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The rebellion that revived South Africa's liberation struggle
Soweto 1976

July 14, 2006 | Pages 8 and 9

DAVID WHITEHOUSE tells the story of the revolt that rocked a Cold War ally of the U.S.--the monstrous apartheid dictatorship in South Africa.

THIRTY YEARS ago, Black students in South Africa opened a new period of resistance to the racist apartheid system when they rose up to protest oppression in the schools.

Some 12,000 students converged in the streets of the segregated "township" of Soweto on June 16, 1976, to protest being instructed in Afrikaans--the language of the ruling white minority. When the marchers headed toward a nearby stadium to hold a mass meeting, police tried to stop them with tear gas and dogs. When that didn't work, the cops opened fire, killing at least 23.

Sixteen years earlier, a massacre at Sharpeville marked the beginning of a period of terrible repression, leading to the exile or imprisonment of leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, including Nelson Mandela. But this time, the murders sparked an advance in the struggle, not a retreat.

What else to read

For a selection of Steve Biko's writings, see I Write What I Like (University of Chicago Press, 2002). Alex Callinicos and John Rogers wrote an assessment of the Soweto movement as it was taking place, Southern Africa After Soweto, published by Pluto Press in 1977.

Two South African Marxists have published useful recent books. Terry Bell's Unfinished Business (Verso, 2003), coauthored with Dumisa Ntzebeza, focuses on the anti-apartheid struggle from the 1970s onward. Patrick Bond's Elite Transition (Pluto, 2000) focuses on the "economic constraints on liberation" in the transition to Black majority rule.


More unarmed students protested the next day, and the cops killed 100 more. The movement began to spread to every South African township, and older Blacks, including workers, joined in. Six days after the first protest, more than 1,000 workers at a Chrysler plant went on strike in solidarity with the students.

Soweto's student organizers planned an August 4 march into Johannesburg, the neighboring "white" city. In preparation, students went door to door and convinced Black workers to mount a political general strike that lasted three days.

Strikes continued into the fall, and students diversified their tactics to include sit-ins, boycotts and night raids that destroyed police outposts and other symbols of apartheid power.

In the townships outside Cape Town, the movement forged unity between two groups that the white rulers had tried to divide--dark-skinned Africans and mixed-race, or "colored," people. As elsewhere, activists on the Cape used the nationalist ideas of "Black Consciousness"--identified with student leader Steve Biko--to argue that non-whites should unite because they were all "Black" in the eyes of the apartheid enemy.

Nationwide, resistance lasted 18 months--and cost well over 1,000 lives--before the authorities were able to regain control. In the crackdown, Biko himself was murdered by police in September 1977.

The movement, however, had won some gains. One was the withdrawal of Afrikaans as a language of instruction. In an even more substantial victory, urban Blacks, who had been treated as "temporary sojourners" until then, won the right to permanent residence in the cities--although they were still segregated.

Most important, a new generation of leaders had emerged, trained in the struggle that would rise to new heights within a few years.

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THE IMAGE of Soweto that comes most to mind today is the incredible courage of children who repeatedly marched into gunfire, shielded only by the tin lids of trashcans. How did it come to this?

The roots of the uprising lay in the brutality of apartheid itself, the most comprehensive system of racism ever devised--plus the stirrings of resistance in the previous few years.

Blacks were treated as foreigners in their own country, hemmed in by restrictions on where they could live, travel and work. The regime enforced segregation through a system of internal passports, made possible by U.S. corporate partners--including photo IDs from Polaroid and computers from IBM. Toilets, beaches, drinking fountains, train cars, schools and health services--even the blood supply--were strictly segregated, and Blacks got the worst of everything.

The objective was to supply rich whites with cheap and disposable labor for the farms, factories and mines. As permanent guest workers, Blacks supposedly belonged only in the "homelands," isolated and barren stretches of land derisively known as bantustans, where they could be sent until white employers needed them. In the suburban townships that serviced the "white" cities, unemployment ran at 50 percent.

But following the setbacks of the 1960s, resistance had begun to pick up.

For one thing, the Black working class had doubled in size since Sharpeville. This meant that despite high unemployment, workplace struggles played a bigger role than ever in the fight against white power. In 1973-74, 100,000 workers in the coastal city of Durban struck for higher wages, and the state was forced to concede new rights to unionize.

Then in 1974, revolution in Portugal gave new life to liberation struggles in Angola and Mozambique, two Portuguese colonies that bordered South Africa.

In early 1976, the South African military invaded Angola in a failed attempt to prevent left-wing rebels from winning power. Black South Africans took inspiration for their own struggle when they saw the fearsome apartheid army defeated in Angola.

Students expressed the new spirit of resistance through Black Consciousness, inspired in part by U.S. movements such as the Black Panthers. Unlike the Panthers, though, Black Consciousness existed more as a set of ideas about Black pride and self-reliance than as an organization.

In February, students rallied in support of two Soweto teachers who were fired for refusing to teach in Afrikaans. School after school went on strike, and a new organization--the Soweto Student Representative Council--grew out of the struggle. This council called the June 16 demonstration, which united students from three schools.

The rest of the movement took hold in the same way, as young people and workers formed new organizations from scratch. Initiative came from below, not from older mass groups, such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), which had been set back by earlier repression.

Like the Palestinian Intifada of 1987-88, the Soweto rebellion thus represented the return of ordinary people to grassroots struggle following a period when most of the fight had been conducted by lifelong activists who carried on from a position of exile.

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THE STRUGGLE took hundreds of young leaders beyond the ideas of Black Consciousness--and toward a class strategy of fighting apartheid.

In the first place, the townships and bantustans were run by middle-class "coloreds" and Blacks who benefited from their cooperation with apartheid. The young militants found they needed to draw a line against such collaborators, even though they were "Black."

Many came to realize that the movement's greatest strength was the power of workers to organize and strike. Some went on to become the left wing of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) when it was founded in 1985.

The movement also helped keep alive a tradition of internationalism, as each outbreak of struggle called forth a new round of solidarity and radicalization among youth and workers around the world.

But overall, Black workers' social power inside the country was harnessed to the political leadership of the ANC and SACP. These groups did take part in the movement of 1976-77 where they could. And because of their national scope and reputation as fighters, they both grew substantially.

By the late 1980s, African workers had fought the apartheid regime to a stalemate. When the white regime released Nelson Mandela in 1990, it hoped to make a transition to Black political rule that would leave the economic power of the white minority intact.

Mandela needed workers to keep pressuring the regime to step aside, but the ANC sought to hold workers back from a fight that would uproot the capitalists' power at the point of production.

Mandela's rise to the presidency in 1994 was a great victory because it signaled the destruction of apartheid. But the ANC came to power promising to protect white property rights to the land, factories and mines. That is the reason why South Africa's inequality has remained, even though racism is no longer written into the law books.

But the initiative of youth and the power of workers also remain. The Soweto rebellion revealed these potentials--potentials Black South Africans still need to tap to win complete liberation.

The struggles that still lay ahead

UNDER APARTHEID, South Africa was a place of misery and anger for the majority--and denial for the rest. It still is.

Since 1994, the ANC's free-market, neoliberal policies have raised up a new Black bourgeoisie that numbers in the low thousands. But material conditions for the majority have gone backward.

That's why the country is going through its second straight year of community uprisings and riots.

Despite having the highest technical development in sub-Saharan Africa, the country has become the world's most unequal place. Official unemployment still stands at 40 percent--and that counts informal workers, such as people who wash windshields at stoplights, among those with "jobs."

Inequality is most obvious in services, especially in the basics--water, electricity, housing and transportation. This is what most of the recent struggles have been about.

For example, all of the country's tap water is drinkable, but one-third of South Africans don't have access to it. The first ANC government promised to build a million new houses each year, but only about a million have been built--6 million short of the need.

Apartheid law decreed that white students would receive 15 times the funding that Black students got, but apartheid conditions in schooling are preserved today by user fees that the poor can't afford.

Independent resistance organizations have sprung up again. For example, Johannesburg's Anti-Privatization Forum is battling water and electricity cutoffs, evictions and transit rate hikes. Others are conducting mass occupations of unused urban and rural land.

Although these are class struggles, most happen outside the workplace. Workers face two major obstacles to exercising their full strength. One is a loss of manufacturing jobs despite a growth in output. As in many other countries, neoliberal economic "growth" coincides with job losses.

This might be turned around in struggle if workers can overcome their second big problem--most of their leadership is tied to the state that is enforcing today's inequality. Many COSATU unions now serve mainly as electoral machines for the ANC. And SACP workplace leaders try to head off the development of new leadership that could move in an independent direction.

But that's exactly the kind of leadership that South African workers must create in order to fight their way out of poverty.

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