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Resistance to Apartheid, Deepening Crises

Asian voters, black townships, underground resistance movement, black violence, interracial marriages

A major confrontation between protesters and South African police occurred in the black township of Soweto, near Johannesburg, on June 16, 1976. Thousands of black high school students demonstrated against a government ruling that required certain high school subjects to be taught in Afrikaans, which was seen as the language of oppression. At least 575 people were killed, and rioting and confrontations between police and students spread throughout the country. This led to a new phase in the liberation process in which black youth became deeply involved. Many left the country to join the liberation movements while others continued to work with the underground resistance movement.

By the 1980s the psychological, financial, and human costs of maintaining order were increasing as the cycle of repression, black violence, and white counterviolence accelerated. In May 1983, in an effort at limited reforms, Prime Minister P. W. Botha introduced a constitutional amendment that created a tricameral parliament with three racially separate chambers: one for whites, one for Asians, and one for Coloureds. The amendment was approved the same year by a referendum open to white voters only. Elections to the Coloured and Asian legislative bodies were held in August 1984. But 77 percent of the eligible Coloured voters and 80 percent of the Asian voters boycotted the elections because the new plan continued to exclude blacks.

The structure of the new tricameral parliament gave the appearance of power-sharing, but white control of the presidency and the predetermined numerical superiority of the white chamber ensured that real power would remain in white hands. Most important, the new arrangement continued to exclude South Africa’s black majority, who were not allowed to vote or stand as candidates for election. Reaction to the constitutional amendment was the exact opposite of what the white government intended. Beginning in September 1984 there were violent confrontations throughout the country and the government declared successive states of emergency.

A crisis of unprecedented magnitude and duration was precipitated by the constitutional changes and other grievances such as chronic black unemployment, inadequate housing, rent increases, inferior black schools, and an ever-increasing crime rate, especially in the black townships. The government’s plan to restore law and order through a policy of modest reform with continuing repression failed. Between 1984 and 1986 prohibitions against interracial marriages and racially mixed political parties were repealed and rights to conduct business and own property in designated urban areas were extended to blacks. At the same time, over 2,000 blacks were killed and as many as 24,000 arrested and detained in confrontations with security forces. The government’s limited reforms were rejected by blacks, who wanted apartheid abolished, as well as by conservative whites who felt that the reforms had already gone too far.

International financial institutions began to regard South Africa as unsafe for investment. This, combined with increasing demands for international sanctions, led more than 200 U.S. companies to pull out of South Africa during the 1980s. The rand was devalued, and foreign investment virtually dried up. White South African emigration increased dramatically. Throughout 1987 and 1988, President P. W. Botha approved some limited changes while rejecting others. Although he refused to hold talks with the ANC, a group of white South African business leaders, academics, and politicians saw the need to begin such a dialogue and met with exiled leaders of the ANC in Senegal. Some whites recognized that the country’s deteriorating economy and increasing international isolation could not be reversed without far-reaching changes.



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