From the Archive | Part 1: People’s to state politics

This first of a two-part series discusses how street committees, community-organised education and people’s courts challenged the state’s moral authority.

This is an excerpt from Michael Neocosmos’ From people’s politics to state politics: aspects of national liberation in South Africa 1984-1994 (1994).

Struggles in the townships

The origins of the mass urban protests in the 1980s are usually traced to the student upsurge of 1976 in Soweto. It was these youthful struggles which forged, in Mahmood Mamdani’s terms, “a new path of liberation” which was based on the lived experiences of ordinary people rather than on the failed sterility of the strategies of exiled movements cut off from the people on whose behalf they were supposed to be struggling. The so-called decade of peace after Sharpeville was a testament to the overall weakness of these exiled organisations. The 1976 Soweto uprising, along with the series of mass strikes in Durban three years earlier, shattered this “phoney peace”.

In fact, in structural terms, it was effectively this period of extreme repression which was to provide, through exceptional economic growth, the seeds of the destruction of the apartheid state. In the 1960s, South Africa’s GNP grew at 6% per annum and South Africa was at the time, along with Japan, the country with the highest growth rate in the world. This had a number of important consequences, including a dramatic increase in the number of Africans working in manufacturing (from 308 332 in 1960 to 780 914 in 1980), denoting an increase not only in the industrial working class but in the number of skilled African workers. At the same time, the South African economy became more dependent on consumption by blacks for its internal market. Another effect was an increase in black South Africans entering the education system to provide for this increased industrialisation. Between 1965 and 1975, the number of black students in secondary schools increased nearly fivefold, while between 1980 and 1984, their enrolment doubled from 577 000 to over a million; and the number of graduates tripled during the same period.

By 1982, however, not only were the effects of the world economic crisis being felt in South Africa, but a fall in the price of gold, which lasted until 1985, along with a balance of payments deficit created by the importation of capital equipment for this mini-import substitution industrialisation process, led to “an unprecedented level of foreign indebtedness”. As a result of IMF loan conditionalities, the government scrapped whatever subsidies to consumers were in place and increased sales tax, which shifted the fiscal burden to the poor. By 1985 the inflation rate was just below a record 17%. All this led to a steep increase in the unemployment rate beginning in 1982 and accelerating thereafter.

By 1985, African unemployment represented about 25% of the economically active population. Two-thirds of all unemployed Africans by the mid-1980s were under the age of 30, and unemployment was often long term, especially for school leavers.

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A prolonged drought increased the price of food and also the level of rural-urban migration, while cutbacks in state expenditure affected townships in particular, so that local authorities administering them had accumulated a deficit of R32 million by 1982-1983. From 1981, township residents were subjected to rent hikes which increased in frequency after municipal elections in 1983. At the same time, reviled township councillors were given more powers in 1982 (through the Black Local Authorities Act), increasing their control over the allocation of housing, trading licences, business sites, student bursaries and the collection of rents. They were obviously seen as benefitting from “the system”, as the apartheid state structures came to be known among activists. The state attempted to manage the growing discontent by legal reforms which attempted to regulate union activity and restrict it to the workplace (primarily through the Industrial Relations Act of 1979) and to co-opt Indian and coloured South Africans into a tricameral parliament while power rested firmly with whites (the new constitution was inaugurated in 1984). It was these structural changes which formed the background to the mass upsurge of the second half of the 1980s.

The most important and truly original organisational expression of popular resistance in the 1980s was the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was formed in 1983 initially ostensibly to mobilise opposition to the state’s constitutional proposals and other legislation (known collectively as the Koornhof Bills), including the Black Local Authorities Act. The UDF brought together under its umbrella a coalition of civic associations, student organisations and youth congresses, women’s groups, trade unions, church societies, sports clubs and a multitude of organisations which retained, and often increased as a result of their affiliation to the UDF, their ability to organise independently. At its peak it claimed it had around 700 affiliates grouped in 10 regional areas and amounting to a total of over two million people. With the upsurge of township unrest beginning in earnest in 1984, it was the young people of the townships who provided the main impetus behind the struggle, while the leadership passed over to the Trade Unions in 1988. In one important respect at least, the UDF managed to build on the experience of township-based organisations such as “civic associations”, in that it successfully combined local and national grievances. In the words of one civic activist and intellectual:

“From the late 1970s, civic associations not only opposed community councils, they challenged the very laws upon which such bodies were founded. For example, in 1979 the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (Pebco), (now the PE People’s Civic Organisation), called for a single municipality for the city of Port Elizabeth and rejected the community councils (in charge of African townships) and the white municipalities (in charge of white local affairs). Pebco’s aims included a commitment to fight discriminatory legislation, to seek participation in all decision-making processes, to fight for African freehold rights and to resist attempts to deprive Africans of their citizenship. Thus it can be seen that from their inception, civic associations tackled both local problems and issues with national political implications. In due course, local demands assumed a national dimension.”

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It is not possible to undertake a detailed history of the UDF here due to considerations of space; fortunately this can be found elsewhere (for example, Swilling 1988; Lodge 1991: 23-141; Marx 1992). Nevertheless, it is important to point out some of the phases which this organisation went through, as they provide an accurate reflection of the changes in urban-based forms of struggle and popular involvement during the period of the UDF’s existence until 1990 when it was disbanded. This analysis largely follows those of Swilling and Lodge. The first phase of the UDF followed its activity to oppose elections to the tricameral parliament and the Koornhof Bills. But soon after August 1984, opposition political activity shifted to struggles initiated by local communities and became concerned with basic issues affecting township life. This inaugurated its second phase. The mass upsurge started in earnest in September 1984 and took the form of bus and rent boycotts, housing movements, squatter revolts, labour strikes, school protests and community stay-aways. This change in the focus of protest was not the result of any strategy by the leadership of the UDF or of a change in policy. It seems ultimately to have been forced on the leadership from below.

Indeed, by mid-1985 it was becoming clear that the UDF leadership was unable to exert effective control over developments despite its popularity. In Lodge’s words: “The momentum for action came from the bottom levels of the organisation and from its youngest members. It was children who built the roadblocks, children who led the crowds to the administrative buildings, children who delegated spokespersons and children who in 1984 told the older folk that things would be different, that people would not run away as they had in 1960.”

According to Swilling, local organisations “exploited the contradiction between the state’s attempts to improve urban living conditions and the fiscal bankruptcy and political illegitimacy of local government. They managed to ride a wave of anger and protest that transformed political relations in the communities so rapidly that the UDF’s local, regional and national leaders found themselves unable to build organisational structures to keep pace with these levels of mobilisation and politicisation.”

He also stresses that mass actions mobilised unprecedented numbers of people. These succeeded in mobilising “all sectors of the township population including both youth and older residents; they involved coordinated action between trade unions and political organisations; they were called in support of demands that challenged the coercive urban and education policies of the apartheid state; and they gave rise to ungovernable areas as state authority collapsed in many townships in the wake of the resignation of mayors and councillors who had been ‘elected’ onto the new Black Local Authorities”.

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The third phase of UDF activity was inaugurated by the declaration of the first state of emergency in 1985 (and lasted until 1986) as the apartheid state attempted to control this mass upsurge and reassert control over “ungovernable areas”. Interestingly, both popular rebellion and political organisation grew during this period, which saw the setting up of “street committees” in particular. These took over the functions of local government, especially in ungovernable areas. One local activist in the Port Elizabeth area stated: “We said [to our people]: In the streets where you live you must decide what issues affect your lives and bring up issues you want your organisation to take up. We are not in a position to remove debris, remove buckets, clean the streets and so on. But the organisation must deal with these matters through street committees.”

The ANC view as expressed by its spokesman, Tom Sebina, was that street committees “grow out of the need of the people to defend themselves against state repression … and in response to ANC calls to make the country ungovernable and apartheid unworkable [so as to forge them into] contingents that will be part of the process towards a total people’s war”. Contrary to this view, which saw street committees as tactical adjuncts to the development of a militaristic process and as simply “oppositional” to the apartheid state, local activists spelled out a different assessment: “The people in Lusaka can say what they like … we know that the purpose is to enable people to take their lives in hand. Local government has collapsed. The state’s version of local government was corrupt and inefficient in any case, but local government is necessary for people to channel their grievances. The street committees fill the vacuum. They give people an avenue to express views and come up with solutions.”

In many townships, rudimentary services began to be provided by civics and youth congresses, while crime also began to be regulated through “people’s courts”. These originally developed in some areas to regulate dispute between neighbours (as in Atteridgeville in Pretoria) and also as attempts to control the proliferation of brutal Kangaroo courts (for example in Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth). In Alexandra, outside Johannesburg, five members of the Alexandra Action Committee were nominated in February 1986 to sit in judgement over cases of assault and theft, while street committees were empowered to settle quarrels. In Mamelodi, one of Pretoria’s townships, a number of “informal” systems of justice operated in the 1970s and 1980s and there were long-term struggles over the setting up of popularly accountable courts, which were also highly influenced by traditional African custom (for example the importance of elders, etc). Lodge concludes that “of all the manifestations of people’s power … the efforts of local groups to administer civil and criminal justice were the most challenging to the state’s moral authority. More than any other feature of the insurrectionary movement, people’s justice testified to the movement’s ideological complexity and to the extent to which it was shaped from below by popular culture.”

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In addition to popular control of townships and popular justice, there was a complementary development of institutions geared towards the provision of “people’s education”. These included, in particular, attempts to bring local schools under community control through the establishment of parent-teacher-student associations (PTSAs) and even attempts to develop a new curriculum in response to “Bantu Education”, the central plank of the apartheid state in this sphere. The struggle for people’s education was seen as intimately linked to establishing “people’s power”.

In the words of Zwelakhe Sisulu: “The struggle for people’s education is no longer a struggle of the students alone. It has become a struggle of the whole community with the involvement of all sections of the community. This is not something which has happened in the school sphere alone; it reflects a new level of development in the struggle as a whole … The struggle for people’s education can only finally be won when we have won the struggle for people’s power … We are no longer demanding the same education as whites, since this is education for domination. People’s education means education at the service of the people as a whole, education that liberates, education that puts the people in command of their lives. We are not prepared to accept any “alternative” to Bantu Education which is imposed on the people from above. This includes American or other imperialist alternatives designed to safeguard their selfish interests in the country … To be acceptable, every initiative must come from the people themselves, must be accountable to the people and must advance the broad mass of students, not just a select few.”

Or again: “I want to emphasise here that these advances were only possible because of the development of democratic organs, or committees, of people’s power. Our people set up bodies which were controlled by, and accountable to, the masses of the people in each area. In such areas, the distinction between the people and their organisations disappeared. All the people young and old participated in committees from street level upwards.”

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However, at the same time as street committees were taking up local “grassroots” issues, they also functioned as vehicles for the direct challenge to apartheid state power by the people. A detailed assessment from 1986 made this point forcefully.

“The street/area committees – the structures of an embryonic People’s Power – are not only restricted to playing this kind of [local – MN] role, but also have a far more directly or narrowly political dimension to them. At the same time as they are taking up the grassroots issues described above, they also form the units in and through which major political issues and strategies (for example the consumer boycott) are discussed and organised. Thus the street committee system is beginning to form not only the avenue through which people can begin to take greater and more democratic control of the immediate conditions of their existence, but they are also emerging as the form through which direct political action against the state and the ruling bloc can be decided on and implemented.”

Not surprisingly under such conditions, the apartheid state did not hesitate to intensify its repression. The fourth phase of the UDF lasted between 1986 and 1988 and was characterised by the massive repression of the second state of emergency, which now covered the whole country. In the first six months of the emergency, around 25 000 people were arrested and isolated, the ability of the press (especially the vibrant “alternative press”) to report objectively was systematically curtailed and the townships were placed under direct military rule while the state introduced a militarised bureaucracy (the National Security Management System) to run local government and to “win hearts and minds” (known as Wham) following the classic counter-insurgency pattern which the Americans had perfected in Vietnam. In brief, this state offensive succeeded in undermining popular organisations considerably, and probably eliminating popular leadership altogether. This was not because the UDF ceased its activities; on the contrary, rent, bus and consumer boycotts continued unabated at least until 1987. Rather, it was the popular aspect of the struggle which was fatally wounded as it depended for its democratic operation on consultative processes, relative freedom of movement, etc, and there was no army under popular control capable of defending popular gains and structures against military onslaught.

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By 1986, a contradiction had emerged between those who wished to retain the broad front structure of the UDF with diverse affiliated organisations, and those who argued for a move to a more centralised party structure; in practice it seems that the latter position was becoming dominant. From late 1986 onwards, UDF campaigns more and more were initiated “from above”, by the “national leadership” operating exclusively at the territorial level. At the same time, more and more coercive measures were being applied to township residents to adhere to various boycotts (a fact which shows the weakening of popular control), “the struggle” was acquiring more of a militaristic character, and vigilante activities acquired increasing support from businessmen affected by youth-directed boycotts.

As a result, when resistance resurfaced in the final phase of the UDF, from 1988 to 1990, it became characterised by completely different practices from earlier periods. While the movement (now in alliance with Cosatu calling itself the Mass Democratic Movement and closely linked to the mainstream churches) was able to organise mass campaigns (for example the “defiance campaigns” of 1989) against segregated facilities such as hospitals, these became more and more reminiscent of the American Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. These campaigns were now all organised on a territorial plane so that “in contrast to the mid-1980s, when the insurrectionary movement was being pulled onto uncharted courses by cadres of youth in the streets of the townships, the popular protest in the late 1980s was choreographed and coordinated and seemed much more under the command of its leaders”.

Under such circumstances, it would be relatively easy for leaders to disband the UDF in the wake of the unbanning of the ANC, as it was felt that the latter could now take over the organisation of popular political protest.

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