The bus boycott that forced an apartheid U-turn

Arthur Magerman can still vividly remember the summer’s morning half a century ago when he joined thousands of fellow township residents on the long walk to work in a protest seen as the first major salvo in the battle against South Africa’s apartheid regime.

“I woke up early because I wanted to see to it that our plans against the enemy succeeded,” says 74-year-old Magerman as he recalls the start of the Alexandra bus boycott.

“I walked to number three stadium and found my comrades already there, hundreds of them and all along Louis Botha Avenue [leading to Johannesburg’s business centre] there were long queues of people walking. By that time, I knew it was on and there was no turning back.”

For the next three months, about 70 000 Alex residents trooped back and forth into downtown Johannesburg every day—a 20km round trip—as they refused to boost government coffers by paying for increased bus fares.

A series of events has been organised for this weekend to remember the civil action—including a march on the same route from Alex to the city centre.

With the slogan Azikhwelwa (Zulu for “We shall not ride”), the bus boycott marked the first concerted campaign by the majority black population against the white Nationalist government that took power in 1948.

Simon Noge, one of the organisers, said it was first time anger felt by residents of the township had boiled over.

“We were not scared of our oppressors. We felt we needed to stick to our guns.
We were still young and fired up by the feeling of resentment.

“We were determined to stick together and for three months we walked in groups, singing and assisting our mothers. It was that type of spirit of resolve that we wanted to win what we had started.”

The lead from Alex was soon followed by residents of Soweto, which lies just south-west of Johannesburg, and other black townships across the country.

As the protests showed no signs of wilting, the government eventually scrapped its proposal for a one-penny increase on the four-penny fares.

The price hikes had been greeted with dismay by workers, who were already struggling to feed their families on less than a pound a day.

If the initial purpose of the boycott was to thwart the fare increases, it soon took on a broader purpose.

“It became a national feeling against white oppression,” says Magerman, who was a student at Johannesburg’s Wits University at the time.

“People like [African National Congress leader Oliver] Tambo and [ANC deputy leader Nelson] Mandela sent us messages of encouragement. It was more than just buses. It became more political, a feeling that we need to be liberated.”

Up until then, the ANC campaign against apartheid had been largely limited to one-day civil disobedience protests but the drawn-out bus boycott was much harder for the Nationalists to ignore—not least because it hit the government in the pocket.

Noge, who was a teacher, said many protesters paid a painful price and some lost their jobs.

“Police were desperate to discourage us, threatening people, stopping and searching them, detaining them for a half-day or a day. Bicycles we used were punctured, donkey carts damaged.

“We had whites who were sympathising with us who gave us lifts, but they were also harassed.

“It was bad, but despite that we were willing to die on the road until our demands were met.”

Magerman recalls the celebrations when the government capitulated.

“There were celebrations after we won against the enemy, cows were slaughtered. It was a huge victory.

“This was to be an example to most areas around the country that you can protest and defy the Nationalist government and succeed.”

Veterans of the bus boycott believe it was the inspiration for later anti-apartheid protests such as the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Magerman said he would take part in the commemorative march this weekend.

“I am going to enjoy it. I may not finish it but at least I’m going to be there,” he said.—AFP