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Classroom Warriors

South Africa

new internationalist
issue 159 - May 1986

Classroom warriors
Whether chanting revolutionary rhymes in the playground
or battling with armoured cars in the street, schoolchildren
have put apartheid on the defensive. Maud Motanyane
sketches the background to the students' rebellion.

Cartoon: Len Sak IN a dusty Soweto street, children are skipping rope. Happily the toddlers sing along, caught in the liberation mania which has spread to all corners of black South Africa. They sing about their heroes and their enemies. Through the lyrics of their rhymes the boys and girls summon each other to the battlefield - Wake up! why are you asleep? the struggle needs you.

In another corner of South Africa, youngsters are out in their thousands to bury a fallen comrade. To the sounds of stomping feet and war-like chants of viva Mandela. viva Oliver Tambo, viva ANC, the children dance themselves into a frenzy. Their songs are in praise of the jailed and exiled leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) and 'Umkonto we sizwe', its military wing.

While it may be true that most high-school pupils are better on popular rhetoric than on political theory, their language is most certainly socialist. And their organisations, such as the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) and the Azanian Student Movement, are quite overtly socialist.

And schoolchildren have become ever more politicised as cat-and-mouse games between Government troops and the youngsters have become a daily occurrence. Throwing stones, dodging bullets and choking on tearsmoke: more violence from the police has meant more violence from the school pupils and every confrontation has had its casualties. Every death, detention or injury has radicalised the children even more.

So hardened have the children become that some of the methods they have used to deal with those they regard as Government agents have been ruthless and unacceptable even to the older generation. Policemen, leaders who work within the system and those members of the community suspected to be Government spies have had their homes burnt to the ground. Some have even been 'executed': embraced by a burning tyre, or 'necklace'.

The youth argue that their own violence should not be taken out of context. Violence breeds violence, they say, and theirs is only a reaction to the viciousness of the system in which they operate.

Schoolchildren have taken a front-line position in the liberation struggle ever since 1976. Then, in the first political explosion since the banning of the ANC and the jailing of Nelson Mandela in the early 1960s, Soweto pupils came out in their hundreds to demonstrate against the inferior education given to blacks. The State reacted violently and more than 600 died in the riots that followed.

The Soweto uprising was a significant explosion which changed the entire emphasis of black resistance. But 1985 saw a much more sustained political campaign as black teenagers countrywide boycotted their schools in protest at the Bantu Education system.

Although the Government has promised an equal education system for all, there has really been no improvement in the quality of black education. The per capita expenditure on black education is still one seventh of that for white pupils. Thousands of potentially capable black youngsters are being scrapheaped because of their inferior education.

Although black scholars have definite educational grievances, their struggle has moved deeper and deeper into the political spectrum. Schoolchildren don't see their problems as isolated from those of their communities.

When it was banned in September last year COSAS had embarked on a clearly political programme, which included demands for the withdrawal of troops and police from black townships, release of the political detainees and the freezing of house rents.

The call is therefore not just for a better education system for blacks but for a 'people's education which will be good for all sections of the broader South African community'. Among their aspirations are to see the elimination of capitalist norms of competition in schools as well as the establishment of a non-racial education system.

Meanwhile the students go on fighting. The chant liberation first, education later which rang out through the second half of last year was probably too optimistic, and parents, political organisations and the majority of students decided in January to end the boycott, at least temporarily, and return to school.

But passions still run high. Schoolchildren are never again likely to submit docilely to oppression and racism. And their playground skipping rhymes may also never be the same again.

Maud Motanyane is a reporter for The Star, South Africa's biggest daily newspaper. She lives in the black township of Katlehong.

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[image, unknown] Julia Molokwane (15) is at Thomas Mofolo Secondary School in Soweto. Her mother is a domestic servant and only comes home occasionally. So Julia lives with her father and she has the responsibility of running the house. She has to clean the house, shop for the groceries and cook and do the family washing.

'I wish all these troubles would come to an end. We would all like to go to school and carry on with our lives in a normal way.

'But how do we go to school when the army is there arresting us and accusing us of being trouble makers? If there is a meeting to discuss student grievances like corporal punishment and crowded classrooms and lack of proper facilities they say we are investigators and take us to jail.

'Now that we are not in school a lot of things are going wrong. Young children are going to shebeens and becoming drunkards. It is because of boredom. There is nothing else to do except housework and going to church.

'Most young people do not believe in the church because it does not address itself to the problems of the people. They tell us fairy tales. If this is a Christian country why o they send the army to kill babies?'


[image, unknown] Clement Musuhli is 22 and former chairperson if the banned COSAS Naledi branch. Though no longer attached to any school, he still takes part in student activities. Clement is the youngest of three children. He lives in Soweto with his father and stepmother. His father is a labourer in an abattoir in Johannesburg. He would like to be a social worker but says that might not be possible for a while.

'I left school two years ago while I was in final matric. I didn't see any reason to be in a classroom when many of my brothers and sisters were in Jails and others were getting shot every day.

'I realised that the problems of the students were not isolated from those of our parents and the black community as a whole. It dawned on me that our fight against inferior education was also related to the workers' struggle against exploitation.

'The more I read and studied the more I found out that the problem with our society is not only racism but also the present economic system which thrives on a small number of people getting richer and richer at the expense of the majority.

'So the students' struggle against racism and capitalism. South Africa belongs to all who live in it and all should be equal before the law.'


[image, unknown] Paul Matona (18) is a student at Naledi School in Soweto. He is the youngest of eight children and lives with his widowed mother and two sisters. To support the family Paul's mother sells liquor. It is an illegal practice but despite the risks involved there are many families in South Africa whose only source on income is booze.

'I don't have any position in COSAS but I fully support what it stands for. I think there is something wrong with our education. That is why blacks always have a high rate of failures.

'The Government spends more money on whites than it spends on us. We don't have proper facilities in our schools. Our parents have to pay expensive school fees yet you often find three student sharing one text book. We have to buy expensive school uniforms which our parents cannot afford.

'I believe that if education for all races fell under one department we would not have all these problems.'


[image, unknown] Lehiohonolo Mokoena is a 19-year-old student at Thomas Mofolo Secondary School. He comes from a family of five and his parents and brothers are factory workers. He has not made up his mind what job he would like to do when he leaves school, but he wants a well-paid one.

'There is no way we can avoid violence. The police and the army who are in the townships are violent. You can get arrested for just walking in the street. You can get shot too.

'The Government makes us pay high rents and general sales tax so that they can buy arms for the army to kill us. What are we supposed to do? Just stand there and look? Even when we are at school we are not safe. The army comes in and wipes us and bundles us into vans.

'There will be no end to violence in the townships until the army is removed. Only when this violent Government is removed will violence end.'

Interviews conducted by Ruth Bhengu, who works for Drum and True Love magazines in Johannesburg.

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Neville Alexander once spent ten years in prison on Robben Island for revolutionary activity - and somehow you can't help but be a little in awe of that, no matter how engaging he is. His clear political analysis is gaining increasing respect as the liberation movement becomes more committed to socialism.

Born in Cradock in 1936, he qualified as a teacher then studied for his doctorate in West Germany. His prison term lasted from 1964 to 1974, and he remembers it as a time of intense political study - he and other black radicals, including Nelson Mandela, would come together weekly to discuss what they had learned and to debate everything from the nature of African socialism to whether beauty contests were exploitative.

On his release he was kept under house arrest for five years But since 1980 he has been Cape Town Director of the South African Committee for Higher Education, an organisation supported by Western aid agencies which offers black people chances of further education that they are denied by the State. He is currently a committee-member of the National Forum, much the smaller of the two radical alliances confronting the Government.

' REVOLUTION Is not simply an uprising - revolution means overthrowing the State, neutralizing the army, taking over the civil service and so on. And the imbalance of forces that we have today makes it quite obvious that there cannot be a revolution in this country for many years. There may be all kinds of uprisings, but until we are able to neutralize the army and the police force it's simply romantic to speak about a revolution. ldeoIogically we have won the revolution already but in a physical sense we need a number of years.

One of the great unknowns that might change things is international conflict. The development of Zimbabwe in particular could change the whole political ecology of Southern Africa. Zimbabwe's Foreign Minister has put forward the idea of an African army being raised to confront South Africa. Meanwhile the superpowers are both involved In Angola. And any internationalisation of the conflict could shorten the timetable because the moment South African troops are engaged and neutralized by foreign troops the working class will be in a position to take power. In other words, in the classical sense of Marx, war could serve as the midwife of revolution.

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On the possibility of military dictatorship

INTEREST groups in the capitalist world obviously wish to safeguard their investments in South Africa. And they will clearly weigh up carefully what kind of government is best suited to protecting those interests.

At the moment the West and business are stuck with Botha and they've got to try to persuade him in various ways, carrot and stick, to increase the pace of reform. Because they know that unless that is done there's going to he a revolutionary uprising which could 'destabilise' the whole of Southern Africa. But Botha can only go as fast as his electorate will allow him to go.

Should that pace become too slow to save capitalism, in South Africa, then there Is only one alternative - to neutralize Parliament and hand over power to the army. The military would then endeavour to repress the Left, to repress all forms of popular power. But it would also be able to dismantle apartheid without worrying about white voters - to usher through the structural reforms necessary for the salvation of capitalism. I don't think anybody relishes the idea, but it's a route they may have to follow.

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On the kind of socialism being built in South Africa

Nobody here has a blueprint, and I think that's one of the most exciting and exhilarating sides of the South African struggle as far as I'm concerned. As I see it, the vast majority of socialists are not adhering to any blueprint. There's no dogmatic idea of what South Africa should look like. Leaving aside those people in the Communist Party who would agree to some form of Soviet model - and they're a very small minority of activists In South Africa today - I think people are still sorting out what they mean by socialism. And there's a whole network of community organisations springing up, propelled by democratic practices and beliefs that will help determine what our socialism will look like.

One of the things I would like to do next time I go to prison is to take my time to trace the process by which the liberation movement has switched from what was essentially a liberal capitalist discourse to what has become a democratic socialist discourse.

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On why a black government would not be enough

PEOPLE'S expectations have been raised to a point where a black capitalist government wouldn't be able to satisfy them, even if that government had all the right rhetoric.

If you look at education, for example, seven times what is spent on a black child is spent on a white child. Now to equalise just that by taxing companies would be impossible - capitalism wouldn't countenance it. And even if you have Mandela, say, as head of state, people are not going to come with sweet reasonable talk and be satisfied with four times instead of seven times more being spent on white children. Instead they'll say 'What do you think you're doing, spending more on white children?'

So even to satisfy basic aspirations like decent housing and equal education there's going to have to be a socialist framework because capitalism won't be able to deliver. In fact it's one of the great ironies of history that at the very moment when white people in South Africa are beginning to understand that they have got to concede equality to blacks, black people are realising that they can only enjoy that equality within another framework, that equality within a capitalist framework is no longer possible.

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