SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

The Soweto uprising 1976

The original version of this article commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising, appearing in the September 1986 edition of Inqaba Ya Basebenzi (Fortress of the Revolution). Inqaba was the journal of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the African National Congress (ANC), predecessor of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM – CWI South Africa). The author, WEIZMANN HAMILTON, writing in exile under the pen name, Basil Hendrickse, had been an activist in the Black Consciousness movement. He had served two spells of detention in solitary confinement before being placed under a banning and house-arrest order.

The article concluded with a call to build a mass ANC on a socialist programme. The ANC came to power in 1994 in a negotiated settlement. Having already abandoned the Freedom Charter, and its call for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, the ANC, after a brief flirtation with a mildly reformist Reconstruction and Development Programme, adopted the nakedly neo-liberal economic policy, Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme (Gear).

Twelve years after the fall of white minority rule, a new class apartheid characterises South Africa. The country is blighted by 40 per cent unemployment, more than 50 per cent of the population living in poverty, and the highest HIV/Aids infection rate in the world. Apart from entrenching the economic dictatorship of the white capitalist class, the ANC’s reign has benefited only a tiny black elite which has become obscenely wealthy overnight as the still-predominantly white capitalist class assimilates the black capitalists into their ranks. The youth bear the brunt of the government’s capitalist policies. Less than 50 per cent of those who start school reach the final year. Inequalities in education live on as an insult to the memory of the 1976 generation. Unaffordable tuition fees result in thousands being excluded from tertiary education institutions and protests are now an annual event.

The conditions are being prepared for explosive social conflict. In 2005, there were more than 5,000 protests against corruption and poor delivery of social services. The corruption and rape trial of sacked former deputy-president, Jacob Zuma, which has plunged the ANC into its deepest crisis since it was founded in 1912 and produced unbearable strains in the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC, South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, is a distorted reflection of the sharp class polarisation in society.

With the ANC transformed into a conscious agent of capitalism, today, the DSM campaigns for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.

AT ABOUT 7AM on 16 June 1976, thousands of African school students in Soweto gathered at prearranged assembly points for a demonstration. They launched a movement that began in opposition to the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction (in African schools), and developed, over 20 months, into a countrywide youth uprising against the apartheid regime.

This movement cost the lives of more than 1,000 youths. But, like an earthquake, it opened up a huge fissure in South African history, separating one era from another. It politicised a whole new generation of youth, and consigned beyond recall the era of defeats in the 1960s. It announced the determination of the youth to end one of the most barbaric examples of modern capitalist slavery.

Since February of 1976, anger had been mounting over the regime’s enforcement of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction – an anger very rapidly directed against the whole system of ‘Bantu Education’. First introduced in 1955, Bantu Education was designed not merely to place every possible obstacle in the way of the intellectual development of black Africans, but consciously to create an enslaved proletariat exploitable as cheap labour.

But the enormous expansion of the capitalist economy brought the need for skilled labour into direct conflict with the need for cheap labour, producing a serious crisis in the schools. Under Bantu Education, black African poverty and the cost of education combined to produce a high drop-out rate. By 1975, less than 10 per cent of black African students were receiving secondary education and 0.24% were in form five (the final year of high school, also called ‘matric’). The skills bottleneck forced the government to introduce some changes. The length of the school career was reduced from thirteen to twelve years. The pass mark for admission to secondary school was reduced from 50 per cent to 40 per cent, increasing the intake.

The result was chaos. A survey in January 1973 revealed that a quarter of all registered schools had no buildings of their own but congregated in church halls, tents or classrooms ‘borrowed’ from other schools in the afternoon. This state of affairs caused enormous bitterness amongst parents. Many regarded education (despite its deficiencies) as the hoist that would lift their children out of the poverty that seemed the unavoidable lot of the black working class.

In these conditions, the attempt to impose Afrikaans – the language of the apartheid state – into the schools, added insult to injury. It sparked off opposition even amongst conservative elements on the school boards. Beginning with the boycott of Afrikaans classes, students rapidly began boycotting all classes. By early June several thousand pupils from seven schools were on strike.

16 June

ON 13 JUNE, the South African Students’ Movement called a meeting at the Donaldson community centre in Orlando. 300 to 400 students representing about 55 schools decided to stage a mass demonstration on 16 June. An action committee, later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC), was elected to lead the campaign. It consisted of two delegates from each school, meeting in secret and using pseudonymns.

On 16 June, columns of youth departed from selected assembly points at a specified time to maintain discipline and to stretch police lines as much as possible. A dozen schools served as rendezvous points, on the way to the final destination, Orlando stadium, for a mass rally. Despite brushes with the police en route, most marches managed to reach the last meeting point in Orlando West.

However, as hundreds were still marching into Orlando, a large contingent of police arrived in police vans and spread out in front of the marches in the form of an arc. Defiantly, the students kept on singing freedom songs. Suddenly a white policeman threw a tear gas canister in front of the students. The students retreated slightly but stood their ground singing and waving placards, reading: ‘Away with Afrikaans’, ‘Blacks are not dustbins’, ‘Afrikaans is a tribal language’, etc.

Then a white policeman drew his revolver and shot straight at the unarmed, singing students. Hector Petersen, the first victim of the uprising, fell in front of his comrades. Other police then opened fire.

The students, many of them girls as young as ten to twelve years old, were stunned at first, and stood looking at the bodies of the dead and wounded. Then their rage and fury erupted. Picking up stones, bricks or any missile they could lay their hands on, they advanced towards the police lines and threw them at the police. One journalist commented: "What frightened me more than anything was the attitude of the children. Many seemed oblivious to the danger. They continued running towards the police, dodging and ducking, despite the fact that they were armed and continued shooting". The Soweto uprising had begun.

The police retreated, pursued by the youth. All buildings associated in any way with the state – administration board offices, post offices, and especially beer halls – were attacked. The youth requisitioned, in the name of the revolution, petrol from garage owners to make petrol bombs and set fire to these buildings. Bottle stores were attacked and the liquor emptied into the streets.

By midday, two army helicopters circled over Orlando West, dropping tear gas. Two special counter-insurgency units from Pretoria and Johannesburg were deployed. By that evening, 14 personnel carriers, known as hippos, arrived in the townships. Designed to withstand landmines in the guerrilla war zones in Namibia and Zimbabwe, they were now to become a natural part of the township environment.

Estimates for the death toll of 16 June vary from 25 to 100 people shot dead. By the second day, 1,500 police armed with Sten guns, automatic rifles and hand machine carbines were called into Soweto and army units placed on standby. The casualties were higher than on the previous days, possibly hundreds dead. Indiscriminate shooting was the order of the day. Raising a clenched fist and shouting the slogan, ‘Amandla!’, was sufficient to warrant a bullet in the head. Thus took place the political baptism – with bullets and teargas – of a whole new generation of working-class youth in struggle.

Many parents had returned home the previous evening to find the townships in flames and their children either dead or missing. Many spontaneously stayed away from work on 17 June. White students at the University of the Witwatersrand staged a demonstration with one of the placards reading: ‘Don’t start the revolution without us’. In Soweto itself the government closed schools on Thursday (17 June). By Friday, Soweto was effectively sealed off, saturated with police in armed convoys firing at any group they saw on the streets.

In the meantime, clashes had broken out in Tembisa, Kagiso and elsewhere along the Witwatersrand. At the ethnic universities of Ngoye and Turfloop, there were solidarity boycotts. Turfloop was closed on 18 June. In Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, the youth rapidly realised that by themselves they could not face up to the police, and had to appeal to their parents, the workers, to support them. On 18 June, they tried to persuade workers to stage a strike by mounting pickets at bus terminuses and railways stations. Without proper preparation, these first efforts were not successful.

Workers’ support

AFTER A RELATIVELY quiet weekend, the townships near Pretoria joined the struggle. By 22 June, over 1,000 workers at the Chrysler auto factory had stopped work. This was the first conscious strike action in support of the students.

In revolutionary periods, the working class learns in days and hours what it takes years to learn in periods of class tranquility. The ban on public meetings imposed by the government was circumvented by the organisation of mass funerals, which took place on 22 June and were used as political rallies.

As in Alexandra, the working-class youth of Soweto quickly sensed the need to involve their parents. They also saw that to confine the battlefront against the state to the townships was a limitation. Consequently, the SSRC took on the responsibility of organising simultaneously for 4 August a student march into Johannesburg and, for three days, the first political general strike in South Africa since 1961.

Such was the mood in the townships that the regime’s concession on the language question on 6 July made absolutely no difference. The revolt was now directed against the government itself. To ensure the success of the stay-away a key signal box was sabotaged, and all Soweto trains came to a standstill. The youth mounted pickets at bus stops and railway stations in many instances trying to force workers not to go to work. Between 20,000 and 40,000 marched towards Johannesburg, but were dispersed a few kilometres outside of Soweto. The stay-away over all three days was 60 per cent successful. Encouraged by this, the students prepared to organise a second three-day stay-away, to begin on 23 August.

Meanwhile, the revolt spread to students in the Western and Eastern Cape for the first time. The regime tried new tactics: a nation-wide clampdown was unleashed against the student leadership with scores placed in indefinite detention.

To prevent the success of the second stay-away, the regime tried to sow disunity. The police told the Zulu migrant workers – housed in hostels and physically and socially segregated from the townships – that the youth were about to attack them. On the second day of the stay-away, one of the hostels was burned, probably by an agent provocateur. The migrant workers charged into the townships, chasing and attacking the residents, burning their houses, raping and looting – all under police protection. This was an anticipation of the tactics that were to be used on an even larger scale in 1985/6.

In the second stay-away, quickly learning from the experience of the first one, the youth conducted an intensive house-to-house campaign explaining the issues to their parents. The consequence was an 80-90 per cent success rate. Moreover, while the first stay-away was confined to Soweto, the second one received support in other areas of the Witwatersrand. Although the second and third days were less successful, it was an important conquest for the youth.

A third stay-away was called, the most successful of all. In the Transvaal (now divided into the provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and Limpopo), a solid 75-80 per cent support was sustained over three days. In all, three-quarters of a million workers participated in this near national action.

This time the Zulu migrant workers gave almost total support. The youth had approached them beforehand explaining that they had been used by the state previously, and appealing to them to support the struggle.

A fourth stay-away, called for five days, failed to materialise. The youth had overreached themselves and the workers could no longer see the point. Despite this setback, the youth remained undeterred.

In April 1977, the SSRC launched a campaign taking up a grievance of their parents, the workers. The puppet local authority, the Urban Bantu Council (UBC) decided to raise rents. The SSRC forced the UBC to suspend the increases, and demanded the resignation of all UBC councillors by June. Then in Soweto, Alexandra, Mamelodi and Atteridgeville (Pretoria) the youth forced the resignation of the school boards.

The last wave of the upsurge followed after 17 September, when students came out nation-wide in reaction to the news of the death in prison of Black Consciousness (BC) leader, Steve Biko. Riots spread throughout the country and particularly in the Eastern Cape.

Twenty members of the SSRC had been arrested by late August and the last president of the SSRC, Tromfomo Sono, had fled into exile. On 19 October, the government outlawed 17 organisations, most of the Black Consciousness movement. The 1976/77 uprising had come to an end.

Leaderless for the moment, the youth movement receded and the reaction gained a temporary upper hand. But unlike the 1960s, the ebb the movement entered did not at all indicate a decisive victory for the state and reaction. The new generation of working-class youth was merely hardened and steeled by the barbaric actions of the regime. The lull setting in was only the prelude to even bigger confrontations in the future.


THE GENERATION WHICH led the 1976/77 revolt displayed an almost unparalleled heroism. But 1976 was no bolt from the blue. The militant defiance of the black youth – an indispensable ingredient for sustaining the revolt over 20 months – reflected the changes which had taken place in the objective situation, in particular in the balance of class forces. These changes were occurring even during the movement’s darkest hours of defeat in the 1960s. Indeed this defeat, and the period of relative class peace that followed in the conditions of world-wide capitalist boom, provided the South African ruling class with the opportunity for unparalleled economic expansion.

This period also saw an enormous expansion in the productive forces: the number, the size, and the mechanisation of the factories, mines and farms. Correspondingly, there was a huge growth in the size and strategic placement of the black working class. An average growth rate of 5.5 per cent between 1961 and 1974 led to a doubling of the number of African workers in manufacturing. By the end of 1974, African workers formed 70.4 per cent of the economically active population. These conditions set in motion (in Leon Trotsky’s phrase) ‘molecular processes’ in the consciousness of the African working class, healing its wounds, and restoring its confidence.

Despite the economic growth, living standards of African workers stagnated or fell. Unemployment increased from half a million in 1962 to 1.5 million in 1974 – by 1976 it was rising at the rate of 30,000 a month.

The social crises were reflected in a rapid increase in rent and transport fares and a drastic reduction in government spending on housing. At the very point at which the confidence of the African working class was recovering, the post-war upswing of world capitalism came to an end. In 1974/75, there was a simultaneous recession in all the major capitalist countries. In 1975, the South African growth rate fell to 2 per cent; in 1976/77 it was under 2 per cent; and in 1977/78 there was an absolute drop in production of 0.2%.

The effect of these changes on the consciousness of the African proletariat is shown in strike figures. Between 1962 and 1968 the average annual number of workers involved in strikes was a mere 2,000 – reflecting the sense of powerlessness arising after the serious defeat of 1961 with the banning of the ANC and Pan-Africanist Congress, and the imposition of the state of emergency.

The first signs of change came in April 1969, when 2,000 dock workers in Durban struck for higher wages. Defeated, they struck again in September/October 1971, and this time achieved a victory. There followed the month-long general strike in Namibia in December/January 1971/72. Though the demands of the workers were not met, it was a demonstration of the power of the working class.

But the decisive turning point occurred in the strike wave which started on 25 January 1973, with a strike of 7,000 workers at Frame group textile factories in Natal and spread rapidly to other provinces. In February alone, 60 strikes took place involving 40,000 workers. By the end of March, the figure had risen to 60,000 workers in more than 150 firms. Nationally, at least 100,000 workers struck.

Largely successful, these strikes drew a clear line of demarcation between the era of defeat and passivity and a new era of militant defiance. The volcanic eruption of June 1976 was preceded and prepared by the necessary subterranean shifts that had taken place within the African proletariat.

From Black Consciousness to class consciousness

THE YOUTH OF the 1970s entered the struggle fresh. There was no tradition of genuine Marxism. Nor had the ANC or the South African Communist Party created or preserved an underground cadre to explain the lessons of the defeat of the 1950s in class terms. Many participants in the struggles learned of the traditions of the previous generations only when they went to jail or into exile.

Black Consciousness – inspired by the ideas of the Black Panthers and the civil rights movement in the US – seemed to provide explanations for the oppression and exploitation suffered by the black people. An important impetus to the Black Consciousness movement was the need to break with the debilitating influence of the liberal ideas and the feeble opposition to the regime by organisations such as the white-led and dominated National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Though their break with NUSAS did not take place consciously on a class basis, the students’ adoption of Black Consciousness represented an unconscious conflict between two irreconcilable class tendencies.

Correctly, the youth understood the need to establish the unity of the oppressed as a precondition for a victorious struggle against the regime. Black Consciousness was seen as a vehicle for such unity. It also provided black students at the universities, where the movement began, with the connection to the oppressed black majority. The attraction of Black Consciousness was that it enabled the students to assert themselves with defiant pride against the daily humiliation of racial oppression. Black Consciousness also provided a banner under which the ethnic barriers – both within the African population and between African, ‘coloured’ and Indian people – could be broken down. As Karl Marx explained in relation to the subjugation of the colonial peoples by imperialism, this could continue only for as long as a sense of nationhood had not developed amongst the oppressed.

Moreover, Black Consciousness provided a penetrating criticism of the black petty-bourgeois stooges prepared to participate in the government’s schemes of divide and rule. At a time, for example, when the reactionary role of Gatsha Buthelezi (leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, which had been used to foment so-called ‘black-on-black’ violence that claimed over 10,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s) was not yet understood, the youth forced his unmasking, compelling him to establish himself very rapidly as the enemy of the people. The fact that Black Consciousness provided no clear perspectives, policies, or programmes, however, was revealed only through the experience of the struggle itself.

The entry into struggle of the primary and secondary school youth radically altered the social composition of the Black Consciousness movement. Overwhelmingly proletarian, the school youth took the slogans of Black Consciousness out of university debating chambers and tested them in the field of the living struggle, accelerating debate about the adequacy of Black Consciousness as a guide to action.

In the struggles of 1976/77, the youth discovered that the fierce pride and uncompromising determination that Black Consciousness had instilled in them were not enough by themselves to overthrow the regime. Face to face with the murderous power of the state, and the capitalist system which it defended, the youth came to understand that their anger needed the piston engine of the movement of workers in production to concentrate their struggle into a material force. At the same time, they came to see that, while they had special concerns and interests, they were themselves an integral part of the working class. In doing so they discovered from the workers themselves the limitations of Black Consciousness. Black Consciousness could remain a force with a national hold over the black youth movement, in fact, only for as long as the youth remained separated from the movement of the black workers.

‘Black power’ had no policy on the burning questions of the South Africa revolution: the control of the land, mine and factories; the organisation of production and distribution; the class character of the revolutionary state. For the working class, black power could serve as no more than a vehicle for the expression of rage and frustration. It does not show the way forward.

The inability of Black Consciousness to provide a coherent lead to the struggles of the working-class youth became clear after the 1977 crackdown. By 1979, Black Consciousness was in serious decline. The youth were turning increasingly to the Freedom Charter and ANC, the tradition to which the workers still adhered.

Already by June 1977, in his presidential address to the SASO annual conference, Diliza Mji articulated the beginnings of the class understanding that was developing: "The call today from liberal and ‘verligte’ [enlightened] quarters to the nationalist government is that blacks should be given more opportunity to participate in the so-called ‘free enterprise system’ so that they should identify with it and be able to defend it against ‘advancing communist aggression that is now at the doorstep of South Africa’. The need is therefore to look at the struggle not only in terms of colour interests, but also in terms of class interests".

The question of arms

FROM 1976, THE youth drew a further conclusion: the movement would have to be armed. Throughout 1976/77 the youth had fought a hopelessly one-sided battle against the shotguns, Sten guns and carbines of the state. They yearned for arms to defend themselves. But these were not forthcoming. Instead, the youth had to rely on their own ingenuity. They quickly learned how to deal with teargas, that a dustbin lid held at an angle could, with luck, deflect buckshot or ricocheting bullets. They discovered that a tyre filled with petrol, lit and rolled down a hill towards police lines could present the police with some problems, and that a tennis ball injected with petrol, lit and thrown into a building could be difficult to dodge. But this was hopelessly inadequate.

The ANC leadership may have been caught by surprise by the events. But the uprising lasted for 20 months and still arms were not placed in the hands of the youth. This flowed not only from the inertia of the leadership but from its pursuit of the bankrupt policy of guerrillaism which, despite the heroism of the cadres of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the ANC), was no more than an irritant to the regime. The preparation of the mass movement itself was subordinated to the policy of guerrillaism.

The immediate consequence of the policies of the leadership was to perpetuate the separation of ‘armed struggle’ from the mass movement. Thousands of youth crossed the borders for arms and training, hoping to return and liberate the oppressed through guerrilla war. They were needlessly diverted from the essential task of mass organisation of the working class.

Inside South Africa, the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was born in 1979 – the first truly mass national organisation for school students. AZASO (Azanian Students Organisation) broke with Black Consciousness. The 1980 school boycott heralded a new era of struggle among the youth, linked from the start more closely with the workers, preparing and steeling them for the revolutionary upsurge of 1984-86. The outlook of the youth became firmly anti-capitalist, linked to a clear realisation that the main arena of the struggle was in the industrial centres of South Africa. In 1984-86, the demand for arms was more widespread and urgent than in 1976. Yet the youth did not cross the borders. Instead, the cry was: ‘Umkhonto We Sizwe, we are waiting for you here. Arm us!’

The revolution of 1984-86 was led by the youth. That generation could not have built for the pioneers of 1976 a better monument – not of stone, but of commitment to the ideals they had laid down their lives for.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page