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Revolutionary or emancipatory consciousness and action after 1976

Revolutionary or emancipatory consciousness and action after 1976
South Africa. 1976. Soweto uprisings. Jan Hamman won the press photograph of the year in 1977 with this picture of two Soweto youths kneeling in front of the police holding their hands in the air showing the peace sign. (Photo: Jan Hamman)

After 1976, both sides of the conflict were battered. The apartheid regime had been tested in a way that it had not experienced for some time. In the period that followed, both sides rethought how they would confront one another.

This is part four of the series on revolutionary/emancipatory consciousness and actions. For previous articles in this series, see Part One, Part Two, and Part Three

The decade after the Rivonia Trial was not one of the absence of resistance, although in the case of the ANC and SACP cadres, they had to keep a low profile because the organisations were illegal after 1960 and massive repression was meted out against its members, before and after Rivonia.

We also saw that Saso emerged as a militant black consciousness organisation that advanced an interpretation of blackness which had an influence not simply on those who were members of the organisation, but also more broadly in instilling pride and dignity, and many of its teachings were absorbed into the ANC itself.

It may be true that many of the members of the black consciousness movement, especially those who experienced repression after 1976, were absorbed into the ANC and PAC — especially the ANC — but that does not detract from the unique contribution that the movement made to the understandings of resistance in South Africa and the trend of thinking remains an important influence, even if it does not have a large number of organised members.

Post-1976 rethinking

After 1976, both sides of the conflict were battered. The apartheid regime had been tested in a way that it had not experienced for some time. And although it did use massive force, it was not able to contain the uprising of basically unarmed schoolgoers for some time.

On the side of the oppressed, those who rose in rebellion experienced massive repression with large numbers killed and injured or crippled for life. This obviously left a mark on many people, but it did not deter them from continuing to struggle.

In the period that followed, both sides rethought how they would confront one another. On the side of the apartheid regime, following a series of scandals, former Prime Minister BJ Vorster resigned and was replaced by PW Botha. Under Botha, to create greater stability and hoped-for relief from sanctions, political reforms were engaged in — with a view to creating the impression of democratisation while still containing resistance.

apartheid regime, Soweto uprising

13 August 1976. Nyanga, Langa, Guguletu, South Africa. Students from Langa high school face police as the unrest from Soweto spread down to the Cape. (Photo: Supplied)

PW Botha and reform of apartheid intelligence

In the period leading to negotiations the intelligence services played an important role. The head of Republican Intelligence and later the Bureau of State Security (Boss) had been General Hendrik van den Bergh, who was very closely associated with Vorster and his mode of using intelligence was to see it as closely aligned with policing functions and with attacks on the resistance forces, a pattern that replicates that of the CIA (who provided some assistance to apartheid intelligence in the early 60s) and Mossad. In other words, operational activities of a military or policing kind were seen as part of intelligence activities.

With the replacement of Vorster by Botha, Botha appointed Dr Niel Barnard as head of intelligence, a person who came from academia and was not part of the intelligence services. Barnard brought into the intelligence services an evidence-based mode of operation, placing value not so much on eliminating “the enemy” as on accurate information. In this model of the intelligence service, operational activities such as attacks on the ANC in neighbouring states were not part of its assigned tasks.

It was not that Barnard disapproved of such attacks, but he did not see these as the core business of the intelligence services, which was to provide the state with adequate information on the threats that it faced.

Barnard also concluded that the threat to the state did not come from Moscow or necessarily from the ANC itself, but primarily from the poor living conditions of black South Africans, the oppressed people of South Africa, and he believed that these had to be addressed before there could be peace in the country.

This was part of the inauguration of an approach whereby the state would try — in a limited way — to win the “hearts and minds” of the people of South Africa by engaging in certain reforms. The object was not to concede demands of the ANC and its allies, but to create an opening for black political expression that was nevertheless possible to contain.

In 1982, Botha launched a “new deal” through a series of bills designed to create a “tricameral parliament”, providing for separate parliaments for coloureds and Indians. The three houses together would make up the national legislature, with the white parliament being supreme, continuing to control most of the resources.

Africans were excluded and the existing Bantustans were to be “upgraded” to “independent states”, and the years between 1976 and the 1980s saw “independence” granted to four such Bantustans. Africans were supposed to realise their political aspirations there and enjoyed no citizenship or political rights in the South African state. Their voting rights were supposed to be exercised in “independent” Bantustans.

Although most Africans continued, despite harassment, to live in “white” South African cities, they would only be allowed to vote for local councillors that fell under the national white state administration which continued to control the power and resources available to township authorities.

Whites approved this change in a referendum but popular organisations launched very successful boycotts of the tricameral legislatures as well as local government authorities intended for Africans.

Reforms failed but opened up space for popular organisation

The reforms were hopelessly insufficient to dampen resistance. Nevertheless, from the side of the state, it entailed a loosening of the level of repression against the oppressed people first seen in the earlier Wiehahn Commission and labour reforms which allowed greater latitude for black people, especially Africans, to organise trade unions which became an important part of the opposition to the apartheid regime.

The failed attempt at legitimacy created space for mobilisation and organisation against the regime. In the case of Africans, coloureds and Indians at a political level, the failed tricameral and local government elections became an important basis for mobilising and organising a united front against puppet authorities set up by the government.

And in this case, the space was used for the revival of local organisations, later known as civics and several other sectoral organisations at the local level.

Popular public struggle and openings on side of the regime

Within the country, the 1976 Rebellion emboldened people who were willing to act against apartheid to recover ground in the public terrain that had been lost after the 1960 state of emergency and bannings. This saw the formation of a range of organisations that catered to the basic needs of the oppressed people: housing organisations, community organisations and a range of cultural and other organisations, many or most formed on a non-racial or multi-racial basis.

There was also the development of a category of much more engaged professionals in areas like law and medicine, among others. This is not to suggest that there were not doctors and lawyers and other professionals associated with the Struggle for freedom before this. But there was a group of professionals that emerged in this period who were themselves not simply defending those on trial, in the case of lawyers, but also themselves part of professional organisations that emerged — and in many cases later affiliated with the UDF.

I think here of the late Judge Pius Langa and Judge Zak Yacoob and the late attorney Yunus Mahomed, and in some cases, entire legal firms were seen as “Struggle lawyers”. In this period, Griffiths and Victoria Mxenge were active as lawyers supporting the Struggle and both were assassinated.

Call for united front and establishment of UDF

Towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, there was a call for the formation of a united front to embody a common set of values on a national level. This could be embraced by a wide range of local organisations that would affiliate with this united organisation, which would later become the UDF, formed in August 1983, whose 40th anniversary is this year.

From the outset, the UDF advanced a programme that was very similar to that of the ANC although it was not set up by the ANC. And although the ANC had for some time called for organisations to be openly formed by the oppressed people of South Africa and to build unity, it was not itself directly involved in or the instigator of these organisations of the United Democratic Front. (See Raymond Suttner, “The UDF Period and its Meaning for Contemporary South Africa: Review Article” Journal of Southern African Studies, 30(3) (September 2004), 691-702 at 697-700).  Nevertheless, it obviously supported this development as fulfilling some of the goals that the ANC itself had enunciated in previous years.

The UDF grew very rapidly. At the same time, the level of dissatisfaction with apartheid continued to increase, despite the feeble attempts to win the hearts and minds of people.

A very militant uprising took place in the Vaal region in 1984 and it was difficult for the regime to bring it under control. It was also soon accompanied by risings in other parts of the country.

Two treason trials of leaders of the UDF ensued, one known as the “Delmas trial” and the other held in Pietermaritzburg. The Delmas trial was really a trial of those allegedly involved in the Vaal uprising, where it was claimed and in fact found by the judge that the accused had acted as the internal wing of the ANC in instigating the Vaal uprising, and they were all found guilty.

This is a good example of how sections of the judiciary became accessories to the crimes of the apartheid regime in adopting positions that all the scholarship and evidence has shown was not the case, that is, that the ANC did not set up the UDF. (See interview with ANC President OR Tambo, reprinted from Mayibuye, 10 and 11 (1984) in Umrabulo, 2003. Mayibuye and Umrabulo are both ANC journals, from the exile period in the case of the former and after 1990 in the case of the latter).

In the end, all the trialists from the Vaal treason trial were acquitted in the Appellate Division, although it was on a technicality. And those in the Pietermaritzburg treason trial, including two presidents of the UDF, Albertina Sisulu and Archie Gumede, were also all acquitted. It has been claimed that there was little legal substance to these trials and that they entailed abuse of legality to keep leading UDF figures “out of the way”, having to meet lawyers and sit in court.

The initial goals of the UDF were limited and it did not require strict ideological adherence to doctrines like that contained in the Freedom Charter. But it soon became clear it was contesting the apartheid regime on every terrain that it had the power to do. And within a year or two, it began to raise the question of the capacity of the apartheid state to control the resistance.

UDF, ANC and openness to difference

Although the UDF initiative was theoretically open to a range of tendencies, BC forces remained separate and there was periodic conflict between UDF-aligned and black consciousness forces. In some cases, as with Rev M Maqina in Port Elizabeth, there was state influence on the conflict — on the side of Maqina, purporting to represent BC organisation Azapo, as later reported in the TRC.

But it must be said that within the UDF there was a problem in ensuring tolerance and space to operate for other tendencies. Pluralism — allowing space for all views and movements — was not a strong part of the Congress-aligned forces in the 1980s, and when I was in the Transvaal UDF leadership, we had to convince people that those with other orientations had to be won over by argument, not through fists or other violence.

Although commentary on the ANC is understandably currently preoccupied with wrongdoing and state collapse, if the ANC were to be part of the long-term democratic development of South Africa, which now seems increasingly unlikely, there is no sign that it has embraced pluralism as a value. The notion of the “People shall Govern!” emphasises unifying the people as one — and makes insufficient space for disaggregating that oneness and understanding the distinct identities that are part of that oneness.

This intolerance is not new, but was built into the way in which the UDF and ANC conceived its support base, “the people”, and unity. There used to be a lot of emphasis on unity, oneness, political cohesion and a range of ways of emphasising the people as one. That was indeed a value to be built in the face of apartheid divisiveness that facilitated oppression.

But it is important that the “people” are seen as both potentially unified as “one” but also disaggregated as comprising a range of distinct identities, belief systems, religions and political ideologies. This failure to disaggregate the notion of the people has never been attempted and it forms a barrier to contestation of ideas that is necessary for democracy to flourish. It also fudges the complexity of unity by underplaying and not engaging adequately with difference.


A number of other tendencies in the resistance emerged which contributed cumulatively to the gradual recovery of opposition and heightened pressure on the apartheid regime.


As indicated in the previous part, many people when they crossed the border, did not in fact know the difference between ANC and PAC, but the ANC was the primary beneficiary and quite a few of these people who had been in the 1976 Rising returned as guerrillas of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), strengthened in numbers but gradually hitting targets that were meaningful to resistance — as with the Soekmekaar Police Station that was linked with forced removals (Interview, Petrus “Shoes” Mashigo, 2003, in Raymond Suttner, The ANC underground, 2008).

The opposition to the apartheid regime became increasingly aggressive. And although it was not directly connected to the ANC, the UDF and its affiliates embraced the exhortation of the ANC to make South Africa ungovernable and apartheid unworkable.

In many townships police and Bantu authorities were expelled. There was no authority in control of many parts of South Africa and ungovernability presented the state with a problem of asserting its authority. At the same time, the UDF and ANC did not see ungovernability as an end in itself and it posed certain problems in terms of long-term stability.

People’s power

The initial or short-term response to this, on the side of the ANC/UDF, was to call for the establishment of elementary organs of people’s power, which despite being a crucially important development was not always a recipe for democracy to thrive.

But these organs of people’s power represented a very important intervention not only as practice, that people took control of their own lives in various spheres, but also represented a critique of some elements of accepted ANC doctrine. Many activists involved in popular power referred to their actions representing implementation of the Freedom Charter, notably the first clause, “The People Shall Govern!” (Interview with Uitenhage local civic leader, Weza Made, 1986).

Until then, the overwhelming understanding of democracy was something that would be achieved after the “transfer” or “seizure” of power. What the practitioners of people’s power were saying is that “The People Shall Govern!” does not only mean voting for representatives to Parliament every five years and then being an observer (leaders going to Parliament formed part of some Struggle songs of the 1950s).

The People’s Power period was about people taking control of their own lives. It included crime control, after apartheid police were driven out of many townships or when police — recognising their loss of power — referred complainants to the “comrades”. It also represented civic responsibility as keeping townships clean or creating people’s parks and similar ventures.

Some refer to violence and abuse and there is no denying that the popular power period was not always managed in a consensual manner and there was extensive violence in some areas. My research on this period reveals that when large numbers of older people and leaders were arrested, it was easier to have “comtsotsis” (tsotsis, meaning gangsters, posing as comrades) infiltrate and incite violence or the youth themselves may have been restrained by older people and their absence led to more impetuous actions.

Where those who practised popular power represented broad sectors of the community the venture tended to be more successful, as was the case in Port Alfred. In that township, popular power programmes were overseen by a broad “central committee” representing civics, women, youth, labour and other sectors. As a consequence of this broad base behind decision-making, consumer boycotts and other militant actions did not entail coercion. The community was represented in these decisions. Some would still not abide by calls for actions like consumer boycotts and there was generally a non-violent attempt to persuade. (Interview, Gugile Nkwinti, 1986).


In the late 1980s, the ANC and SACP called for insurrection that was already implicit in a lot that was happening. At the same time, there were secret talks with the regime aimed at negotiations, initiated from prison by Nelson Mandela and outside with the agreement of the ANC national executive and President OR Tambo, by Thabo Mbeki and others.

There was a need for secrecy, but the situation left a legacy of unhappiness among those who were throwing their bodies against the apartheid regime while the preferred course for resolution of the conflict was talks. That is not to say that armed insurrection would have succeeded and there had to be secrecy. It is simply that not enough was done to manage this transition as it unfolded, in the case of many people in MK and other sections of the ANC-led alliance who believed that the goal was to overthrow the apartheid regime by force of arms. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions. His Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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