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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Historical Background: 1964 - 1976

The "apartheid" dream state lasted from 1964 through 1972 six years of sustained economic growth of 7 per cent per annum, high capital inflows, a passive African population that appeared to have acquiesced to its own powerlessness, secure borders, reliable allies in the west who used its vehement anti communist propaganda for its own purposes and growing rapprochement between Afrikaners and English-speaking whites. The apartheid state appeared to have found its place if not quite welcome among the community of nations, at least not altogether a pariah, odious perhaps, but not an anathema.

Ironically, the apartheid system itself was the instrument of its undoing. Apartheid required rigidity, inflexibility, immobility and apartheid of the people became, of course, apartheid of the labor force and the marketplace, conditions inimical to capital and the opening of the international economy.

The structure of the South African economy could not adapt to a globalizing economy, which put a premium on international trade as the agent of economic growth. The South African economy was a protected economy; indigenous industries had been established behind high trade barriers. These industries, serving small markets the white relatively high-income consumer market were uncompetitive and inefficient. The country had a high "propensity to import", which meant that as the economy grew imports grew even more rapidly, creating the need for more foreign exchange to close an increasing trade deficit.

For foreign exchange the country relied on the export of primary resources principally gold and other mineral commodities, which meant that the flow of foreign exchange was largely out of the government's control since the demand for primary products was an exogenous variable over which South Africa had no say. But the scale and pace of industrial production therefore were dependent on the capacity of the country to generate foreign exchange inflows. During the 1960s inward investment flows were more than sufficient to finance increasing trade deficits. "The average rate of return on investment in apartheid South Africa after 1964 was among the highest if not the highest in the world. As late as 1994, the average American corporation received an 18 per cent return on its South African investment, as compared with only 8 per cent in Britain."1

As the country moved to shift resources into manufacturing it had to import the capital inputs these industries needed. But these capital inputs themselves contributed to the trade deficit, unless they were for industries that were export oriented and unless these exports were competitive on world markets. Thus interplay of the segmentation of internal markets along racial lines, reflected by the relative purchasing power of different racial groups, the protection of jobs for whites, the absence of semi skilled and skilled labor necessary to produce goods and services for international markets and a monetary policy that used interest rates to control inflation where inflation was a byproduct of growth made the economy constantly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the business cycle.

Rapid industrialization came with a shift from labor intensive to capital-intensive production. For Black labor this had two consequences. On the one hand the demand for semi skilled African labor increased; on the other even larger numbers of unskilled African became increasingly redundant. Thus the need for migrant workers decreased dramatically and the size of a stable urban based semi skilled labor force increased. Contract labor pushed out migrant labor.

The number of unemployed Africans increased from 582,000 in 1962 to 750,000 in 1966 to 1,000,000 in 1970. Under influx control, these unemployed workers were supposed to be removed from the urban centers in which they had been employed and resettled in the homeland of their ethnic designation. Meanwhile, job reservation for whites in semi skilled jobs created labor shortages.2 An excess of labor at one point in the production process, a shortage at another created an untenable situation for businesses now either having to survive in the cut-throat vortex of wide open international markets or go under.

Thus, Separate Development began to succumb to powerful demographic and economic forces. The period of sustained economic growth accelerated the rate of overall urbanization, but especially Black urbanization. Influx control laws were impossible to enforce, their rigidity became an obstacle to the demands of the marketplace. When African trade unions became legal in the late seventies when African trade unions became legal, they revolutionized the African worker's relationship to the workplace, and the workplace's relationship to apartheid.3

When the economic cycle turned sharply downwards in the 1974, capital inflows dried up, and the boom was over. The number of unemployed Africans soared and the prospects of somehow dumping them back in the Bantustans became an illusion.

Discontent simmered, but did not find an outlet for its expression until the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 when Soweto exploded, with much of "African" South Africa to follow on its heels.

Cataclysmic moments in history are rarely due to the circumstance of a particular moment. They find expression in that moment, but the event that ignited the spontaneous combustion of defiance the boycott of schools organized by an action committee elected by delegates representing all the secondary schools in Soweto to protest the compulsory teaching of Afrikaans in African schools was not the cause of the combustion itself.

Revolutions are the product of the accumulation of small grievances. Any small grievance can become the one that gives expression to the sum. Among Africans there were many grievances --

But the consciousness of those grievances and the right to empower oneself to address those grievances were instilled by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), a movement irrevocably associated with Steve Biko.4

In 1971 Biko wrote:

Black consciousness is in essence the realisation by the Black man of the net orally together with his brothers around the cause of their subjection the Blackness of their skins and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude. It seeks to demonstrate that Black is an aberration from the normal which is "white" It seeks to infuse the Black community with a newfound pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook o life. The interrelationship between the consciousness of self and the emancipatory programme is of paramount importance. Blacks no longer seek to reform the system because so doing implies acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves. Blacks are out to completely transform the system and to make of it whatever they wish.

Black Consciousness was more than a movement; it was a philosophy of being, a call for the assertion of self esteem, of pride in Blackness. Blacks were psychologically unempowered, entrapped in a sense of inferiority that was imposed on them not only by whites but also by Blacks accepting what whites had imposed. They had become so indoctrinated with beliefs perpetuated generation after generation that the white man was in some indefinable but real way superior to Blacks that they had come to accept it as a fact. They had entrapped themselves, embraced victimhood as an unalterable component of the self, something, even, that they were deserving of. BC took direct aim at these deeply inculcated beliefs and was determined to smash them, have the masses dance on their smithereens. Thus Bantu education, which both educated children and socialized children into an identity of inferiority, became a target the movement put its sights on: Bantu education had to go.5

The 16 June march was organized by the Soweto Students' Representative Council (SRC), a Black Consciousness student body. About 2o, 000 students gathered to march and demonstrate against a new government decree that Afrikaans would become the medium of instructions for all subjects. When the police tried to disperse them using teargas and failed, the police opened fire killing two students and injuring many others.

The photograph of Hector Peterson, aged twelve, being carried through Soweto, mortally wounded, was flashed around the world. Within days the UN Security Council had condemned South Africa and demanded an end to apartheid. The shootings triggered large scale rioting cross the country as students, the unemployed, the desperate vented their anger and frustrations at a system that humiliated them. The police responded with gunfire, shootings followed by funerals, followed by rioting, followed by shootings Jimmy Kruger, the Minister of Justice wryly summed things up; "Natives had to be made tame to the gun."6

And in a note from a Cabinet meeting:

10.8.76.
Unrest in Soweto still continues. The children of Soweto are well-trained. (...) The pupils/students have established student councils. The basic danger is a growing Black consciousness, and the inability to prevent incidents, what with the military precision with which they act. The Minister proposes that this movement must be broken and thinks that police should perhaps act a bit more drastically and heavy-handedly, which will entail more deaths.
Approved."

But "the Soweto Uprising," became part of lore, a turning point in the war against apartheid, and ironically the ANC, isolated in Lusaka, still pondering over the questions it seemingly could not resolve, paralyzed by its isolation from the home front had little to do with what had happened in Soweto or with the spontaneous upsurge in unrest and violence that followed. Again the people were giving direction to their leaders.

Every struggle for freedom has its defining moment. For Black South Africans 16 June 1976 is that moment. A catalyst for many grievances it has all the stuff of mythology. Children marching directly into the line of fire, being mowed down by a brutal police. And like all great mythologies it gets better in the telling. The movie, Cry Freedom, brought the scenes of carnage in Soweto to worldwide audiences, and though the reality of that morning was far removed from way in which the movie sentimentalized violence, its images are the images that will endure, the images that have imprinted themselves on people's minds. The movie enhanced its legitimacy. On another level, it validated Black consciousness as a precursor for political freedom. Mythology requires that at its core reside a truth greater than the event it encompasses. It requires an adaptable believability. It can be recounted in different ways, yet still convey the same core truth. The passage of time enhances its importance; in the retelling new elements are added, but the story is always the same.

It becomes the center of gravity for the value system the nation attaches to itself. All can relate to it but they do not have to relate in the same way. It speaks to a universal truth, but is local. It embodies the mythical qualities we all aspire to: great courage, nobility of cause, heroic endurance, a powerful foe who can vanquish a weaker protagonist, destroy his physical being only to see it mutate into a transcendent psychological omnipresence. It has sacrifice, where the death of a few will bring the promise of deliverance to all. Children will not understand the circumstances of the event but they will grasp its inner truth that what happened was profound and of great meaning, that they are who they are because of it.

The Soweto Uprising ensured that nothing in South Africa would ever be the same again.

The youth had seen their future.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.