South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

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Unit 5. Reigniting the Struggle - The 1970s through the Release of Nelson Mandela

Black Consciousness is an attitude of the mind and a way of life, the most positive call to emanate from the black world for a long time. Its essence is the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression—the blackness of their skin—and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.
Steve Biko, "The Quest for a True Humanity," I Write What I Like, 1978
After a decade of relative quiescence due to the government crackdown on liberation movements in the early 1960s, black workers and students reignited resistance against apartheid in the 1970s. The apartheid regime responded with a mix of harsh repression and modest reforms inside South Africa and violent attacks on the liberation movements and their allies outside the country. Yet a combination of growing protest, international support, and significant changes in the political context of the region changed the balance of power by 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and negotiations for a new democratic South Africa began in earnest.

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Unrest among workers in the manufacturing sector erupted into wildcat strikes in January 1973 in Durban. Discontent was high among the city’s 165,000 African factory workers, whose lack of union rights was made worse by the combined effect of high inflation and shortage of manufacturing jobs. As one group of workers won wage increases, others would walk out on strike. Stoppages soon spread to factories on the Rand and the Eastern Cape. Unable to stop the strikes or replace trained workers in high demand, companies accepted strikers’ demands in order to restart production. As a result of the successful strikes of 1973, independent labor unions emerged, which further politicized industrial workplaces and forced the government to extend some labor rights to Africans (e.g. the right to strike), thus conceding the central importance of black workers to apartheid capitalism.

In addition to more militant workers, new youth and Black Consciousness groups developed in South Africa in the late 1960s and expanded their influence in the early 1970s. These young men and women were informed by the experiences of African liberation struggles, especially in Mozambique, Angola, and Zimbabwe, and by black theology and the Black Power movement in the United States. The major figure of this movement was Stephen Bantu Biko, whose inspired leadership of the Black Consciousness Movement and death at the hands of police in 1977 made him a martyr. Calling for self-help, racial pride, and psychological liberation, Biko and his supporters worked autonomously from white liberals. The emergence of black student groups, often inspired by black consciousness, was a new and powerful development in the 1970s.

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A watershed event in the history of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid took place on June 16, 1976. Acting independently of the African National Congress and other formal political organizations, thousands of primary and secondary school students in Soweto - the massive African township in Johannesburg (Soweto is an acronym for South Western Townships) - marched peacefully against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in the classroom. Police fired into the crowd to stop the demonstration, killing and wounding many students. Thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson was one of the first youths to be killed. Sam Nzima’s famous photograph of Pieterson bleeding to death in the arms of a fellow teenager shocked the world. Nzima and Peter Magubane (working for the Rand Daily Mail) captured the popular and spontaneous nature of the protests, which eventually spread across the country and lasted into 1977. Tens of thousands of people were jailed and tortured.
 
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