The Shifting Sands Of Illusion by Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

The Shifting Sands Of Illusion
Article written by Nelson Mandela for the monthly journal Liberation

June 1953

The Liberal Party constitution purports to uphold the ‘essential dignity of every human being irrespective of race, colour, or creed, and the maintenance of his fundamental rights’. It expresses itself in favour of the ‘right of every human being to develop to the fullest extent of which he is capable consistent with the rights of others’.

The new party’s statement of principles thus far contents itself with the broad generalisations without any attempt to interpret them or define their practical application in the South African context. It then proceeds to announce ‘that no person (should) be debarred from participation in the government or other democratic processes of the country by reason only of race, colour, or creed’. But here the neo-Liberals abandon the safe ground of generalisation and stipulate explicitly ‘that political rights based on a common franchise roll be extended to all SUITABLY QUALIFIED persons . This question-begging formulation will not for long enable our Liberals to evade the fundamental issue: which persons are ‘suitably qualified’?

The democratic principle is ‘one adult, one vote’. The Liberals obviously differ from this well-known conception. They are, therefore, obliged to state an alternative theory of their own. This they have, so far, failed to do. The African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, and the Congress of Democrats stand for votes for all: the demand, a century ago, of the British Chartists for universal equal franchise rights. Does the Liberal Party support this demand? Historical reality demands a plain and unequivocal answer . . .

In South Africa, where the entire population is almost split into two hostile camps in consequence of the policy of racial discrimination, and where recent political events have made the struggle between oppressor and oppressed more acute, there can be no middle course. The fault of the Liberals – and this spells their doom – is to attempt to strike just such a course. They believe in criticising and condemning the Government for its reactionary policies but they are afraid to identify themselves with the people and to assume the task of mobilising that social force capable of lifting the struggle to higher levels.

The Liberals’ credo states that to achieve their objects the party will employ ‘only democratic and constitutional means and will oppose all forms of totalitarianism such as communism and fascism’. Talk of democratic and constitutional means can only have a basis in reality for those people who enjoy democratic and constitutional rights.

We must accept the fact that in our country we cannot win one single victory of political freedom without overcoming a desperate resistance on the part of the Government, and that victory will not come of itself but only as a result of a bitter struggle by the oppressed people for the overthrow of racial discrimination. This means that we are committed to struggle to mobilise from our ranks the forces capable of waging a determined and militant struggle against all forms of reaction. The theory that we can sit with folded arms and wait for a future parliament to legislate for the ‘essential dignity of every human being irrespective of race, colour, or creed’ is crass perversion of elementary principles of political struggle. No organisation whose interests are identical with those of the toiling masses will advocate conciliation to win its demands.

To propose in the South African context that democrats limit themselves to constitutional means of struggle is to ask the people to submit to laws enacted by a minority parliament whose composition is essentially a denial of democracy to the overwhelming majority of the population. It means that we must obey a Constitution which debars the majority from participating in the government and other democratic processes of the country by reason only of race, colour, or creed. It implies in practice that we must carry passes and permit the violation of the essential dignity of a human being. It means that we must accept the Suppression of Communism Act which legalises the gagging and persecution of leaders of the people because of their creed. It implies the acceptance of the Rehabilitation Scheme, the Bantu Authorities, the Group Areas, the Public Safety, the Criminal Law Amendment Act and all the wicked policies of the Government.

The real question is: in the general struggle for political rights can the oppressed people count on the Liberal Party as an ally? The answer is that the new party merely gives organisational expression to a tendency which has for many years existed among a section of the White ruling class and in the United Party(1). This section hates and fears the idea of a revolutionary democracy in South Africa, just as much as the Malans(2) and the Oppenheimers(3) do. Rather than attempt the costly, dubious, and dangerous task of crushing the non-European mass movement by force, they would seek to divert it with fine words and promises and to divide it by giving concessions and bribes to a privileged minority (the ‘suitably qualified’ voters, perhaps) It becomes clear, therefore, that the high-sounding principles enunciated by the Liberal Party, though apparently democratic and progressive in form, are essentially reactionary in content. They stand not for the freedom of the people but for the adoption of more subtle systems of oppression and exploitation. Though they talk of liberty and human dignity they are subordinate henchmen of the ruling circles. They stand for the retention of the cheap labour system and of the subordinate colonial status of the non-European masses together with the Nationalist Government whose class interests are identical with theirs. In practice they acquiesce in the slavery of the people, low wages, mass unemployment, the squalid tenements in the locations and shanty-towns.

We of the non-European liberation movement are not racialists. We are convinced that there are thousands of honest democrats among the White population who are prepared to take up a firm and courageous stand for unconditional equality, for the complete renunciation of ‘White supremacy’. To them we extend the hand of sincere friendship and brotherly alliance. But no true alliance can be built on the shifting sands of evasions, illusions, and opportunism. We insist on presenting the conditions which make it reasonable to fight for freedom. The only sure road to this goal leads through the uncompromising and determined mass struggle for the overthrow of fascism and the establishment of democratic forms of government.


Two years after this article was written, the Liberal Party, although invited, did not participate in the Congress of the People, the most representative mass event up till that moment in South Africa’s history.

The proposal for such a Congress was originally put forward by the veteran ANC leader Professor Z. K. Matthews. It was adopted by the Congress Movement consisting of the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Organisation and the (white) Congress of Democrats. These bodies each elected eight members who joined together to form a National Action Council to organise the event.

One of the Council’s first tasks was to produce a leaflet calling the people of South Africa to the Congress. The leaflet was distributed in several languages to all parts of the country and to all sectors of South African society, even including the governing Nationalist Party and other exclusively white organisations, none of which responded.

The response from ordinary people, however, was ‘spectacular and moving to quote Mandela .

1. White political party in opposition to the Nationalist Government

2. Dr D F Malan, Prime Minister of South Africa 1948-54

3. Sir Ernest and his son and successor Harry Oppenheimer, managing director of the Anglo-American Corporation, the most powerful mining and financial group in southern Africa

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