The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

South Africa:
Soweto Revolt, June 1976

Jun 20, 2016

On June 16, 1976, thousands of black youth in Soweto demonstrated against a reform of their education system. The white South African government, at the head of the racist apartheid regime, shot at the students who dared defy its policy.

Far from silencing black anger, the repression of Soweto marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid regime, which deprived black people of all rights, penned them up in their own country and delivered them to exploitation by the white bosses.

Institutionalized Racism

Apartheid meant that officially the “races” followed a “separate development.” In reality, it was the dictatorship of the white bourgeois minority over the majority of black poor people.

Soweto was a township, that is to say, a satellite city, that didn’t appear on any map, but brought together hundreds of thousands of people. This black city was near Johannesburg, the main economic metropolis of South Africa, where black people didn’t have the right to reside. They worked there but had to leave at the end of the day.

The Revolt of the Youth

On April 30, 1976, the students of the Orlando West school in Soweto went on strike to demand education equal in quality to that of young whites, and not to be forced to learn Afrikaans, which was only used by their oppressors in South Africa. In the following days, the strike spread to other schools in Soweto. The students formed an Action Committee and organized a demonstration for June 16th, 1976. That day, thousands of youth rallied, surprising the government by their number and their energy. Beyond slogans about education, the youth cried, “power” and the crowd responded, “it’s up to us,” showing a political consciousness which grew against the regime.

When workers came home after their labor in Johannesburg, without knowing what had happened that day, they ran into shots from the police in the streets of Soweto and found themselves straightaway mixed up in an uprising. Twenty-three people died that day, including two whites on whom the crowd took revenge because of the police bullets. The next day, the police combed over Soweto with armored cars, shooting on anything that moved, and the army was held ready at the entrance to the township. The clinics of Soweto were flooded with thousands of wounded.

The name of Soweto was rapidly known in the entire world as a synonym for revolt against injustice. It spread like an oil stain. In the months that followed, 160 townships rose up, including in neighboring Namibia, that was then administered by South Africa.

Administrative imprisonment without time limits multiplied, while the repression continued, killing in total hundreds of people in 1976, including many children.

The Working Class in Struggle Makes the Regime Bend

The agitation in Soweto lasted two years. Since the beginning of apartheid in 1948, the South African state had ceaselessly reinforced prohibitions of all sorts, making life for black people impossible. Now it was forced to retreat. It had to withdraw its law on teaching in Afrikaans. Moreover, all inhabitants of the townships won the right to officially reside there and to buy their own home as property, which had previously been denied them.

In the townships, neighborhood committees arose. Militants, young for the most part, got involved in activity and were politicized. They were influenced by the struggles of black people in the U.S., who had just come to fight for Black Power. Many adopted these ideas mixing nationalism, Third Worldism and non-violence, called Black Consciousness, whose leader Steve Biko would be tortured to death by the police in 1977.

In the course of the 1970s, the working class also went into action. Non-white unions were openly constituted, succeeding in 1983 in grouping together six times more members than four years before. This worker rising forced the government to lessen the repression, and the bosses were constrained to recognize these unions, which could no longer be simply ignored or crushed. Only five companies officially recognized a black union in 1979. Four years later, there were more than 400. Even the powerful bosses of the mines saw themselves forced to negotiate with the national union of African miners.

Official Racism Is Dead, but Not Class Oppression

When it was clear that the government could no longer bring to heel rebellious black people and end the struggle which had lasted for more than a decade, it turned toward the African National Congress (ANC) to negotiate a political transition and to get rid of the system of apartheid without questioning the power of the bourgeoisie. Nelson Mandela, who left prison, was propelled to the presidency of South Africa in 1994.

The ANC in power ended the racist laws. But for the majority of black people, that is to say the working people, it wasn’t the end of social oppression. The ANC permitted only a new black bourgeois layer to join the older white bourgeoisie. The odious regime of apartheid ended, but only a small layer of privileged black people really came to power at the side of the white bourgeoisie.

Nevertheless, it was the uprising that began at Soweto and then the growing struggle of the working class, which had the necessary power, that ended official racism in South Africa.