The Turn to Armed Struggle

The banning of the resistance movements, the general response of the state to the wave of protests and its capacity to contain them, revealed deficiencies in the organisational structures of both the ANC and PAC. Both then turned the armed struggle.

The ANC revived the M-Plan, which it had proposed earlier, and by 1961 established Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). MK mounted its first attacks in December 1961. The campaign was mostly symbolic, avoiding human targets. The targets were strategic installations: railway stations, pylons, police stations and other government infrastructure.

The PAC launched Poqo, which mounted a bloodier campaign during 1962 and 1963, targeting Whites in Cape Town, in the hope that this would inspire a general insurrection and the overthrow of the state.

Cultural and Other Forms of Resistance

Civil society was the site of resistance before organised political movements were established, especially through church movements and newspapers aimed at the growing urban intelligentsia.

1. Squatter Rebellions

Throughout the 20th century, ordinary people who were not strictly activists or members of political organisations engaged in forms of resistance that defied the state.

Black emigration to the cities increased exponentially in the decade after 1936. During this time the number of Black people in Johannesburg increased from 229 122 to 384 628 people by 1946 Factors that contributed to this emigration included a failure of the reservesto provide subsistence to its inhabitants (even before the war), a maize shortage after 1941 and the increase in wages in urban areas.

From the early 1940s onwards, squatter movements responded to “the serious shortage of housing which developed during the period of rapid urbanisation”, and developed into an open rebellion on an “unprecedented scale”.

By March 1963, the City Council estimated that there were 92 500 people living in informal settlements in Johannesburg. Virtual states within the state, these settlements in Orlando, Pimville and Alexandra became no-go areas for Whites and state officials, with people’s courts, police and administration established by the residents and their leaders.

2. Insubordination

Charles van Onselen has shown that “in the period up to 1914, increasing militancy among domestic workers was becoming a matter of serious concern for their White employees”. They engaged in acts of desertion, insolence, petty thieving and, more seriously, in sexual assaults, robbery, and violence.

3. Gangsterism and crime

When the system itself makes legitimate forms of resistance difficult and normal life impossible, some are led into lifestyles that defy the norms of legitimacy, and gangsterism was one such manifestation of escape from the strictures of segregation and apartheid. The Amalaita gangs of the early 20th century are one such expression. The Ninevites, who began operating from the 1890s, were a secret gang of criminals and robbers, “the largest Black working class/lumpen proletarian [people who are poorer than the working classes, who don’t have jobs and engage in piece-meal work] organisation in Johannesburg at the time”... read more

The Rivonia Trial

In 1963, the state swooped on Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, and arrested almost the entire high command of MK. The accused were defended by Bram Fisher, a lawyer who was also a member of the Communist Party.

Mandela used the trial to give the public an idea of the ANC’s thinking, including its belief in human rights, its defence of the turn to armed struggle, a discourse that was later published in the book Long Walk to Freedom. In a situation where any discourse on human rights was subject to surveillance, even if it managed to emerge into the public realm, Mandela’s words acted as a form of mobilisation for the cause of liberation.

The defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the liberation movements turned to their exile movements to continue the struggle.

For a decade there was little organised resistance activity, until the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement.

The Black Consciousness (BC) Movement

The presence of the Black Consciousness Movement in the Transvaal and Johannesburg was not as readily felt in the period of its emergence as in other centres in the country, although this state of affairs changed to such an extent that Soweto became the hub of BC activity by the mid-1970s, culminating in the 1976 Soweto unrest.

Steve Biko

It has to be understood that the period of enforced calm – after the ANC and PAC were forced underground – saw few expressions of resistance against the regime, and the atmosphere in the country was one of deep depression and submission. The psychology of the Black, Indian and Coloured populations was of a people deprived of the means to define its own reality, and increasingly convinced that it was incapable of doing anything to change the situation.

In this context, the smallest act of resistance took on significance far greater than the actual act - it took on a symbolic significance. And that is the level at which BC activists operated: they acted in defiance and tapped into the desire to defy simmering among the masses.

The BCM began when Steve Biko and his peers reached a critical level of disillusionment with the largely White student union, National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). They broke off and formed the SA Students Organisation (SASO), then the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) and a string of other organisations. SASO’s establishment – following the emergence of the University Christian Movement (UCM) – officially took place in Marianhill in July 1969. Students from Johannesburg attended the conference, and set up BC structures at their tertiary institutions after their return home.

The BCM set up offices in Durban and in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Much of BC activity revolved around cultural events such as poetry readings, plays and concerts. Given the context – full-blown apartheid and heavy state repression – these events had an explosive edge to them, and drew the scrutiny of the security apparatuses.

On 3 May 1972, Onkgopotse Abram Tiro was expelled from Turfloop University (University of the North, 40km from Polokwane) after delivering a scathing speech at a graduation ceremony a few days earlier. His expulsion sparked a student boycott that resulted in all 1146 students being expelled. On the weekend of 12 May, SASO staged a formation school at the Federal Theological Seminary at Alice, where it issued the Alice Declaration, which resolved that Black students at all tertiary institutions would join the boycott in sympathy with the Turfloop students.

In Johannesburg’s Indian suburb of Fordsburg, where the Transvaal College of Education was based, the trainee teachers joined the strike, as did students at various institutions in Johannesburg, especially in Soweto. By the end of May every major Black campus was on strike, and authorities banned SASO on many campuses.

In Soweto, theatre groups such as MDALI and Shikomo were organising events, while in Lenasia the Black People’s Theatre Group (BPTG) were doing the same. Shikomo and BPTG merged to form the People’s Experimental Theatre, which staged a play by Mthuli Shezi, Shanti. They also staged Requiem for Brother X in Lenasia and Soweto.

When the UCM disbanded after a heavy state crackdown, it bequeathed its resources to the BCM, and the BPC took over its offices in Johannesburg.

Tiro and many BC activists secured positions as teachers at schools in Soweto and other Black townships, notably the Morris Isaacson and Naledi High schools in Soweto and Healdtown in the Eastern Cape. Black school pupils formed the South African Students Movement under the direction of BC activists such as Steve Biko. Tiro lasted six months before the educational authorities relieved him of his position, and by the end of 1973 he was in exile in Botswana.

In February 1973, eight BCM leaders were served with banning orders, necessitating a reorganisation of BCM. Ben Khoapa was banned in October, and the terrorism trial of Mosibudi Mangena ended in October 1973 with his conviction.

After the Portuguese dictator Marcello Caetano was toppled in April 1974, the independence of the country’s colonies was announced. BCM activists in Durban and at the University of the North (Turfloop) organised a rally to celebrate Frelimo’s impending takeover of Mozambique. The rallies were promptly banned by the state. When thousands gathered for the rally at Currie’s Fountain in Durban, police dispersed the crowd in a heavy-handed manner. The Turfloop indoor meeting was also broken up by police, and the university was closed for two weeks. In Johannesburg plans to stage a parallel event were disrupted by police scrutiny, with many activists on the run.

The security police cracked down on BCM activity throughout the country, and by the end of the year 20 activists had been banned. In January 1975 13 BC leaders were arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act. Reduced to nine defendants after state witnesses fleed the country, they appeared at pre-trial hearings in February and March, and used the opportunity to exhibit a radical disrespect for the system, waving Black Power fists and singing protest songs. When Steve Biko testified at the trial in May 1976, he turned his testimony, rendered over five days, into a seminar on Black Consciousness.

16 June: The Students Revolt

The imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in Black schools, specifically for mathematics and arithmetic, was the immediate trigger for the uprising that took place on 16 June 1976. But it was the entire apartheid apparatus that caused the anger of the students and the communities they came from. Perceived by many Black people, especially in Soweto, as the language of the oppressor, Afrikaans was the language used when Pass Laws were enforced and when administrative matters were dealt with.

Already on 5 January 1976, the Meadowlands Tswana School Board held a meeting with Bantu Education officials to discuss an escalating unrest at Soweto schools, while on 22 January Dr Andries Treurnicht, a conservative former chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond, was appointed Deputy Minister of Bantu Education and Bantu Administration, setting the scene for a more draconian educational dispensation.

June 16, 1976. Marching kids, in a mood common to school kids the world over happy that they were not in class, good naturedly protesting against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at their schools. Source: Bailey's African History Archives.

The Black People’s Convention, SASO and South African Students Movement (SASM) began to mobilise students against the imposition of Afrikaans at Black schools. At the end of April, pupils at Orlando West Junior School embarked on a strike against the imposition of Afrikaans. By mid-May students at Phefeni Secondary School, Belle Higher Primary School, Thulasizwe Higher Primary School, and Emthonjeni Khulo Ngolawazi Higher Primary School joined the protest.

Meanwhile, in May 1976, Steve Biko gave evidence at the trial of the SASO Nine in the Pretoria High Court, turning his trial into a seminar on Black Consciousness, and spreading the ideas of the movement through reports in newspapers.

When a member of the school board was dismissed, pupils at Orlando West again went on strike, and presented the principal with a list of grievances. The strike soon spread to Pimville Higher Primary School, and SASM convened a conference in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, to consider the possibility of a campaign against the Afrikaans decree.

On 8 June, police tried to arrest a SASM leader at Naledi High, but they were stoned by students and left without making the arrest. Three days later, Deputy Minister of Bantu Education Andries Treurnicht rejected an application by five Soweto schools for an exemption from the Afrikaans decree.

On 13 June, the Naledi branch of SASM held a meeting, attended by representatives of all Soweto schools, at which delegates decided that protests would be held on 16 June against the use of Afrikaans in education. An action committee called the Soweto Students' Representative Council was formed to organise the demonstration, with two representatives from each school.

On 16 June, 20 000 students embarked on a march in protest against the decree that they be taught in a language they did not understand. The police opened fire on them.

In retaliation, students set fire to beerhalls (which were used to bankroll apartheid councils in the townships), administrative centres, schools, clinics and libraries. Police cars were also set on fire, and extra police are deployed to the township.

The same day saw the Internal Security Amendment Act replace the Suppression of Communism Act, giving the minister of Justice additional powers to clamp down on organisations, publications, to regulate gatherings and to ban and detain 'suspects'.

By the end of the day, some 200 pupils had been killed, and on the next day workers stayed away from work, with clashes raging throughout the township. By 18 June the UN Security Council announced its condemnation of the police response to the students’ protest.

The official death toll was set at 174 dead, 1 222 wounded and 1 298 arrested. 67 beerhalls and bottle stores were destroyed, 53 administrative buildings torched, 154 vehicles, 13 schools and various other buildings also destroyed.

The brutal attack left the country reeling, forcing the parents of the children to engage in a battle against apartheid that they had until hoped to avoid. The Committee of Ten emerged to deal with the crisis, as did the Soweto Students Representative Council, which coordinated student action.

More than 500 teachers resigned in protest against the brutal reaction to the student revolt, and protests spread throughout the country, marking the year as a watershed in resistance to the apartheid system, and indeed the beginning of the end of High Apartheid.

Workers embarked on massive stay-aways, crippling the economy, while all forms of collaboration with the apartheid authorities dwindled. The Soweto Urban Bantu Council was disbanded after students began targeting its members. Many councillors throughout the country resigned. Minister of Police and Prisons Jimmy Kruger estimated that 20% of Soweto residents took active part in the protests.

The protests swept the country, and schools were boycotted in the Transvaal, the Free State, Natal and the Cape. On 4 August, about 20 000 students from Soweto began to march to the Johannesburg city centre, but were turned back. In Mafeking students torched the buildings of the Bophuthatswana legislature, while 33 students were killed in clashes at campuses in Port Elizabeth.

In August, huge demonstrations took place in the Cape Town townships of Gugulethu, Langa and Nyanga, and marches to the city centre resulted in bloody clashes. Black, Coloured and Indian children marched to the city centre, where more clashes took place with the police. Coloured students from the University of the Western Cape in Belville clashed with police, and at the University of Cape Town (UCT) 73 students were arrested.

From 23 to 25 August, hundreds of thousands of Soweto’s residents observed a three-day strike, and renewed rioting broke out in the township in September and again in October. A call for a five-day strike in November met with limited response.

In December, the nine SASO students arrested in October 1974 and on trial under terrorism charges were found guilty and sentenced to terms on Robben Island. Winnie Mandela, recently unbanned and a member of the Black Parents Committee, was detained, released and again subject to a banning order. In May 1977, she was banished to a township outside Brandfort in the OFS.

In April 1977, 10 000 students in Soweto protested against rent increases, burning the offices of the Urban Bantu Council. By June most of the councillors resigned, yielding to pressure from the students.

The anniversary of the unrest, on 16 June, saw sporadic clashes between police and students in Soweto and Sharpeville, and a call for a stay-away was only partially successful. A week later, violence erupted once again, and the next day, 146 people were arrested.

In March 1977, Steve Biko was arrested once again. He died in detention on 12 September 1977, after being brutally assaulted by security police and driven from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg in the back of a van, despite severe head injuries. His death saw a chorus of local and international condemnation.

The unrest only began to subside in October 1977, after some six or seven hundred people had been killed. Thousands of children went into exile, joining the ANC and other liberation organisations, replenishing their military ranks and setting the stage for a stepping up of the armed struggle.

On 19 October 1977, the state banned 18 organisations, all linked to the Black Consciousness Movement, including SASO, BPC, BCP, and the Christian Institute. It also banned the newspaper The World, anti-apartheid clergyman BeyersNaude, who headed the Christian Institute, and Donald Woods, editor of the Daily Despatch.

In March 1978, Percy Qoboza, editor of the banned newspaper, The World, was released from detention, together with nine other Black leaders seized in security raids in October 1976. Later in the same month, it was reported that about 15,000 students had returned to secondary schools in Soweto and that thirty-two of the forty state-run schools in the townships would re-open by the beginning of April.

Three more detainees were also released in March: the Chairman of the ‘Committee of Ten, Dr. N. Motlana, a member of the Committee, L Mosala, and Soweto journalist, Aggrey Klaaste.

In April, the Azanian Peoples Organisation (Azapo) was formed at an inaugural conference at Roodepoort, near Johannesburg. Membership was open to Blacks, Coloureds and Indians, but closed to Whites, and the organization adopted the slogan of the banned Black People’s Convention: ‘One Azania, one People’ and vowed to oppose all institutions created by the government, from homelands to Community Councils. But by 4 May, Azapo’s two principal leaders, Ishmael Mkhabela and Lybon Mabasa were arrested in Soweto. Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu protested against the detentions, remarking that the authorities were unwilling to listen to the voices of authentic Black leaders.

On 25 September, the trial of eleven Soweto students charged under the Terrorism Act began. The 56-page indictment alleged that as officers, members or supporters of the now banned Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC), they conspired to commit sedition and terrorism between May 1976 and October 1977.

On 11 May 1979, the 11 Soweto school leaders were convicted of sedition and sentenced in Johannesburg to terms of imprisonment, most of which were suspended, since the accused had already been held for long periods.

In November 1979, the Azanian Students Organisation (Azaso) was formed, while on 24 December, the Security Police detained the president and six executive members of the recently formed COSAS.

After the Information Scandal broke out, followed by the resignation of John Vorster as prime minister, PW Botha took the reins of power, and set in motion a series of reforms which, although rejected because they were inadequate, set the stage for the ultimate demise of apartheid.

Last updated : 21-Feb-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 20-Oct-2011