on sunday, March 27, the London police stood shoulder-to-shoulder around South Africa House to guard it against possible attack by the demonstrators in Trafalgar Square. From South Africa came news that the South African police had announced that they would not enforce the pass laws for the time being “to ease tension”, and that the President General of the African National Congress had burnt his pass in the presence of photographers. Meanwhile the report from Central Africa was that the Tory Colonial Secretary was arranging for the release of Dr. Banda and arguing for a “semi-detached” Federation.

It is hard to underestimate the significance of such a course of events. We have, it is true, become so used in the last ten years to being told that next year would be “crisis year” in Africa, that we find it hard to believe that even the massacre at Sharpville could be of more fundamental significance. But South African policemen do not simply give up applying the pass laws for Lent. They are faced, as the white settlers in Central Africa and Kenya are faced, with the plain fact that settler rule is cracking at its foundations, and no-one can predict exactly how the balance of power will shift in the next few months. What Socialists in Britain have to do therefore is to try to understand the revolutionary situation which is developing and the related conflict of policies which will grow sharper every week.

The main lines of the conflict were first clearly laid down in 1948 when Dr. Malan’s Government was elected to power to implement a programme of apartheid in South Africa. But we should not be misled about this. Taken literally, apartheid simply means segregation, and segregation of the races was an accomplished fact not merely in South Africa, but in Central and East Africa also, long before 1948. The real issue was what the White populations were going to do in face of the fact that the right of the settlers to rule the indeginous African populations, was now challenged externally by the move towards independence in Ghana, by the Afro-Asian group at the United Nations, and internally by the organisations of the African peoples themselves.

The South African Nationalists answered this question quite openly by saying that they did not accept that Africans should ever have political power and that they were prepared to use all necessary means to maintain white domination or “baasskap”. The British Government vacillated. Having been committed as long ago as 1923 to the doctrines of temporary trusteeship, followed by eventual black paramountcy, it could not accept the Malan and Strijdom doctrines. But under Lyttleton and Lennox-Boyd the Colonial Office came to accept de facto white rule, disguised under such slogans as “partnership” and “multi-racialism”. Now, at last, Mr. MacLeod is trying to find his way out of the mess inherited from his predecessors by a return to former British positions. In so doing he has run into open conflict, not only with Verwoerd, but also with Welensky in Rhodesia and Briggs in Kenya.

The most important changes brought about by the three successive Nationalist Governments in South Africa have been concerned, not with the segregation of Africans, but with gerrymandering measures or laws to put an end to the civil liberties of those who were prepared to work for a democratic future.

Under the heading of gerrymandering measures could be included the Act giving representation in the South African Parliament to the Europeans of South West Africa, and the Cape Coloured Voters Bill. The first ensured the return of six extra Nationalist MPs from constituencies where a vote was worth three times as much as in Johannesburg; the second, the certainty of Nationalist gains from the United Party in at least half a dozen seats in the Cape Province. In this way the Nationalists were able to obtain a two-thirds majority for any legislation they chose so that in effect the entrenchment of rights in the Constitution ceased to have meaning. And it was virtually certain that no future election could lead to a Nationalist defeat.

But Malan and Strijdom did not confine themselves merely to rendering Parliamentary opposition ineffective. They always knew that the real opposition lay outside Parliament, and they set about devising administrative and legal measures to limit the civil liberties of those who looked forward to some eventual pattern of democracy. Such is the nature of Nationalist policies that one Minister named its main opponents as “Liberals, Anglicans and Communists”.