Sunday, September 09, 2012

South Africa in Crisis 1977

The August 2012 police shooting of approximately 34 striking miners has been widely compared to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. It should also be compared to the 1976 Soweto uprising in which more than 170 youth were killed.  The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of ANC and the Pan African Congress and their shift from passive to armed resistance.  Soweto was also a turning point.

I wrote the following article for New America, the paper of Social Democrats USA on the fallout a little more than a year later when the South African government instituted a severe political repression.  My last sentence was "Only a political miracle seems capable of reversing a political dynamic that is inevitable heading for confrontation and explosion." There was a miracle in 1990.  But it is now seems that the terms of the miracle and decisions since have had their own contradictions and that South Africa is entering a period of intense crisis.  I don't yet have a handle on all that is involved.

In the meantime, here is my 1977 take with some modern links added.

South Africa Lurches to The Precipice

by Stuart Elliott New America  Nov 1977 (?)

The most dramatic crackdown in two decades [a reference to the Sharpeville massacre] virtually forecloses the possibility of a peaceful resolution to South Africa's racial crisis. On October 19, the South African government banned black protest groups, closed down the leading black newspaper and arrested its editor, Percy Qoboza, and arrested at least fifty people and served an unknown number with banning orders, which bar them from political activities and curtail their freedoms for five years. Both urban black leaders, regarded as moderates, and white liberals were victims of the repression.

The Black ConsciousnessMovement, founded by Stephen Biko in 1969, which filled the gap left by the earlier banning of the African National Congress and the Pan-AfricanistCongress, was only one of many organizations to be banned. Also proscribed were non-political self-help organizations like Black Community Programs, a business-financed group which ran a network of medical clinics. The main targets of the crackdown, however, appear to be the organizations which are the political expression of urban blacks. Among the groups covered by the ban are the South African Students Movement, a high school group; the South African Students Organization, a university group ; and the Black People's Convention, an umbrella group that is the closest thing to a black political party. The Soweto Teachers Action Committee which coordinated the resignations of several hundred high school teachers last month in support of students who have boycotted classes for more than three months in demand for the upgrading of black education was also banned. Leaders of the  Committee of  Ten, an organization of black moderates, which was formed earlier in the year in an attempt to end the near-anarchy that prevailed in Soweto since last year's rioting, were also arrested. The action of the South African .government was a clear statement that : not only has no intention of ever allowing blacks to have a voice in a federal structure, but that it will not even permit blacks to organize for peaceful political change.

The South African government also struck at leading white liberals like those around the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, an ecumenical group noted for its authoritative reports on apartheid. Donald Woods, the white editor of the Daily Dispatch, was arrested as he was preparing to board a flight to New York. Invited to the United States by the American ambassador to South Africa, William G. Bowdler, Woods was to have met with Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, and possibly President Carter. Under banning, Woods is forbidden to work as a journalist or to write or speak for publication. In addition, he is restricted to East London in Cape Province, subject to a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and limited to meeting only one person at a time other than members of his own family. Just as the crackdown was a clear rebuke of Western opinion, the arrest of Woods was a challenge to the Carter administration's human rights policy and its opposition to apartheid. The South African action undoubtedly complicated the British-American effort to secure a peaceful transition to majority rule in Rhodesia as well.

The crackdown also marked an accelerating restriction of the political freedoms that have long been South Africa's selling point in asking for time and tolerance from the West. Not only was the World, the leading black newspaper and the second largest in all of South Africa, closed down, but its editor Percy Qoboza was detained without trial, a status that can be prolonged indefinitely by the government. Along with the arrest of Woods, this was clearly intended to warn other newspapers "not to abuse" the right of criticism. Threats against the press have become a regular feature of speeches by government leaders in recent weeks and it is widely expected that harsh measures controlling the press will be passed by the new Parliament in January.

The willingness to consider the need for change that existed among white South Africans for a brief interlude following the Soweto riots has been extinguished. With white liberals and moderates weak and disunited, the overwhelming majority of whites appear determined to retain their domination by increased repression and the abridgement of democracy, whatever the cost. The cost is likely to be high. Only a political miracle seems capable of reversing a political dynamic that is inevitable heading for confrontation and explosion.

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