Many organisations inside the South African protest movement against apartheid implemented colour as a way to represent and reflect their goals. These colours remain central to the future of South Africa today.
In various protest movements around the world, single colours have often been used to signify common ideals and aspirations. Specific colour combinations have also been used to symbolise the joining of different goals into a single protest movement. The latter has been true of South Africa with the colours of black, green, and gold.
Throughout the twentieth century, various organisations within South Africa’s protest movement against apartheid used colour to represent their goals, and these colours offered a simple and powerful way for individuals to show alignment with these groups and what they were fighting for.
The African National Congress (ANC) is an organisation founded in 1912 to promote the rights of black Africans. They chose the colours of black, green, and gold to reflect their goals: black for the people, green for land, and gold for wealth. As Arlene Archer and Stacey Stent wrote in their 2011 article, these colours represented the aspirations of the majority of Africans, and black, green and gold would become synonymous with a new African history.
In 1948, the racial segregation system known as apartheid was introduced by the white Afrikaaner government. Although racial injustice had long been a part of South African society, apartheid legalised segregation, and solidified the social disadvantages of the non-white populous. As unrest and protests against the system intensified in the 1950s, so too did Government response – for example, the suppression of Communism Act in 1950 allowed for the banning and punishment of anybody intending to bring about change through the promotion of disorder or disturbance.
During this period, it was especially important for organisations who opposed the system to communicate their messages to the people in a way that was comprehensible, that communicated to people who spoke a variety of languages, and amongst a populace where literacy levels were low. Resistance bodies had to distribute information creatively. Colour was, for a time, less severely policed than words or images, and it could communicate a message simply, and with feeling.
Women were a significant part of the anti-apartheid movement. The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) was a political lobby group organised in 1954. On 9th August, 1956, FEDSAW as well as the ANC Women’s League led a Women’s March to protest ‘pass laws’ being introduced for non-white women. These laws deemed that non-white peoples were legally obligated to carry identification, and could be stopped at any time to produce this documentation.
“…Then we all walked into the yard of the Union Buildings [government headquarters in Pretoria] and we waited there for all the women coming from other places. …
It was about 20 000 of us altogether! …
… All the women were quiet. 20,000 women standing there, some with their babies on their backs, and so quiet, no noise at all, just waiting. What a sight, so quiet, and so much colour, many women in green, gold and black [ANC colours], and the Indian women in their bright saris! …”
The colours black, green, and gold came to be increasingly associated with the rise of militant resistance in South Africa. Not only did the ANC use these colours, but so too did the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), an Africanist resistance group who broke away from the ANC in 1959. It was the PAC that led the 1960 Sharpeville protests against the law that was introduced mandating that all people of colour carry ‘passes’, ending in a massacre of protesters by police (69 dead and 180 wounded). At the inaugural conference in 1959, it was stated that the official colours of the PAC were to be green, black and gold – green represented the youth and vitality of the country, black represented the people, and gold represented wealth. These colours continued to epitomise the common goals of resistance groups against the apartheid system, despite their different approaches and ideologies.
Following the violent end of the Sharpeville massacre, the South African government intensified its opposition to resistance organisations and its representatives through banning these bodies and imprisoning their leaders. Whilst the PAC and ANC were forced to go underground, these colours still persevered in representation of a defiance to apartheid. The colours were so adjoined with the goals of the resistance movement, that like the organisations who spouted them, they were banned and made illegal. Thereafter, as Archer and Stent write, people who had items bearing these colours ran the risk of being beaten and arrested by the apartheid regime.
Banned or not, the three colours continued to symbolise defiance and strength, particularly in court trials of those protesting the racist regime. Famously, Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia trial (1963-64), in which he was being charged with high treason against the state, wore full traditional Xhosa dress, including a beaded necklace in black, green and gold colours of the ANC.
But it was also Winnie Mandela, who tirelessly pursued the fight against the regime, who proudly wore the colours of black, green and gold throughout apartheid. At the trial of her husband Nelson Mandela, she too wore full Xhosa tribal attire on the first days of the trial in Pretoria, which was afterwards prohibited. Yet, in an act of defiance, she continued to wear during the trial the banned black, green and gold.
After 1964, many leaders of the resistance movement had been imprisoned, and the apartheid regime continued to intensify. All the while, the colours of black, green, and gold continued to be part of anti-apartheid protest. For example, as historian Thula Simpson demonstrates in History of South Africa: From 1902 to the Present (2021), in 1981, students at the University of the Witwatersrand burned the flag of South Africa, which was a symbol of the apartheid state, and replaced it with a flag bearing the colours black, green and gold.
This is not to say that other colours were not represented in the resistance: as Archer and Stent write, the black, yellow, and red colours of the United Democratic Front (UDF) became more prevalent through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Formed in 1983, the UDF was aligned with many anti-apartheid groups and sympathetic with leftist politics. Red was therefore incorporated into their emblem, signifying ties with the working class of South Africa, as well as black and yellow. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, a period of increased protests and boycotts known as the Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws, it was these colours that were dominant in the resistance landscape.
Between 1990 and 1994, black, green and gold became once again the prevalent rallying cry, as the ANC campaigned for election after its ban was lifted. As the ANC emerged from being an underground movement, black green and gold were established as the ‘people’s colours’. These colours took over those of other organisations, and can be seen in the various campaigns for the release of political prisoners, including of course Nelson Mandela.
After the end of apartheid in 1994, the black, green, and gold colours continued to be associated with the new South Africa and the ‘rainbow nation’. The embodiment of this is transformation can be seen within the South African national flag; although officially is not meant to hold any specific symbolism, the flag can be seen to incorporate the black, green, and gold of the liberation movements and the meaning that those colours represented.
Post-apartheid, as the people in South Africa continue to struggle with the social, economic, and political problems plaguing their post-apartheid nation, colour continues to be symbolic of the desires of different bodies of people. In this rainbow nation, the colours that will signify the desires of the next generation of South Africans remains to be seen.
Nadia Gregory is a research student undertaking a PhD in South African history at the University of Wollongong, focusing on the roles of women in the resistance movement against apartheid. Her previous research has focused on racial resistance movements in South Africa and the United States. Nadia is passionate about uncovering the roles of women in racial struggles, being driven by her own position as a biracial woman of South African heritage.
Nadia tweets as @N_E_Gregory.