Soweto, South Africa — The young black priest held up a dogeared "pass book" issued to black people here, and called it a "badge of slavery." The crowd of more than 2,000 black people at Regina Mundi Cathedral, in this sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, roared back their agreement with cries of "Amandla" (Power).
The event was significant, since the cry of the Rev. Buti Thlagale came as part of "Heroes' Day" services held to commemorate the death of 67 persons and the wounding of 186 others at Sharpeville, South Africa, 20 years ago. Those blacks were assembled to protest the mandatory carrying of passes by South African blacks.
Two decades later, blacks still carry pass books that allow the government to keep track of virtually every aspect of their lives, from where they are allowed to live to the jobs they are allowed to hold.
But black activists have labeled the 1980s as the "decade of freedom" -- when black people here finally cast off the yoke of white domination.
One key reason behind that belief is the triumph of black nationalist Robert Mugabe in last month's elections in Rhodesia -- a country that also was once ruled exclusively by whites. Many blacks here conclude it is simply a matter of time before South Africa, too, yields to the inexorable pressure for black self-determination.
As Bishop Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, told the assembly at Regina Mundi on March 23: "We know that liberation is just around the corner."
But how long it will take to round that corner -- and how violent the passage may be -- remains an open question.
Some blacks and whites have joined in a campaign to persuade the South African government to release black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela from imprisonment on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town. Mr. Mandela, leader of the military wing of the banned African National Congress (ANC), is under life sentence for attempting the overthrow of the government here.
The campaign to release him is largely a symbolic gesture, since few here think the government will be swayed by the effort. Nevertheless, thousands of people, both black and white, are signing petitions requesting the Mandela release.
Some black leaders, such as Post newspaper editor Percy Qoboza, argue that only Mr. Mandela has the credibility with blacks to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the white South African government. The alternative, according to many black activists, is escalating violence.
Indeed, South Africa has been hit by a number of guerrilla attacks lately, both in isolated rural areas and in the capital city of Pretoria. But the South African government of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha seems bent on showing its ability to control black dissent.
The weekend of "Heroes' Day" also coincided with the burial of Lillian Ngoyi, another ANC activist who coordinated women's resistance campaigns during the 1950s and 1960s. And police responded with a massive show of force, deploying more than 1,000 extra officers to blanket Johannesburg and its suburbs.
In addition, the government has been hauling in various black activists for questioning.Bishop Tutu, among others, was recently denied a passport -- a move that effectively ends his frequent overseas speaking tours in which he criticizes the South African government.
The government is moving to cool black anger in other ways, however. It is planning, for example, to electrify Soweto, a city of an estimated 1.5 million people that is largely without municipal services.
But the Rev. Mr. Thlagale says such efforts "to create a middle class" are simply attempts to "buy time." And he, like others, says time is running out.
Dr. Nthato Motlana, chairman of the influential Soweto Committee of Ten, concluded the Regina Mundi gathering with a grim warning. Recalling the bloody seven-year struggle before white-ruled Rhodesia began the transition to black-ruled Zimbabwe, he said, "I don't have to remind you that in Zimbabwe it took seven years of hardship, heartbreak, death, and suffering. We are hoping it won't take seven years here. We hope those [in power] here will learn the lessons of Zimbabwe."