Antiapartheid Protests: New Wave of Defiance in South Africa

By Green, Pippa | The Nation, September 18, 1989 | Go to article overview

Antiapartheid Protests: New Wave of Defiance in South Africa


Green, Pippa, The Nation


On an unseasonably warm winter's day in early August, about 3,500 antiapartheid activists converged on a Roman Catholic church in the middle-class Cape Town suburb of Athlone, a "colored" mixed-race) area. The activists, most of them young and black, had come to the funeral of 20-year-old Robert Waterwitch and 22-year-old Coline Williams, cadres of the African National Congress who had been blown to pieces, apparently while attaching limpet mines to a government building.

Inside the church, the coffins were swathed with the green, black and gold flag of the proscribed A.N.C. in open defiance of a police directive that no Congress colors be displayed. Three funeral speakers, including the church's priest, cited the words used by the jailed A.N.C. leader Nelson Mandela when he established the armed wing of the liberation movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe: "The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa.' Peter Mokaba, the leader of the South African Youth Congress, was the last to use these words. By speaking, he was defying another police order, that only ordained ministers could address the crowd. As the priests said the final prayers over the coffins, a handful of police armed with shotguns strode into the churchyard, making straight for the A.N.C. flag

draped over the waiting hearse. Leaping up from their orderly rows, the youths formed a wall in front of the intruders and

pushed them back into the street. At the cemetery, the police succeeded in ripping the flags off the coffins as they were carried toward their graves. Angry youths, some wielding bricks, surged toward the of- ficers. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the young funeral marshals struggled to restore the tenuous peace, standing between the police and the "comrades," urging them back, telling them they were not running away" but Marching to freedom.' Within minutes, new flags covered the coffins. The police did not take them this time; instead they withdrew, apparently on orders from their commander in a helicopter hovering overhead.

The funeral was a watershed in South Africa. It not only marked the re-emergence of open antigovernment activity after nearly four years of enforced silence but also (though unintentionally) heralded a wel-planned campaign to defy apartheid laws, a campaign that has left the government in a quandary. The Defiance Campaign-it takes its name from the one led by Mandela in 1952-is spearheaded by the Mass Democratic Movement (M.D.M.), a deliberately amorphous label coined to get around the political restrictions placed on antiapartheid groups. Its two main components are the United Democratic Front (U.D.F.), an antiapartheid coalition group, and the nearly 1 million-strong black labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The M.D.M. supports a nonracial democracy in a unitary state and a social democratic economic program.

For the Defiance Campaign the M.D.M. chose two issues that it hoped would fire the imagination of the people: race segregation in hospitals, schools and on beaches; and the gagging of former detainees by decree. We've been through a long period when we have had to fight underground,' student activist Febe Potgieter told me. "Now we need to fight for the right to legal space."

Legal space to oppose the government in South Africa has been severely cramped by the imposition of four successive states of emergency. Altogether, more than 30,000 men, women and children have been jailed without trial since 1985, when a state of emergency was first declared, some for as long as three years; in February 1988 the U.D.F. and several of its affiliates were banned and Cosatu was prohibited from operating politically. There was a lot of despondency about the state of our struggle,' said Potgieter.

Last February there came a turning point, however, "an inspiration," as Potgieter puts it: Scores of the 900 people still detained under the emergency began fasting. …

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