Before the Soweto Uprising in 1976, students and workers organized one of the largest strike actions in South Africa’s history.

Image credit Media Club South Africa on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The student uprising of 1976 was a pivotal moment in the liberation movement against apartheid. For the first time, high school students en masse across South Africa mobilized against Bantu Education and apartheid. The march by thousands of students and subsequent events are reasonably well-known. It is a history that inspired students in the 1980s and, more recently, in the Fees Must Fall movement. An important aspect of this history that has been forgotten or ignored since 1994 is the role Soweto students played in forging intergenerational unity, especially with workers. Although Soweto students kept their parents in the dark about the June 16th march, the leadership subsequently recognized the strategic importance of an alliance with workers, in order to mobilize effectively against the system.

When students met on June 13th to plan the march against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, they decided not to inform their parents. These young activists believed the older generation was politically conservative, fearful, and likely to oppose open defiance of the government. A generational fault line seemed to exist between submissive adults and rebellious youth, whose actions marked a political rupture with their parents. This is an entirely valid interpretation but obscures other processes that tell a different story.

Some parents in 1975 already objected to the state’s plan to impose Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. But their displeasure was limited to written appeals to the authorities to review the policy, which proved ineffective. Once the uprising erupted, a small group of progressive parents met to offer solidarity with the students. They formed the Black Parents’ Association to galvanize broader support for the students and to draw attention to state repression. It was a significant act of solidarity that established a bridge between young and old. The emerging intergenerational unity scaled new heights in August and September.

In early August, the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC), which had assumed the leadership of the movement, appealed to parents to join them in a march to the notorious John Vorster Square to demand the release of detained students (John Vorster square was the site of indefinite detentions, tortures, and executions). Approximately twenty thousand residents—parents and students—heeded the call on August 4th, but they were violently stopped by the police as they marched along the Soweto highway. By joining their children on the streets, the main sites of contestation with the apartheid state, parents declared that the struggle triggered by students was also their struggle. Considering the short notice, the stayaway was a success. However, many workers were also prevented from going to work due to the disruption to local transport, including stoning buses and cars. As a result, an attempt to extend the stayaway by two more days failed. Despite these difficulties, the march proved to be a foundation upon which further united action could be mobilized.

A pamphlet distributed after the strike claimed, “We dealt the racist regime and factory-owners a heavy blow—they lost their profits.” Here, students consciously linked the state and bosses and recognized the effect of a workers’ stayaway. Soon afterwards, the SSRC called for a second stayaway from August 23rd to 25th. This time, students campaigned extensively in the township through door-to-door visits and distribution of leaflets, to persuade rather than coerce workers to join the action. As a result, the first day of azikhwelwa (stay at home) was a resounding success: a reported 75% of the Johannesburg African workforce were absent on that day. It was also the largest strike in Johannesburg since the early 1960s.

But there was one major constituency that did not heed the call for a stayaway—the hostel dwellers. They tended to be aloof from the townships and were generally uninterested in township politics, least of all being instructed by young people to stay away from work. Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest students had made any serious efforts to explain their campaign to these workers. Young activists perceived hostel dwellers as strikebreakers and confronted them on their way back from work, which led to a violent altercation during which two students were killed. An attempt by students to burn down the Meadowlands hostel further inflamed tensions.

At this point, the sinister hand of the state appeared as the police, supported by the Urban Bantu Council, exploited the anger among sections of the hostel dwellers to organize violent attacks on residents. On the morning of August 24th, a crowd of hostel dwellers, armed with an assortment of “traditional weapons,” descended on Orlando West and Meadowlands where they indiscriminately attacked residents, causing several deaths. This turn of events threatened to ignite a conflagration along ethnic and migrant/township resident lines and consequently derail the student movement and the generational solidarity of the previous period.

To counter the destructive consequences of this conflict, the SSRC made serious efforts to win the support of hostel dwellers. A circular distributed on August 27th explained that, “The students have nothing against people living in the hostels, they are our parents, they are victims of the notorious migrant labour system. They are forced to live hundreds of miles away from their families, their needs and grievances are ignored by the powers that be. WE are aware that they are packed like sardines in small rooms with no privacy and living under appalling conditions.”

Ten days later, another SSRC pamphlet was addressed “To all residents of Soweto, Hostels, Reef & Pretoria.” It countered the state’s effort to mobilize ethnicity to “divide-and-rule” black people. It called for solidarity “to face the common enemy: Apartheid, Exploitation and Oppression,” and declared: “Unity is strength! Solidarity is power!”

Confident that they had countered the state’s strategy, the SSRC now mobilized for another stayaway from the 13th to the 15th of September. This time, campaigning took place in the township and hostels. Another pamphlet appealed for solidarity from workers, specifically hostel dwellers. The shift in tactics yielded positive results and, in sharp contrast to the August events, migrant workers were active in mobilizing support for the planned action. As a result, the stayaway was the most successful of the three strikes called by the SSRC. It was the product of learning from political mistakes and working hard to win sections of the working class behind demands that did not immediately resonate with them.

Despite serious challenges, these stayaways achieved remarkable unity in action between two crucial social and political constituencies, workers and students. Since the early 1970s both had become more organized and radicalized, albeit mostly along parallel lines. Their convergence in 1976 in mass action demonstrated their collective power and capacity to bring the economic heartland of the country to a standstill. It was a lesson that would become a central facet of working-class mobilization over the next period.

An important consequence of the student uprising was that hundreds of young people left the country to join the exile movements, and particularly their armed wings. Of even greater significance was the fact that many more students became core activists of the internal mass movements. Connections between students and workers, or communities and workplaces, were strengthened by the entry of the 1976 generation into the world of work, with many joining the emerging independent trade union movement. Indeed, a feature of the period from the late 1970s was the overlapping membership of organizations: youth were unionists, unionists belonged to civic associations and youth organizations, while many others joined political movements, as well as progressive sports and religious formations.

The importance of the strategic alliance between workers and youth/students became even more evident from 1979. In that year, workers belonging to the Food and Canning Workers’ Union went on strike against Fattis & Monis’s refusal to recognize the union (Fattis & Monis is a popular South African pasta brand). This industrial action by coloured and African workers won widespread support from communities across the Cape Peninsula in the form of a consumer boycott. Students led the mobilization of the boycott, the success of which forced the company to negotiate with the union.

The threat of a similar boycott of Colgate-Palmolive products in 1981 caused a previously intransigent company to accede to workers’ demands. Students also organized two other boycott campaigns—of red meat in 1980 and Wilson Rowntree sweets in 1981—but these did not achieve victories for workers. Nonetheless, these campaigns demonstrated the consumer power of black communities, mobilized into action largely by students, in support of organized workers.

The forging of an alliance between workers and students/youth was a significant strategic achievement of this period. It did not come easily and encountered several challenges. But workers and students were committed to this crucial dimension of working class unity and power, which was principally responsible for ending apartheid.

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