The Apartheid government was shocked and threatened by the strikes and student protests of the 1970s. Until then, the state had seemed almost all-powerful. By the 1980s, however, more and more people were openly challenging it again. Internationally, South Africa faced more pressure too. After news of police shooting student protesters in the Soweto Uprising spread overseas, it became illegal for countries to sell weapons to South Africa, and many countries used economic sanctions sanctions When one country stops all trade with another country and doesn’t let its citizens invest in that other country. Sanctions are used to put political pressure on a country. to show their opposition to Apartheid. Although some countries (like the USA, Britain and Israel) still traded with South Africa, it was clear that the country was isolated. Sanctions started to hit the economy hard, adding to the economic downturn which had started in the 1970s. Inflation Inflation An increase in the price of goods and decrease in the value of money. and unemployment increased as a result, and the standard of living worsened.
In the late 1970s the government set up two commissions – the Wiehahn and Riekert Commissions – to look at the labour unrest and political-economic crisis. Based on what the Wiehahn Commission recommended, the government accepted that black workers were joining trade unions and made it legal for them to do so – but required trade unions to register. It hoped that this would let it control the unions, and stop them from becoming political.
The economy was going through a slump, and it had also changed. It needed more skilled and semi-skilled workers who lived permanently in the cities (rather than migrant labour which returned to rural areas). Also, one of the deep contradictions contradictions Two ideas which directly oppose each other, so that both cannot be true. of Apartheid was that it claimed to be about separating races, but ‘white’ South Africa still depended on the labour of black people. This meant that if the Apartheid economy did well, more black people would be in supposedly white urban areas. In light of these factors, it looked as though influx control (like the pass laws) could not stay as it was if the economy was to grow again. The Riekert Commission argued that the Government should recognise that Africans had rights to stay in urban areas permanently. However, this did not mean that just anyone could come to the cities. Rather, those Africans who were already in the city legally would be allowed to stay there – for example, they would be allowed to buy houses in the townships instead of renting them from the council – and employers were expected to choose urban residents for jobs before migrants. While this was partly designed to create a stable workforce, it also had political goals: it tried to create a black middle class in the cities who would be less radical because they were benefiting from the system; a small, privileged group of ‘insiders’ who had access to the city. In theory they were to act as a buffer buffer A barrier between two groups or things which oppose each other, which can lessen the impact of this clash or protect the one group from the other. – protecting government from the anger and protest of the black working class and unemployed – and dividing resistance.
Protest, however, did not die down. Strikes became common, and Trade Unions grew, despite the government’s attempts to control them. In 1979 the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) was formed, representing many unions from different industries. The fearlessness and militancy brought to protest action by Black Consciousness and the Soweto Uprising survived into the years that followed; people were mobilising and becoming politically conscious. As they were confronted with the same repression that met other protests, Trade Unions became more political. In 1985 FOSATU and other unions and federations combined into the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This was an openly political formation, and aligned with the principles of the ANC’s Freedom Charter. There was also a Black Consciousness formation, the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions (AZACTU). As the 1980s progressed, the unions played a key role in protest and linked up more and more with student and community organisations.
Students and the youth became extremely important in the struggle of the 1980s. Youth Congresses, as well as all sorts of seemingly apolitical youth clubs, contributed to protests. In 1979 the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was formed. Students used tools like school boycotts to protest both against school issues – like Bantu Education and corporal punishment – and against the bigger structures of Apartheid. In some schools their protests managed to set up Student Representative Councils (SRCs). Other students never returned to school, becoming involved in other protest action, like that against the township councils. Young people were expressing a new identity, often challenging their parents’ authority as well as the authority of the government.
Some of the students involved in the Soweto Uprising fled South Africa to avoid being caught by the security police. Once they crossed the border many of them joined the ANC or PAC in exile, undergoing training to join the guerrilla armies of MK (ANC) and APLA (PAC). Most of these young people were never involved in military action, and some grew bored or disheartened in the camps based in other African countries. At times there was anger at the conditions and treatment they faced in these camps. MK and APLA carried out attacks on government and acts of sabotage sabotage To intentionally damage or destroy something, for strategic, political or military advantage. in South Africa. There were also a few cases of attacks on civilians. Although the armed struggle was militarily weak, it provided the freedom cause with symbolic inspiration and propaganda.
The resistance movements were helped by changes in South Africa’s neighbouring countries. Before, many of the countries in Southern Africa were European colonies or ruled by white settlers. But in 1975 Mozambique and Angola gained independence, and in 1980 Zimbabwe achieved black majority rule too. Namibia (then called South West Africa) was controlled by South Africa but its people were fighting their own liberation struggle against this occupation. In the space of a few years South Africa had gone from having allies in the region, to being surrounded by countries opposed to Apartheid, and prepared to help the ANC and PAC.
Cold War The Cold War was a period of political and military tension and competition between the capitalist USA and communist Soviet Union, and their allies. It ran from soon after the end of World War Two in 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989/90. While there was no direct military conflict between the USA and USSR, both sides became involved in regional wars, fighting against supporters of the opposing side.
P.W. Botha, the Apartheid leader at the time, explained the internal and external opposition by saying that South Africa was facing a ‘total onslaught’. This meant that it was being attacked on all sides. He argued that the revolutionaries in South Africa were acting on behalf of the Soviet Union and trying to spread communism, turning South Africa into a battlefield of the Cold War. This was used as a way of ignoring protesters’ claims for democracy and rights. In response, he argued for a ‘Total Strategy’ that included putting down uprisings, and looking at the reasons for unrest.
What this meant in practice was a mixture of reform reform Making changes to a system – changing some parts of Apartheid – without changing it completely. and repression. repression Limiting people’s rights (like freedom of speech) and punishing protesters very harshly, with the aim of stopping unrest. Under the guise of ‘Total Strategy’, the South African army went on raids across the border, attacking ANC strongholds. They continued to fight against Namibian independence, and tried to destabilise neighbouring countries who opposed Apartheid by supporting rebels in civil wars against the new governments of independent Mozambique and Angola. Protest within South Africa continued to be met with arrests, bannings, and state-sponsored violence. Meanwhile, the government secretly began to work ever more closely with the KwaZulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in an effort to build a black political force that could counter the mass democratic movement.
In addition, the government began to reform: trying to take away reasons for unrest by making some changes to Apartheid, but with the aim of protecting white political and economic control. Legalising black trade unions and encouraging a black urban middle class, explained earlier, were the first part of these changes. It was hoped that greater class divisions within the black population would weaken resistance. Some of petty Apartheid was also done away with – during the 1980s public facilities started to open their doors to all races. In 1986 passes were finally scrapped.
An important part of the new reforms was the new ‘Tricameral’ Tricameral Having three houses of Parliament. Constitution of 1983. This would allow Coloured and Indian people to vote for representatives, each in their own house of parliament (in addition to the white house of parliament). Each house would theoretically control its own affairs. But in practice, the white parliament and president controlled things. There was no real power-sharing. Again, this was an attempt to draw people into working with Apartheid, to make it look like there was democracy, and to divide resistance by giving Coloured and Indian people privileges that black people did not have. Africans did not get a house of parliament. They were supposed to have political representation in the Homelands. The government also tried to set up Black Local Authorities, or Township Councils, as a form of local government.
In 1983 over 400 organisations came together to form the United Democratic Front (UDF). This was an umbrella anti-Apartheid body, and it included religious groups, community organisations, trade unions and student movements. Although the groups and people aligned to the UDF often differed with respect to the strategy they took, they all accepted the Freedom Charter, which meant they were aligned with the ANC (and often became the ANC on the ground). The National Forum (NF) was another umbrella political movement, but with a Black Consciousness and worker-focused ideology. It was only in the Cape that the NF had a support base to rival the UDF’s.
The first issue the UDF faced was the Tricameral Constitution.
A campaign was organised to boycott the elections for the new Coloured and Indian parliaments. This was a huge success. Almost no-one voted. The same thing happened in the township council elections. The message was clear: people saw the reforms for what they were – a sham sham Pretence or fake; something that is not what it appears to be. – and would not work with the Apartheid state. It was also obvious that the government could not be trusted to reform while it was still brutally crushing resistance and protest.
The structure of the UDF meant that the central leadership was not always in control of what each organisation under it did. But it did allow the struggle to draw in and mobilise a lot of people at the grassroots level, and linked local campaigns, like bus boycotts, school protests and worker stayaways, to a bigger national movement. In late 1984 rent boycotts started in the Vaal Triangle, spreading through the Transvaal and then across the country. These turned into bigger rebellions, with protesters attacking government buildings, police stations, beerhalls and councillors (who were seen as collaborators) in townships. Politicisation and protest even spread to small towns and rural areas which had previously been quiet. The UDF set up branches in Homelands such as Lebowa and KwaNdebele. With the massive poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and other poor conditions, Homelands had many reasons to protest. People rebelled against the undemocratic Bantustan rulers and in some cases managed to overthrow them, despite violent backlash from security forces. Some communities also took up the generations-old fight to get back land which had been taken from them during Apartheid or earlier. Meanwhile, MK attacks increased.
The government declared a State of Emergency in 1985, which gave the police even greater authority to detain people without a charge, and protected the security forces from charges of abusing their powers. Many political detainees were tortured and killed. The president was given more power to bypass parliament, and more and more of the country’s affairs were being run by the heads of the army and police. The army went into townships to crush protests.
The State of Emergency lasted 8 months in 1985. In 1986 a new one was declared, which lasted the next 4 years. For a short time many townships became no-go areas for security forces; government had collapsed there. In this space there were calls for ‘people’s power’, and street committees and people’s courts were set up, often led by the youth. There was also violence directed towards people seen as informers or ‘sellouts’, and people’s courts punished township residents who broke consumer boycotts. But the army and police hit back, and fought battles with protesters on the streets of townships. The police detained as many as 44 000 people in the second State of Emergency. The UDF was banned. Secret Apartheid death squads tortured and killed political activists. The state also increasingly used local vigilante action to protect township councillors and attack members of anti-Apartheid organisations, with support from the police. Although the security forces managed to crush the rebellion by about 1987, they could not stop protests, which continued across the country.
By this stage a stalemate had been reached: the Apartheid government had run out of ideas after ‘Total Strategy’ failed, and parts of Apartheid, like separate Group Areas, were crumbling, but the liberation movement was not able to defeat it using force alone. Then suddenly in 1990, the new President, FW De Klerk, announced the unbanning of political parties like the ANC, PAC and Communist Party, and the release of political prisoners. This had a number of causes: the huge internal liberation movement, massive international pressure and sanctions, the very weak economy – and very importantly, the fall of the Soviet Union. They had been a supporter of the ANC; De Klerk thought that the ANC would be weakened by their fall, and therefore that he would be in a more powerful negotiating position if he decided to start talks at this point.
Dissent within white society led by groups such as the Black Sash, the End Conscription Campaign and student organisations had succeeded in dividing whites and weakening support for Apartheid. At the same time the white elite had decided to stake the future of capitalist class rule and privilege on one-person-one-vote and government by the ANC. The forces of liberation debated whether to accept an end to Apartheid laws, or to push for a socialist revolution. The ANC leadership made democracy their immediate aim. Mandela and his comrades decided to negotiate, believing, probably correctly, that the alternative was an unwinnable racial civil war.
In late 1991 the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) began. These negotiations would break down when the ANC pulled out in protest at police and army activity continuing unchecked. A huge point of controversy was so-called ‘Third Force’ activity. Since the 1980s there had been tension and violence between the UDF (later ANC) and Inkatha, the Zulu Nationalist party. This flared up into virtual civil war in the early 1990s, based mainly in Natal and on the Rand. The media portrayed this as the result of ethnic divisions, and the government used it to try weaken the ANC, and show that they were not the legitimate representatives of all black South Africans. However, the ANC argued that there was a Third Force involved in the violence – the state. The IFP did indeed receive funding and military training from the government, and were sometimes protected by the police. The conflict was complicated by economic and social tensions between township residents (who often supported the ANC) and migrant hostel dwellers (often members of Inkatha).
When the police supported Inkatha members attacking an ANC funeral in Boipatong in 1992, the ANC embarked on mass action around the country. However, this too ended tragically, when protesters in Bhisho were massacred by Ciskei security forces.
In 1993, with the spectre of further violence a distinct possibility, parties returned to the negotiating table. They agreed on democratic elections to be held in 1994, after which the major parties would share power for a five year transitional period. National liberation was in reach, although social justice and economic freedom would have to wait.