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From The Socialist newspaper, 22 June 2006

Soweto uprising 1976

The powder keg ignites

THIRTY YEARS ago, South Africa's vicious apartheid regime was shaken by an heroic uprising started by thousands of school students in the black 'township' of Soweto near Johannesburg. The police killed at least 140 people on 16-17 June 1976, mostly in Soweto and 600 as they tried to put down the revolt.

South Africa was then still under the apartheid regime which used 'separate development' to disenfranchise, racially segregate and keep down the country's black majority and to ensure plentiful cheap labour.

The ruling Nationalist government insisted that school lessons in certain subjects must be taken in Afrikaans - a simplified form of Dutch closely associated with white minority rule and particularly with the oppression of apartheid. This was part of their policy of 'Bantu Education', a contemptuous attempt to create an enslaved cheap labour black working class.

Students had begun boycotting Afrikaans classes and elected an action committee that later became the Soweto Students' Representative Council (SSRC). The campaign started with a demonstration on 16 June. As Militant, the predecessor of the socialist, reported (25/6/76): "The spark that precipitated the outbreak was the cold-blooded firing by the police into the ranks of demonstrating school children."

The police fired tear gas into the crowd, then estimated at 12,000 strong. The students replied with a volley of stones, so the police fired directly into the crowd, killing many young protesters. 13-year-old Hector Petersen was one of the first victims of the police onslaught, being shot down in front of his sister and friends.

The unarmed school students, who had been singing and waving placards, refused to be terrorised! Militant quoted a black photographer who said: "More children fell. There seemed to be no plan. The police were merely bursting away at the mob." But many of the youth themselves "seemed oblivious to the danger. They continued running towards the police - dodging and ducking."

Conditions under apartheid and under capitalism were so oppressive that young blacks were prepared to face bullet-firing police armed only with stones. The police retreated as the youth attacked all buildings associated with the hated apartheid state, emptying liquor from the bottle stores and requisitioning petrol - in the name of the revolution - for petrol bombs.

The education system was the spark but there were many such grievances throughout apartheid South Africa, especially in the townships. Militant described Soweto as a "powder keg waiting for a match to set it alight" with "virtual concentration camps".

"The inmates are let out in the early mornings to work in factories, services and as servants for white employers. They get up at 5.30am to leave by 6am... They return at 7pm or 8pm. 80% have no electric lights, running water or water-borne lavatories.

"There is no street lighting, unpaved roads become mud tracks. Row upon row of virtual boxes, without internal doors and with corrugated iron roofs, virtually no amenities, except beer halls to drown out their miseries...

"A million Africans are packed into Soweto. Half the population is unemployed and therefore without permits to stay, at the mercy of any police raid."

The article contrasted the dreadful conditions of the townships with the privileged life of many middle-class whites "with lawns, swimming pools and all modern amenities. They have (black) servants, maids and cooks, even gardeners."

Apartheid governments had set up so-called "independent' Bantustans on South Africa's periphery. 20 million black Africans were to share 13% of mainly barren land while four million whites controlled 87% of fertile land. That meant that blacks who had been born in white areas would be regarded as 'migrant' labour.' Most black workers had never seen these mythical homelands, but were robbed of South African citizenship.

Workers' struggles

HOWEVER THE Soweto uprising changed the consciousness of South Africa's black working class. Between 1961 and 1974 the number of black workers in South Africa's manufacturing industry doubled. As Militant said two months after the uprising: "The key to developments in South Africa, if not the whole continent, is the increasingly organised black working class.

"The industrialisation programme of the capitalists themselves has created the black industrial workers, with their numerical strength, their concentration in the enormous rundown townships that surround the big cities, and therefore all the preconditions for the adoption of socialist ideas."

In 1973, at least 100,000 black workers had gone on strike, mainly in the Durban area, demanding higher wages. The state had to concede the right to strike to black workers. Meanwhile international developments, such as the revolution in Portugal that ignited the fire of revolt in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, increased the attraction of Black Consciousness, based on the ideas of the Black Panthers and the US civil rights movement.

But as a 1986 article on Soweto by South African socialist and anti-apartheid activist, Weizmann Hamilton, reprinted in this month's Socialism Today says: "In revolutionary periods, the working class learns in days and hours what it takes years to learn in periods of class tranquillity."

Many workers, parents of the dead and injured students from Soweto and the worse repression that followed - when just raising a clenched fist and shouting "Amandla (freedom)" was enough to warrant a police bullet in the head - spontaneously stayed away from work the next day

Youth in Alexandria township, north of Johannesburg, had seen that they couldn't beat the apartheid state forces by themselves and appealed to their parents at work to back them. By 22 June, over 1,000 workers at the Chrysler car factory had stopped work in the first strike action consciously held in support of the students.

In Soweto, the SSRC took on the responsibility of organising for a student march into Johannesburg on 4 August and for three days the first political general strike since 1961.

The government conceded on the Afrikaans issue but the revolt had gone too far and was now clearly aimed at the regime itself. With the increasingly militant and well-organised youth going house to house explaining the situation to their parents, a series of 'stay-aways' was organised as well as demonstrations, sit-ins, bus boycotts etc.

Free market

THE FLAMES of revolt fanned by the Soweto massacre stayed alive for more than a year but the ideas of Black Consciousness could not take the struggle forward after the end of the 1970s.

The African National Congress (ANC) with its Freedom Charter - widely seen and appreciated as a far-reaching agenda for social change - gained the backing of the youth as well as the working class.

The youth became more and more anti-capitalist in the 1980s. A period of mass struggle between 1984 and 1986 was a major factor in forcing the ruling class to agree a settlement ending white minority rule and allowing black South Africans access to free elections.

The ANC, who had already ditched the Freedom Charter and its demand for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, won elections in 1994 and have been in power since.

They are now carrying out the unashamed neoliberal 'free market' policies of the so-called Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme. As the introduction to the Socialism Today article says: "12 years after the fall of white minority rule, a new class apartheid characterises South Africa."

Today the country has 40% unemployment, 50% living in poverty, and one of the most unequal wealth and income distributions in the world. Young people are again bearing the brunt of policies that entrenched the economic dictatorship of the white capitalist class and a minuscule black elite.

Less than half of those who leave school reach the final year while sky-high tuition fees restrict opportunities for those in tertiary education. More social explosions are on the cards in South Africa.

The working class and youth need socialism now as much as ever. The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, part of the Committee for a Workers' International, to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) is today campaigning for a mass workers' party fighting on a socialist programme.

Compiled with additional material by Roger Shrives


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