Salient. Official Newspaper of Victoria University Students Association. Volume 40, Number 3. March 14, 1977.
In the long history of struggle against Apartheid, there are two events which depict the ferocity of the system which they fight. The events are Sharpeville and Soweto.
On March 21st 1960, trigger happy police shot dead 69 of a crowd of pass law protestors outside the South Rand township of Sharpeville.
On June 16th 1976, school students led a demonstration in Soweto against the introduction of the compulsory usage of Afrikaans language into part of the school curriculum. Within hours, nationwide demonstrations in support of the Soweto events took place. Brutal police and state intervention left 176 dead by the end of June.
Ever since Sharpeville the world had been waiting for its sequel. The only surprising part about Soweto then was that Sharpeville's sequel had taken so long in coming.
There is a very real sense in which Soweto is the natural heir to Sharpeville. The "kids" at the heart of the Soweto protests are essentially the children of Sharpeville: born about the time of the shootings, they are the first products of post-Sharpeville Apartheid, the first generation of black South Africans educated wholly under the Bantu Education Act.
The basic principle of the Act, ie to perpetuate black subservience, was put by Dr. Verwoerd in 1954:
"The Bantu must be guided to serve his own community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour .... Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and misled him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze."
It was hardly surprising that the sequel to Sharpeville began in Soweto. No area in South Africa today better exposes the bitter reality of Apartheid. A vast conglomerate of boxed-up townships, Soweto houses white Johannesburg's work force. With an official population of 1.5 million blacks it's served by hardly a dozen cinemas, a scattering of community halls and men-only beer halls. Less than half the houses have electricity; even less have hot running water, streets are seldom lit; public transport is crammed and expensive. With the highest crime rate in the world, Soweto is a concentrated complex of frustration, anger and deprivation on the edge of, and constant servant to, white Johannesburg's affluence and plenty.
It was the young people who sparked the Soweto uprisings. Significantly they have continued to lead a more broadly based struggle against Apartheid since those early days immediately following June 16th. By word of mouth, distribution of leaflets, influencing their parents, the African youth later joined by the Indians and Coloureds, were instrumental in organising paralysing strike action in nearly every main city in South Africa, The New Zealand Herald of August 25th 1976 reports that "as many as 80% of the 200 blacks who normally commute to Johannesburg from troubled Soweto failed to report for work."
The Johannesburg Sunday Times of 19th September 1976 reports that "the three day asikhwelwa ('We don't work') campaign brought large sectors of Johannesburg commerce and industry to a standstill ......in Cape Town the coloured people stayed away in numbers ranging from 60% to 100%."
The strikes have continued as have the demonstrations and the student boycotts of classes. Secondary schools have been boycotted for 6 months. The Auckland Star of Thursday January 6th 1977 states "officials in Soweto, the black township south of Johannesburg, said most students in higher grades appeared to be continuing the 6 months school boycott begun after anti-Government rioting in the township last June."
The demonstrations which were initially directed at Bantu Education have become full-scale demonstrations of opposition to Apartheid as a system. Although usually in the form of peaceful marches, the students' anger and frustration has sometimes taken the form of property destruction. Buildings such as schools beerhalls, shebeens (illicit drinking establishments), Government and Bantu Administration buildings, buses, police stations. Little or no damage was done to private houses.
Although there has been relative calm since Christmas, very little would be required to spark off massive unrest again. A. P.A. report from Cape Town covered by the Auckland Star of December 24th states "Despite outward quiet, observors say the township seethes with resentment and frustration, especially amongst the young people antagonised by what they feel is police repression and lack of progress toward changes In the country's apartheid policies."
No doubt much of the action in the last 6 months has been spontaneous, fuelled by the hatred of the apartheid system and the response to the brutal police suppression of peaceful student and worker activity. However action of such magnitude is not possible without effective organisation and co-ordination. The 2 student organisations leading the struggle have been the secondary schools' South African Students Movement (SASM), the universities South African Students Organisation (SASO). These two organisations have cooperated closely with many other groups which make up what is collectively known as the Black Consciousness Movement. Such groups as the Black Peoples Convention (BPC), Union of Black Journalists (UBJ), Black Allied Workers Association (BAWA), Black Community Programmes (BCP).
These groups following the leadership of the student organisations, have completely rejected those black institutions and individuals who have sought a moderate position and have tried to compromise with the white government. Hence people like Chief Gatsha Buthelezi have little or no credibility with the Black Consciousness Movement.
The South African authorities have continuously maintained that the uprisings which have swept the country for the last six months are the work of a few 'militant agitators'. Clearly a campaign of the magnitude as witnessed so recently in South Africa, involving the death of over 500 people, nearly 5000 arrests, detentions without trial, bannings of the leaders of many black organisations, strikes that risked the livelihood of many of the workers that took part, cannot be sustained without the support of a very large section of the black community.
The uprisings were not the result of 'militant agitators' but rather as the result of complete inflexibility on the part of the white South African authorities. What was once a disunited voice, much of which was prepared to accept a compromise with white South Africa, has now been polarised and joined to form a united [unclear: black] voice that won't be happy with anything short of the total destruction of Apartheid.
—Dave Stott (Organiser of the National Anti-Apartheid Committee)