South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

State of Emergency in the mid-1980's

Summary

The apartheid state used Declarations of Emergency to crack down against opponents at times of heightened resistance. Police could detain anyone for reasons of public safety, without any appeal to the courts. Also, meetings and gatherings could be banned. The first State of Emergency was declared in 1960 right after the Sharpeville Massacre, when the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress also were declared illegal. In the wake of the 1976 student uprising, the government widened police powers of detention even without a State of Emergency.

By the mid-1980s, a popular uprising was underway, with militants calling for making black communities "ungovernable." A State of Emergency was declared in July 1985 in 36 magisterial districts. Organizations as well as meetings could be banned, and thousands of people were detained. Also, the Commissioner of Police could impose a blanket prohibition on media coverage of the Emergency, and names of people who had been detained could not be revealed.

On June 12, 1986, just before the 10th anniversary of the student uprising that started in Soweto, a State of Emergency was declared throughout the country. The provisions of this State of Emergency were broader than any previous ones, but anti-apartheid mobilization continued. The government restricted political funerals, imposed curfews, and banned certain indoor gatherings. Television cameras were banned from “unrest areas,” preventing international as well as national coverage of the growing organizing and police repression.

Related Multimedia Resources:

Web Documents

Magazine Article: "The State of Emergency: What Does It Mean?", Crisis News

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Journal Article: "Two Emergencies: 1960 and 1986", Isizwe

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Magazine Article: "Crossroads - Treating the Casualties", Crisis News

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Magazine Article: "State of Emergency", Crisis News

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Poem: "Emergency: South Africa, 1985 (for Victoria Mxenge)", Rixaka
By Sterling D. Plumpp
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