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Alex Callinicos

Blacks arise

(December 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 8, December 1978-January 1979.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

White Man, We Want to Talk to You
Denis Herbstein
Pelican 95p

The uprising which began in the township of Soweto on 16 June 1976 was one of the most important events of the last decade. It was the awakening of the black working class of South Africa from 15 years of passivity induced by the repression which followed the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

Before they became frightened of politics, Penguin Books were known as the publishers which produced good books on current affairs. Denis Herbstein’s book on Soweto appears more than two years after the uprising.

Still, better late than never. Denis Herbstein, himself a white South African who is banned from returning to the country where he was born, covered the events of 1976 as a correspondent for the Sunday Times. He was on friendly terms with leaders of the black consciousness movement which inspired the uprising, people like Steve Biko and Drake Koka.

The result is a clear, well-documented and very readable account of the events leading up to the Soweto uprising. The chapters on black consciousness and on the system of Bantu education which sparked off the black school students’ rebellion are particularly good.

My only quibble is that Herbstein remains trapped in the categories with which liberal journalism approaches South Africa. The root of the problem, he suggests, lies in the racism of the Afrikaners, the settlers of Dutch origin whose National Party has ruled South Africa for the last 30 years. Several times he describes John Vorster, at the time prime minister of South Africa, as a ‘prisoner’ of the Afrikaner people.

This approach fails to grasp the way in which the Nationalists have ruled as a capitalist party, ruling in the interests of western and South African capital, including the increasingly powerful and prosperous Afrikaner bourgeoisie. Indeed, Herbstein deluges us with facts which show the way in which capitalism and apartheid are intertwined in South Africa.

One final complaint: the title of the book is just silly. Herbstein brings out very clearly that the last thing South Africa’s blacks want to do with whites is talk to them.

As he writes:

‘For the whites, the most alarming new factor introduced (by Soweto – AC) has been psychological – a new-found black confidence; a determination not to accept society as unchanging and unchangeable; a readiness of blacks to die for their cause.

‘At Sharpeville, blacks were shot in the back while running away from the police. At Soweto, many were shot in the chest, advancing’.

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