The Soweto Uprising

The Soweto Uprising – 30 years on

Have the ideals of the 1976 generation been fulfilled?

Introduction – June 2006

This article was first published as the editorial for a special commemorative edition of Izwi Labasebenzi on the 30th Anniversary of the Soweto Uprising in June 2006 that reprinted the Inqaba Ya Basebenzi article referred to in the text.

The main article in this pamphlet was first published in the September 1986 edition of Inqaba Ya Basebenzi, journal of the Marxist Workers Tendency of the African National Congress (predecessor of the Democratic Socialist Movement), to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. The author, Weizmann Hamilton, using the pen name, Basil Hendrickse in exile, had been an activist in the Black Consciousness Movement.

We republish it not only because its analysis of the 1976 Uprising remains valid. We do so also in an attempt to defend the legacy of 1976 against the attempts today to strip it of its revolutionary significance and to portray the ANC s capitalist dispensation as the fulfilment of the aspirations of 1976. The 1976 generation did not lay down their lives so that a new black capitalist elite could earn the right to share in the exploitation of the working class alongside the white capitalists. In that sense the ANC Youth League’s commitment to capitalism and the ANC’s promotion of ‘black economic empowerment’ not only have nothing in common with the ideals of the Soweto uprising, the ANC s capitalist policies represent their betrayal.

What this article demonstrates is that over a short period of twenty months the youth had drawn profound conclusions about the nature and tasks of the revolution; to show that they had begun to understand that apartheid was the political instrument, and the national oppression of the black majority the social foundation of the capitalist system.

The article traces the changes in consciousness that occurred during these historic events. It shows how the changes in their understanding led the youth to forge links at first instinctively and then consciously with the workers, inspiring them with courage and determination and how, in turn, the linkage with the workers raised the level of understanding of the youth themselves. Beginning with a better understanding about the social forces needed for the struggle against the apartheid regime, the youth, by joining forces with the workers, gained a better understanding of the nature of the inter-relationship of the political system of apartheid and the social system of capitalism. It shows how the changes in consciousness affected strategy and tactics; how the struggle was simultaneously for national liberation from white minority rule and social emancipation from capitalism.

The article also analyses the socio-economic and political background to the events of 1976. It outlines how, whilst the defeats of the 1960s laid the political basis for the rapid economic growth and consolidation of the capitalist system, it, for that very reason, provided the material basis for the increased social power of the black working class and the recovery of their self-confidence and growing combativity. The ruthless exploitation of the black working class was the source of the fabulous profits of the capitalists enabling the apartheid regime to consolidate its social and political support within the white population through social reforms and political privileges.

But as Marx explained, the capitalist class creates its own grave diggers in the form of the working class. The very success of capitalism on the basis of the cheap labour system enforced by apartheid prepared the way for the crisis of the 70s.

The article also outlines how the movement of the youth and the working class drew strength from each other mutually reinforcing the militancy that characterised the struggle of the oppressed black masses throughout the 80s reaching its peak with the defeat of Apartheid.

When the mass movement renewed its offensive in the 1980s, it was on a higher level, both in respect of the conscious fusion of the youth and workers movement and the greater ideological clarity about the relationship between capitalism and apartheid. By the mid-80s socialism formed a significant part of the political demands of the political demands of the masses. In the search for the most effective way in which to combine the social forces of the revolution — the youth and workers — and for ideological clarity about the relationship between apartheid and capitalism, the 1976 generation had pioneered the way. The achievements of the next generation, in particular the battalions of the 1980s that dealt the final death blow to apartheid, were built on the shoulders of the 1976 generation.


Masses unban ANC

ANTICIPATING that the masses would turn to the ANC to provide the most effective basis for the unity of the masses in the battle to overthrow the apartheid regime and that the ANC would in effect be unbanned by the masses and turned into a mass force once again, the article concluded with a call for the building of a mass ANC on a socialist programme.

The ANC came to power in 1994 in a negotiated settlement. However the ANC leadership, as Mbeki has repeatedly made clear, has never stood for socialism. Committed to the preservation of capitalism, the leadership had already abandoned the Freedom Charter and its call for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy even before the formal negotiations began. After a brief flirtation with the less radical Reconstruction and Development Programme, Mandela declared privatisation to be the fundamental policy of the ANC. In 1996 the ANC leadership imposed, without any debate amongst the membership, the nakedly neo-liberal capitalist economic policy, Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme (Gear).

Through the overthrow of white minority rule and the attainment of one-person-one vote, the black majority had broken the chains of national oppression. This represented an historic victory. However, twelve years after the fall of apartheid, the black working class majority continues to experience unemployment, poverty, homelessness, crime, disease and illiteracy — the very conditions that the 1976 generation had fought against. The black majority continues to suffer the same social deprivation under a black majority government as they did under white minority rule.


The ANC has always stood for capitalism

THE ANC government’s capitalist policies are no aberration. Far from being a deviation from what the ANC has stood for historically, they represent a confirmation that the ANC’s historic mission was to fulfil the aims of the aspirant black capitalist class. Even during the ANC’s most radical phase, after the adoption of the Freedom Charter, and later the armed struggle, the ANC leadership remained committed to the preservation of capitalism. In reply to the question as to whether the Freedom Charter was a blueprint for socialism, Mandela’s reply, in an article in Liberation in 1956, was crystal clear.

Whilst the Charter proclaims democratic changes of a far reaching nature, it is by no means a blueprint for a socialist stat. Under socialism the workers hold state power. They and the peasants own the means of production, the land, the factories and the mills. All production is for use and not for profit.


…in demanding the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mines and the land, the Charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. But such a step is absolutely imperative and necessary because the realisation of the Charter is inconceivable, in fact impossible, unless and until these monopolies are first smashed up and the national wealth of the country turned over to the people.


The breaking up and democratization of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeoisie (emphasis added).

Of course the idea that it would be possible to implement the demands of the Freedom Charter within the framework of capitalism was utopian. The implementation of such a programme would have brought the ANC government into direct conflict with the capitalist class and would have required the arming of the people to defend the government against an attempt to over-throw it by force of arms. This in turn would have set into a motion a process that could have resulted in the smashing of the old state machine and the overthrow of capitalism.

Even so, the contrast between the vision outlined by Mandela in the above quotation and the modern reality of SA could not be greater. Amongst activists on the left there is a common view that the ANC leadership’s failure to meet the social needs of the people is the result of a lack of political will, incompetence, nepotism and corruption. Whist all these undoubtedly play an important role, they are not fundamental. The fundamental explanation for the ANC’s failure to meet the social needs of the people is that it is impossible to do so on the basis of capitalism on a sustained basis.


Capitalism cannot meet the needs of society

ON the basis of capitalism it is not possible to serve the interests of all classes equally. Any government committed to capitalism must serve the interests of the capitalist class firstly and foremostly. The ANC’s adoption of the neo-liberal capitalist Gear policy confirms this. The ANC came to power when, in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the capitalist class internationally was ideologically triumphant; the traditional parties of the working class in one country after another turned their backs on socialism and abandoned even their social democratic programmes. The ANC leadership, having never stood for socialism, capitulated to the pressure of the capitalist class at home and imperialism abroad and abandoned not only the Freedom Charter but also the social democratic Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).

Upon his return from a tour of the world’s capitals in the West, Mandela made it clear that he had been warned that there would be no support forthcoming for the new democratic government if it continued to support nationalisation. This is the reason he declared privatisation to be the fundamental policy of the ANC government and stated in parliament that the government was not an employment agency.

The ANC emphasises that it is the government of all the people, that is, of all classes. Yet it is not possible to serve all classes equally under capitalism. Any government committed to capitalism must serve the interests of the capitalist class firstly and foremostly.

This means placing limits on social spending; reducing tax for big business and generally managing the economy according to the dictates of the capitalist minority. Inevitably this means that every aspect of social policy — education, health, housing, job creation –have to be subordinated to the interests and demands of the capitalist class. The government’s obligations to the working class majority that voted it into power to deliver social services have been used instead to create the opportunity for the development of a black capitalist class. In the education, housing, health, electricity and water sectors the government has surrender its service delivery duties giving instead opportunities to aspiring capitalists to enrich themselves. This can be seen in every aspect of government social policy.


Education – from racial to class apartheid

It is a bitter irony of the ANC’s track record in government that one of the first casualties of its capitulation to neo-liberalism was education — the issue that sparked the Soweto Uprising. Shortly after adopting Gear, the government abandoned its commitment to free education for the first ten years of schooling. The policy of cost-recovery associated mostly with electricity and water charges, in fact underpins government s education policy. The implementation of school fees reinforced the social deprivation suffered by the black majority under apartheid from primary school through to university. Black working class learners bear the brunt of the effect of these policies.

Today 50% of learners who start school, fail to reach grade 10. Tens of thousands of black working class learners are excluded from tertiary education because they cannot afford the fees. Higher education fees have rocketed by more than 50% over the past five years because the government has cut subsidies to universities compelling them to raise fees. Universities are run as businesses with management adopting a culture of self-enrichment by awarding themselves salaries higher than that of the president of the country itself. Thousands of those who manage to reach university or technicon are forced to drop out because they cannot afford the fees and are heavily in debt to the banks or to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme which is owed R5,5billion.

The South Africa Human Rights Commission’s Judy Kollapen says: “It would be correct to say that one still has a two-tier system of education of model C and private schools on the one hand versus township and rural schools.” (Sunday Independent 7/05/06). Faranaaz Veriava, an education activist from The Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Wits University) says: “My main concern is around issues of poverty and inequality. In some schools fees are R50 and in others up to R18 000 a month, which means the quality of education is determined by what one can afford.” (Sunday Independent 7/05/06).


The ANC has always stood for capitalism

THE reaction of big business to the crisis is a remarkable demonstration of the hypocrisy of the rich. They heap praise on the government for resisting what they call the temptation to give in to populist demands, that is, demands to spend money on decent social services. Yet they complain about the low levels of literacy of learners who enter the job market. Vusi Mabena, a skills development adviser for the Chamber of Mines, said businesses were often unable to train young recruits because they first had to teach them to read and write, and add up. “Why should business have to do the job of the state?”, he asked. (Star Business Report, 5/06/06).

Under the ANC government, the racial privileges of apartheid have been replaced with class apartheid. Education has ceased to be a right. As one head of a tertiary institution with a salary in excess of a million a year stated bluntly: “tertiary education is a privilege”.

The ANC government’s reaction to the consequences of these policies – reflected in the embarrassing fact that the majority of high performers in matric remain white — the lowering of the standards for passing matric— is remarkably similar to the desperate measures of the apartheid regime in the run-up to June 16. The partial introduction of no fee schools and the proposed capping of university tuition fees are an admission of the failure of its policies. Nor will this overcome the crisis. The solutions are not only inadequate. The crisis in education is made worse by other aspects of government policy.



THE HIV\Aids epidemic — a direct result of the limits on health spending — has taken a heavy toll on teachers. Aids-related deaths now rank amongst the top causes of staff losses in the public educations system. This is further reinforced by low wages and poor working conditions resulting in demoralisation amongst educators. More than half the educators polled by the Human Sciences Research Council in 2005 said they intend leaving their jobs. (Mail & Guardian, May 19 to 25/2006).

Social need and private profit are-like oil and water. The ANCs government’s capitalist policies compel it to discriminate against the working class and to favour the wealthy. Placing limits on social spending has resulted in a serious shortage of health workers and equipment in public hospitals.

A large share of South Africa s gross domestic product — about 9% — goes to healthcare. However the spending occurs in a two-tier system. About 60% of the funds pay for the healthcare of the 15% with private medical insurance. Annual per capita expenditure on healthcare in the private sector is almost six times larger than in the public sector, and fully 80% of specialists and at least 60% of general practitioners now work in the private sector. (Mai l& Guardian, May 19 to 25/2006).

Of the estimated one million in need of anti-retrovirals, only about 200 000 are receiving such therapy — half of them through the private health sector which is accessible to a small minority. According to Statistics SA, only about 15% of South Africans (and a mere 7% of black Africans) belong to medical-insurance schemes. (Mail & Guardian, May 19 to 25/2006).


Capitalism is based on Inequality

Apart from entrenching the economic dictatorship of the white capitalist class, the ANC s reign has benefited only a tiny black elite which has become obscenely wealthy overnight as the still-predominantly white capitalist class assimilates the black capitalists into their ranks.

The youth bear the brunt of the government s capitalist policies. Unemployment in the population as a whole is over 40% — amongst black African youth it is over 70%. As Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has pointed out: “Nearly three quarters of South African households already live below the international poverty income level of R1 500 a month for a family of four. More than half of all employed workers also earn less than this amount.” (Star Business Report, 12/05/06).

In the years since the political transition of 1994, the share of the national income paid in wages and salaries has fallen from 51% to 44%. (Star Business Report, 12/05/06).

According to the Institute of Race Relations’  latest South Africa Survey, since 1996, the number of people living on less than a dollar a day (the World Bank measure of absolute poverty) has more than doubled from 1,9 million in 1996 to 4,3 million in 2004. (Star 20/04/06). The number of people living in shacks has more than doubled in the past twelve years as Richard Pithouse points out. According to the Minister of Housing, the number of people living in informal settlements has increased from 1,4-million to 2,4-million. (Mail & Guardian May, 19 to 25/06).


For a mass workers party on a socialist programme

THE SACP is fatally compromised by its alliance with the capitalist ANC government with central committee members playing a leading role in implementing the ANC’s capitalist policies as cabinet members. However, despite the debates in the party over the question of whether they should remain in the Alliance, it does not have a programme for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. Amongst Cosatu workers there is growing frustration over the compromises the leadership has made to remain in the Alliance.

The turmoil on the world stock exchanges in recent weeks are a symptom of the crisis of world capitalism. The panic decision by the Reserve Bank to raise interest rates shows how utterly dependent the SA economy is on the world economy. The impending crisis will wipe out the wealth of the newly enriched black capitalist class in SA as it heaps further misery on the working class.

The ANC is irreversibly committed to capitalism and is now the main instrument of capitalist rule. Whilst it was correct to call for the building of a mass ANC on a socialist programme in the 80s, today that no longer applies. The ANC has clearly demonstrated its class character. It is a party of the rich — both the still predominantly white capitalist class and their black apprentices. The working class has won the right to vote but has been disenfranchised.

There is a huge vacuum on the left and a need for a mass workers party on a socialist programme. The DSM calls upon workers in Cosatu to take the federation out of the Alliance, spread the coalitions against poverty throughout all provinces, unite with communities in struggle and to lay the basis for mass workers party on a socialist programme. We call upon the youth to study the events of 1976 and to complete the struggle started by that generation.

As events in Latin America show, there is a continental tide of revolt against neo-liberalism and capitalism. The ideas of socialism are once again on the rise. Only socialism and worker democracy can offer humanity a way forward.

Together with a number of comrades from Noordgesig, a township at the northern entrance to Soweto, Weizmann Hamilton served two spells of detention in solitary confinement in 1975 and 1976. Alongside fellow comrades Johnny Ramrock and Chris Weimers, Hamilton was charged with conspiring to overthrow the state under the Suppression of Communism and Terrorism Acts. The case against them collapsed following the refusal of fellow comrades Patrick McGluwa and Raymond Burgers to give evidence for the state. Comrades Patrick and Raymond were sentenced to 12 months in prison for contempt of court whilst the author, Johnny and Chris were given 5-year banning and house arrest orders in May 1976. To evade arrest after the outbreak of the June 16 Uprising, they went into exile shortly thereafter.


Continue to The Soweto Uprising, 1986.