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South Africa

The Soweto Uprising

South Africa’s Black Townships Have Finally Exploded

(July 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, pp.4-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The uprising that began in Soweto on Wednesday 16 June has now (22 June) spread beyond the Witwatersrand to Pretoria.

It is the first time in sixteen years that urban South African blacks have directly and massively challenged the forces of the apartheid regime. And the circumstances are very different. The Sharpeville massacre, on 21 March 1960, when the regime’s police fired on black demonstrators, killing 69, inaugurated a period of savage repression. The mass movement of passive resistance to apartheid led by the African National Congress during the 1950s was crushed and its leaders gaoled or driven into exile. Today the tide of liberation wars in Southern Africa is drawing even closer to the borders of South Africa itself. The fall of Portuguese colonialism, the Frelimo government in Mozambique, the guerilla war in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and above all South Africa’s humiliation at the hands of MPLA in Angola together must instil fantastic self-confidence in black South Africans.

At the time of writing it is impossible to predict with certainty the course of the uprising. But a number of points can be made.

First, and fundamentally, South African blacks have once again demonstrated their complete opposition to the apartheid system. The uprising arose out of black schoolchildren’s protests against being forced to learn Afrikaans, the language of their most hated white oppressors. But very quickly, under the impact of police repression, the grievance was swept up into a general rebellion against apartheid. The offices of the regime’s ‘Bantu’ (black) administration were destroyed; demonstrators gave the clenched fist black power salute popularised by the new black consciousness movement.

Soweto, the massive black township whose inhabitants work in Johannesburg 18 miles away, as well as the surrounding area, expresses in a concentrated form the situation of the urban black in South Africa.

The function of the apartheid system, consolidated by the Nationalist Party, which has been in power since 1948, is simple.The factories, mines, farms, offices and homes of white South Africans require a huge pool of cheap black labour in order to provide the settlers with their privileges and the multinationals operating in the country with their profits. Yet a permanent urban black working class would be an explosive threat to the system. So the apartheid system serves to prevent such a working class from forming. In theory, all blacks are temporary residents in the cities, which are reserved for the whites. They are required under the pass laws always to carry documents certifying their right to be in the city. Should a black lose his job he can be deported back to the rural area to which he ‘belongs’ even if he has lived all his life in the city.

Hand in hand with the immigrant labour system goes the denial to all blacks of trade union rights. Strikes by black workers are illegal, and their unions go Unrecognised by the employer or the state. The system of job reservation guarantees that skilled jobs will go to whites alone. The white trade unions, enjoying huge wage differentials out of all proportion to the work they do (mainly supervising the blacks who actually do the work), are less a section of the working class than a parasitic excrescence dependent on the white capitalists for their privileges.

The result can be seen in Soweto. 86 per cent of homes in Soweto have no electricity; 93 per cent no shower or bath; 97 per cent no hot water. 54 per cent of the township’s one million residents are unemployed. The average black family income in South Africa is 73 rand; yet the poverty datum level – the minimum income compatible with bare subsistence – is 120 rand a month.

Apartheid operates in education as viciously as it does elsewhere. Verwoerd, Vorster’s predecessor and the architect of apartheid, succinctly explained the basis for the education of blacks in South Africa:

‘There is no place for him (the black) in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour ... For that reason it is of no avail for him to receive a training which has has its aim absorption in the European community. What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?’ [1]

The result can be seen in the 1973/74 spending figures when 483 rand was spent on the education of every white child and 28 rand on the education of every black child. [2]

But apartheid has failed in its objective. The black population is increasingly urbanised and proletarianised. In 1970 33 per cent of the total African population of 15 million lived in the towns. The percentage of black labour in manufacturing industry grew from 57.6 per cent of the workforce in 1936 to 73.3 per cent in 1967.

Apartheid involves not simply preventing the formation of an urban black proletariat. It also involves ‘separate development’ – the development of the rural black ‘Homelands’ – the Bantustans – under tribal leadership into sovereign states. This policy is meant to be crowned in October when the Transkei becomes the first Homeland to achieve independence.

Yet Transkeian independence will be a farce. The Transkei is a rural peasant area. More than 78 per cent of those economically active within the Transkei work on traditional subsistence agriculture. Yet so stagnant is the peasant economy that it only utilises 5 per cent of the area’s agricultural potential – staple food has to be imported. Two thirds of the Transkei government’s income comes from the South African government. Despite an intensive building programme in Umtata, the Transkei’s capital – a presidential palace, an international airport, a Holiday Inn hotel, all financed again by Pretoria! – there is no manufacturing industry worth mentioning. [3]

The same is true of the other Homelands. The traditional peasant economy has been smashed in Sbuth Africa by a series of measures like the imposition of money taxes and the reservation of all but 12.9 per cent of the land, and that the least fertile, to the whites. The black peasantry have been forced to work in the factories, mines and farms of South Africa. Those who remain on the land have become progressively the dependents of black workers as the productivity of traditional subsistence agriculture falls and the birthrate soars. The Homelands, statelets curved out of the 12.9 per cent, often territorially split up (the Transkei is divided into three parts), have no future except as a means of advancement for black opportunists and Quislings.

Within the black working class there has developed a new ability and willingness to fight. A massive strike wave centred in Natal in early 1973 shocked the white ruling class and forced it to consider concessions in the direction of black trade union rights. There were more fundamental reasons underlying this new moderation on the part of Vorster and the ruling Nationalist Party. Apartheid had createa a huge shortfall of skilled labour (two million by 1980) and a very low level. Of labour productivity compared with levels in advanced capitalist countries. One way of solving this problem would be to abandon the migrant labour system and offer a series of concessions – trade union rights, abolition of job reservation – that would provide the incentives for large.increases in black labour productivity.

The problem facing Vorster is that to go too far along the road of concessions would inevitably fuel black demands for political rights as well and would cause a rebellion among his own base of white trade unionists and employees who depend on apartheid in j obs for one of the highest standards of living in the world. Hence the hesitations that have informed Vorster’s policy of ‘domestic détente’. [4]

For example, one concession announced was that blacks were to be permitted to buy 30-year urban leaseholds. Then it was announced that permission would be limited to those who took out Homeland citizenship (thus taking away the point of the concession as a recognition of blacks’ permanent status in the cities). The change has still to be implemented. Again, the government has a number of times publicly committed itself to backing attempts by employers to ‘reclassify’ jobs so that they are no longer reserved for whites. Yet, not only has it taken little initiative in this field, but it is taking steps to strengthen job apartheid. The government is enforcing a law which makes it an offence for industrialists in most areas to employ more than two or 2.5 blacks to any one white. 100,000 workers could lose their jobs if the law is applied rigorously. [5]

Another explosive issue is that of Transkeian citizenship. 1.3 million Xhosas who come from the Transkei live in the white area. Many were born there. The regime is attempting to force them to take out Transkeian citizenship. After the Soweto uprising one opposition senator warned that if this measures were enforced it could cause more rioting.

The contradictions of Vorster’s détente policy were dramatically revealed after the Angolan debacle. In order to conciliate hardliners within the Nationalist Party opposed to both detente and withdrawal from Angola, Vorster replaced a ‘moderate’, Punt Janson, with Andries Treurnicht, in the highly sensitive post of Deputy Minister of Bantu Administration and Bantu Education. Treurnicht is an ex-chairman of the Broederbond, the Afrikaner secret society that dominates white South African politics, and the most vocal Nationalist opponent of concessions to blacks both inside and outside South Africa. Thus it was Treurnicht who was responsible for enforcing the decision to make black children learn Afrikaans. After the rioting began, he commented: ‘Why are pupils sent to schools if they don’t like the language divisions?’

There have been plenty of warning signs. South Africa’s economy has been hit hard by the world recession. The rate of growth tumbled from 7 per cent in 1974 to 2.25 in 1975. The rate at which new jobs are created was halved. The Johannesburg Financial Mail asked: ‘Is the spectre of unemployment going to turn into a spectre of unrest among the jobless? [6] The uprising has answered that question!

The slump has caused a dramatic fall in strike figures. Employers and the state have used unemployment to hammer down on trade union militants. But there have been tremendous pressures the other way – inflation (still over 10 per cent) and rising transport costs (for example a 20 per cent increase in bus fares in the Durban area) have eaten into the starvation wages paid to black workers. And a fightback of sorts has been taking place. Black workers in Kwa Thema township near Johannesburg launched a massive bus boycott against fare increases in March (Putco, the bus company, is especially hated – when the uprising spread to Alexandra, another township near Johannesburg, last week, the Putco offices were burned down). The police were called to crush strikes demanding recognition of the Allied and Metal Workers Union at British Leyland and Heinemann Electric.

A demonstration in Johannesburg in March provided an indicator of the volatility of the situation. 500 demonstrators outside the Rand Supreme Court, where a political trial was taking place, were joined by black workers on their way home to catch trains from the nearby railway station. The demonstration rapidly swelled to 2,000 chanting black power slogans and hurling bottles and stones at the police and passing cars. The police had to draw their guns to disperse the demonstration.

Even the Bantustan leaders sensed the changing mood. Gatsha Buthelezi is the Chief Minister of KwaZulu Homeland and one of the cleverest of the black politicians trying to achieve a modus vivendi with apartheid. His face used to decorate adverts in papers like the Economist promising foreign investors that they would have no problems with trade unions in South Africa. In March he addressed a mass rally in Soweto, where, donning a Che Guevara-style guerillas outfit, he launched Inkatha Ye Sizwe – Power is Ours – called for majority rule and warned the whites that it was up to them to determine whether the changeover is peaceful or not. To continue to serve a useful role as mediator between black and white, Buthelezi had to move dramatically leftwards or lose touch with the rising tide of black militancy.

The political organisations of the black resistance, committed not to collaboration with apartheid but to its overthrow, have also been more active than for many years. Probably the strongest of these is the African National Congress, which, with a, breakaway, the Pan-Africanist Congress, has been banned since Sharpeville, and its leaders in gaol or in exile. The ANC appears to have been more active, for example, in the demonstration outside the Rand Supreme Court.

Perhaps more important is the black consciousness movement, whose organisations are Black People’s Convention and South African Students Organisation. This is a movement of angry young militants who have been brought up under apartheid, a movement hostile to Bantustan leaders like Buthelezi and impatient with the traditional organisations like ANC. (The victories of the liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique have had a tremendous impact on the black consciousness movement: SASO and BPC leaders are on trial at present for organising a demonstration in solidarity with Frelimo). SASO grew out of black students’ opposition to apartheid in higher education and members of its youth wing, the South African Student Movement, appear to have been active in the anti-Afrikaans agitation that led to the Soweto uprising.

But the uprising has clearly swept beyond the sphere of influence of the organised black resistance, fuelled by the anger and frustration of the young unemployed in Soweto and the other townships.

Whatever the fate of the uprising it could not have come at a worst time for Vorster. Détente is in ruins, as a result of the Angolan war and the collapse of negotiations between the Smith regime and the African National Council in Zimbabwe. This week Vorster is meeting Kissinger to discuss the efforts of the Western imperialist governments and the South African regime to find a neo-colonial solution to Zimbabwe. [7] The success of these efforts depends crucially on the collaboration of black governments like Kaunda in Zambia. The Soweto uprising will make it more difficult for Vorster to find allies in Black Africa.

Even if the present uprising is crushed by the regime’s immensely strong military apparatus, it is a beginning not an end. The urban black masses in South Africa have taken on the regime directly and frontally for the first time since Sharpeville. Both conditions within South Africa and the wars of liberation being waged in both Rhodesia and Namibia indicate that South Africa is entering a period of massive confrontations between the regime and the oppressed black population. Thus, as the economy recovers, it is quite likely that there will be an explosion of black wage struggles.

It remains, therefore, to draw some provisional lessons from the uprising.

First, no rebellion that is isolated to a single township or area, even if it is as massive as Soweto, can succeed. It is always possible for the regime’s forces to cut off all access into and out of the area and then to shoot and starve the people into submission.

Second, it is not simply a matter of spreading the uprising geographically. The power of the black working class lies in its ability through strike action to paralyse the white economy. The weakness of the uprising is its failure to spread, so far, not only to the militant and comparatively highly organised workers of Natal and the Eastern Cape, but also to the miners of the Rand. The mines have been shaken by black discontent over the last few years – 162 black miners died violently between September 1973 and March 1976. Yet, perhaps because the miners are fenced off into separate all-male compounds, from the rest of the black population the uprising does not seem to have spread to them.

Third, it is therefore a matter of building a movement that struggles against apartheid but which organises black workers as a class. Out of the struggles of black workers against the double oppression that weighs on them as blacks and as workers will arise the power capable of smashing apartheid. Unfortunately, despite the growth of the black workers’ movement in recent years, the black resistance, especially the ANC, sees the struggle as a predominantly national one against racial inequality.

But in fact apartheid increasingly relies on the collaboration of the black bourgeoisie. Vorster’s detente policy would not exist without the alliance with Kaunda and the split in the Zimbabwean movement. [8] Similarly, within South Africa, it requires the collaboration of people like Kaiser Mantanzima, the Chief Minister of the Transkei, Buthelezi, and Richard Maponya, the Soweto millionaire (who fled to a five-star hotel in Johannesburg when the uprising began!)

Apartheid and capitalism in South Africa are so intermeshed and interwined that they must be smashed together or not at all. The only force whose position gives it both the interest and the ability to carry out this task is the black working class. The disintegration of the South African peasantry which we have seen means that any strategy based on rural guerilla warfare, which ANC, PAC and the Unity Movement of South Africa have all toyed with, is pure fantasy.

No revolutionary socialist organisation committed to the struggle of the black working class exists in South Africa. But the ingredients of such an organisation exist in the angry young militants of the black consciousness movement and of the new black trade unions. It is the duty of revolutionaries in the imperialist West not only to support the struggle of black South Africans, but to give assistance to those committeed to building such an organisation.


1. Quoted in B. Bunting, The Rise of South African Reich, Harmondsworth 1969, p.260.

2. Johannesburg Star, May 1 1976.

3. Note 3 was not included in the published version. – ETOL

4. For an overall analysis of Vorster’s détente policy, see A. Callinicos, Southern Africa: The Great Carve-up, IS 86.

5. Johannesburg Financial Mail, May 7 1976.

6. January 30 1976.

7. For the background to these efforts, see Socialist Worker Africa Group, Crisis in Zimbabwe, second edition, April 1976.

8. See Callinicos, op. cit.

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