The 1976 Soweto Uprising – from Black Consciousness to Socialism

On the 40th Anniversary of the Soweto Uprising we are republishing, with a new introduction, an article that first appeared in the Inqaba Ya Basebenzi journal of the Marxist Workers Tendency (a forerunner of WASP) on the 10th anniversary, in 1986, analysing the events of those twenty months of rebellion and the ideas of Black Consciousness. We are also re-publishing an earlier introduction that appeared in a 2006 special edition of Izwi Labasebenzi.


All three articles were written by Weizmann Hamilton.


Introduction – June 2016

Ten years have elapsed since this pamphlet was republished with a new introduction marking the 30th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. Since then the fundamental lines of analysis in that introduction (and in the pamphlet itself) have been confirmed by events. In the intervening decade, at the same time, there have been significant changes in the political landscape, with the emergence of new political formations, and a qualitative change in relations between the ruling ANC government and the masses.

As the political capital as a national liberation movement diminishes, the erosion of the ANC’s political authority, and with it the loyalty of the black working class majority, has reduced the ANC in effect to a minority government, commanding the support of only 35% of the eligible voting population. Just twelve months after the 2006 introduction to this pamphlet was written, the ANC was rocked by the biggest convulsion since its formation in 1912. One of its most respected leaders, from the ANC’s political royalty, Thabo Mbeki, was removed unceremoniously from office, and humiliatingly, not allowed even to serve out the last six months of his remaining term of office.

Zuma’s accession was hailed as the beginning of the ANC’s rebirth, a return to its roots as a movement ‘biased to the working class’ that would shift the focus of the second decade of liberation from the rich to the poor. Instead, the Zuma-led ANC government merely continued where Mbeki had left of, leading SA to the top of the league table of world inequality. The fastest growth in inequality between the classes was already occurring now within the black population, superimposed upon the racial inequalities inherited from apartheid.

But under Zuma the ANC’s claim as a unifying force not only of the party but of the country lies in ruins. The ANC’s divisions are now deeper than they were prior to Polokwane. The coalition that brought him to power is at war with itself as Zuma has fashioned for himself a new factional base – the Premier League. SA is now also the protest capital of the world, with more protests per head of population than any other country.

We argued in the last introduction that the ANC’s claim that it was the party of all the people committed to serving them all equally was utopian; that on the basis of capitalism it would be compelled to serve the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor; the capitalists at the expense of the working class. This was brutally confirmed not just in dry socio-economic statistics, but in the blood of the martyrs of Marikana, slaughtered in a premeditated atrocity carried out by a black majority government against “its own people” and, for that reason, worse than the Sharpeville massacre.

The Marikana massacre was, as we pointed out before, a political earthquake that has created a political fault line dividing SA’s post apartheid epoch into two different eras. With the massacre having confirmed the class character of the ANC as a party of the capitalist class, the era of the evaporation of illusions in it had begun. It was succeeded by the beginning of the process of the working class reclaiming their class and political independence; a recognition that whilst they may have the right to vote, without a party representing their class interests, they were politically disenfranchised.

The developments outlined above explain Cosatu’s expulsion of Numsa, the political paralysis, impotence and beginning of the disintegration of Cosatu, the discrediting of the Tripartite Alliance, and most importantly the establishment of the Workers and Socialist Party and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Political organisations serve as vehicles for political programmes and ideologies that reflect the interest of the social forces and classes they represent in society. The ANC’s political decline expresses itself in the decline of its ideological hegemony. The search for a way out of the impasse in which society is caught is therefore bound to be fought out on both the political and ideological plane.

The post-Marikana period has witnessed the resurgence of the ideas of Black Consciousness, Pan Africanism, as well as a renewed interest in the ideas of Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe. In fact, particularly in the aftermath of the October 2015 student uprising that inflicted the biggest defeat on the ANC government since it came to power, these ideas have become dominant. In the EFF’s political rhetoric and ideological position, there appears, on the surface, an ideological continuity with Black Consciousness.  Can these ideas take the struggle of the students and of the working class as a whole forward?

WASP has begun to address these questions in other publications: (i) Race and Class (ii) Robert Sobukwe. More will follow. In this introduction we can do no more than begin to identify the key issues in the debates now raging.

In his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (an analysis of revolution and counter-revolution in France after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1848) Marx makes the following observation:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The traditions of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such period of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language. …In like manner a beginner who has learnt a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue; but he has assimilated the new language and can freely express himself in it only when he finds his way in it without recalling the old and forgets his native tongue in the use of the new.”

A similar process can be said to be at play in the modern incarnation of Black Consciousness and Pan Africanism. The battle cry of the adherents of Black Consciousness in particular is “decolonisation”; the enemy: white supremacy.

Black consciousness played a progressive role when it was seized upon by the generation whose crowning achievement was the Soweto Uprising. It produced a crack in the foundations of white minority rule which led to its fall fourteen years later. Its primary role was to instil a sense of self confidence in the black youth and through them, the black working class as a whole, and their power collectively to resist and defeat the white minority regime. The determination and heroism of the youth of that generation did not spring from a clear blue sky. It arose out of the molecular processes that had been taking place in the consciousness of the black working class. The growing realisation of their power as a class in the workplace derived from the economic growth of the 60s and 70s which increased the size and strength of the working class as the capitalist class, as the capitalist class confirmed what Marx had pointed out: that they create their own grave diggers.

As we point out in this pamphlet, the recognition by the youth of the necessity to ally with the black working class created the conditions for an ideological cross pollination between workers and youth. The struggle of the youth brought them to the realisation that the problem of national oppression required the overthrow of the apartheid regime. This was achievable only on the basis of the unity of the black majority, workers and youth alike.

The black working class, however, experienced their subjugation both as national oppression and class exploitation, both as blacks and as workers. In struggling for decent wages and conditions they came into collision not just with the bosses but with the apartheid regime. Their emancipation therefore posed the question not just of the end of white minority rule but of capitalism itself.

The Black Consciousness Movement was driven by a social force, the students, for whom class exploitation was outside their experience. For the adherents of the Black Consciousness Movement   to arrive at these same conclusions, they needed to become part of the black working class as the overwhelming majority of them did. The adherents of the Black Consciousness Movement – driven overwhelming by black working class youth — that “graduated” into the working class broke through the limitations of the ideology of their political birth, expanding the horizons of their ideological aspirations to encompass not just the end of white minority rule but of the capitalist social and economic order. This is the reason that Black Consciousness, and its ideological predecessor, failed to find support within the black working class, remaining as a minority current to the present.

Pre-revolutionary Russia was in Lenin’s words, a “prison house of nations” in which the majority of nationalities were subjugated by the Great Russians. But as Trotsky explained the nationalism of the oppressed is the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism.

By this he meant that the oppressed nations could achieve their liberation only by overthrowing capitalism with which it was inextricably bound up. Unless this was understood nationalism is unable to proceed from the awakening of a sense of oppression, and to reveal to the working class of the oppressed nation both what they had in common with the middle class and aspirant capitalists in the oppressed nation and what separated them. Unless the struggle for national liberation is led by the working class of the oppressed nation on the basis of their own distinct class interests, it becomes an ideological cover for the concealment of those class distinctions and a vehicle for the subordination of the class aspirations of the working class oppressed to those of the middle class.

The experience of the past twenty years has not just exposed the myth of the common class interests of the black working class and the black capitalist, it has shone, in Marikana, a bloody light on their irreconcilability under capitalism.

The paradox of the ideological contestation between the apparently opposing ideologies of the ANC’s “non-racialism” and that of Pan Africanism and Black Consciousness, is that both have served to subordinate the interests of the black working class majority to the capitalist aspirations of the black middle class. This has been buttressed by the SACP’s bankrupt “two stage theory” of democracy first and socialism later; the workers must wait. It was the role of the SACP, especially in Cosatu, to hold the workers back to obstruct their path to ideological clarity and socialism that was the predominant feature of their consciousness in the mid -1980s, to divert and corrupt the worker leaders and to ensure the survival of capitalism.

To the extent that the current dispensation has perpetuated white privilege, it has done so with the active connivance not of a secretive invisible white supremacist minority that somehow remains in power despite the defeat of the apartheid regime, but of the capitalist government elected by the black majority. But that privilege is that of white capitalist class; the white working class is increasingly being impoverished. What survives in SA is not white supremacy but a capitalist dictatorship propped up by a government ruling in the interests of the black capitalist class and their white capitalist masters behind them.

To fail to recognise the class basis of the post-apartheid political and social order leads to confusing the appearance of things for their substance. An ideology that fails to do so, blinds the oppressed to the tasks and the social forces that must and alone can lead the struggle for complete emancipation and becomes a tool in the hands of the ruling elite to perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of the majority. The black working class’s vision of emancipation is not a society in which there are more black millionaires and more white maids, but one in which there is none of either.

The student movement that reached its peak with the 1976 Uprising left a rich legacy. Today’s generation can pay tribute to them, not by an undigested regurgitation of the ideas of Black Consciousness, but by building on them – distilling from them their Bolshevik, socialist essence, and building a programme that will complete what that heroic generation started, by proceeding from the unresolved problems of national oppression to the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. It is to this that WASP and its youth wing, the Socialist Youth Movement is dedicated.


Continue to 2006 Introduction.