book various pieces of paper formerly needed to comply with the law. If this is not contempt for our national feelings, sir, it must be cruel mockery.
Each year since the so-called “Abolition of Passes Act” came into effect more of our people have been arrested for pass law offences. We do not have to read the Government Blue Books or Statistics to know this. Almost every African family knows this to their cost from their family experience.
It has long been clear to us in the Liberatory Movement that this Government action, to enforce and extend these laws, would increase tension between the African people and the Government and further strain white-black relations to the injury of the true interests and welfare of our country.
I do not want to comment much on the tragic events that occurred on 21st March of this year at Sharpeville, save to say merely this. All versions of this shocking event agree that the crowd which collected at the Police Station in Sharpeville did so because of – and only because of – the Pass Laws. All that is in dispute is whether people came to hear an official statement on the future of the Pass Laws or to demonstrate against these laws. Whichever version may be true, the end was an event which shocked and horrified every decent South African, black and white, and outraged the world. A large number of my people lost their lives, and a much larger number were wounded. If ever the cup of bitterness against the Pass Laws ran over, it was then. It was with deep feelings of disgust for the Pass Laws that many people, black and white throughout the country, responded magnificently to the A.N.C. call to observe a National Day of Mourning to mourn these late victims of the Pass Laws and for Africans to burn their passes.
In such an atmosphere it is understandable that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Africans, to show their mourning, voluntarily destroyed the symbol of bondage and burnt their passes; spontaneously, without urging, sir, many, many did so.
For me, sir, the situation demanded a momentous decision. I felt it my inescapable duty to give meaning to the Congress call to observe in a peaceful way the Day of Mourning and to bear witness in a practical way to our abhorrence for a pass. I saw no other effective peaceful way than to burn my own pass. This I did.
There comes a time, sir, when a leader must give as practical a demonstration of his convictions and willingness to live up to the demands of the cause, as he expects of his people. I felt that was the hour in our history, and in my life, for this demonstration. I am not sorry nor ashamed of what I did. I could not have done less than I did and still live with my conscience. I would rightly lose the confidence of my people, and earn the disrespect of right-thinking people in my country and in the world, and the disdain of posterity.
In all humility, I say that I acted as was my duty in response to the highest moral law in the best interest of the people of South Africa, because I am convinced that the urgent need of our country, for the maintenance of peace and harmony amongst the various races, black and white, is the immediate and wholesale abolition of the pass. It is my firm belief that it is the duty of all right-thinking people, black and white, who have the true interest of our country at heart, to strive for this without flinching.