Aspects of the Struggle

Article excerpt


In late August 1985 the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was outlawed by Minister of Law and Order Louis Le Grange. The banning of the UDF-affiliated black high school students' organization constituted an admission by the apartheid state of the central role played by African youth in the struggle. Since the student-inspired Soweto uprising of 1976, the demands of African youth have started off with school-related grievances but have invariably grown to include community-wide and class-related issues. COSAS in fact must rank first on Le Grange's hit list. Prior to the declaration of the state of emergency, the majority of the 215 people detained under the Internal Security Act were members of COSAS, and between the imposition of the state of emergency (July 21) and the outlawing of the organization (August 28), more than 500 of its cadres were detained. This meant that COSAS militants alone represented nearly 20 percent of all South African political detainees; furthermore, 50 percent of these detainees were sixteen years old or less.

Economy and Society

South Africa is in a double bind. On the one hand, the economic and demographic crises are coming to a head and on the other the contradictions of the apartheid system of economic exploitation and political repression are fueling the pent-up anger of a new generation of politically educated Africans. Half of the South African black majority is less than twenty-five years old, mostly urbanized and literate; and yet because of South Africa's great dependency on primary commodity exports, from mining and agriculture, and apartheid-distorted labor markets, these young Africans are condemned to structural unemployment for the whole of their lives, and they know it. If part of this situation can be attributed to the dependency on exports and to a stagnating internal white consumer market, apartheid must still be singled out as the major cause of the problem--e.g., 35,000 skilled workers and technicians are needed every year and only 12,000 get training; the majority of them are whites.

The rapid expansion of the African education system, which has gone from 800,000 pupils in the 1950s to more than 5 million today, has also been a problem. Most African teachers are unqualified, and the rate of expansion of the system has been such that there is no hope of upgrading their skills over the short run. The African "ethnic" universities are, for all intents and purposes, closed to all but Afrikaner university graduates and their scholarly output. The main function of Afrikaner lecturers and professors, who constitute better than 95 percent of the academic staff at these "ethnic" universities, is to teach blacks that they can never hope to be the equals of whites. African students have not, and are not, receiving an education that prepares them for a highly competitive socioeconomic environment; they are being taught that petty jobs, if any, and the daily violence of the townships is the normality that they must expect. They are being prepared for an economy and society where entrenched racial discrimination is the prime juro-legal determinant of an individual's position in the system. But what African students have actually learned is that they all share a common enemy: the apartheid state. In that context the specific demands made by students must be seen as symptomatic of their total rejection of apartheid education and society as a whole, and as an index of the extent of the political consciousness of African youth in general.

Youth Organizations

Only two years after the banning of the black consciousness-inspired student unions in 1977, COSAS emerged. This time around, the major political forces in the high schools abandoned the trappings of black consciousness and rallied to the Freedom Charter as the basis for political action. Together with AZASO, its equivalent at African college and university level, COSAS has put together an Education Charter that clearly spells out the demands of the disenfranchised majority of South Africans and the need for a unified and democratic system of education. NUSAS, the white university students multi-racial organization, is also a party to the Education Charter. Its main activities over the years have been giving technical support to the emerging black trade union, running what is probably one of the best-informed newspapers in the country (SASPU National) on the struggle against the apartheid state, and involving itself in community-related issues. At present, all three organizations express a common goal, as exemplified by the shared slogan "Liberation first, education later." In the wake of more than six years of student protest against the poor quality of African education, sexual harassment of female students by male teachers, abuse of physical punishment, and the demand for elected student representatives in all schools, youth congresses have sprung up in all the major black townships. They are mainly involved in such community issues as resisting rent, utilities, and transport-fare increases decreed by the Black Local Authorities, and along with COSAS provide the majority of UDF militants.

Youth organizations have played a leading role in getting the UDF to participate in grassroots political action. Without the "push" provided by COSAS and youth congress militants, it is doubtful if the UDF and its affiliated trade unions would have had the incentive or the people to successfully organize either the November 1984 stay-away in the Transvaal or the boycotts that have hurt white retailers across South Africa. The death of hundreds of young Africans at the hands of the police and the SADF has also been a critical factor in galvanizing the political will of the population in black townships. Dominant in terms of demographic importance, dominant also in terms of political and social activity within the townships, African youth are and will remain one of the single most important and radical factors within the broadbased coalition opposing the apartheid regime.

Well-organized and disciplined militants, and student and youth organizations affiliated with the UDF are only part of the picture. There are also what could be called the "new" urban guerrillas, but they are not part of the ANC's military wing, now embarking on a stepped-up campaign within South Africa. They are African youth out on their own--targeting, planning, and executing small-scale urban guerilla actions. They are small groups, childhood friends who have been through school together, people who are getting their cue from the township political grapevine, people who are not necessarily involved in political organizations, even at times mere gangs of criminals out for a piece of the action. These are the people we saw on the 6 o'clock news (prior to censorship by the South African government). The prime examples were the "Kentucky Fried Chicken" fire-deaths of police informers, the township resident made to eat his "white" groceries during a boycott, the kids dancing beside a city councillor's burning car, and whites being punched around in downtown Johannesburg and Durban. This too is the result of apartheid, and it is a situation that the Pretoria regime cannot control. There are no central organizations to infiltrate here, no national leaders to pickup and interrogate under torture; this is an area where formal organizations give way to informal networks and where the concept "mass struggle" takes on its full meaning. It is by no means a neat and orderly situation, but it is one that could have been predicted and avoided.

At present the South African regime is trying desperately to avoid the worst. But although it has placed on the agenda a set of reforms, these are too little and too late for those who will soon constitute the majority within the majority of the population of the country: African youth. They indeed have very little to lose except their lives, and what they have been told and taught in the schools and townships of apartheid is not worth much to them in comparison to the promises of liberation.

What can be expected in the coming months is that student and youth organizations, along with the trade unions, will tackle the "internal situation" in the townships before it provides the readymade excuse Pretoria needs to launch the campaign of all-out repression that it has on the back burner. Because multinational and national capital have the most to lose in such a confrontation, it has thus far been averted. But the influence of capital on the South African state is not overarching, and the competition between different white factions within and around the state apparatus could easily result in heightened repression. The situation in South Africa is in many ways unique, and because of this uniqueness it holds both great hope and great foreboding. The peoples' struggle has lasted for many generations, it is only to be hoped that the young people presently on the front line will also be the ones to reap the rewards of victory and meet the challenge involved in building a new, truly democratic South Africa.


In South Africa, both men and women suffer under the dehumanizing and complex system of apartheid. However, it is the women who bear the heaviest burden. This is because apartheid defines the roles of men and women very differently. The apartheid economy is formally structured around the cheap labor that men provide. Men are therefore viewed mainly as units of labor, and are subjected to a maze of restrictive laws that govern where they may work, where they may live, and where they can travel. For rural men in particular, these laws also provide the mechanisms for the contract or migrant-labor system, which forces them to work away from home for years at a time, in the mines or in industry.

The economy relies less heavily on women's labor, which is viewed as marginal. Women, therefore, unlike men, are not considered units of labor; they are, to quote a government official, "superfluous appendages." Their fate is to live in the arid bantustans, those ten fragmented "homelands," where over 50 percent of the population resides on that 13 percent of the land which has been set aside for Africans. There they are expected to raise crops to feed their children. In other words, the primary function of the rural woman is to reproduce the African labor force.

In a sense, farming has always been the woman's role. Across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, women make up about 80 percent of the agricultural labor force. Under the early subsistence economy, the women performed the labor that ensured the survival of the community: they cultivated the food. While they were denied direct political participation, they did have a degree of power over the allocation of resources. With this came recognition and a certain status as key providers for the family. The imposition of colonial rule severely eroded women's capacity to perform this work. Deprived of their productive land by the white settlers, the women were no longer able to fulfill their role as providers. And with this reduction in economic input came a reduction in their already limited social and political status. The women's dependence on their husbands, fathers, or male guardians increased, thus reinforcing a patriarchal system.

This process was nowhere more evident than in South Africa. The bantustans were established specifically to provide the apartheid economy with a cheap labor reservoir. Every man must register with a labor bureau, which allocates him poorly paid work to which he migrates--forced to leave his family behind--often for extended periods at a time. The rationale for the miserable wages takes us back to the different roles allocated to men and women: the wives and children of these workers are to remain in the reserves and secure their families' living from the land. Yet they are unable to do this under present conditions and so they are reduced to relying on remittances from the men--when forthcoming--and marginal agriculture.

It is not surprising, then, that it has been estimated that over 80 percent of the population of the bantustans lives below the poverty line. Desperate to support their families, many women leave for the urban areas to seek work. Here they join the millions of women living in the segregated African townships and squatter camps, places like Soweto and Alexandra that are now centers of protest. Most women have no option but to sell their labor to the white "madams" in the urban areas. Such domestic work has very low prestige; wages are disgracefully low, hours long, and the woman who "lives in"--often the only option--is separated from her family, even when that family lives in one of the townships. Women are also employed in the service sector--as shop clerks, teachers, nurses--but here too the wages are low and access to such work is limited.

Many women live in the urban areas illegally. Unlike the men, rural women do not automatically have to register with a labor bureau. But they do if they wish to seek work, which creates a Catch-22 situation, since regulations in effect since the mid-1960s make it de facto impossible to seek work legally in the towns. The women therefore come in illegally, running the risk of jail or deportation back to the bantustans. Large numbers have opted for just such a precarious existence.

All women in the townships, whether they are there legally or illegally, are dogged by legislation that dictates their movements. And as in the rural areas, it is the women who are particularly trapped by the laws of apartheid. The notorious Section 10 of the Black Urban Areas Act, under the terms of which permission (but not the right) to live in an urban area is given, is far more restrictive for women than for men. In the first place, the primary criterion of long-term, continuous employment is far more difficult for women to meet. In the second place, a woman who is in the townships illegally cannot change her status by marrying a man who is legal. Further, a woman who is legal runs the risk of losing her status by marrying a man who is illegal--and of being relocated to her husband's bantustan, even if she has never set foot in his or any other bantustan. Tagged onto the marriage criteria is the need to "ordinarily reside with" the husband, which means that the husband and wife must live together in the same house. Yet because of the acute housing shortage in the African townships, a couple may have to wait many years before being allocated any house at all. And if a woman is widowed or divorced, she loses her right to the house--and therefore her right to remain in the township unless she has legal status in her own right.

The multiple burdens faced by the women have led them to enter political activities in large numbers. The Federation of South African Women, formed in 1954, was an active force in the mass protests of the late 1950s. Only the banning of its ally, the African National Congress, in 1960, and the arrest and banning of many of the Federation's leaders, silenced it. The recent upsurge of political activism has seen an upsurge of activity among the women as well. Women--often in leadership positions--can be found in the trade unions; leading the resistance to forced removals in the rural areas; and in student and community organizations. Attempts are also being made to unionize women, including domestic workers, but this has been difficult because of the women's isolation and vulnerability--not only do they risk losing their incomes, but they risk expulsion back to the bantustans. Local women's organizations have taken up issues relating both to women specifically and to the anti-apartheid struggle. The debate over whether to struggle for their own liberation as part of the overall resistance effort, or whether this issue should be put aside while the anti-apartheid struggle takes precedence, has hampered the formation of an overall women's organization.

Today all those who give voice to the daily victims of apartheid exhibit a special courage, and the fact that women are active in this struggle will be important for the future of South Africa. While Winnie Mandela is a strong symbol of resistance, and while her courageous actions in defying the government have given her international prominence, in South Africa she is not only one of many, but also a particularly strong example of the role that women intend to play in the future of South Africa.


Black workers in South Africa have been organized in trade unions since at least World War I. Trade union activity, as well as the activity of the South African Communist Party (in existence since 1921), has ensured that class questions are considered within the wider movement for national liberation. The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), founded in 1955, participated in the anti-apartheid struggle as a member of the Congress Alliance. When the ANC and the PAC were banned in 1960, SACTU members were also forced underground or into exile. Working-class militancy surfaced again only in 1973, when over 100,000 workers in the Durban area struck for higher wages. Since then, trade union organization has continued to grow.

South Africa is one of the few countries where trade union membership and militancy have increased during the current recession.

The new unions have challenged managerial prerogatives within the factories over such issues as the right to hire and fire at will, health and safety, the intensity of work, as well as wages. More recently, the unions have sought to defend their members' interests in the sphere of reproduction of labor--in struggles over rents, removals, transport, education, etc. As the present political and social crisis has intensified--in the townships, the schools, and the factories--unions have begun to deploy their power in pursuance of wider demands for political rights and national liberation.

Today the independent trade union movement represents approximately 750,000 workers. Of this number, over 500,000 belong to the newly formed Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the largest and most representative worker organization in South Africa's history. COSATU was formed on the basis of the following five principles: non-racialism; one union, one industry; worker control (over internal union processes); representation on the basis of paid-up membership; and cooperation between the unions on the national level.

Some unions, however, were not able to accept the principle of non-racialism and remained outside of COSATU. Grouped in the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA) and the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions (AZACTU), and representing up to 200,000 workers, these unions adhere to black consciousness ideology. They argue for a position known as anti-racism--in effect, that whites cannot enter the union movement at the leadership level. The non-racial unions, on the other hand, say that it is for workers to decide who their officials shall be, regardless of race. This is in line with their principle that only democratic structures and practices will guarantee that the unions shall be controlled by their members and not by officials, be they white or black.

The concern with rank and file control is shared by the vast majority of the independent unions, regardless of political affiliation. The roots of this concern are to be found in the particular conditions under which the independent unions emerged after the Durban strikes of 1973. In the repressive conditions of the 1970s, it made sense to keep a low profile and to concentrate on building structures and worker leadership on the shop floor. This policy has now borne fruit. A recent Labour Bulletin survey found that the independent trade union movement now has over 12,000 shop stewards and over 1,000 shop steward committees and councils. This means that there is a substantial working-class leadership capable of mobilizing power on a large scale. Such power was clearly demonstrated by the two-day Transvaal stay-away in November 1984, called in support of student demands and in protest against the invasion of the townships by security forces, in which 800,000 workers participated. Indeed, the unions are the most organized sector of the opposition forces in South Africa.

An equally important outgrowth of the conditions of the 1970s has been the development by the trade unions of democratic practices that emphasize participation by the entire membership, careful mandating of leadership, and the accountability of that leadership to the rank and file. These practices enhance the principles of worker control and working-class leadership, which are the most important contribution of the labor movement to the contemporary political culture of the broader national liberation movement.

These gains have not been won without struggle--against employers and the state, and within the opposition movement itself. The concern with factory floor issues and organization has led to charges of "economism." In the early 1980s serious divisions emerged between FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions, the major union federation at the time, formed in 1979, but rooted in the earliest industrial unions formed after the 1973 strikes), which espoused an "independent working class" position, and the newer community-oriented general unions--such as the South African Allied Workers' Union (SAAWU)--which were more closely allied with the national liberation movement and which affiliated with the UDF after its formation in 1983.

Ideological divisions were reinforced by differences over organizational questions. Initially the unions were divided over how to respond to the state's offer, in 1979, of legal recognition of trade union rights for African workers in return for the unions registering with the Register of Trade Unions. This involved submitting constitutions and financial accounts for approval. The state's strategy--devised by the Wiehahn Commission--was in response to the upsurge of trade union organization and popular struggles in the 1970s. The Wiehahn strategy was clearly aimed at coopting unions and forcing their activities into narrow bureaucratic channels. Some unions--such as the Food and Canning Workers' Union and the General Workers Union--refused to register on the grounds that the fundamental principle of worker's control was endangered. SAAWU and others raised more fundamental objections, arguing that any contact with state-initiated machinery amounted to collaboration. The CUSA and FOSATU unions, however, registered. FOSATU argued that the space created by state concessions should be used to extend union gains. The threat of cooptation could be defeated by maintaining shop floor organization and the principle of worker's control. The debate over registration resolved itself in the course of struggle: the registered unions were not coopted and the unregistered unions survived without the benefits conferred by registration (now, principally the right to automatic dues checkoff). Registration is now viewed as a tactical issue, not one of principle.

Differences over forms of organization revolved around the question of general (or community oriented) unionism versus factory-based industrial unionism. As the recession took its course it was the industrial unions that best weathered the crisis. By 1984 the argument for "one union, one industry" was largely accepted, although differences remained as to how and when this was to be achieved. As a result, at the March 1984 meeting of the unity talks, the industrial unions decided to go it alone without the general unions.

By the end of 1984 three distinct groupings had emerged: the "unity talks unions," largely industrial unions from FOSATU and CUSA, together with some independents; the unions affiliated to the UDF, the most important of which were the general unions; and the more recently formed AZACTU unions, which adopted a hardline black consciousness position and included several additional general unions.

The charge that the industrial unions were not sufficiently "political" came to focus on the question of affiliation to the UDF. Unions such as SAAWU argued for affiliation on the grounds that workers were also members of the community where they faced racial oppression. It was also argued that the trade unions encompassed only a part of the working class, and, further, that a successful political challenge to the state demanded the widest possible unity of those oppressed by apartheid. Those unions which espoused the "independent working class" position responded by asserting the prior need for democratic structures of mandating and accountability in order to ensure grassroots control. It was further claimed that the multi-class UDF was in its very style and language at variance with the traditions established in the unions, and did nothing to contribute to the goal of working-class leadership.

Differences over political line, however, did not prevent the wider unity that resulted in the founding of COSATU on November 30, 1985. This marked a significant realignment of forces in the trade union movement, with the UDF-affiliated unions coming together with the majority of the powerful industrial unions. Nevertheless, the CUSA and AZACTU unions have for the time being refused to enter the new federation. (However, the National Union of Mineworkers, CUSA's largest affiliate, disaffiliated in mid-1985 and was one of the prime movers in the formation of COSATU.) COSATU's founding slogan, "One Federation, One Country," has not yet been achieved in practice.

In the last two years all sections of the independent trade union movement have shown an increased concern with "global politics" beyond the factory floor. This has led to such actions as the campaigns in 1983 and 1984 against the new constitution; and to their taking part in boycotts and stay-aways over explicitly political demands. COSATU will certainly be no less concerned with playing a role in the wider struggle for national liberation. The precise form this participation will take will depend on the outcome of debate between the different tendencies and on the course of the struggle itself. Cyril Ramaphosa's opening speech at the inaugural congress did, however, suggest broad guidelines: while COSATU will seek alliances with progressive organizations in pursuit of political change in South Africa, these alliances must be on terms favorable to the unions, and must clearly recognize the leading role of the working class.

Black townships in South Africa are the setting for class conflict.

Established as part of a network of controls that are meant to regulate the movement, location, housing, employment/unemployment, health, welfare, recreation, education, political participation, citizenship, and relocation of the African working class and their families, the structure and functioning of the townships has been disrupted by the playing out of contradictions and class struggles.

The idea of the townships was to ensure that the only Africans allowed into the urban areas were those whose labor power was required. The rest were meant to remain behind in reserves that could not support them economically and that offered no social and political protection. In the townships themselves the apartheid regime hoped to discipline and disorganize the working class by restricting its right to be there and limiting its access to housing and other essential services. This dependence on administrative sanction, impermanence, and vulnerability was supposed to discourage organization and resistance at the same time as it lowered the costs of reproduction. A multi-limbed bureaucratic monster was created to oversee the operation of all the controls. This was the institutional manifestation of state power as experienced by Africans every day.

Coercive and appalling conditions like these can be expected to breed resistance. Unable to use persuasion, the ruling class has relied on force. Regular raids are meant to weed out illegals, round up the unemployed, and remove them to the reserves. Shack demolitions attempt to take care of the "squatter problems." The sheer arithmetic, however, and the creativity of evasive tactics have made the task of control increasingly more difficult and less effective. Over 200,000 people a year are arrested for not being in possession of a legal pass to be in the area, held in the cells for days or weeks before being convicted in a trial that lasts an average of 40 seconds, and fined R30 or given 30 days, after which they are released back into the system.

Organized resistance to township controls has grown rapidly in the last decade. After the uprisings of 1976-77 and the banning of popular organizations in October 1977, many activists saw the need to return to grassroots work around specific local conditions. High rents charged for township houses, increases in transport fares, the shortage of houses and their poor condition, the corrupt and controversial activities of the government-controlled community councils, refuse removal, water and electricity all offered real and ready possibilities for organization, mobilization, and politicization.

The Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization (PEBCO) is a leading example. For months activists went from house to house, speaking to residents about their problems, drawing attention to issues and organizing them into local civic associations under PEBCO's umbrella. Mass meetings were then held to formulate specific demands and to agree on tactics for advancing them. The response was overwhelming. Membership shot up to close to 20,000, making PEBCO one of the largest African organizations in the country and mass meetings would regularly draw 10,000 people. The PEBCO leadership dealt not only with local problems, but stressed that these arose out of the overall system of class domination which had to be dismantled before any lasting solutions could be found. This, they pointed out, required not just civic but broader political organization, led by people who were currently suffering in political prisons or in exile.

Other townships followed suit and civic organizations spread throughout the country. The 1980s saw a rapid shift in the political climate and mass political mobilization grew. The 1980 school boycotts encouraged many working-class parents to become involved in parent-student committees, which later crystallized into civic associations. The Release Mandela Campaign in 1980 and the Anti-Republic Day campaign in 1981 highlighted the growing militancy and awareness of workers, students, residents, women, and youth, all of whom were organizing. A bus boycott begun in Durban in December 1982 merged into a rent boycott early in 1983, and culminated in the formation of the Joint Rent Action Committee (JORAC), an affiliate of the UDF, which has continued to mobilize township residents, most recently in opposition to government plans to incorporate some areas into KwaZulu, where they would fall under Inkhata control.

A bus boycott that began in the Ciskei bantustan in July 1983 led to a reign of terror in which the Ciskel government detained over a thousand people in a torture stadium and shot ninety boycotting commuters trying to board a train. The Administration Board in the Western Cape spent that winter trying unsuccessfully to move a squatter camp outside Cape Town, bulldozing shacks which people would immediately re-erect, risking death rather than be relocated in a barren bantustan.

Similar struggles were waged in other parts of the country, building up to the Vaal uprisings in September 1984. Sparked off by the violent suppression of peaceful protests against rent increases, they resulted in the complete destruction of the community council system and a rent boycott that is still going on over a year later. A chain reaction of uprisings against the community councils and their rent increases spread throughout the Witwatersrand and Pretoria, combining with the year-old school boycott to create a situation in the African townships that verged on insurrection. From the Transvaal it spread to the Eastern Cape, and soon scores of small towns and isolated rural communities were experiencing similar struggles. Pupils boycotted schools while whole townships rose up in rejection of the oppressive apartheid controls governing their lives. The African National Congress's call on people to make themselves ungovernable captured the mood. The youth adopted military tactics to maintain their offensive in the face of the police and army which have occupied the townships.

This extended the pattern of community resistance that had been growing since 1982. The issues are not strictly civic or even local. They may emanate from school or factory or consumer clashes, all of which are inevitably fought out in the townships. This is reflected in the composition of the organizations or groups of activists leading these struggles. Students and youth play a vital role, partly because they have numbers and free time, and partly because they are often more highly politicized and radical than their elders. They are the ones going from house to house, bus to train, discussing issues and urging people to march, demonstrate, boycott, or stay away. Civic organizations have developed into activist collectives which have no formal structures, no office or administrative base, no members-only supporters whose grievances and demands are being coordinated by any means possible under conditions where troops occupy the townships, meetings are banned, and activists are detained, disappear, or are murdered.

Although some community groups are still willing to negotiate with the authorities--most notably the parents' committees that are trying to resolve the school boycotts now going into their second year--most issues have become pitched battles, as the powers that be ignore or reject popular demands and send in the police and army instead. Progressives are aware, however, that mass militant action is not enough and have devised new tactics to increase the pressure on the government and the ruling class.

The stay-away by a million workers in the Transvaal in November 1984 in support of a wide-ranging set of social, political, and economic demands set a precedent for joint action by unions, civic, and student groups that has been successfully employed in the Eastern Cape as well. Out of this experience has emerged a new and even more devastating tactic: the consumer boycott of white-owned shops and businesses in support of expressly political demands. In the Eastern Cape in particular, the success of this tactic has forced commerce and industry to listen to student and worker demands and to take some of them up with the offending government department or employer. The scope of the demands, however, still goes far beyond the point at which the ruling class sees it as being in its interests to intervene on behalf of the progressive organization. Consequently, attempts by the bosses to be "honest brokers" between the apartheid regime and progressive forces can never conceal or contain the contradictions at work; instead, they will expose them.


No discussion of the current situation in South Africa would be complete without a discussion of the churches. On the one hand, the theology of the Dutch Reformed Churches has supplied the Afrikaners with a justification for white supremacy, with the belief that they are God's chosen people. The introduction to the new constitution, adopted in August 1984, well illustrates this conviction: "In humble submission to Almighty God, who controls the destinies of nations and the history of peoples; who gathered our forebears together from many lands and gave them this their own; who has guided them from generation to generation; who has wondrously delivered them from the dangers that beset them. . . ." According to this view, apartheid is the will of God.

On the other hand, well-known church people, black and white--such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Allan Boesak, and the Rev. Beyers Naude--are outspoken opponents of the apartheid regime and their opposition is fundamentally grounded in their understanding of, and faithfulness to, the Christian gospel. Less well-known church figures, including the Rev. Moss Chikhane and the Rev. Geoffrey Moselane, went on trial in late January along with twenty other members of the United Democratic Front, accused of murder and of seeking to overthrow the government, charges to which they have pleaded not guilty. Squatters in the town of Cross-roads sang hymns while they waited for the police to come and destroy their homes, and victims of bannings and torture testify to the strength they have gained from their faith.

The people of South Africa, black and white, are overwhelmingly Christian, and the church is deeply divided. A group of Christians who call themselves the Kairos theologians put it this way: "Both oppressor and oppressed claim loyalty to the same Church. . . . There we sit in the same Church while outside Christian policemen and soldiers are beating up and killing Christian children or torturing Christian prisoners to death while yet other Christians stand by and weakly plead for peace."

The policemen and soldiers are following orders which ultimately come from the Nationalist Party, from leaders who, with few exceptions, are members of the Dutch Reformed Churches. The theology of these churches has been called State Theology; it has allowed the Nationalists to rule South Africa with a clear conscience, convinced that their power to rule comes from God.

Those who stand by and weakly plead for peace are also much in evidence in South Africa, primarily in the so-called English-speaking churches. The theology of these churches has been called Church Theology; it is critical of apartheid but in an abstract and spiritual way. It avoids serious social analysis and its calls for justice are reformist.

Finally, adherents to Prophetic Theology believe that the church must be on the side of the poor and oppressed. This theology begins with social analysis and affirms the right of the people to resist injustice and oppression. The task is not to compromise with the apartheid regime but to replace it with one that will govern in the interests of all the people of South Africa. The vast majority of Christians in South Africa are, of course, black and oppressed. While not all of them would commit themselves to an understanding of Christian faith that requires radical action, for a growing number this is the only faith that can possibly be a source of life and hope.

In September 1985, a group of 151 individuals from all of South Africa's churches--English-speaking Protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelicals, pentecostals, and even Dutch Reformed--issued a challenge to the churches called the Kairos Document. After analyzing the three types of theology at work in the country, the Kairos theologians announced that the church in South Africa was in a period of crisis and that faithfulness to God demands allegiance to Prophetic Theology.

The political agenda of Christians responsive to Prophetic Theology includes an end to the state of emergency, the release of all political prisoners, support for the South African movements working for liberation (such as the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front), and immediate and comprehensive economic sanctions.

Throughout the decades of struggle in South Africa, individual Christians have fought for liberation. At a time when the churches themselves were captive to the state or afraid to take decisive action against apartheid, organizations such as the Christian Institute, which existed until it was banned for working for reconciliation between the races, have functioned alongside the churches. Black Theology, which took seriously for the first time black experience, played a critical role in the development of the black consciousness movement. Such organizations and individuals have been detained or banned--or worse--for their efforts.

What the Kairos theologians are calling for is a new formation of South African Christians to respond to the demands of this crisis time. It is too early to tell what their impact will be. But older leaders in the church are aware that the pressure for change is building rapidly, that if they are to have any credibility with the young, militant masses they will have to demonstrate a faith that is a resource in the liberation struggle. What they have to offer is hope--hope, they say, for oppressed and oppressor alike. In their words: "There is a hope. . . . But the road to that hope is going to be very hard and very painful. The conflict and the struggle will have to intensify in the months and years ahead because there is no other way to remove the injustice and oppression. But God is with us. We can only learn to become the instruments of his peace even unto death. We must participate in the cross of Christ if we are to have the hope of participating in his resurrection."

You are told that your leaders in prison and exile are terrorists. But I tell you that the terrorists are in Pretoria and Cape Town. The government are the terrorists--they are the ones who must be behind bars. I want to remind you that the Botha regime will not free your leaders. You are the ones who must free your leaders and you can only free them if you take direct action against the Botha regime.


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