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

After 1976 many young black South Africans left South Africa for neighboring countries to join the armed struggle. Some exiles attended the ANC’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom School (Somafco) in Tanzania where political and standard education went hand in hand. Bolstered by the arrival of so many young men and women, the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), carried out isolated guerilla activities inside South Africa. For example, in December 1982, it blew up the Koeberg nuclear power plant near Cape Town (which had not yet begun operation), which cost $500 million in damages. These and other guerrilla actions meant that MK took on almost mythical proportions among the youth, even though the ANC’s armed faction could not seriously challenge the South African military forces.

Meanwhile, the world community increasingly isolated the apartheid regime. In 1975, Mozambique and Angola became independent from Portugal, and in 1980 black majority rule was finally achieved in neighboring Zimbabwe. Namibia, too, fought a sustained war for independence (which it eventually won in 1989). Pretoria destabilized the "frontline states" (i.e. neighboring countries) by conducting invasions and assassinations and fomenting civil war by backing groups such as Renamo in Mozambique and UNITA in Angola, at very large human cost. South Africa also conducted military raids into Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zambia. Despite the apartheid regime’s aggressive campaigns, the frontline states continued to support the South African liberation movements politically and through material support. Overall, these developments meant that white minority-rule in southern Africa had finally begun to crack.

As opposition to apartheid continued to grow in South Africa and around the world, Pretoria pursued a divide-and-rule strategy, especially through support for homeland leaders. Between 1976 and 1981, it granted Transkei, Ciskei, Boputhatswana, and Venda a very limited form of political "independence," which was not recognized by the international community. By the mid-1980s this policy led to heightened conflict in black communities. Most notably, Inkatha, a Zulu ethnic nationalist movement led by Gatsha Buthelezi, head of the KwaZulu homeland, challenged the power of the ANC and its allies and brought a wave of political violence that swept across the Rand and Natal. By the early 1990s, this conflict had caused more than 10,000 deaths.

Prime Minister P. W. Botha assumed power in 1978 and introduced some reforms to appease international criticism and defuse growing resistance at home. Black unions grew rapidly following the 1979 Wiehahn Commission's recommendations to legalize African trade unions. Activists organized factory and mineworkers, but also broadened their base of support by connecting with township residents and migrant workers who lived in tightly policed dormitories called "hostels." The Federation of South African Trade Unions, formed in 1979, focused on organizing black workers outside of party politics; another federation, the Council of Unions of South Africa, formed in 1980, supported Black Consciousness principles. Additional apartheid reforms included acceptance of some permanent black urbanization, the repudiation of the job color bar, and fostering the growth of a small black middle class.

In 1983, in the face of mounting pressure from the world community and some South African business leaders, P.W. Botha called a whites-only referendum and changed the constitution to create a Tricameral Parliament. The new parliament featured separate, but token, legislatures for Coloureds and Indians, in addition to the all-powerful and all-white House of Assembly. Africans, representing nearly three-quarters of the population, remained totally excluded. This purely cosmetic reform had the unintended effect of unifying and radicalizing opponents of apartheid. The overwhelming majority of Coloured and Indian voters boycotted the election for these new bodies and, instead, many of them united with Africans in growing mass protests.

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