Reaction Takes the Offensive
After the first attempted march on Johannesburg on 4 August, and the partial stay-at-home which kept at least 60 per cent of the labour force away from work, the SSRC was forced on to the defensive. There were large-scale arrests, and the committee members never spent two days at the same place. On 11 August the Minister of Police, J. Kruger, introduced 'indefinite preventative detention' to break the Revolt.
There were signs of an unholy alliance emerging against the youth. The government was determined to smash all organisations that opposed their apartheid plans. Kruger told a Nationalist audience on 21 August: 'He knows his place and, if not, I'll tell him. The Blacks always say, "We shall overcome", but I say we shall overcome.
In Soweto the Urban Bantu Council was busy organising vigilante groups. In the court action brought by Winnie Mandela on 15 August, and, it was claimed that the government had given this body permission to set up a 'Home Guard' which would attack the homes of members of the Black Parents Association when trouble occurred. A police officer who was at the meeting, apparently assured those present that no one would be prosecuted for carrying weapons and that the vigilante groups would have police co-operation.
From further information, it appears that the police also sought the co-operation of the makeshift tribal courts known as makgotla which had the support of the UBC. These 'courts' dealt with minor criminal cases, family disputes and a range of misdemeanours. Those found guilty by the makgotla officials were publicly flogged. The courts had no legal standing, but were not prohibited by the government. The youth were known to despise these tribal institutions, and there was little love lost between them and the 'court'
officials. Nevertheless, the makgotla remained neutral throughout the Revolt. The police also sought support amongst migrant workers, some of whom had turned on the youth on 4 August when called upon to strike. These labourers, largely isolated from the more permanent inhabitants of Soweto, had few local roots. They had no contact with the students and no knowledge of their problems. The slogans of the Revolt were meaningless to them, and they were more likely to find the closing of the schools incomprehensible. Education, for many of them, was still the prized object they had failed to attain. The unemployed youth, on the other hand, were (or appeared to be) the tsotsis they hated and feared as pay-day predators. The migrant worker, furthermore, would tend to be amongst the first to resent action that led to an absence from work. Their pay was low and their presence in town was designed to secure the maximum possible return before their contracts expired. A strike which would not lead to direct pay increases -- and which could even lead to dismissal - was not readily acceptable.
The Zulu migrants also had a background of strife which they brought with them into the urban areas.5 The police seemed to have had information which allowed them to manipulate the residents at one of the hostels, Mzimhlope, in Soweto. It was only the Zulus at this one hostel who seemed to be vulnerable, and other hostels, where comparable numbers of Zulu lived, were not similarly penetrated by police agents. The Zulus at Mzimhlope, furthermore, numbered only 1,630 (out of a total of 10,300 men who had their abode there) and were only one of five approximately equal ethnic groups. The group was, however, quite large enough for the nefarious plot the police were preparing, and during August they waited their opportunity to employ these men against the students. Chief Gatsha Buthelezi stepped into the murky waters on 10 August, when he issued a statement calling 'for the establishment of vigilante groups to protect Black property against political action'. The newspaper report on his statement continued: 'Appalled by the destruction of African schools and educational equipment, the chief warned Black radicals that they might soon be confronted by a backlash from the responsible elements of the Black community.' He was also said to have expressed dismay at 'the powerlessness and inaction' of the government.
When eventually a stay-at-home was called on the weekend 21-22 August, other upholders of 'law and order' made statements in similar terms. Major General Geldenhuys warned: 'Agitators who attempt to enforce a work stayaway in Soweto will experience a backlash from law abiding citizens in the townships. People in Soweto are getting sick of these people, and because of this the police are not worried.9 And on the second day of the strike, Col. Visser warned: 'Go to work and disregard the groups of young intimidators telling people not to go to work. People must go to work and just thrash the children stopping them.'10 The message was clear -- and groups at Mzimhlope
Hostel were indeed being prepared to 'thrash the children'; it also seemed clear that the Major-General had been misinformed: workers in Soweto were not 'sick of these people', and had in fact responded to the call for a three day strike!
Azikhwelwa Madoda! (Stay at Home!)
Azikhwelwa Madoda! The call to stay-at-home was slipped under the doors of houses in Soweto by the students. The leaflet was brought out under the name of the ANC, signifying a degree of co-operation with the SSRC which fluctuated during the months to come, but was always present in 1976. It also stressed a continuity with the stay-at-homes in the 1950's called by the ANC, and now, once again, called by the same movement from the political underground. On 23 August there was an 80 per cent response to the joint SSRC/ANC call. Some factories ran on skeleton staffs; others were closed down. The young pickets who gathered at Soweto railway station had little to do and there were no taxis or buses inside the township. Only police-protected buses, on the outskirts of Soweto, were available for the small pockets of men who ignored the taunts of the young.
Many of those who chose to work were migrants, but only from some hostels. Reports from other hostels indicated that they fully supported the strike. There was no sign of the much heralded backlash, despite some skirmishes when the men returned that evening. The SSRC and ANC had scored a major victory, even though SSRC President, Tsietsi Mashinini had to flee the country the day the strike began. His statement from exile that the ANC was 'extinct internally' and that 'as far as the struggle is concerned they are not anything' was incomprehensible and only devalued the work, done jointly, in preparing for the strike.
On the afternoon of the second day of the strike, the long heralded event occurred. The Minister, the UBC, the Major-General and Chief Buthelezi could not all be wrong. Armed hostel dwellers, (carrying sticks, assegais and long bladed knives) charged through the streets of Soweto, flanked by police Hippos. When the youth tried to halt the hostel dwellers, they were fired at by police, and the 'backlash' continued in a path of destruction. The myth spread, and is probably still believed by many, that the Zulus were on the rampage. The fact that it was a tiny minority of one hostel that acted this way has been obscured by the real damage inflicted by a group of men, protected by the police and, according to available evidence, fed by them with marijuana and urged to kill the 'troublemakers'.
A second myth appeared in the wake of the first story, to the effect that it was Buthelezi who persuaded the hostel dwellers that their action had been misguided. Buthelezi had been informed by the Minister that he would not be allowed into the hostel. But the Chief ignored the ban and addressed the men of Mzimhlope and, strangely, the authorities did nothing. He later made a statement accusing the police of having staged the whole affair. Kruger warned the press not to publish the account, but the Sunday Tribune printed it in full. Again nothing was done. Gibson Thula, Buthelezi's urban representative, was also warned to stay away. He defied the ban and spoke to the hostel workers. He later made the claim that not only Zulus were involved in the fighting and killing. No one accepted Mr. Thula's account, but that was of little consequence. He, too, was not apprehended for defying the ban. Even if all the bans were bluffs, and the Inkatha leaders, by ignoring the government's statements, showed them to be hollow, the story as told conceals the fact that students, hostel dwellers and other parties met, and a reconciliation was arrived at without Buthelezi's intervention. The question that needs to be asked is why this elaborate charade was staged, and what was being concealed in the process? Friday, 27 August, was the third day of the strike. Despite the attempt by the police to produce a backlash the previous day, the strike held firm. Although there were reports from some factories that workers had reported for duty, other establishments stated that there were even fewer workers than before. The government, however, continued its provocative line and claimed that law abiding Blacks would put a stop to the students' actions. The Minister of Police, for example, stated: 'People are allowed to protect themselves against physical intimidation. The situation will calm itself once people realise there is a strong backlash.'
The stay-at-home proved to be a valuable step; it provided fresh impetus to the struggle throughout the country, and the Cape students, as previously described, declared their solidarity by staying away from classes. In towns big and small across the Cape, there were demonstrations, stonings and burning buildings. Riot police were airlifted from the Rand to Cape Town and the concerted move to smash the coloured students was begun with unprecedented ferocity. The success of the strike was not, however, complete. There was an attempt to get the workers of Mamelodi (Pretoria) also to stay at home, but the call seems to have been ignored despite the fact that the school boycott movement in Pretoria had commenced with industrial action. There was also a call for a stay-at-home in Port Elizabeth at the end of August, but this too seems to have gone unheeded. In the flush of the victory in Soweto, these failures were overlooked, and the students did not heed the fact that the workers would not necessarily respond to every summons, and that there had to be good grounds for staying away from work. This was to be underlined for many families, on Friday 27 August, when many firms paid for only two days labour. There was little food on Soweto tables that weekend.
In the light of the obvious hardship following the solidarity displayed that week, the leaflet that was put out, claiming that the real losers were the bosses, was not very convincing: 'Well, that we will lose these wages is a fact but we should not cry over them. We have to rejoice over the fact that while we lost these wages, we dealt the Racist Regime and Factory Owners a heavy blow - They Lost Their Profits.
To Return or Not to Return to School
In the first week of September the students in Soweto and Cape Town were under pressure to return to school from parents, from teachers, and from official and unofficial bodies. The SSRC used the issue to produce a general statement addressed to 'all residents of Soweto, hostels. Reef and Pretoria'. In an eight point message they called for Black (African) unity and urged that all in-fighting should cease. Two of the points were directed against 'false leaders' and 'political opportunists', and a third point admonished: 'We say to all black students, residents and hostel inmates: You know your true leaders.
Listen to your leaders. Support your leaders. Follow your leaders.' Point seven was a restatement, said the SSRC, of their demands to the government that all students and black leaders be released; that Bantu Education be 'scraped off; that apartheid be abolished; and that the government consult with the parents and black leaders to end the crisis. The final point was addressed to all school students. They were told that they had to return to school and the teachers were to start teaching 'and stop wasting time discussing about us and not with us'.
The Cape Town students had no need at that stage to appeal for unity, nor had they been confronted in August by weapon wielding migrant workers. That time would come, but there was not yet such a problem. There was no clearly declared leadership, and no counter-leaders, and the students did not have to address themselves to the kinds of problems the SSRC faced in Soweto. But they did have to provide a lead on the issue of school attendance. A leaflet was issued 'Prom the African scholars of Cape Town' and commenced with the slogan that had been popularised: 'Once we return to our desks - the cause is lost.' This set the whole tone of their declaration and determined their approach to the boycott. They claimed:
Even if the natural scholar-leaders were to return to school now their friends would not agree. The leaders would be regarded as traitors to the whole school community and would be victimised. It is the whole system of Bantu Education which is at issue -- no less. The schools represent a rejected system which offers an education so poor as to be practically valueless.
Violence is likely to break out again and continue if nothing is done. In the Homelands many schools have already been burned down because authority would not listen. Schools in the Cape may not be spared in the future.
The following conditions were set down for returning to school:
Release of detained scholars -- 'parole prior to standing trial is acceptable'; police to stay out of schools unless requested by a principal; re-establishment of communications between the students and government authorities, with security guarantees for representatives of the students;
real changes in the educational system; and adjustment to the end of year examinations with extra tuition to allow candidates the possibility of passing.
The leaflet was addressed in part to the government and in part to the African students. The central demand was that Bantu Education be scrapped and that was indeed central to the demand of every African student in the country. But in the Cape Town context more had to be said, and the African students obviously had not found a means of raising slogans that would apply equally to themselves and to their allies in the coloured schools. The inability to bridge the gulf, created by the system of apartheid, underlined the difficulty of building a real co-ordinating committee that could represent all black students.
The final demand also introduced a note of equivocation that was not in keeping with the militant stance of the document. By raising the issue of extra tuition for the end of the year examinations, the students indicated that they were thinking of returning to school and that the entire issue could be over before December. This could indicate supreme confidence in their power to win their demands or, alternatively, give notice that they could not stay out indefinitely and did not wish to spoil their chances at the examinations.
The Soweto appeal to return to school was unrealistic -- even if it was only a tactical move to restore an organisational base for the SSRC. There was no response from the majority of students, and the schools stayed closed. In view of police tactics at the time, it was hardly conceivable that the youth would go back. The riot squads were out in force in the townships, and neither homes nor schools were safe from their raids. To have gone back to classes in the circumstances would have been an admission of defeat -- and this was precisely what government spokesmen were demanding in their public statements.
On 8 September Vorster addressed a Nationalist Party meeting in Bloemfontein. He maintained that he would never hold talks on the question of one man, one vote. The only way that he knew for governing South Africa was 'by the policy and principles of the Nationalist Party'. He assured his audience that law and order would be restored immediately and that, if this could not be done by existing methods, other steps would be taken. Mr. Kruger also spoke to the meeting. His message was direct. Every White had to protect his own property and, if he had to kill in the process, that was justified. The Nationalist Party members got the message -- and so too did the black students.
Legality and Illegality in Soweto
From August through to December the schools of Soweto hardly functioned. There were occasions when a clutch of youth attended formal lessons, and large numbers would often come to the school premises in order to avoid being picked up by the police when off the school precincts. Jabulani school, being a technical secondary school, functioned more 'normally'. Yet even there, the timetable was only sometimes adhered to, the formal syllabus mostly forgotten. Attendance fluctuated. Joan Hoffman's account captures the atmosphere of all Soweto, refracted through the eyes of a (white) teacher at Jabulani. From August to November we continued to teach on days when we felt able to get in and open the school. On some days classes were. fairly well attended, although many other schools were almost deserted. On other days only a few pupils might arrive. Sometimes all of them would disappear at about ten-thirty, because of some message of danger or news of a meeting, which they seldom imparted to us. .. . Sometimes we read stones ... It was soothing to read about pretty, soft things, magic, troubles which ended happily in any case. For the students it might be a way of avoiding the recurring inner debate about which course to take: to boycott school and lose hard work done so far, for the sake of solidarity and a dream to gain; or to attend, and be a sell-out in one's own eyes or the eyes of others.
The SSRC, through this entire period, was called upon to provide leadership in the schools on a large number of issues. If Joan Hoffman's pupils did not arrive, or suddenly disappeared, it was invariably in answer to a call from the student leaders. They helped organise stay-at-homes, they were on the picket lines, they marched to Johannesburg, they demonstrated against Henry Kissinger's visit to South Africa on his arrival - and at Jabulani that Friday, 17 September, two pupils lay dead after police fired at them.19 Eventually they had to provide a lead on the most contentious of all issues, that of the end of the year examinations. The SSRC called for a complete boycott and were faced with the problem of persuading thousands of students who were concerned about their futures and did not want to waste a year. Khotso Seatlholo, SSRC president from September till mid-January, toured the schools and urged, successfully, that the examinations be ignored. The SSRC campaigned tirelessly from the end of August, when the students called for a stay-at-home and received massive support, right through to Christmas. New campaigns were launched at frequent intervals. Taken together, the list of events displayed an ability to organise on a level not previously surpassed.
13-15 Sept: Third stay-at-home.
17 Sept: Anti-Kissinger demonstrations.
23 Sept: Second march into centre of Johannesburg.
Early Oct: Intensive anti-drink campaign.
17 Oct: Mass turn-out at funeral of Dumsani Mbatha.
24 Oct: Mass turn-out at funeral of Jacob Mashabane.
27 Oct: Shebeens ordered to close down.
Campaign starts to stop celebration of Christmas festivities.
End Oct: 'Operation Clean-Up' to remove refuse from Soweto.
1 Nov. Final year examination boycotted.
Stay-at-home called . . . but flops.
To this list must be added the extensive activity before 26 October to expose the farce of 'independence' for the Transkei; and the many small incidents that took place, involving only small groups of students or residents. Many of these campaigns teetered on the edge of illegality. Others were organised in open defiance of one or other of the many regulations governing black behaviour, and this was to be demonstrated two years later when students held in detention for protracted periods were charged with sedition -- the sentence for which can be death. Each one of these demonstrations extended the authority of the SSRC, and each success made them more confident. In a statement on behalf of the SSRC on 29 October, Khotso Seatlholo said that:
We have the full right to stand up erect and reject the whole system of apartheid. We cannot accept it as our fathers did. We are not carbon copies of our fathers. Where they failed, we will succeed. The mistakes they made will never be repeated. They carried the struggle up to where they could. We are very grateful to them. But now the struggle is ours. The ball of liberation is in our hands. The Black student will stand up fearlessly and take arms against a political system. . . .We shall rise up and destroy a political ideology that is designed to keep us in a perpetual state of oppression and subserviency.
The statement was defiant, but unfair. Their fathers had not accepted the system, and had fought against the government and against the bosses in campaign after campaign. Throughout the fifties and well into the sixties there had been stay-at-homes, a defiance campaign, bus boycotts, strikes, anti-pass campaigns (particularly by the women), and militant struggles in the Reserves. Mobile police squads had been rushed to Zeerust and Sekhukuneland (in the Northern Transvaal) and the areas had been sealed off in order to stamp out rebellions. The women of Natal had battled with police. And in the Transkei there had been a serious revolt which was only quelled after troops were moved in, men slaughtered, and a state of emergency declared which still operates today. Mistakes were made, but it was a tradition of struggle that the youth were heir to, and they did their fathers and mothers less than justice in their sweeping condemnation. Nor were the youth exempt from mistakes. They made many, and it was only by making mistakes that they could possibly learn. A more modest stand might have stood them in better stead. Nevertheless, their defiant statement did carry a message of hope, and for that it should be welcomed. Their campaigns had been impressive and they had succeeded where few would have imagined they could. Their bravery, too, had become the hallmark of the Revolt. They had sacrificed lives for a cause that inspired more and more to join them, and this was expressed in Seatlholo's words in his statement of 29 October: 'The struggle for my freedom will go on until each and every one of us drops dead. This is a vow that the Black youth have taken over the dead bodies, and written with the Blood of their wounded brothers.'
These were words charged with emotion, and did express the sentiments of the time, and they expressed a pledge to secure the changes that so many youth had died for. But there was a danger that emotion would take over from real considerations. The Revolt was not flowing to victory at the end of October, and it was necessary to be realistic about the balance of forces in the country. In fact the youth had miscalculated, and were in error in calling for a five day stay-at-home - as the SSRC did in this statement. They also had to be realistic about their achievements to date. What they had managed did not
yet amount to a taking up of 'arms against a political system' as Seatlholo claimed. The students had demonstrated, and in so doing claimed results that had not been achieved. John Berger's analysis of the relation between ambitions and demonstrations is more than apposite to the Soweto Revolt:
Demonstrations express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realize them have been created. Demonstrations predict the realization of their own ambitions and thus may contribute to that realization, but they cannot themselves achieve them.
If the SSRC leaders, on the other hand, were serious in their contention that they would rise up and destroy apartheid, they had another task on hand: 'The crucial question which revolutionaries must decide in any given historical situation is whether or not further symbolic rehearsals are necessary. The next stage is training in tactics and strategy for the performance itself.' The problem in Soweto, and even more pointedly in the rest of the country, was to ask who and where the 'revolutionaries' were. There was no doubt that by October the SSRC were already seeking alternative methods of struggle, despite an avowal that they were in favour of non-violence. Nevertheless they were still only the Soweto Students Representative Council and received their mandate from school pupils, and not from the township. They had transcended this narrow base by showing that they had the ability to call out the entire population, but they still rested on a narrow social base and could lose their mass following at any time. If they we call to act as a 'revolutionary' leadership, they would have to transform themselves and cease acting as an exclusively school body. There was an obvious change in both tone and activity from October to December and, although the details are not available, this was partly the result of contacts with the underground ANC. Some information on this contact has now become available because of disclosures made by state witnesses at trials in South Africa. Despite a reluctance to use such evidence (which is subject to tailoring by the Special Branch in order to secure convictions), it does seem that, in essence, the facts are correct. At an early stage of the Revolt some leading members of the SSRC were taken to Swaziland in order to meet Moses Mobhida, a leading member of the ANC in exile. The ANC offered assistance and co-operation and wanted close contact with SASM. It is not clear how this contact was to be maintained, nor what the role of ANC members in the SSRC was to be. Tebello Motapanyane was at the time secretary-general of SASM and also a member of the ANC. And Elias Masinga (one of the Pretoria Twelve on trial in 1977 for allegedly furthering the aims of the ANC, but found not guilty) was a leading member of the SASM and, despite his denials of the charges in court, he was probably sympathetic to the ANC.
Naledi Tsiki, also one of the Pretoria Twelve, received a 14 year sentence after being found guilty, and he was closely associated with the SSRC, at least close enough to the President, Khotso Seatlholo, to meet him just before Christmas 1976, together with two other members of the executive, and demonstrate a machine gun and grenades. He urged the President to affiliate to the ANC, said state witness T.N.A. Mthenjane, but that apparently was rejected.
The SSRC had been in receipt of explosives and training in their use well before December. Some time at the end of September or beginning of October, Seatlholo and Micky Tsagae (also a member of the SSRC) established an urban guerrilla group which became known as the Suicide Squad. This group was led by Paul Mafgliso Elliot Langa, and probably worked with the ANC. It seems to have collapsed when Langa was arrested.
The Suicide Squad was not the only group known to have been interested in such action. The trial of two young men in November 1977 affords some (limited) information about an organisation known as the South African Freedom Organisation (SAFO) which planned or was actually engaged in sabotage between June and December 1976. It was claimed in court that SAFO aimed to throttle the country's economy by preventing Blacks getting to work and by destroying power supplies to the trains.
At the trial of Mafgliso Langa in July-August 1977, it was claimed that the Suicide Squad was responsible for several explosions in Soweto. On 24 October 1976 the Jabulani police station was badly damaged by the Squad. The next day part of the railway line between Mzimhlope and New Canada stations was damaged by a blast. The Squad also used explosives at the Pelican Night Club, where liquor was being sold despite the SSRC (and ANC) call for an end to such transactions. In a further, unexplained, set of actions, Langa and others were said to have abducted three leading members of SAFO and exploded dynamite in the vicinity of some of its members in order to intimidate them.27 SAFO trained people in the manufacture and use of bombs, and was also said to have recruited youth for military training outside South Africa. That would seem to indicate that they were linked with an external, exile organisation. It is not clear whether the Suicide Squad also had direct links, in this case with the ANC, and also recruited youth for such training. But it does seem most probable, despite Seatlholo's refusal to countenance affiliation to the ANC, that the formation of an urban guerrilla force led to direct links with the external movement.
The demise of the Suicide Squad led to the abandonment, at that time, of an urban guerrilla force. The SSRC returned, whether by necessity or otherwise, to methods of non-violent political activity. Whether they believed all along that the youth had to be involved simultaneously in 'legal' (that is non-violent) politics and in clandestine violence, is not known. But one fact was clear: the leadership had decided that demonstrations had to continue.
The September Stay-at-Homes
In September it still seemed to the SSRC, and particularly to the newly elected President, that all options were still open. There could be legal demonstrations and there could be violence. The legal demonstrations would keep the name of the SSRC before the public, and the acts of sabotage would allow the body to find the most promising cadres for further, as yet uncharted activity. In September, furthermore, the student bodies in Johannesburg, Pretoria and the Cape were still testing their own strengths, as well as that of the state. They, therefore, sought means of demonstrating their own power, and looked to methods whereby this could be achieved. At the time, the strike at the Armourplate Safety Glass factory in Springs, was still in its infancy. It was an event of great importance and raised the entire question of the recognition of African trade unions. It is possible that, at some stage in the long ten-week strike, some students made reference to the bitter struggle that was taking place there, but there are no comments on it in the material to hand. In general the actual strikes that took place were not often mentioned by the students.
Yet there is evidence that they, or at least part of the student body, were aware of the importance of the workers in the struggle to change South Africa. In a leaflet entitled The black students' message to their beloved parents issued after the August stay-at-home, education was described as a means to secure 'a more efficient black labour force to be exploited by those in power'. Throughout the leaflet, which was exceptional in where it laid its stress, the workers were seen as the pivot of the liberation struggle. In the words of the black students:
The students believe that South Africa is what it is, and has been built by the blood, sweat and broken bodies of the oppressed and exploited Black workers, it is a well known fact that the Blacks carry the economy of this country 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.
This was by far the most explicit statement on the role of the black worker. Yet even here there was no mention of the actual strikes going on in the country, no expression of solidarity with workers currently involved in struggles in the factories. It was as if the recognition of the importance of the workers in any struggle remained a theoretical construct that could not be made concrete. And if that is the case, it could only be because the young students were not able to make organisational contact with the real flesh-and blood workers in industry.
The SSRC decided on a three day stay-at-home, commencing on 13 September. The leaflet addressed to 'beloved parents', foreshadowing the call, had a special appeal to 'our parents in the hostels'. They described the men as 'our parents ... [who] are victims of the notorious migrant labour system', and appealed for a united stand against injustices. The SSRC also held large scale meetings with hostel dwellers on Sunday, September 5, to inform them about the intended strike and enlist their support. The township was then informed in a leaflet addressed to parents (co-operate with us); workers (stay away from work); and hostels (do not fight!). The strike was not aimed overtly at industry and was obviously designed to build township solidarity.
The call was: 'This will be a proof that you are crying with us over those cruelly killed by police and those detained all over the country in various prisons without trial.' The SSRC then listed five 'objections': to shooting by the police; to arrests and detentions; to murders in detention; to a train accident in Benoni; and to 'the cutting down of our parents' wages who have stayed away from work in sympathy with their killed sons and daughters'. A special leaflet to taxis urged them not to transport anybody except nurses. It
also requested assistance in informing 'hostel people' about the strike. Soweto stayed at home on Monday the 13th and only nurses and a few workers queued for buses and taxes. There were also massive stay-aways along the Witwatersrand and an attempted strike in Alexandra. At the latter township police made house-by-house raids, pulling out adult males and children and either ordering them to report for work or school, or arresting them. Some 800 spent that day in the police cells and many of them were endorsed out of Johannesburg -- that is, were sent back to the Reserves. On the next day, the 14th, there were more workers in the factories. The threat of lost wages was enough to force some of them to leave the township and report for work. The pickets therefore had a harder task and there was shooting by the police, at the railway stations and in the streets, to stop any 'interference' with those who waited for transport. That night the skirmishes were particularly fierce, as strikers confronted those who had worked. Once again there was a large police contingent present, and they protected the strike breakers. The World estimated the number of dead for the two days at 16 -- all shot by police.
Despite, or perhaps because of, police terror, the strike held firm on the third day, and it was estimated that half a million were on strike that day. Wednesday, 15 September, was a remarkable day in the political annals of black South Africa. In addition to the Transvaal, some 200,000 coloured workers, representing about 80 per cent of the work force in Cape Town, stayed at home in response to a call for a two-day abstention on 15 and 16 September, and a large (but not usually mentioned) proportion of African workers also stayed in the Cape Town townships. There was no acknowledged leadership in Cape Town, and a number of leaflets, from obviously different sources, appeared in the streets calling for the strike. One leaflet headed only 'Strike' called for the rejection of all government sponsored black institutions. The thrust of the appeal was not to mourning (as in Soweto), but was more political in content.
The racists do not spare their bullets. Their guns try to cut down our march for freedom. But the march to freedom must not end. Reject all concessions that the racists grant us. Concessions are crumbs.. . . All black people suffer alike. Get rid of apartheid.. A second leaflet, also of unknown origin, and without any indication of who produced it, called on workers (specifically) to strike in protest 'against. a slave system', and declared that the 'rulers' would never allow 'fundamental changes'. The group that issued the call then stated: 'Workers are compelled in defence and in pursuit of a better life to call into being worker organizations in the locations and in the factories.' It then proposed that the slogan around which the 'exploited' should rally was: 'Workers Power and Peoples Power'.
This leaflet went further than the Soweto students' Message to their beloved parents. It not only recognised the central role that the black workers would be called upon to take, but also raised for the first time the possibility of (black) 'workers power'. Without any further indication of the response to the leaflet, and with no indication of how widely it was Attributed, it is not possible to appraise the impact of the slogan. There are no known reactions from workers and the slogan does not appear to have been raised again in the months that followed. The sentiment and the slogan therefore appear to have been a possible portent of the future when, conceivably, they will be a rallying call to which the workers will respond.
The Workers Stay at Home
The response from the workers to the strike call was remarkable. From samples taken by students at UCT, 75 per cent stayed away on Wednesday in Cape Town, and 80 to 85 per cent on Thursday. The clothing industry, staffed mainly by coloured women, was all but closed down. Some 90 per cent of the women stayed away. In Langa and Nyanga, one of the most notable features was the strong solidarity shown by the large work force of migrant labourers.
A number of one-day strikes were called in smaller Cape towns. Most of them were highly successful, and concided with the end of the Cape Town stay-at-home on 16 September. By Thursday, in the Transvaal, the workers were all at work, even though some of the youth tried to get the action extended beyond the 15th. In the Cape the strike was terminated, as planned, on the Thursday. Then the workers of Thembisa were summoned to down tools for three days from 20 to 22 September. Many of the Thembisa workers had once lived in Alexandra township, but had been forcibly moved because they worked on the East Rand at Isando, Kempton Park, the airport, or other East Rand towns. They seem to have taken with them the militancy for which Alexandra was famous. The leaflet was issued by an unknown group, but there were indications of political influences at work, and that the students at Thembisa were in contact with the Soweto students and possibly with the ANC. The leaflet they issued consisted largely of portions taken from the one that appeared in August in Soweto, (then produced by the ANC), and extracts from other leaflets used in Soweto in September. This leaflet, more than others, caught the spirit of the time, and warrants reproduction in full. The fact that it also referred to some strikes (in 1974 and early 1976) is also of interest. (The errors have not been corrected, and provide some indication of the lack of resources available to the leaders in the townships.)
AZIKWELWA E THEMBISA
AZIKWELWA!!! From MONDAY to WEDNESDAY,
The people of South Africa are going into the third phase of their struggle against the oppressors namely OPERATION AZIKHWELWA !! The racists in our last demonstration -- called by the cynics a riot lost millions of rands as a result of the people not going to work. Thus they thought of immediately breaking the student-worker alliance. They immediately called on workers to carry knobkieries and swords to murder their own children -- who are protesting for a right course. Parent workers, you should take note of the fact that if you go to work, you will be inviting Vorster to slaughter us your children as he has already done. In Soweto and Alexandra, Vorster and his gangsters, have already claimed that this week's shootings were made to protect parents from their own children. You will be giving Vorster a pretext for murdering us, if you go to work. Please do not allow Vorster to instigate you to murder your own child. Let him do this dirty and murderous job without making you a scape- goat! We want to avoid further shootings -- and this can be done by you keeping at home without being stopped. We want to write exams, but we are not so selfish to write even if our brothers are being killed at John Vorster Square. Parents, you should rejoice for having given birth to this type of a child. A child who prefers to fight it out with the oppressors rather than to be submerged in drunkenness, frustration, and thugery. A child who prefers to die from a bullet rather than to swallow a poisonous education which relegates him and his parents to a position of perpetual subordination. Aren't you proud of the soldiers of liberation you have given birth to? If you are proud, support them.'! Do not go to work from MONDAY to WEDNESDAY! Do not shiver and think that we have lost and wasted a year. This year will go down in history as the beginning of the end of THE OPPRESSIVE SYSTEM, the beginning of the end of the oppressive conditions of work in South Africa.
Vorster is already talking of home ownership for Blacks in Soweto and other Black Townships. This is a victory because we, the students, your children decided to shed their blood. Now for greater victories: the scrapping of BANTU EDUCATION, the release of prisoners detained during the demos., and the overthrowal of oppression. We the students: our parents to stay at home and not go to work from MONDAY. Parent-workers, heed our CALL and stay away from work like in Soweto and Alexandra. We the Black Society have nothing to loose from STAYING AWAY FROM WORK, but our chains!! Let our oppressor tremble! The people of South Africa are resolved in one word they will be crying: "Kruger, release our children!" "Kruger, we wont abort our children by going to work!" Our slogan is: Away with Vorster, Down with oppression!!! POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!!!!! When have these criminals (Vorster) cared for you? Didn't he order for killing of twelf workers in Carltonville? Were not dogs called when in Croeses people went on strike? Were not pregnant women strangled and battered (beaten) by Vorster's police thugs at Heinemann Factory?
AZIKHWELWA MADODA !!!!!!
The workers stayed at home, and the industrial complex at Isando was empty on Monday 20 September. The strike remained firm on Tuesday, but by Wednesday most workers had returned to work. Nonetheless it was a remarkable performance and rounded off the tribute that the working class paid to the students for their role in the 1976 Revolt.
From the Thembisa leaflet, it would seem that the authors meant the stay-at-home to be part of a prolonged series of strikes that would- conceivably, bring South Africa to its knees. It was the 'third phase', presumably following the demonstration of 16 June and the attempted march on Johannesburg on 4 August.
The support given to the youth in the stay-at-home would have made any leadership euphoric. It seems to have blinded the SSRC to the many difficulties they had still to overcome, and it prevented them taking a long hard look at the tactics they were using. Unfortunately there were no other warning voices, because there had been few serious discussions of the tactics used in South Africa in the fifties. Some problems were technical, and with time could have been overcome. Other, more fundamental difficulties arose from the nature of the general strike, and its shortcomings as a revolutionary weapon.
The technical problems, some unique to South Africa, arose from the nature of housing in towns and in industry. The mines, railways, municipal services, power stations, hospitals and many industries maintained compounds at, or near, the places of work. Stay-at-homes, organised in townships, could not hope to win the support of these essential work forces. Thus, for example, the railway management could say that their services were not affected: '. . . fortunately, most of our non-White workers live in compounds outside Soweto'. The other establishments that housed their own workers could say the same. A second difficulty arose from the fact that the stay-at-homes were called by local township committees, and the dates chosen did not necessarily coincide. The police, therefore, could be moved from area to area in order to keep local populations under control. If, furthermore, residents from more than one township worked in a town, a failure to keep the workers of one of these areas from getting to work weakened the strike. On 13 September, for example, the police moved into Alexandra township, where the student body was less well organised, and forced a sizeable number of workers to report for work.
Problems of the Political Strike
It was not entirely accidental that the first big successful strike (on August 23) was called jointly by the SSRC and ANC. It was the latter movement which used the stay-at-home extensively during the 1950's, without standing success on some occasions, and with equally disastrous failures.
Far too little thought was given to the nature of the tactic, and the youth therefore adopted it uncritically. Some believed in 1976 what their fathers had thought in 1950-60: that a withdrawal of labour would lead to a collapse of the entire South African economy.30 It was this belief which led some youth to think that the three-day strike in September should be extended indefinitely, and there were rumours that a three-week strike would be called at a later date,
The townships, with their large concentrations of workers, were obviously easy centres for organisation and directed action. But they were also a source of weakness. In an analysis of the strikes of the 1950's it was suggested that there were inherent difficulties involved in asking the population to remain in the townships.
Firstly, the people of the townships cannot stay home indefinitely. To do so is to starve. Even if food is stored in advance the families cannot hold out for long because of the presence of the children, the aged and the sick. The township can be sealed off and starved out only too effectively by small detachments of the army and the police. But far worse, the army and police showed in Langa and Nyanga [in 1960 as in 1976!] that they could go from house to house, drag the inhabitants out, beat them up and force them to work. Secondly, by staying in the townships, the worker surrenders all initiative. He cuts himself [or herself] off from fellow-workers in other townships. He divides himself from his allies in the rural areas, and he surrenders the entire economic centre to his enemies. There were occasions, although obviously not during stay-at-homes, when the youth did carry the struggle into the commercial centre of the enemy's city. That was an important move and in Johannesburg, as will be described below, the Whites were horrified by the 'invasion'. No attempt was, however, made to mobilise the working class for a similar sortie into the industrial areas.
The relationship between the working class and the youth was complex. Most of the younger generation had been born into working class families. They were aware of the problems facing their parents, and they faced the same hardships. However, by virtue of their status as school pupils, particularly in the upper forms, they had distanced themselves from their parents -whether consciously or otherwise. They had already begun to view the world differently, and were unable to place working class demands at the centre of their campaigning. Their closeness to the workers (in many cases their intimacy) led them to talk of a student-worker alliance, but it was a one-sided relationship, and there was a peculiar inability to see that they could not make endless demands on the workers leading to sacrifices which brought no returns.
There was one mitigating factor. The students could not be expected to organise the workers: and any pretensions on their part that they could do so would have been rebuffed. The township, furthermore, was not the place for industrial organisation. And, in so far as some workers belonged to legal trade unions, there was no evidence that union officials encouraged any positive action to assist the students in the long months of the Revolt. There are indeed two foci of possible organisation. One inside the townships, and the other in the factories and shops, mines and railways, and so on. The students dominated the townships in 1976. A limited number of unions existed in industry. There seemed to be no way in which organisation in the residential area could establish real links with bodies in the industrial field, and that did militate against political and economic demands fortifying and buttressing each other. As a result, the students overlooked the important strikes that were occurring in the factories, and the workers (together with union leaders) did not link their demands to events in the townships.
The stay-at-home, therefore, must be viewed as a method of demonstration and not as a means for radically altering society. What Berger said about demonstrations in general was also expressed by socialists in their debates on the general strike at the beginning of the twentieth century. The conclusions reached then are still valid today:
The general strike is only a means of organising the working class and calling them to struggle against their enemy, the state. But a strike itself cannot solve the problem, because it tires the worker sooner than it does the enemy, and this sooner or later forces the worker to return to the factories. The general strike has its greatest importance only when it is the beginning of the fight between the workers and the capitalists: that is, only when it is the opening move in the revolutionary rising of the worker. Only when such action wins over part of the army to the worker can the worker think of winning his struggle . . . The general strike leads to the organisation of both sides, and shows how prepared the ruling class is to break the organisation of the workers. It shows what force will have to be used in order for victory to be won in the struggle. It shows how much blood the state is prepared to shed in order to keep the power . . ,
There was little need to question the state's readiness to shed blood in 1976. The continued provocation from the police - the shooting without warning, with every intention of killing; the use of the hostel dwellers to cut down anyone in their path; the rapidity with which armoured cars were brought into Soweto; and the speed with which police were deployed -- all indicated that the state had been preparing for insurrection for some time. For years, recruits to the army, and these were exclusively white, had been drilled in mock battles in urban uprisings, and mobile police units had been prepared for similar events. Even if the police terror was not planned for 16 June, there can be little doubt that, in the aftermath of the Soweto rioting that day, the police were ordered to go into the townships and schools, and shoot to kill.
This did not mean that there were no situations in which the workers should have been called upon to embark on a general strike. This would have been a powerful weapon if used at the appropriate time, and if backed by other means of struggle. It did, however, mean that it was a tactic that had to be used sparingly. The SSRC, however, had nobody to warn them of the difficulties involved in calling the workers out too often. In August, and again in mid-September, they had only to summons the workers to stay-at-home, and they were , followed. At the end of October they called once again for a close down of industry, but on this occasion they were badly out of touch with the mood in the townships. The call they issued from Soweto was for a national stoppage t- even though their contact with other townships was tenuous or nonexistent. They also called for a full five-day strike from Monday 1 November, and the only slogan they offered was: 'Blacks are going into mourning for their dead.' In a press statement this was supplemented with demands that the government resign; that all political detainees be freed; and that there be
consultation with black parents leading to 'settlement and peace'. The strike call and the demands made were unrealistic. Families did not mourn for the dead by starving -- and that would have been the consequence of a whole week's stoppage. Nor could workers be expected to respond again and again when the strikes achieved nothing. The call was ignored.
On 1 November, examinations were due to begin, and these were boycotted. The students had not been defeated and they meant to continue the struggle. But after 1 November it became clear that the momentum of the Revolt had ebbed, and that in future the main slogans would be restricted to demands relating to the schools and education. Even when the Soweto students took up township issues, as they did in 1977, there was a
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