The Revolt Takes Shape by H. Baruch

In the first eight weeks of the Revolt in Soweto, there were two periods of intense confrontation with the police. The first extended over the initial three days, from June 16 to 19, and the second for three or four days, starting on 4 August. These constituted peaks, in which the youth inflicted maximum damage on buildings and vehicles. Police violence was also at its height. The intervening period was less violent, but the township remained tense and there were innumerable small incidents which were no longer newsworthy and were not always reported in the press: stone-throwing, random police shooting (particularly of youth wearing school uniforms), occasional road blocks, or overturned vehicles. There were also events which did make the headlines: the anger at the government's announcement on 1 July banning the planned mass burial of victims of the shooting, and the indignation when it was learnt that many children, some as young as eight, were being kept in police cells.

Nevertheless Soweto was quiet over the period, which coincided with the closure of the schools from 17 June till 22 July, and Joan Hoffman caught the atmosphere that others had noted when she went back to Jabulani High School on 23 July:

I drove to the school, past buildings black and gutted, beerhalls with shattered windows, clinics that looked as though people had jumped on the roofs. The weird, creepy silence deepened as I went further into Soweto ... a few people looked at me strangely, wondering. On the way out I saw a small boy bending or pretending to pick up a stone, but a woman shouted and he stopped. At school there were only a few students...

During those long winter weeks when the children kept indoors, partly for warmth's sake, but also to avoid the cruising police cars, there had been changes in social customs which were not described in the newspapers, but which were more dramatic than many of the violent episodes that were remarked upon. The most important of these changes occurred at the funerals of the young victims of police violence.

The Funeral Ceremonies

One of the first acts of the Black Parents Association was to arrange for the funeral of the young people killed in June, and plans were afoot for a mass burial. When the Minister of Police banned the funeral arrangements there was deep resentment in Soweto. The 'private' funerals which would have to take place were inappropriate to the common tragedy that affected the entire population.

The feeling that the bereavements concerned a wider public than those traditionally involved in funerals was ultimately to affect the way people reacted to death and to conduct at the graveside. Youth, who had been traditionally excluded from funerals, now attended and even took a leading part, in the process displacing the married women who

would otherwise have been the main mourners. This revolution in behaviour was profound and occurred at one of the most important ceremonies in the cycle of life and death. All traditional practices concerning women's place in the cycle of life, beliefs about entry into the 'other world', and concepts of pollution (associated with handling of the corpse) were challenged and new practices established. This reversal of roles at funerals between married women and youth was more than an adjustment, radical as that was, in traditional practice. It was also a reversal in social status and corresponded to the reversal that had taken place in political practice. Only 27 years before, in 1949, when the Congress Youth League had had their programme accepted in the teeth of opposition from the established ANC leadership, they had to find 'esteemed elders' who would accept office in the organisation pledged to uphold the new Programme of Action. In 1976 political leadership fell to the youth almost by default, and they did not feel obliged to defer to adults.

The funerals became events at which the reversal of social custom coincided with the fact that the victims (at least initially) were all young. The adults mourned children, the youth mourned lost comrades. The adults wept and the youth grieved too, but they swept away the tears and vowed vengeance.

There were adults present, many of them neither related nor close kin and this too was a departure in practice -- and they too were expressing political, and not only social, solidarity. They too thought or spoke of vengeance. The new atmosphere percolated through to close kin and parents. They not only accepted the changes in traditional practice, but also the political stance of the audience. Funerals were no longer seen only as rites of passage in which the departed were entering the other world, but also as gatherings at which there could be an affirmation of the demand for a new South Africa. Dr. Harriet Ngubane records that when she revisited Soweto in July 1977:

I myself saw ... a woman, whose child had been shot and killed by the police, standing erect at the graveside shouting slogans meaning 'We shall overcome', 'Power is ours', etc. Only a few years ago she would have been sitting there in the traditional manner, covered and hardly visible.

In July 1976, the youth gave the clenched fist salute, and participated in funeral rites. A year later they were leading the entire group in salutes and chants at the grave: priest, relations and friends. This took place not only at funerals of those who had died at the hands of the police. All deaths in the townships were seen in political terms. Malnutrition, disease, quarrels and gang fights were all attributed to apartheid, and every death was blamed on the government and its pernicious policy. Dr. Ngubane records that, when she offered her condolences to a man who had lost his 20 year old son, shot by the police, he had replied: 'It could have been anyone's child'. That too constituted a radical change in approach; a change that will not be easily reversed in the years to come.

The police were aware of the use to which funerals were being put by the youth, and knew that the grief at the graveside was mingled with fervent hopes for radical change. They were not prepared to stand aside and were always to be found in the vicinity of any burial. As a consequence of these confrontations at burials, stones were thrown and shots fired, and all too often there were new martyrs at the end of the day. It was a macabre game, in which the police seemed determined to show that they were the true servants of death.

Back to School?

The government made a number of tactical retreats during July. The regulation on the medium of instruction was rescinded on 6 July by the Minister of Bantu Education, M.C. Botha. On 18 July Joseph Peele and Abner Letlape, the members of the Meadowlands Tswana School Board, dismissed in February, were reinstated, and it was announced that the regional director of education and one of the circuit inspectors would be transferred from the Soweto area.

The students had won a victory and they were aware that it was only because of their resolute actions that the government had been forced to withdraw. But the victory was limited because nothing had changed in the schools and nothing had been altered in the country. The question of Afrikaans tuition - even though it had been a real issue - was relatively unimportant. It had been a convenient point around which the school pupils had rallied and, having united and paid a fearsome price in lives and injuries, they were not going to be satisfied with this restricted concession. It was the whole of Bantu Education that had to go, and that, henceforth, was to be the students' slogan.

When it was announced that the schools would be reopened on 22 July the school pupils saw little reason for returning. The heavy police patrols and the presence of Hippos indicated that nothing had altered. After an uneasy weekend, some of the youth gathered at the schools on Monday the 26th, but drifted away during the morning, congregating at street corners and jeering at the police who stood by. The SSRC was caught in a dilemma. Their president had called for a return to school. Not because he necessarily wanted a 'return to normal', but because,

The schools were the focal point of SSRC activities, and while students were scattered through the townships in their homes and in the streets it was impossible to get any sort of programme of action going. In the schools, it was another matter. The SSRC had more or less free entry . . .

The SSRC could not, however, tell the students their reason for wanting the schools opened again and the statements that were made only added to the existing confusion without securing the return that Mashinini had called for. When the BPA backed the SSRC alongside the school principals and the hated Urban Bantu Council, the students felt deserted! This must call into question the wisdom of calling for a return to school and does indicate that the SSRC was out of touch with the mood of the youth. The first tentative move to secure the reopening of schools on 26 July received little support and even the teachers were undecided. Classes often failed to start even when children had assembled in the classrooms. There were larger numbers at school on 27 July, but reports were received that a school at Mamelodi (Pretoria) had been burnt and that the same had happened at a farm school in Irene (Pretoria district). That evening six schools and a youth club in Soweto were damaged by fire and, over the next 10 days, some 50 schools were damaged or destroyed in the Transvaal, Natal and the OFS; the Cape schools were only to join the revolt the following month.

The SSRC, seemingly persuaded that they were correct, were unable to sense the mood in the schools and streets and continued to call for a return to the classroom and also condemned the burning. In the surrounding townships, particularly at Alexandra and Thembisa, there were fresh outbursts as the month drew to a close. Buses were being stoned at Alexandra and pupils were marching to the police station in Thembisa in protest against a police assault on a pupil during interrogation.

If the SSRC had not altered course at this stage, they would have lost the credibility already attained. An opportunity came on 1 August when the Minister allowed the first public gathering since 16 June. The UBC called the meeting and UBC members, together with school principals, appealed for an end to the burnings and a return to school. The students barracked and, according to some accounts, broke up the meeting. That afternoon the BPA held a meeting at the Regina Mundi church and Mashinini, in his first public appearance, called on each school to send two delegates to a meeting of the SSRC. He still endorsed the 'return to school' appeal.

The authorities were alarmed at this move to extend the SSRC and it seems likely that it was this which led to police raids on the schools in search of the leadership. Despite a promise made by the Minister that the police would be kept away from school premises during school hours (reported at the meeting on 1 August), there were large-scale raids on 3 August, students were interrogated and some arrests made. This provocation led to clashes with the police and shots were fired. Thereafter the schools emptied and pupils poured out into the streets. That ended the calls for a resumption of lessons and the boycott returned - first to Soweto and Thembisa, and then to the rest of the country, bringing in the Cape in the process.

The March on Johannesburg

On Wednesday, 4 August, the students were out in the streets in their school uniforms and, in the first instance, tried to persuade the adults not to go to work. A stretch of the railway line to Johannesburg had been damaged overnight and trains to the city were cancelled. Buses that raced through the township were stoned by the youth. Organised by the SSRC, the students then joined with many of the adults who had stayed at home that day and marched in a column towards Johannesburg. Pictures from the air showed them marching round obstacles, pressing forward in their desire to get to the police headquarters at John Vorster Square to present their demand that the detained students be released. The entire township seemed to have concentrated on the one objective -- to press on and present themselves in the city centre. Joan Hoffman, coming into Soweto in the early morning, saw the immensity of the operation that day:

When I turned on to the Soweto highway ... I began to realize that something was wrong, because there wasn't a single car coming out. It was as though the road had been rubbed clean. Then I saw two Putco buses, a few taxis, but still no cars, when normally they would be bumper to bumper into town. The road stretched wide in the early light, the whole world empty and silent.

Watching at another exit, one of her friends said: They were like ants, and like ants they [the children] just kept going.' The marchers, carrying a huge banner that read, 'We are not fighting, don't shoot', were halted by a cordon of police. The students aimed to get to the city centre, but there was no move to break through the line of police blocking them. Moreover, the leadership, in the front ranks of the marchers, had a firm control over the students. It was stalemate -- the police unyielding and the students stationary and unwilling, in fact unable, to go back. Once again there was shooting and twelve fell, three of the students dead. Three other students were seriously injured when teargas canisters were shot at them. There were over 20,000 people in the column which now swung back, the orderliness shattered in the haste to get under cover. That afternoon buildings were burning again in Soweto, including the houses of two black policemen.

The events of 4 August inaugurated a new phase in the Revolt of 1976. In the wake of the shooting at the road block, violence returned to Soweto and to the rest of the country. The fact that on the same day there had also been shooting in Thembisa when students marched to the local police station to demand the release of a student who had been detained, only reinforced the indignation felt everywhere at police terror.

However, a second and more important factor had entered the struggle. The students had appealed to the workers to stay-at-home and, with the assistance of some of their fellows who had organised the disruption of transport, they had ensured that at least 60 per cent of the African work force stayed away from the city. The employers called it 'student intimidation' or explained the withdrawal of labour by reference to the trains. Few sought to explain the obvious support that the workers gave the students that day. The extent of their success in stopping workers going to town seemed to have persuaded the youth that they could paralyse the economy and that they only had to issue the call for the factories to grind to a halt. Student Power, they thought, could be extended to Workers' Power, and (presumably) their demands would be met. The enormity of their mistake was only to become apparent later with the failure of the November stay-at-home.

They did not stop to reflect that Wednesday - and probably they could not stop in their tracks then. On Thursday 5 August they again called on the workers to stay-at-home and they set up roadblocks to reinforce their call. But the workers saw no purpose in losing another day's pay and ignored the call. In Alexandra, where the students appeared to be more determined, there were some clashes with workers. Inevitably the government felt this to be a heaven-sent opportunity for dividing the township and they gave their blessings to workers who wanted to carry knobkerries (knob-headed batons) as protection against 'agitators' and 'intimidators'! The students never really learned how and when they could call on the working class to join them against the authorities. But the workers did do so on 4 August and would again on several occasions. Sometimes they joined the students - but there were times when the workers ignored their call. The factors which helped determine these responses will be discussed in Chapter Thirteen.

The events in Soweto had taken on a new momentum and were not easily stopped. On Friday attempts were again made to stop workers leaving Soweto, and again the students failed. It is not certain whether the SSRC was in control at the time. If they were, they had not understood the feelings of the workers or, alternatively, they had lost the ability to command and their opinions were not heeded. Marches were organised in the township, both on Thursday and on Friday, and on both occasions there were casualties. It seems that the police were prepared to shoot at any student or group of students on the streets.

The SSRC was faced with another problem - small but vital. Until now, students had been summoned to appear at demonstrations in uniform. This helped advertise the action as being student operated, and student led. It also helped keep the push-outs in the background, because they were so markedly different in dress, although the extent to which this exclusion was deliberately planned is unknown. Wearing school uniforms had also helped bind the demonstrators together, but in so doing a new factor had been introduced. The police treated students as public enemies and any person found in the streets in a uniform was a target for cruising police cars. Henceforth students had to be advised not to appear in school clothes.

• Baruch, H. (1979). Year of Fire, Year of Ash: The Soweto Revolt: Roots of A Revolution, London: Zed Press

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