South Africa has seen it all before -- demonstrating crowds, bus stonings, the sabotage of rail lines. But now these forms of resistance are taking place simultaneously, and at a time when black feelings are running high over economic and political issues. That suggests increasing coordination and sophistication on the part of black resistance movements here.
Black nationalists -- most likely members of the banned African National Congress (ANC) -- planted 10 explosive charges along the main rail line linking Johannesburg with the segregated black dormitory city of Soweto on Oct. 15. Only two of the bombs exploded, and the damage was quickly repaired.
Nevertheless, some 150,000 black workers were delayed going to work. And the blasts set off a chain reaction of events that led to confrontation in Soweto, a sprawling city of 1.5 million black people.
The timing of the blasts assured that they took on greater significance than the relatively slight amount of damage they caused. For they came just as community resistance in Soweto was stiffening over two controversial developments: the levying of higher rents on township residents and the ceremonial visit of a white government minister.
Dr. Pieter Koorhof, the government minister of cooperation and development, had been invited to the township to receive the "Freedom of Soweto" -- an award analogous to a key to the city. The organization that invited him -- a government-sponsored body of blacks called the Soweto Council -- has also been pushing for higher rents in the township.
The rent issue had been simmering in the township for several months. Dr. Koornhof's visit presented itself as an ideal time to protest, and various organizations called for a work stay-away and peaceful demonstrations.
If the ANC was responsible for the bomb blasts, it may have been an effort to show its support for the cause with its own unique contribution. In the past, the ANC generally has performed acts of sabotage of random times. The destruction of the Soweto rail line, timed as it was to coincide with the call to stay away from work, may have been an attempt to link the organization's efforts more closely to the workaday concerns of black South Africans.
Whatever the saboteurs' motivation, they set into motion a series of events that led to violent confrontation with the South African police. Some workers, unable to get to work on trains, frantically sought to climb aboard already overcrowded buses. Some buses were stoned, apparently both by angry commuters and youths seeking to enforce the work stay-away. That brought out the South African police, who repeatedly broke up massed crowds with tear gas and baton charges.
After the bus stonings, the situation in parts of Soweto deteriorated rapidly. Several vehicles were set on fire, and police repeatedly broke up demonstrations -- including a group of about 2,000 on hand to jeer Dr. Koornhof's arrival. At this writing, riot police were still deployed in the township.
The unrest also coincides with an important anniversary in Soweto -- Oct. 19. On that date three years ago, a nationwide police swoop resulted in the detention of 47 black leaders, the banning of 18 political organizations, and the shutting down of three publications, including the country's largest-circulation black newspaper.