At the time when the Black Lives Matter campaign is spreading across the world, it is more important than ever for South Africans and the world to remember and commemorate the heroism of the young people of Soweto in 1976.
The Soweto events and BLM were a response to exactly the same crimes committed against black people and the working class – racism, inequality and police brutality.
The 1976 Soweto uprising was sparked by school students’ rejection of the National Party-led apartheid government’s imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at black schools. At least 200 protesting pupils were killed and scores injured when police opened fire on them. Protests spread around the country and became a decisive moment in the struggle against apartheid.
It was not just a revolt against an evil racist government and the violence of the apartheid police and army but also against the capitalist ruling class which funded and presided over apartheid. A rich white minority elite created a society which denied the majority African population all basic human rights, stole their land, tore family members apart and forced the workers to toil in the mines, farms and industry, risking their lives in dangerous and unhealthy conditions in return for starvation wages.
The youth of 1976 saw that they had no future is such a prison in which they would always be condemned to poverty, hunger and repression, with not even the right to vote for change. Direct action on the streets was the only weapon left to them and they boldly rose to the challenge.
Today, despite apartheid having been formally abolished in 1994, and the election of ANC governments, the young people of South Africa face no less serious challenges. Youth unemployment was the highest in the world even before the effects of the Coronavirus and the lockdown. Inequality was also the world’s highest and is even greater than in 1976 under apartheid. The worldwide economic catastrophe which is now unfolding will make these problems far worse.
Millions of young people are still denied decent educational opportunities in a racially based two-tier system, which provides high-quality education for the rich minority but underfunded and under-staffed slum schools for the black majority.
Millions live in poor communities riddled with violent crime, drunkenness, drug addiction and gang warfare, into which demoralised young people are sucked, and frequently killed.
And young women suffer most of all, with the additional problems of discrimination in wages and job opportunities, sexual harassment, domestic violence and the succession of despicable rapes and murders of women and girls.
As in 1976, the youth once again can see no future for themselves in such a society, in which they have achieved limited political rights but are denied all basic economic rights – to jobs, living wages and equal opportunity – by a new form of economic apartheid.
The country is now run solely in the interests of an unelected imperialist capitalist class of still mainly white billionaires, many based overseas in the countries which previously controlled most of Africa and Asia by direct colonial rule but which continue, in alliance with their collaborators in the ANC government, to rule as indirect colonialists through their control of the levers of economic power.
That is why the link between Soweto Day and the BLM campaign is so important. It has the potential to bring together the world’s victims of slavery, colonialism and economic imperialism together in a common fight for liberation.
The black protesters in the USA are the sons and daughters of Africa. Their ancestors were condemned to slavery, and in thousands of cases their deaths, by the same European colonial powers who went on conquer most of Africa, loot our resources and enslave the people almost as ruthlessly as the slaves they transported across the Atlantic.
One welcome feature of the BLM campaign has been the recognition by many people of Europe of the role their own capitalists played in the slave trade and colonialism. Statues of slave traders, previously hailed as patriotic philanthropists, have been toppled or taken away to museums.
SAFTU praises the Oxford University students who are again demanding the removal from their college of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the very worst British colonialist looter in Southern Africa, whose racist policies of land expropriation, forced labour and the denial of any human rights for the African people laid the foundations for the apartheid regime.
The slave trade led seamlessly to the colonial conquest of Africa and other parts of the world, which in turn laid the basis for today’s white monopoly capitalism.
Racism is abhorrent both in the way it is used by the ruling class to exploit and oppress the most vulnerable sections of society on the basis of their colour or country of origin, but also in the way they use it to divide and disarm the working class and the poor majority of the world’s people.
Many political leaders, including those in the USA, Brazil, India, Hungary and the Philippines, are targeting ethnic or immigrant minorities, or people in other countries as scapegoats for their own failed policies and are trying to whip up xenophobic attacks against these people.
BLM is a clear, welcome and necessary response to this divisive racist propaganda. Now the task we face is ensure that, unlike the Arab Spring, the Yellow Jackets in France and mass movements for change in South America, it is moulded into a well-organised, ongoing international campaign to unite the workers and poor of the world together to fight against racism and the capitalist system which started it and perpetuates it.
This is the lesson for the world we can learn from the heroic youth of Sowetan in 1976.