Why did the townships revolt in the years 1984-87?

Political Context of Revolt

  • Black residential areas = townships
  • The government tried to contain and suppress the violence -->  Usually led to antagonising people more and fulled resistance. 
  • Government's reform process (Botha): He recognised that elements of apartheid hadn't been effective. 
  • He didn't want to end *********** just find new ways to preserve it. 
  • Homeland policy was a central route to Botha's government --> Spent a lot of time and money in trying to make them viable as separate states. 
  • Attempts made to draw in Coloured and Indian politicians through the tricameral parliament. 
  • One strategy = making black allies and giving them better political responsibility
  • The state hoped that elected urban black councillors would absorb and defuse discontent.
  • Some township residents thought they could make a difference from within the system. 
  • Powers: allocate housing, employ local officials, grant licenses for business
  • By early 80's, was clear that the council would have to increase rent to make better public facilities or break even. 
  • Attempts to control the spread of unplanned, informal shack settlements created tension. 
  • Councillors were often seen as 'sell-outs' - participating in apartheid and taking advantage of the system --> Betraying their communities
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The UDF and grass roots organisations

  • UDF = United Democratic Front
  • 1983 - activists from different organisations felt they needed to take a stand against Botha's reforms --> Concerned that he was finding allies (in Coloured Labour Party and black councils)
  • UDF mobilised against Botha's reforms and wanted a fully democratic S.A
  • Those who had identified with ANC were at the heart of the UDF (e.g. Winnie Mandela/Albertina Sisulu - wives of jailed ANC leaders). Also new generation of leaders (e.g. Desmond Tutu) 
  • UDF adopted the Freedom Charter 
  • Didn't want an armed struggle 
  • Like a broad umbrella organisation used to manage several strands of opposition 
  • An affiliation of grass root organisations 
  • 1983 - COSAS aligned with the UDF
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Protest Strategies

  • Dynamics of protest changed in later months of 1984 --> violent tactics becoming more attractive
  • 3rd September 1983 - the day that the tricameral parliament opened in cape town - uprising against the government in Vaal Triangle 
  • Councillors killed in Sharpville (thought they had betrayed their communities) 
  • COSAS (Congress of South African Students) was established in 1979 
  • 1985, protest reached its peak - government and council officials in the townships became frequent targets 
  • 'Peoples power' became the slogan for the movement 
  • 1985 = ANC called for a 'peoples war' -  made attempts to send Mk members into S.A. 
  • Youth living in S.A often saw themselves as 'comrades', helping with the armed struggle of the ANC --> Although the UDF did advocate such tactics 
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Alexandra, Johannesburg

  • By the end of 1985, Alexandra (an overpopulated township) became a centre for rebellion 
  • The revolt broke out in 1986 after a month of tension - known as the 'six-day war'. 
  • Triggered by a youth activist (Michael Diradeng) when he was shot by a security guard. 
  • A night vigil was organised on the 14th of Feb 
  • On their route around the township, they petrol-bombed the shop where he had died. Burnt houses and the next morning they stabbed a policeman. 
  • His funeral took place the next day - attacks on the police and homes of councillors  --> Most police fled their houses. 
  • Not led directly by the ANC but was a peoples war.
  • The youth's brief ruling period had its harsh side - violence (inc Necklacing) was common against those who didn't participate in protests. 
  • Comtsotsis - combining comrade with tsotsis --> Meant those who used violence to establish what they saw as an alternative social order 
  • Their take-over (the youth) was mainly done with no help from the UDF --> distanced themselves. 
  • Winnie Mandela identified strongly
  • 'With our matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country' - Winnie Mandela
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Rural Rebellion + Government response

Rural Rebellion: 

  • Rebellion was mainly, but not wholly in the urban townships
  • Sekhukhuneland in the Transvaal was a site for major rural rebellion in the 1950's
  • Towns and rural high schools were centres of protest and recruitment routes for the Mk. 

Government response: 

  • June 1985 - Botha called for a national State of Emergency 
  • Sent troops into Townships protected by armoured vehicles and prepared to use their weapons. 
  • Retaliation from Alexandra was particularly strong in 1986 
  • Army sealed off the township - houses of activists were burned (sometimes with people inside)
  • May 1986 - 1,500 troops moved into Alexandra and made house to house searches, arresting anyone suspected of resistance. 
  • 12 June - Second State of emergency --> 3000 arrests in Alexandra alone. 
  • Key leaders in Alexandra arrested and subjected to well-publicised trial.  
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Government Suppression: State Suppression

  • The National Party still had the power to repress black political protest 
  • Army and police were controlled by white people committed to the regime 
  • They shared the objective of maintaining white authority 
  • Police force increased from 49,000 to 93,600 between 1981 and 1991 
  • This was mainly to deal with increasing political problems and urban problems. 
  • By 1994, the police force was at around 140,000
  • Common police tactics: mass arrests, imprisonment, banning orders
  • Uncommon police tactics that did happen: kidnapping, interrogations under torture and death.
  • Branch of the police kept files on opposition leaders and tried to get them to give information about the whereabouts of the ANC. 
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Government Suppression: Conflict in the Homelands

  • Not all Africans supported youth protest 
  • Those supporting the UDF in townships faced difficulties 
  • Main opposition - homeland of KwaZulu and parts of Natal 
  • Cheif Buthelezi (part of Inkatha Freedom Party) was increasingly hostile against the protests.
  • He suppressed school boycotts and developed an alternative Youth Brigade
  • In 3 years of township fighting in Zululand and Natal, 4000 people were killed 
  • This was mainly NOT an ethnic conflict but a difference of opinion about controls over the homelands.
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Black Power


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