South Africa - 30 years after the Soweto uprising

Jul/Aug 2006

The 1976 Soweto uprising marked the turning point in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. This is its significance. It was the beginning of a mass mobilisation - albeit with ups and downs - which would carry on growing all through the 1980s, despite all the weapons of repression that the South African apartheid state could throw at it. And most importantly, this period shaped a whole generation. It provided the cadres and rank and file activists of the trade unions and political organisations that developed out of the unremitting struggle of the following 15 years - until, in 1990, the white National Party regime was forced to abandon the institutions of apartheid. By then, after facing wave upon wave of working class mobilisation, a very frightened South African bourgeoisie was looking for a way to save its own neck. The voluntary compromise by the white regime over apartheid and the "unbanning" of the black nationalist and working-class organisations was the result, followed by multiracial elections in 1994 and "black majority rule" thereafter.

But in fact, the first big shock that the apartheid regime and the white capitalist class were given, was by black schoolchildren in Soweto on 16 June 1976, when thousands of them confronted the bullets of the regime to protest against a government directive which said that they should be taught in Afrikaans, rather than English. The scale of resistance which immediately developed against the bloody repression which followed, had never been seen before. And two months later, when Soweto's working class took up the fight by staying away from work, nobody could be mistaken: the writing was on the wall for the regime. This was the beginning of the end for apartheid.

South-western-townships - a hotbed of revolt

That this struggle should have originated in Soweto is not at all surprising. The name "Soweto" stands for the "south western townships" - located south-west of Johannesburg, South Africa's biggest industrial city and of course, the "city of gold", situated in the middle of a stretch of hills called the Witwatersrand or the "Rand".

Soweto was, and still is, the dormitory town for the workforce of Johannesburg and the western part of the Rand. Its growth took place especially after 1954, when racial segregation was enforced and black workers were removed there from Johannesburg itself, to live in what became an enormous sprawling urban slum - and in fact city in its own right. It comprises 34 townships in all, which cover 37 square miles - connected by a railway line to central Johannesburg and the Rand, to take the workers to and from their jobs from 20 stations in the townships. At its peak the population of Soweto was probably 3m - and it was certainly the biggest black urban concentration in Southern Africa. As a result, it was always a hotbed for everything - good or bad, political and cultural (especially music) and a centre of the resistance movement against apartheid, above ground in the 1940s and 1950s, before the government banned the South African Communist Party and African National Congress, and then underground, afterwards.

Education for the black urban children of South Africa during the apartheid years was largely a hit or miss affair. It was never compulsory, but in 1953, the National Party which had come to power in 1948 espousing segregation, passed a law which took what they called "Bantu education" under the control of the state. They instituted free, voluntary, schooling for black children for 4 years of a primary school curriculum, designed to "teach them their place", of course. But the teaching of black children was usually done in their own languages.

Then, during the 1960s, the state established junior secondary and senior secondary schools as well as ethnically-based teacher training in the rural homelands or "bantustans" - the idea being to encourage movement to these rural wastelands, away from the urban centres, according to the policy of segregation of different ethnic populations - each with their "own" "homeland".

However by the late 1960s and early 1970s the government was forced to change its policy, because of an increasing shortage of semi skilled workers in urban and industrial areas - as a result of the mini economic boom of the time. So it amended its job reservation laws in order to allow black workers to do semi-skilled and even some skilled jobs, previously reserved for whites. And for the first time, state junior and senior secondary schools were built in black urban townships. 40 new secondary schools were opened in Soweto in this period.

Then came the two measures which set the stage for the pupils' rebellion. In 1974, the government abolished what was known as "standard 6 " (the sixth year of schooling), all at once doubling the number of 12 and 13 year olds entering secondary school at "form 1" level (the first of 5 years of secondary school), even if there was no space for them in the schools, nor teachers to teach them. This was supposedly designed to "equalise" the education of white and black children, since white children attended school for only 12 years, and up until then, black children had 13 years to complete before the few lucky ones could embark on tertiary education.

At the same time, the Bantu Education minister decided to revive an old 1953 directive, which had never been previously implemented, to the effect that students should be taught half their subjects in English and the other half, (including maths, history, geography, biology and science), in Afrikaans. Of course this did not apply to white schools, which were either English or Afrikaans medium schools and where all subjects were taught in the pupils' mother tongue.

While black children had their own home languages, in Soweto, their secondary education was predominantly conducted through the medium of English. Johannesburg was to all intents and purposes an English-speaking city. Besides, Afrikaans was associated with the apartheid state, and was considered the "oppressor language". But now the government had decided to target junior secondary schools in Soweto in order to pilot its introduction of teaching in the Afrikaans language. The directive would apply to all pupils in Forms 1 and 2, in the first instance - that is children between 12 and 14 years.

The class of 1976

The school boards and the teachers immediately protested and many board members resigned. During 1975, several school boards told teachers to ignore the directive and carry on teaching in English. In February 1976, two members of Soweto's Meadowlands Tswana School Board were "expelled" from their positions on the board, for rejecting the directive. The whole board resigned in sympathy. The Department of Bantu Education then decided to enforce its ruling. If teachers did not comply, they would be sacked. Many actually left the profession as a result. But pupils in the lower forms, up to the age of 14, were thus issued with text books in Afrikaans, and their teachers were supposed to commence teaching them in this language, even if they were not competent to do so. By June 1976, it was decreed that Form 1 and Form 2 examinations were to be written in Afrikaans.

Now it was up to the pupils themselves to resist. They had already seen their marks drop since teaching in Afrikaans had been introduced, and were determined to go back to being taught in English. By March 1976, pupils at Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Soweto's Orlando district, who had just passed their first year in high school went on "strike" - boycotting the classes taught in Afrikaans. By mid-May, the strike had spread to five other schools, involving around 1,500 of the younger pupils. On 24 May, parents met in Orlando and decided their children should go back to their classes. But in fact by 1 June, not only were the children not back in class, but more schools were "downing books".

The authorities stuck to their position, despite the spreading pupils' strike. In some schools the children began to re-attend classes but only those taught in English. At Phefeni, Form 2 pupils decided they would have to get the older pupils involved in order for their boycott to hit home. However, even though some of the older pupils were sympathetic, they were afraid to boycott their own June exams. As one of the protagonists recalls: "They carried on with their studies and began to write their June exams during the first week of June whilst nothing was resolved, so we decided to go inside the exam room and tore up the exam papers and forced them out the classrooms. That is exactly when things started to get sour now - they then officially joined us because they had no option".What happened at Phefeni spread by word of mouth to other secondary schools around Soweto. Some sent messages that there should not be any fights among the pupils, and, as a result, a meeting was held on 14 June in the school yard, this time addressed by an older pupil, Seth Mazibuko. Here it was decided that in 2 days time, a march would be held from Phefeni school to the Bantu Administration offices in the adjacent township, Diepkloof.

As one former pupil recalls: "The march was going to be an easy-going thing... whereby female students will wear our trousers or their fathers' trousers and we will wear our sisters' dresses - it would be like a Guy Fawkes thing and we would go around Soweto making other statements... "Similar meetings took place in other schools, among them Morris Isaacson, where Tsietsie Mashinini had emerged as a leader. This school began to play a leading role - probably because its older pupils had already formed a branch of the South African Students Movement (SASM). The SASM student leaders canvassed all of the schools involved in the boycott and planned a protest march for the 16th June which would start from various points and end in Orlando stadium, just to the east of Phefeni school.

The protest turns into a bloodbath

y 8am on 16 June, pupils had gathered at their schools with placards carrying anti-Afrikaans slogans and they began their march to Orlando. They attacked the car of the white schools' inspector who happened to be driving past, and pelted any police they saw with stones as well as attacking other passing cars.

Nearby Phefeni JSS, some of the converging contingents from the schools found their path blocked by police. But they were not going to be stopped. Initially around 30 police were engulfed by several thousand pupils waving banners, singing and shouting. In fact all over Soweto pupils were on the march and being joined on their way by local people and unemployed youth, all marching towards Orlando. In total around 10,000 school pupils were involved, some even from primary schools, as was 12-year old Hector Pieterson, who by 10.30 that morning had been shot and killed. By that time 6,000 of the youth had reached Orlando West and were holding a rally on top of a small hill.

For what happened next, it is worth quoting the police report to the government's Cillie commission of enquiry which published its findings in 1979: "Col. Kleingeld's party was attacked with stones, making it impossible for him to address the crowd. The patrol consisted of approximately four police motor vehicles, three heavy duty vehicles and two patrol cars carrying dogs. Four black men were inciting the scholars (sic). The teargas to disperse the crowd was not effective. A baton charge was also unsuccessful. The police were attacked on their flanks and could be surrounded (sic). Some of them were struck by stones. Col Kleingeld fired five pistol shots over the crowd without effect. After that he fired 20 shots with an automatic rifle in front of and over the crowd. Other members of the police also fired shots with their revolvers and pistols, although Col. Kleingeld had not given the order to fire. A black boy H. Ndlovu, who was in citing the crowd, was killed this 15-year old was shot in the head]. Two police dogs were killed and mutilated by the crowd. One of the dogs was doused by petrol and set on fire. Police vehicles were damaged by stones. Hector Pieterson, a Black boy, was fatally wounded by the police. A woman reporter took his body to Phomolong Clinic. Maj. Viljoen and Col van Niekerk joined Col Kleingeld. They proceeded to Moema Street. Sgt Hattingh's vehicle broke down and was stormed by bystanders. Tear gas was subsequently used to free him. Col Kleingeld again fired shots with his automatic rifle."The police regrouped and formed a blockade at Orlando Bridge, faced by about 5,000 school pupils whose ranks had now been swollen by other youths and adults. By now, inflamed by the shootings which by this stage had killed 11 pupils and wounded many more, the whole township began to erupt in reaction. Any white became a target and 2 white officials from the municipal administration were beaten to death.

The battle lines were drawn. Soon all of Soweto's Administration offices and many police stations were in flames. So was a Barclays Bank and so were government sponsored beer halls and private liquor stores. Lorries loaded with deliveries were hijacked and looted. It was at this point that the police began to fire randomly at anybody - young or old, male or female. And when workers who knew nothing of the events began to return home that evening, they too were ambushed by the police and many were shot.

The following day after more school marches, Tsietsie Mashinini from Morris Isaacson high school addressed a meeting in the street calling on pupils to stay away from school and for workers to stay away from work. Barricades were built on the main roads. The police carried on shooting people on the pretext that they were rioters - or on no pretext at all. It is impossible to know how many people were killed in these first few days, but it is probably at least several hundred, with many more wounded.

But still the uprising spread, and now further afield to townships all over the region and indeed, all over the country. Within two months, 80 townships had erupted, and within 4 months the number had risen to 160. Not only townships were involved but also the bantustans, and even in the north of Namibia (then still called South West Africa) upheavals occurred.

Throughout the rest of June and July, Soweto was a battleground. Troops surrounded the huge township and the police made heavily armed forays in their tank-like armed vehicles known as "hippos" often supported by helicopters overhead, manned with snipers. Marches continued with the students insisting on wearing their uniforms in defiance, even if this made them stand out as targets in front of a racist and brutal police who actively sought to shoot at them.

Here and there an attempt was made to resume school lessons, but mostly the boycott remained in place.

By 3 August a Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) had been formed with Tsietsie Mashinini at its head. The 40 delegates from Soweto's high schools demanded the release of the many people who had been detained after 16 June, condemned the Urban Bantu Council as stooges and called for students to go back to school to solve their own problems. Of course they also called for the scrapping of "Bantu Education" and the Afrikaans language directive. But most of the pupils did not return to school. Phefeni JSS was closed, many schools had been burnt, and the students who had been involved had other preoccupations, if they had not been arrested or forced to escape over the border. As one student recalls, "basically we became more of politicians than school kids after June 16." And another " we had to confront the system, because now we were at war with the minority South African whites who were killing us. There was no way round but to continue fighting, to fight."

The working class steps in

On 4 August, a new phase in the struggle began. The SSRC organised a march to John Vorster Square - the notorious police HQ in central Johannesburg, to demand the release of fellow pupils held in custody since 16 June. And that morning they were up early to convince the adults not to go to work. A stretch of railway line to Johannesburg had been sabotaged overnight and trains to the city were cancelled. Buses which tried to run through the township were stoned. In fact many of the adults who responded to the students' call were also parents whose children had disappeared into custody. This first stay-away was a significant success, with 60% of workers heeding the call.

The workers and students formed a 20,000-strong column and began their march, a banner at the head which read: "We are not fighting, don't shoot" But just outside of Soweto the marchers were halted by a police cordon. 12 students were shot; 3 of them were killed.

The same day police fired on students demonstrating in the township of Thembisa, north east of Johannesburg. The next day the SSRC organised roadblocks and tried to get workers to stay away again, without success. But now they were forced to issue advice to all students that they should no longer wear their uniforms in the streets because police were cruising round in cars targeting them. SSRC members had to stay at different addresses every night to avoid arrest. In fact the minister of police now announced that "indefinite preventive detention" was to be brought in to break the revolt.

Nevertheless more stay-aways were called towards the end of August. A leaflet entitled "Azikhwelwa Madoda"! (stay at home"!) was slipped under the doors of houses in Soweto which had been printed in the name of the ANC this time, as well as the SSRC. It is thought that 80% of workers responded to the call to stay off work on 23 August and the strike was still holding firm by Friday 27th. One of the leaflets for the strike was entitled "the black students' message to their beloved parents"which said:"it is well known that the Blacks carry the economy of this county on their shoulders. All the sky-scrapers, super highways, etc., are built on our undistributed wages. It is because of these facts that the students realise that in any liberatory struggle, the power for change lies with the workers".

owever, on the second day of the strike, a contingent of Zulu hostel dwellers carrying sticks and pangas and "protected" by police armoured cars, rampaged through a few parts of Soweto, beating up any youths they came across. The fact was that these were migrant workers who were largely isolated from township life in the austere hostels where they lived. They only had temporary residence permits for Soweto or the other Rand townships, which were tied to their work contracts. Most of them had never been to school themselves and in fact did not know what the students' grievances were, and certainly must have resented being told what to do by these youngsters, especially if this involved losing a day's wage. For these reasons it was possible for the police to try to turn them against the students, at least initially.

So before the next planned "stay-at-homes" scheduled for mid-September, the SSRC made a conscious attempt to address the migrant workers. hey produced a leaflet addressed to "our parents in the hostels" tressing the need for a united stand against injustices, and held large scale meetings at the hostels on the Sunday before the strike was due to start.

On the 13 September very few workers went to work. There were massive stay-aways elsewhere as well - like in Alexandra township in the north east suburbs, where the police arrested 800 and deported any migrant workers they found among the strikers back to their homelands. The police repression the following day however, during which at least 16 workers were shot dead, pushed even more workers out on strike. So, on the third scheduled strike day, as many as half a million workers were on strike in Johannesburg and the surrounding Witwatersrand. What is more, 200,000 coloured workers - about 80% of the Cape Town workforce also went on strike. For the rest of September, workers in many townships up and down the country followed suit and had one, two or more days of strikes.

Then, during demonstrations against Henry Kissinger's visit to South Africa on 17 September, to discuss the situation in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe had not yet won its independence), 6 students were shot dead and 35 injured. 6 days later a protest was held by the students in central Johannesburg without any shootings, but with some arrests. But by October 1976, after a funeral of a schoolboy who had died in police custody after the Johannesburg demonstration, a crowd of angry students and workers destroyed 30 municipal vehicles. Throughout 1977 repeated battles between youth and police took place, resulting in more deaths. The SSRC also began a concerted and quite successful campaign against the beer halls and shebeen (illegal drinking clubs) culture. But Soweto remained under virtual martial law and in a state of occupation by the police while besieged by the army. Calm did not return until the beginning of 1978.

By that time, the apartheid state had been forced to scrap its Afrikaans teaching directive. More schools and a teacher training college were built in Soweto. All urban residents of the townships outside the homelands were now given permanent residential status rather than being designated "temporary sojourners" as had been the case up until then. As another sweetener, black people were allowed to acquire their own property in the townships for the first time.

Where it came from

While the events in Soweto in 1976 may have taken everyone by surprise, they did not take place in a vacuum. By 1973 the black working class had emerged to the forefront of the struggle when it staged huge strikes in Durban area. By the mid-1970s, many students in the black high schools and black universities in the homelands were being radicalised as a result of the wars of independence in Angola and Mozambique. And while South Africa may have been isolated from world events, nevertheless the Black Power movement in the USA helped to feed a growing black nationalism amongst the youth. They joined organisations such as the Black Peoples' Congress, and Black Consciousness Movement, which like the American Black Civil Rights Movement, operated very much within the religious framework of Christianity. And it was under the influence of these ideas, that they set up their student organisations like SASM and SASO.

Largely absent in the run up to June 1976, in terms of political influence on the school pupils, were the two main South African black political organisations - that is the nationalist African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). While they still existed as underground organisations, they were busy consolidating themselves in exile outside the country, and were not at all prepared for the huge number of very young students fleeing the South African police, who crossed the border looking for a way to carry on the struggle.

But, in fact, it was the ANC and SACP who were to be the main beneficiaries of the 1976-1978 mobilisation. Even if they had been initially unprepared to receive the exiled Soweto youth, they soon had very well-organised reception centres in Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho. However, they did not provide the youths with the political training, nor the organisational means they would have needed in order to return to South Africa and resume the fight underground. Instead, they confined the energy of these youngsters inside their guerilla training camps, under the pretext that they needed "military discipline" before going back. Of course, the youth did not need any persuading to start military training. Quite a few of them were actively seeking it when they crossed the border. However, they soon found that the military discipline which they were subjected to was actually a way to stamp out political dissent. But it was only after discovering that they were not going to be organised to return to fight the South African regime after all, that some of them began to question the policy of the ANC/SACP.

They cannot claim this heritage

Today the significance of the 1976 rising in Soweto cannot be denied by any of the main political players in South Africa. And certainly all of them try to lay claim to its heritage.

This year, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary, all the former "liberation movements" have made a particular show of their tributes to the "heroes and martyrs of 1976". And not without reason, since the youth of the country is not too enamoured with those who wield political power in South Africa these days.

This year's 30th anniversary is taking place 12 years after the very first democratic elections in South Africa's history put into power black majority rule, in the form of the tripartite alliance of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Union confederation COSATU.

But today, in the words of Gilo Maguma, one of those who attended this year's Soweto commemoration and who, as a 10 year-old, had joined the 16 June protest in 1976, "We are not liberated yet - we are still confined to 13% of the country... Black people earn peanuts". Or another participant: "I wanted to be a doctor, but I ended up carrying an AK-47 and now I work for the Police." Yet, as a returning member of the ANC's army in exile, he is probably more lucky than most.

Today 30% of the population over 15 years remains illiterate. 42% of those of working age have no job, and 20% of those who are counted as having one, are in the so-called informal sector - which includes eking out an existence by making and selling articles out of recycled rubbish collected on trash heaps. Worse still, youth unemployment is as high as 70%. In the March 2006 municipal elections, youth stayed away - and the mainly urban province of Gauteng, where Soweto lies, had the lowest voter turnout in the country, at 42%.

What is more, HIV infection continues to decimate the population, with the very delayed "roll-out" of anti-HIV drugs utterly unable to counter this. It is estimated that around 5.5m South Africans were living with HIV at the end of 2005, including at least 240,000 children under 15 years old. But nobody really knows how many are infected exactly, only that it is perhaps a quarter of the population.

So this year, President Thabo Mbeki was seen in Soweto, trying, apparently, to initiate some kind of political re-engagement with youth. He led the march to the grave of Hector Pieterson, the 12-year old shot by police 30 years ago, whose dying body in the arms of one of the demonstrators is the image which has come to symbolise the uprising. Mbeki went on to address a 20,000 strong crowd in the main Soweto football stadium, arriving in a large black Mercedes.

One has to wonder whose idea it was for an air force helicopter to display aerial gymnastics for the occasion, given the fact that those who had been part of the 16 June uprising would remember how police shot into crowds of demonstrators from such a helicopter - 1976 version - 30 years ago. But then, by now, hasn't Mbeki's party, the ANC, welcome into its fold the old ruling National Party of the apartheid era?

Mbeki's speech included a long-winded description of a number of bureaucratic projects for a few thousand youth, which Tony Blair would be proud of, including "programmes provided by the Umsobomvu Youth Fund to enable youth to start their own businesses and to expand enterprises they might be running", Predictably it soon had many of the youngsters drifting towards the gates, having totally lost interest.

As to the SACP, like all the others it "saluted" the heroes of 1976. Its message to the youth was to join the ANC/SACP or even Christian or other "progressive" youth organisations, going on to say: "The primary means through which we should ensure the working class bias in all our formations, is by building organisations that are mass-based and campaigning. The SACP wishes to invite the youth to support the SACP-led campaigns on making banks to serve the people, for a one-off amnesty for all those listed in the faceless Credit Bureaux, for building a stronger co-operative movement and for speeding up the transfer of productive land to the overwhelming majority of people! The youth must also ensure we build a state with a working class bias..."

To speak of a working class "bias" says it all about the CP, because it has been pretending to be able to make the working class's interests figure in the ANC-led government's programmes for capitalist enrichment - both domestic and foreign - for the past 12 years. So it has to explain why this does not work, but at the same time give workers reason to continue to support the party. To illustrate this "bias", the SACP's take on the "informal economy" better known as the scrap heap economy, is worth a note. According to the SACP, the "informal economy" is not part of the capitalist economy, but outside it, and therefore it is to be encouraged and even organised somehow, because it is workers "doing for themselves" and therefore really "socialistic" in embryo! Even if most of these so-called "small enterprises" (no matter how imaginative) amount to a desperate attempt at bare survival at the margins of society by literally scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Of course, what else can be expected from organisations which used the credit they had among the masses to ensure a smooth transition out of the apartheid era, which preserved the interests of the South-African and imperialist capitalist classes and deprived the working class of its victory?

But no matter how much they try to mummify the Soweto uprising and the militant traditions of the South African masses, they cannot rub out of the historical record the fact that apartheid would not have been overthrown without the mobilisation of the working masses. Of course, in the absence of a revolutionary party representing the political interests of the working class, the potential of this mobilisation was squandered by the nationalists of the ANC/SACP alliance. But lessons from history are there to be learnt and used by others. As to the Soweto uprising, it will remain for this and the future generation as the symbol of a fundamental idea - that, even under the most repressive regime, social change can be achieved; but that it can only be achieved by the mass mobilisation of the poor and working people.