The Spark

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

Thirty years ago
– June 1976:
Bloody riots in Soweto, South Africa

Jun 26, 2006

Thirty years ago, in June 1976, the white government of South Africa decided to force black students to study math, history and geography in Afrikaans, the language of the Boer settlers who originally came from Holland. This provoked a riot among the youth in the black ghetto of Soweto, located in the Johannesburg suburbs.

This government decision was perceived by the black youth as one more humiliation after so many others. It pushed tens of thousands of youth into the streets. But the reasons for the revolt against the racist regime were much more profound. The governmental decree crystalized the hatred that had grown for decades among the poor black population living in the townships. Since the Sharpeville riots of the 1960s, the black population and particularly its youth had never ceased fighting for emancipation against the exceptional laws of the white racist regime.

The repression of the Soweto riots was bloody. The police shot the youth with real bullets. They released dogs against the demonstrators, while tanks and helicopters took control of poor neighborhoods. Very quickly tens of thousands of university students joined the younger students. On June 25, 1976, there were already more than 1,000 wounded and 1,300 arrested. The demonstrations spread to the cities. The “official” figures listed 600 dead, but the real number was near 1,000. In addition to the thousands of arrested youth, the regime grabbed the chance to throw political and union militants into prison. Among them was Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, whom the police assassinated in his cell in September 1977.

Repression didn’t stop the challenge to apartheid, the systematic oppression of black people. The government, which had decided to maintain order “at any price,” was forced to retreat on the question of the Afrikaans language and to back track.

The Soweto insurrection was inscribed in the long struggle of the South African black population to free itself from the oppression of the white minority that had been in power since their colonization of the country. It took until 1994 for the apartheid system to be abolished and replaced by the one person one vote system, at least formally.

Today, the black government of Mbeki may commemorate the revolt of the Soweto students, but social inequalities remain in the country. A two-track education system exists everywhere, one for the wealthy and another for the poor.

Poverty, misery and unemployment strike more blacks than whites. Soweto remains a ghetto in which the poorest black population is crowded. South Africa has an unemployment rate of almost 30%, while 87% of the cultivable land remains in the hands of whites, who are only 12% of the population!

If apartheid has been officially abolished, poverty and misery continue. Behind the apartheid political system of South Africa lay the capitalist system which drains wealth from the four corners of the world into the banks of the biggest imperialist thieves. It’s this system which remains to be knocked down.