S. Africa Boycotts: Last Peaceful Resort?

Charlene Smith is a free - lance journalist based in Johannesburg

Mkhuseli Jack leaped to center stage in an energetic liberation dance as 4,000 mourners at the funeral of three people killed by police raised their voices in a freedom song. A boy of about 13, dressed in khaki trimmed with the African National Congress colors of black, gold and green, handed him a carved wooden replica of an AK-47 rifle, which Jack pretended to fire--to roars of approval.

But Jack, 28, the charismatic leader of the Port Elizabeth Youth Congress and the Port Elizabeth consumer-boycott committee, does not believe that the solution to South Africa's woes will be found through the barrel of a gun. He considers the buying power of his people a more powerful weapon. Jack believes that consumer boycotts are the last nonviolent way to eventually force whites to the negotiating table at the national level, and he has called for the eastern Cape black consumer boycott to resume today.

Ironically, it is apartheid laws that have made the boycott by black consumers of white shops such a powerful weapon. The Group Areas Act until recently forced white shop owners to remain in white areas and black storekeepers to stay in the townships.

Because blacks do not have the economic resources to build large stores, white central business districts have relied heavily on black patronage. Port Elizabeth's downtown, like Johannesburg's, derives more than 80% of its income from black shoppers. A sustained black consumer boycott can be devastating.

The eastern Cape's consumer boycott last year, which paved the way for others around the country, lasted four months. Port Elizabeth business leaders persuaded the government in December to release detained leaders such as Jack, and then negotiated a moratorium on the boycott. However, an April 1 deadline was set for certain demands to be fulfilled, but only one--the lifting of the state of emergency--has been met.

The other demands still stand: the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the unbanning of various organizations, the scrapping of race-related security regulations, the safe return of all political exiles and the start of serious negotiations for a non-racist South Africa.

The government responded to these demands by banning Jack and a colleague, Henry Fazzie, 56, of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front. No reasons were given. The banning restricted Jack to his home on weekends and to Port Elizabeth's downtown, where he works during the week as a building-supply salesman.

The white business community unsuccessfully petitioned the government to lift the bans. However, in a historic decision the Port Elizabeth Supreme Court on March 22 upheld Jack's petition to have the ban lifted on the ground that the government had failed to give a reason for it. That decision led to similar successful court actions by other banned people.

Tony Gilson, director of the Port Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, believes that even if the government reimposes Jack's ban it will not have the apparently desired effect--that of removing the snake's head. The community is so organized that banning or detaining its leaders has little effect, Gilson said. "There are regional committees, area committees, street committees, even house committees. The disadvantaged people here have learned to flex their economic muscle, and will do so even more in the future by withholding their labor or through selective boycotts."

Gilson believes that Jack is a moderate, and he is concerned that the state's restriction on him will make way for a more radical leadership that will be unwilling to negotiate or compromise.

Others in the white community see Jack in a less sympathetic light. During the boycott last year some whites talked of cutting off food supplies to the township, of mass dismissals or even of forming vigilante groups to "go and shoot troublemakers." None of that happened, but a number of black community leaders did mysteriously "disappear" or were killed.

Mayor Ben Olivier believes that blacks in Port Elizabeth are essentially happy: "They're always singing, but their families are too big and many are unemployed." He sees Jack as an agitator.

Port Elizabeth, the fifth-largest South African city, has 70% black unemployment. The vehicle-manufacturing industry is the biggest employer, and it recently reported that it is employing 49% fewer people this year than last.

Jack became politically active after having pass problems 12 years ago. He was told that he could not legally live in Port Elizabeth and that he would have to live and work as a farm laborer on the white farm where he was born about 50 miles away. He defied that order, and has symbolized defiance ever since. Jack has a vital role in the community now as a political organizer, but if he is banned or detained, he says, "Other leaders will take my place just as effectively."

He may be right, but for the moment his star is high in South African resistance politics--and set to rise higher or be shot down--as he leads consumer-boycott committees around the country in an effort to force the white business community to its knees and, ultimately, the stubborn South African government to the negotiating table.

How does this community regard him? After his speech at the Zwide Church hall on the afternoon his banning order was lifted, about 600 people hoisted this diminutive seventh son of a farm laborer to their shoulders and marched up and down the road cheering, "We love you, Jack!"

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