On 16 June 1976 South African school students took to the streets of Soweto to protest at being forced to learn Afrikaans, which they saw as the language of their white oppressors.
The students were confronted by police who attempted to stop the march. When students continued to protest the police opened fire, mowing down demonstrators.
This transformed the protest into a revolt. The apartheid regime now found itself confronted with its worst crisis since the Sharpeville Massacre in 1961 – the great Soweto uprising.
The first signs of renewed black militancy came in the early 1970s when militant students launched the “black consciousness movement”.
Its organisations, the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) and the South African Students Organisation (SASO) emphasised black pride and black self reliance.
They rejected alliances with white liberals. Their slogan was “black man, you are on your own” which appealed to young blacks, including myself.
The first real sign of black confidence after the terrible defeats of the early 1960s came in 1973 when 100,000 black workers came out on strike in the Durban Pinetown area demanding higher wages.
This spontaneous explosion of mass strikes took the employers and the state by surprise.
They retreated, conceding the right to strike to black people in 1973, and granted pay increases.
There was also a direct relation between the war in Angola and the Soweto revolt. The Portuguese Revolution of 1974 brought about the collapse of its colonial empire in Africa.
This lead to civil war in Angola and Mozambique. In early 1976 the South African army decided to invade Angola so that it could prevent the left wing MPLA from winning. This ended in humiliation.
White South African prisoners of war were displayed at press conferences in a black African capital. The invading troops had to pull out.
The most powerful military machine in Africa south of the Sahara had been beaten by black fighters.
The message of the South African defeat spread like wildfire. Eyewitness accounts describe how in Cape Town huge black audiences would hurry to the mixed race hotels – the only place where they could watch television. They would watch the news and cheer every report of South African casualties.
The MPLA’s victory in Angola, along with Frelimo’s victory in Mozambique, helped to instil in black South Africans the confidence that their white rulers could be taken on and beaten.
There were other issues that led to the Soweto revolt. 1976 saw the onset of a recession in South Africa. This resulted in a steep rise in unemployment, particularly among black workers in industry.
Soweto, an abbreviation for the south western townships of Johannesburg, was a sprawling black city of between 1.5-2 million inhabitants. It was lacking in most facilities.
Some 86 percent of homes were without electricity, 93 percent without a shower or bath.
In early 1976 its unemployment rate was 54 percent. In 1973-74, the government spent 17 times more on educating a white child than on a black child.
This reflected former prime minister Verwoerd’s observation that, “There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice.”
The only prospect for young blacks was either unemployment or starvation wages. Being forced to learn the oppressors’ language was just too much. At the end of 1975 and early 1976 students from schools in Soweto met and organised action against the teaching of Afrikaans.
They set up the Soweto Student Representative Council. The students decided to organise a demonstration on 16 June calling on the government to withdraw its proposals.
When the police opened fire on the demonstration it started a wave of rioting that spread over a period of 18 months to every black township. The riots lasted until early 1978 in the Eastern Cape.
The rebellion was the work of black youth in the townships. They seized and maintained the offensive in Soweto and Cape Town.
They called for, and organised, two massive solidarity strikes in late August and mid-September in the areas where the youth movement was strongest.
They organised demonstrations, sit-ins, school and bus boycotts and the township youth were engaged in constant battles with the police.
In the Cape it was the mixed race youth, dubbed “coloured” by the apartheid regime, who swept into the leadership of the rebellion.
Under apartheid they were defined as a separate race, but by proclaiming their unity with their African brothers and sisters they nullified the regime’s efforts to buy them off with a status slightly higher than Africans and Indians.
Their status was being undermined by measures such as the reintroduction of influx controls for coloureds, the imposition of forced labour for coloured youths, as well as the massive removals of coloureds in the Western Cape.
The movement rejected the leadership of the black middle class, particularly those who were engaged in running the townships – the Bantu Administration Boards were staffed in the main by those who collaborated with apartheid for their own personal gain.
The movement’s anger was aimed not only at the property of the Bantu administration, but also at the organs of black collaboration. The puppet parliament of the Bophuthatswana Homeland was burnt down in Mafeking.
The fires of revolt burned on for well over a year. The youth overturned the stooge council responsible for running Soweto in June 1977. This was a great achievement but the regime was gradually able to reimpose control by wholesale repression.
Seven hundred recorded deaths, mass detentions and the suppression of October 1977 finally broke the back of the black consciousness movement.
One of the regime’s victims was movement leader Steve Biko who was murdered by the security police while in detention.
Another reason for the defeat was the conflicts within the anti-apartheid movement in the townships. Two main currents emerged. The young black militants wanted black power immediately.
The second current was centred on the Black Parents Association (BPA) in Soweto. It was formed in June 1976 as an umbrella group. It embraced all sorts, including SASO and the BPC, as well as more “moderate” organisations.
It had the support of the ANC with Winnie Mandela, the then wife of ANC leader Nelson Mandela, being elected to its executive committee.
But it was also linked to the quisling Urban Bantu Council and some South African capitalists such as Anton Rupert and Harry Oppenheimer, who were to oppose black involvement in the national government.
Not surprisingly there were clashes between the youth and the BPA, particularly around the organisation of a later demonstration to protest against the savage repression of the authorities.
The BPA wanted to delay the demonstration on the police headquarters but in the end the youth won out.
Ultimately the BPA were destroyed because its leadership was detained. Though Rupert and Oppenheimer could contemplate giving blacks limited political rights, most capitalists in South Africa in the 1970s needed apartheid and the repression that came with it.
The Soweto uprising put the destruction of apartheid on the agenda again.
The rebellion was carried out with tremendous courage and militancy. It shook the apartheid state to its foundations and braved one of the most ruthless repressive regimes in the world. However the rebellion had its limits.
Young unemployed blacks and school children did not have the power to smash apartheid.
That power lay with the black working class which did not take the lead in the Soweto revolt. Workers responded massively, but only in solidarity with the initiatives of the black youth.
Their rebellion bears great similarity with the students’ revolts in the advanced capitalist countries in the 1960s.
They developed with fantastic militancy, imagination, spontaneously and rapidly generalising from their own specific oppression to the overall political battle, leaving the workers’ movement way behind.
At the same time they lacked the power to break the system.
The revolt of 1976 left an indelible mark. It made it clear to the authorities that the urban black working class were not as they would wish “temporary sojourners in white South Africa”, who could not be sent back to the so called homelands, but there to stay and there to fight.
Repression only brought the regime a temporary respite. Within two years the black working class took centre stage and by the end of the 1980s it had brought the apartheid state to its knees.
It forced it to negotiate a political settlement with the black majority. Soweto was the beginning of the end for apartheid.
Bruce George is a South African activist now living in London