S. African blacks feel trapped, sense no progress in '70s, '80s

Martha graduated from high school in 1976 - a year when many young blacks took to the streets of Soweto in a massive violent demonstration against the white government of South Africa.

Much has changed since then for this young, easygoing black woman. She is raising a small child, has held several jobs, and is planning for a university education.

But for Martha, the things that really matter have not changed at all. Spread across the dining table of her Soweto home is a Sunday newspaper filled with articles about the present government's ''reforms'' and plans for ''power sharing.''

Asked about those government initiatives, Martha drops her carefree manner. ''As far as I can see, things just keep going from bad to worse,'' she says.

Blacks in Soweto - particularly those like Martha who were educated in the traumatic '70s - appear to be in a mood of deepening despair. Contributing to this are growing economic hardships, a feeling that state repression is increasing, and what many blacks see as new government efforts to squelch their political aspirations.

These blacks see their political ambitions crushed under the white government's proposed ''power sharing'' system, which would give Indians and Coloreds (people of mixed race) a role in the mainstream government, but not blacks.

The expressed frustrations of many blacks that in fact there is no significant change in South Africa is all the more noticeable when contrasted to the growing feeling among many whites that racial reform is under way.

Recent by-elections won by the National Party on Prime Minister P.W. Botha's ''reformist'' plank were read by the liberal Rand Daily Mail to mean: ''The issue for many is no longer whether to change, but simply how, to what degree, and at what pace.''

However, the Sowetan newspaper virtually ignored the elections. ''They were not relevant to black readers,'' editor Joe Latakgomo explained.

Blacks' frustrations seem to be heightened in some ways by the Botha reform plans.

''At least if Dr. (Andries) Treurnicht were the leader, things would come to a head,'' says a young activist from Soweto, referring to the right-wing white politician who split from the National Party earlier this year because of its so-called reformist policies.

''Presently under Botha we feel like we are dying in installments,'' this young Sowetan says. For him, Botha's reforms have not addressed any of the fundamental grievances of blacks. Rather, they are adaptations to prolong white domination.

Mahlomola, a former member of the Soweto students' representative council that was involved in the 1976-77 disturbances and was eventually outlawed by the government, says the government's power-sharing proposals clearly threaten to worsen relations between blacks and other ''nonwhites.''

''We are looking suspiciously at Indians and Coloreds,'' Mahlomola says. Any acceptance on their part of the government proposal will, he says, ''just cement what 'black consciousness' has always said: 'Black man, you are on your own.' ''

Black consciousness, a political philosophy of black pride and self-sufficiency, was on the ascent in the period of the Soweto revolt. ''There was a real feeling of unity'' among blacks involved in the Soweto disturbances, says a young black who was involved.

But today black consciousness and other political movements are fragmented and appear lacking in strong leadership. Blacks say this is due to heavy police repression.

The voices of many black consciousness leaders have been silenced through imprisonment or banning orders. Steven Biko, perhaps the best-known of the movement's leaders, died during police interrogation in 1977, reportedly of a blow to the head.

But more recently, growing differences of opinion among black activists have muffled the early strong voice of their movement. Blacks are divided over what best serves the long-term goal of gaining political power.

The ins and outs of their disagreements are not aired publicly, however. And the resulting vacuum on the political scene makes the activities of the outlawed African National Congress all the more noticeable. Most experts now feel the ANC has the broadest sympathy of all groups in the black townships, even though it advocates sabotage.

The fragmentation of internal black politics makes the mood of Soweto today noticeably different from the attitudes of 1976, says Dr. David Webster, a social anthropologist.

Blacks had an ascending feeling of ''militancy, self-confidence, and strength'' in '76, says to Dr. Webster. Today, blacks in Soweto lack ''real organization.'' They feel ''more desperate'' than anything else, he says.

One common factor in 1976 and now is the depressed state of the economy. Some experts estimate Soweto's unemployment probably is in the range of 35 percent and growing.

As the South African economy plunges deeper into recession, living conditions in Soweto worsen. Poor, job-hungry blacks from the ''homelands'' drift to the cities and join relatives in already overcrowded townships.

Martha living conditions are slightly better than the norm in Soweto. She shares a four-room house with six others. All sleep in one room. The house is typical in having no electricity (just now being installed in Soweto) and no toilet.

Martha lost her job in a department store a few months ago. The sole breadwinner in her home is her mother, who sells popcorn on a nearby corner to schoolchildren. With Martha's unemployment insurance the total household income is about $176 per month.

''It's a matter of sleeping without eating'' on some nights, Martha says.

But in South Africa's apartheid system, economics are very much intertwined with politics. With unemployment rising, the government is stepping up its influx control efforts, aimed at keeping ''illegal'' unemployed blacks out of townships like Soweto.

''The kind of reforms the government talks about mean very little,'' says a young black woman who works with a church group that opposes forced government removals. ''What (blacks) are more aware of are things like the pass laws, and they are getting tougher.''

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