South Africa clamps lid on tense townships
Soweto, South Africa
In one corner of this smoky, sprawling township outside Johannesburg, hundreds of people gathered in St. Paul's Anglican Church to offer prayers for racial justice in white-ruled South Africa.
A few blocks away and a few hours later, the South African riot police were dispersing demonstrators with snarling dogs and swinging batons.
The two startlingly different incidents sum up the tense situation in South Africa today.
The government here has slapped a 16-day ban on virtually every kind of peaceful protest gathering in the country's urban centers -- except church services. And that move, according to black leaders, can only add to an upwelling of frustration and bitterness among a black populace still carrying the scars from riots that started here four years ago.
The situation in black townships like Soweto is "tenser than at any time since 1976" -- the year that 575 people were killed and 3,907 injured in racial uprisings -- says Lekgau Mathabathe, deputy chairman of the Soweto Committee of Ten civic organization.
The uprisings that commenced on June 16, 1976 spread across the country, and the concern is that South Africa today is facing a similar pattern of demonstrations, school boycotts, labor unrest, and mounting guerrilla violence. So far, however, casualties have been lighter.
The government meanwhile is forcefully displaying its police power. Hundreds of people have been detained without charges under wide-ranging security legislation. Thousands more have been arrested as part of ostensibly "routine" police swoops.
Yet still the unrest continues.
"Hostile radicals are using grievances to bring about the downfall of the state," inveighed South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha, as he issued what he called a "final warning" to anyone doubting the South African government's strength. Then, minutes before midnight the same day (Friday, June 13), the government banned "any gathering of a political nature" involving more than 10 people in most of the country's urban areas.
That squelched plans for scores of June 16 commemoration services in the country's black townships, and, in the view of some black activists, left few avenues of peaceful protest open.
"When you press down a thing," warned activist Amanda Kwadi, "it will explode in one way or another. They are causing more underground organization. They must expect something serious."
Indeed, the government can hardly have failed to get that message, and police set up roadblocks on some main arteries leading into black townships.
To some analysts, those are the acts of a government clearly shaken by weeks of unrest that it has so far failed to put down.
Nationwide, thousands of schoolchildren, mostly Colored (mixed race), continue a school boycott, heading into its 10th week. Police have baton-charged protesters, shot at least two dead, and arrested hundreds more.
On the labor front, a boycott of meat purchases -- in support of striking workers demanding the right to choose their own nonracial committees to convey grievances to management -- has spread to many black townships in the Cape of Good Hope peninsula. Police have arrested over 40 labor leaders, but to no avail as the strike continues.
Also in Cape Town, a two-week old boycott of buses continues in protest over fares that recently have risen as much as 60 percent.
A massive work stay-away was scheduled for June 16 in Cape Town, with many black workers expected to remain home and hundreds of businesses closing to commemorate the anniversary of the 1976 uprisings.
The South African government reaction to the unrest came in uncharacteristically restrained fashion. First, Prime Minister Botha conceded the boycotting schoolchildren have "legitimate grievances" and promised to pump millions more into education.
But statements by the Cape Town-based Committee of 81, which is coordinating the boycott, have made it clear that discontent with "inferior" education is only one symptom of a bitterness about South Africa's apartheid (racial segregation) policy.
In a manifesto released by the committee, and subsequently banned by the government, the group said, "We pledge ourselves to work harder in conscientizing the community and in transforming the issue of education into an issue of . . . fundamental human rights."
Government actions became harsher, as hundreds of persons were rounded up in an effort to silence leaders of the boycott. The arrests were a testimony to the failure of the government's informer network to single out the leadership of the boycotts and strikes.
That failure was indisputably illuminated by flames gushing from a synthetic fuel plant near Johannesburg, sabotaged on June 1. The attack, which caused $7. 2 million damage, was the most audacious and most successful sabotage yet by the banned African National Congress, which is committed to guerrilla warfare to overthrow the white government.
Stunned, the government has taken an increasingly hard line against protest, culminating in the ban on political gatherings.
As young black Eliazer Mogano, formerly a student and now unemployed, watched white policemen with snarling dogs prowl the streets of Soweto, he pithily summed up his view of this troubled country.
"I'm bitter," he said. "This is no way of living."