Crucibles of the Black Rebellion: South Africa's Townships

By Rieder, Eric | The Nation, September 7, 1985 | Go to article overview

Crucibles of the Black Rebellion: South Africa's Townships


Rieder, Eric, The Nation


What is most remarkable about the past year's wave of black protest across South Africa is its spread into quiescent rural towns. Steytlerville, a sheep-farming town of around 3,000 in the dusty plains of the Eastern Cape, is a case in point. Many of the residents of its black township migrate to jobs in Port Elizabeth, one hundred miles away, but they are unsophisticated people, more comfortable speaking their tribal language of Xhosa than English, still a little awed by the presence of visitors from the big coastal cities. Throughout most of its history, Steytlerville has remained largely untouched by the bursts of activism among South African blacks.

In recent months, however, the young blacks of Steytlerville have begun to organize. Mzwandile Miggels, a 20-year-old with politically active friends in nearby towns, helped form a youth group. In July 3, the members held a memorial demonstration for four murdered black leaders from the town of Cradock, 125 miles away. Police dispersed the marchers with tear gas, and later that night entered the black township. There were no witnesses, but gunshots were heard. Miggels was wounded. Police arrested him and 12-year-old Johannes Spogter, and packed them in a van. Miggels died that day; Spogter died two days later in a police cell.

The local blacks decided to hold a political funeral for the two youths on July 13. Such ceremonies have become common in the coasal cities of the Eastern Cape and sprawling townships around Johannesburg, but Steytlerville had never had one. Although the older blacks were nervous, fearing more trouble from the police, the younger people insisted that the service place the victims' death in a broader political context. A crowd of 500 attended. A dozen teenagers served as pallbearers, taking turns standing by the coffins with their right arms raised and their fists clenched in the black power salute. Banners hoisted above the crowd extolled the United Democractic Front (U.D.F.), the largest active antiapartheid group in the country, and the outlawed African National Congress (A.N.C.). Mourners sang an old Xhosa hymn, but with new words, imploring Oliver Tambo, the Congress's leader-in-exile, to bring them guns. A leader of the group Miggels had helped found told the crowd: "Steytlerville will never be the same. I will say it again. Steytlerville will never be the same."

The spread of black protest to tiny towns like Steytlerville reflects the extraordinary upsurge of activism that reached new levels of anger and cohesion in the weeks preceding President P.W. Botha's July 20 proclamation of a state of emergency. Across the Eastern Cape, black townships spawned residents' associations that fought rent increases and youth groups that staged school boycotts. A black consumer boycott of white-owned stores, successful in several small towns, began in Port Elizabeth on July 16, with an immediate and devastating impact on white merchants. Police brutality led to energetic political rallies for the dead, as in Steytlerville, further politicizing the townships.

On the morning of July 20, white South Africans on the Eastern Cape had more reason than ever to be aware of two significant and increasingly interrelated phenomena; their dependence on blacks as customers and workers, and the growing mobilization in the townships. From the newspapers they knew that some 50,000 blacks were gathering for the funeral of the four activists from Cradock. And in town they learned that, as a result, the black employees on whom they relied were staying away from work that day. I spent the night of July 19 in Graaff-Reinet, ninety miles from Cradock. Before leaving for the funeral the next morning, I asked for breakfast at the hotel. The owner told me the kitchen was closed. "No one came to work," he shrugged. "They all went to the U.D.F. funeral. What can I do?"

For Botha's administration, the only hope to quell the turbulence was that massive repression, in the form of a vast roundup of activists and an even freer hand for the police and army in the townships, could do what the brutality so far had been unable to: cow blacks and crush the mobilization. …

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