South Africa: Ten Years of Democracy

In Retrospect: A Look at the 1976 Soweto Uprising

Wednesday 21 January 2004, by Andile MNGXITAMA

The June 16, 1976 Soweto uprising is a key milestone in the quest for Black liberation in South Africa. Contrary to Frantz Fanon’s observation that "Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it", the children of Soweto were discovered by history.

The choice they had was to either betray or fulfill the task of sparking the most important rebellion since Bambatha was defeated at the turn of the last century. Just as little Hector Peterson was thrust into the front pages of history, Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Seatlholo were placed at the head of the resistance and vowed not to betray their mission. Both expected to live short lives. They did. Mashinini died under mysterious circumstances in exile, weeks before he was due to return to South Africa in the early 1990s. In his farewell note to Mashinini, Seatlholo foretold his own death: "I will die in an accident, fall ill or simply get mugged". Seatlholo died after complaining of stomach pains last week.

Mashinini and Seatlholo’s contribution to the liberation of South Africa has been systematically erased from popular consciousness over time. Seatlholo watched with disbelief the de-politicization of the youth and the distortion of the political nature and significance of the Soweto uprising. Sadly, all this was happening in the new South Africa. He spoke against it; in the last few years he refused to grant interviews to the media, which only wanted a few quotes every June 16. Khotso saw this as the unfortunate cheapening of June 16, and an insult to the memory of those who died so that we may be free.

After Tsietsi was forced into exile, Khotso took over the presidency of the main organ which coordinated the struggles of 1976, the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC), and continued the struggle. Under Khotso’s leadership, the students linked their struggle with their parents, the workers, in ways never seen before in the history of student revolts. A series of successful strikes were called. The SSRC under Khotso pronounced not on education matters alone but called for the total liberation of South Africa. The arrogant introduction of Afrikaans as a compulsory medium of instruction in Black schools was, according to Khotso, only the "Achilles Heel" of the whole of system of Bantu Education.

The terms upon which Bantu Education was rejected also reveal the roots of the need for the total liberation of Blacks. Khotso, only 18 years then, spoke for the youth of his day: "Twenty years ago, when Bantu Education was introduced, our fathers said: ’half a loaf is better than no loaf’. But we say: ’half a gram of poison is just as lethal as the whole gram’. He continued: "thus we strongly refuse to swallow this type of education which is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth". This radical rejection of oppression later found expression in struggles from exile.

In his last call to action before he was forced into exile, Khotso delivered a fierce attack on Kaiser Matanzima for accepting the phony independence of the Transkei: "We see Chief Matanzima as being seduced by the white racist government to fall for the political joke of he year. We regard him as a betrayer of Black peoples’ political aspirations".

The young student leader went on to call for action: "From November 1-5, 1976, we are calling upon all Blacks of Azania - coloureds, Indians and Africans - to go on national stay at home strike. This call must be obeyed by all parents, students and workers". Thus the leadership of the students of all segments of the black resistance was established.

Meanwhile, in exile Tsietsi was organizing a world tour for Khotso. Three days after Khotso left the country in early 1977, he was to tour the world gunning support for the liberation efforts. Under the guidance of the of Black Consciousness philosophy and Tsietsi’s leadership, the majority of the SSRC leadership did not join any of the existing liberation movements in exile such as the PAC or the ANC. Instead they dissolved the SSRC, and formed the South African Youth Revolutionary council (SAYRCO) in 1979. Khotso was to be the fist president of SAYRCO and remained president until his death.

Under the presidency of Khotso, SAYRCO found the attitude of the older liberation movement lax toward the task of liberating South Africa.

Khotso promoted the rejection of the attitude of the older liberation movement toward armed struggle, which he described as "Look-what-you-have-made-us-do-now". He called for the end to the "apologetic and defensive forms of struggle" and for a move towards "offensive and aggressive ones".

The youth, fresh from doing battle with the enemy, armed only with stones and their will to rebel, felt that there was no sense of urgency nor optimism in the older exiled movements. SAYRCO resolved never to be consumed by or to be comfortable in exile; hence their belief that, "We shall use exile, but we reject exile". It was this commitment to continue fighting inside South Africa which saw Khotso leading from the front and ultimately shot and arrested in 1981. It was the second time that the apartheid regime’s bullets had entered his body. The first was shortly before he went to exile; on that occasion he escaped - a wounded revolutionary.

The liberation of Zimbabwe gave fresh impetus to SAYRCO’s efforts. The leadership of Zanu-PF and its military wing offered not only to provide camps but military expertise to the young revolutionaries. The Zimbabwean nationalists, on the eve on their own liberation, had one request, " bring not tens but hundreds of soldiers". SAYRCO adopted a dramatic and daring strategy. Its leaders were to enter South Africa and address public meetings where they would call upon the youth to join the liberation movement in exile. When no one wanted to take up this duty, Khotso stepped forward.

For this new assault on apartheid some news men were engaged, such as Zwelakhe Sisilu (former Sunday Post news editor) and Thami Mazwai (then Sowetan news editor). They were to get exclusively coverage of Khotso’s public appearances inside South Africa. The liberation symbol Regina Mundi church in Diepkloof was chosen for one of these appearances. And so Khotso, the "terrorist" and "extremist" - hunted by the apartheid regime - entered the country to carry out the mission bestowed upon him by history. His arrest came as a result of the tapping of phones by apartheid secret agents, thus thwarting one of the most daring plans to attack apartheid South Africa.

After his arrest the Telegraph headlines screamed: "Scarlet Pimpernel of Soweto arrested!". The Times reported "South Africa arrests Black leader". The Rand Daily Mail simply said "Police hold top student leaders" following the arrest of almost thirteen other leaders associated with Khotso’s revolutionary activities. Both Mazwai and Sisilu were also arrested.

Perhaps as an indication of the esteem bestowed upon Khotso, none of the arrested individuals agreed to testify against him. They chose prison sentences over cooperating with the police. He was sentenced to fifteen years on Robben Island, where he not only completed his matric but went on to obtain a Baccalaureate Degree with Honours.

Whilst in exile, Khotso was highly inspired by his encounter with the guerrilla leader of the Zimbabwean National Liberation Army (Zanla), Josia Tongogara. His injunction that the struggle was inside the enemy camp was never lost on the young Khotso; this was just building on what he was already committed to. The liberation of South Africa could only be achieved by the fight back at home. During his days as a student leader, Khotso was part of the "Suicide Squad", which was credited for a spate of bombings including the dynamiting of the Jabulani police station.

Khotso’s leadership capacities, which were complemented by those of his comrade and friend Tsitsi Mashinini, were displayed during an all-important encounter with General Obansanjo (head of state of Nigeria). The meeting was scheduled to last for only fifteen minutes but ended up lasting for an hour. Khotso naturally credited Tsietsi for the success of the meeting. Khotso was a consistent anti-hero. After he was arrested, someone in the BCM family brought a stack of documents to him, so that he could proclaim, in apartheid’s court, how revolutionary he was. He refused. His task was not to make pompous statements in court but to get out of prison and continue the fight. This was a new attitude by revolutionaries, since most freedom fighters in history had tried to use the court to popularize their courses. For the veterans of ’76, court was enemy territory and a continuation of captivity. They believed that what you cannot get in the battlefield you can hardly hope to achieve in captivity.

The meeting with Obansanjo opened doors for the young revolutionaries. Khotso was grateful to the Nigerian people up to his death. It was through the efforts of Obasanjo and the likes of Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) that Khotso and Tsietsi became the first Black Consciousness proponents to undergo military training. The bloodshed of 1976 and the preceding mass slaughter of Sharpeville had taught the young student leaders that non-violence was no option, and hence their commitment to armed engagement. In this direction, Khotso was trained in Syria and Lebanon under the auspices of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Some SAYRCO fighters took cover from Zionist Ariel Sheron’s fire during their stay in Lebanon. Libya also played an important role at the time. Obansanjo thought that the leadership of Khotso was so important that in the mid-80s, when he headed a commonwealth delegation to visit Robben Island to see only the most important prisoners such as Mandela, he insisted on seeing Khotso.

In the 1990s, as the De Klerk regime undertook its double strategy of negotiations and violence, Khotso said: "We cannot talk to De Klerk for a number of reasons. Inter alia, he has already laid down the rules around which the negotiations game is to be played". The so-called "Black on Black" violence of the time was an equally worrying factor for the revolutionary. He recalled how black lives were respected during the ’76 uprising. He was to declare, "Throughout the period of June 1976 and its aftermath not a single collaborator was killed; not a single black person had a burning tire thrown around his neck". Surely Khotso was also speaking out of the pain of the brutal "necklacing" of his only co-accused, Masabata Loate, who served four years for her part in supporting the revolutionary activities of SAYRCO. At the time of her gruesome killing she was active in the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front.

Loate was killed by her comrades. Samora Machele, observing this unfortunate tendency in revolutions, is reported to have said: "The revolution eats its own children". Khotso never accepted this; for him a revolution which turns on its own is not worth fighting for. He was totally committed to black liberation and saw black solidarity as a sacred principle. He understood the role of the apartheid regime in fermenting violence between townships and hostel dwellers. However, he never forgave the failure of the main liberation forces of the 90s to contain, rather than promote, the exchange of fire with the hostel dwellers. In 1976, the apartheid regime tried to use the hostel dwellers to attack the community. Khotso, speaking to an audience in Holland after his release from prison, explained how the matter was handled: "The students went into the hostels and talked to the hostel dwellers to show them that they were wrong to unleash their anger on the black community and that the police were responsible for provoking them. The hostel dwellers saw reason and the matter ended there. Indeed, many hostel dwellers in the days that followed would come out in support of the students’ struggle". Again in 1992, Khotso intervened when the Jabulani Hostel dwellers were at war with the community. Such an undertaking was extremely dangerous in the atmosphere charged with "the Zulus are coming!" bogey. So was the commitment to the black cause by this son of the soil.

It has now came to pass that the liberation that Khotso fought for has not been attained in full. He watched the past ten years of freedom with increasing sadness. His own prophesy that the De Klerk negotiations would not deliver liberation has proven correct. There are cosmetic changes in South Africa. Ten years after liberation, Black lives are still cheap. 80% of the land is still in the hands of a minority of white racist farmers who think feeding blacks to lions is permissible. Poor people are still called squatters and treated as such. There is rampant commodification of life-sustaining provisions such as water and electricity, not to mention healthcare and education.

Refusing to join the great trek to the "suburbs" as part of the new black elites’ sign of progress, Khotso remained in Soweto until his death. There he lived with the population 70% of whom remain poor and for whom the past ten years has meant more poverty and exclusion from the economic life of the country. Throughout his life Khotso Seatlholo held to the motto of SAYRCO: "The people first. Then, only then, the individual". After his capture, this unsung hero of the liberation struggle was reported to have said: "to me liberation is a noble cause. I have no reason to live if I cannot fight to attain it". Hamba Kahle Spartacus!

This story was first published on the Center for Civil Society of the Natal University website

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