State of Emergency: Year of the big stick

Anniversaries invite stock-taking, and none more so than the first anniversary of the national State of Emergency imposed by President PW Botha on June 12 last year. The State of Emergency, the first on a nation-wide scale since the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, has clearly fulfilled its immediate objective: containing the intensifying rebellion in the black townships. “But it has certainly not led to the achievement of the next major goal of the government’s counter-revolution: negotiation of a political settlement with genuine and credible black leaders or, alternatively, depriving them of their mass support.

The political cliché popularised by the Botha government is that the solution to South Africa’s problem of satisfying the rising expectations of the black majority is 20 percent military and 80 percent political. The State of Emergency has proved that the army and the police can effectively counter revolutionary violence, as they did in 1976-77 and as they have done so far on the Namibian border. But the ruling politicians have yet to show that the Emergency has enhanced their ability to deliver a lasting political solution. Indeed, by detaining and alienating literally thousands of black community leaders, it may have made their task more difficult.

The success of the Emergency in slowing and, in places, halting revolutionary violence, though not, of course, state violence – is manifest in official figures. There has been an 80 percent decrease in violent acts of rebellion since June 12, according to Deputy Law and Order Minister Roelf Meyer. These figures may not reflect counter-revolutionary violence by vigilantes and the security forces. But they cannot be dismissed as mere manipulation of facts, behind a screen of press restrictions, by the Bureau for Information and the Police Division of Public Relations.

There are independent pointers to the success of the counter-revolution. Townships which were strongholds of the “comrades” in late 1985 and early 1986 are to day largely under the control of pro-government forces. To cite three examples: Alexandra, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, is now ruled by a white administrator and earmarked for upgrading by a counter-revolutionary Joint Management Centre; in KwaNobuhle, in the Eastern Cape, vigilantes have gained the upper hand and at Crossroads, near Cape Town, Johnson Ngxobongwana rules supreme after the witdoek vigilantes routed anti-apartheid activists allegedly with police help.

Josette Cole’s conclusion on Crossroads in her important new book Crossroads, The Politics of Reform and Repression, 1976-66 applies in broad terms to many townships. “By the end of 1986, the political terrain of the Cape Peninsula had been radically restructured by a state determined to maintain control over the majority of its black population,” she  says. Crossroads complex, a focal point of squatter resistance to the state, no longer exists … Old Crossroads, formerly a crucible of resistance, became an apple in the eye of the South Africa state.” 

As John Kane-Berman, director of the Institute of Race Relations, observed in an interview, 1986 – declared to be the Year of Umkhonto weSizwe by the outlawed African National Congress – did not lead to “people’s power”. Far from it. It was the year in which the state struck back, buttressing the power of “responsible” black councillors with hastily recruited black police auxiliaries: the waned police and the kitskonstabels, who largely replaced the vigilantes of 1985 or, as some charge, became the uniformed vigilantes of 1986. The same general point is illustrated in KwaNdebele.

There a popular rebellion against independence has been crushed through the application of Emergency powers by a new police chief and the deployment of kitskonstabels, many of them reportedly former members of the dreaded Mbokotho vigilantes. Protected by Emergency powers and the guns of the KwaNdebele police, a pro-independence regime has emerged under Chief Minister Majozi Mahlangu. He has dismissed last year’s popular revolt as the work of “a few criminal elements”, forge ting that it culminated in a decision by the Legislative Assembly over which he now presides, minus anti-independence leaders – last August to abandon the quest for independence.

The success of the State of Emergency seemingly reinforces, as a diplomat remarked in an interview, all Botha’s presuppositions in declaring the Emergency. These were, the diplomat said, Botha’s explicit and implicit beliefs that the township revolt could be crushed by the application of greater force, that popular opposition forces could be seriously disrupted by detaining their leaders, and that the rebellion was fanned by press coverage and could, therefore be contained by press restrictions.

But while the State of Emergency can be interpreted didactically as proof of these assumptions, the situation is more complex. Without denying its effectiveness in containing and re-pressing rebellion, them are signs that the Emergency may have failed in some respects. It has forced the United Democratic Front to become a de facto underground organisation, but it has not destroyed it. Less than a fortnight ago the UDF was able to hold a national conference attended by representatives of nine regions. It was a manifestation of a spirit-of defiance and a will to resist what the UDF termed the “apartheid regime’s  total onslauglat”. It may not seem much when compared with the massed strength of the state.

But historically resistance has always been sustained and nourished in small ways during what those who survive call the “dark hours”. The UDF is no exception. A small example was manifest during Botha’s recent visit to Sharpeville. A message on the walls of a building not far from the route taken by Botha during his fleeting visit pro-claimed: “Long Eve Vacyo. The struggle continues.” Vacyo is the local branch of the South African Youth Congress, Sayco, the latest UDF affiliate, which was formed clandestinely during the State of Emergency. By forcing the UDF to operate subterraneously the government has, in some respects, compounded rather than overcome its difficulties.

As political scientist Tom Lodge observed in an interview: “In dealing with one problem, they have created another.” The suppression of extra-parliamentary opposition from the UDF and, in smaller measure, the Azanian People’s Organisation, has increased pressures on the trade unions to take up political issues. Under the exigencies of the State of Emergency, the Congress of South African Trade Unions has abandoned any pretence of merely concerning itself with shop-floor issues. It openly proclaims that it is part of the liberation movement and enjoys cordial relations with both the UDF and the ANC. 

Lodge predicted that a Bill before parliament at present will bring the trade unions even more directly into the political frontline. Under the Bill, black town councils can obtain a court order to force employers to make deductions on their behalf from the wages of workers who are in arrears on rent. The move is a calculated bid to break a civil disobedience campaign which has persisted throughout the State of Emergency: the refusal of blacks to pay rent and service charges in the townships.

But, Lodge warned, the move would merely catapult trade unions into conflict with employers who, whether they like it or not would be acting as surrogates of state authority. Apart from ensuring that major trade unions take up cudgels on political issues – detention without trial is an obvious one – the State of Emergency has blurred the distinction between the outlawed ANC and the still theoretically lawful UDF. By forcing the UDF to function as a semi-clandestine political movement the State of Emergency has pushed it closer to the ANC.

The line between the two ideologically similar but nevertheless distinct movements is now porous. Throughout the State of Emergency the ANC has sustained its “armed struggle”, mounting a record number of 228 strikes last year. By the end of May, its tally for 1987 was about 70, including the devastating car bomb attack outside the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on May 20, which claimed the lives of four young police constables. Far from providing a shield for peaceful negotiations, the Emergency may have ensured that the struggle for a non-racial South Africa takes a more violent course.  

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail newspaper

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