‘Street’ Groups Spur Fight to End Apartheid
Deep in South Africa’s black ghettos, new political organizations are being formed to intensify the struggle against apartheid to the point where virtually every man, woman and child there is involved in the growing confrontation with the minority white government.
Known simply as “street committees,” the grass-roots groups are intent on transforming the violent protests of the last year and a half into coordinated, mass-action campaigns that will first force the government out of the black townships and later become the base for overthrowing apartheid entirely.
“We are already taking over, and that’s no boast but fact,” said Siphiwe, the president of Fifth Avenue Street Committee in Uitenhage’s Langa township who uses an alias for security reasons. “We have made ourselves ungovernable by the apartheid regime, and now we are starting to implement people’s power.
“In Langa and Kwanobuhle (another Uitenhage township), the community council has been brought down, the police have been forced to leave and the informers have been isolated, driven out or in some cases killed. Political power is shifting to the hands of the people’s own organizations, and we can begin to think about forming our own people’s government.”
Langa’s dozens of street committees are united by a structure of 20 area committees, each administering about 10 street committees. Above them, there is an overall coordinating committee, which in turn works under the regional branch of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid groups.
Their real allegiance, however, is clearly to the outlawed African National Congress, whose underground cells provide much of the leadership and organizational strength of the street committee system.
“The street committees are the people’s creation, but the plan came from the ANC,” a member of one of the Uitenhage area committees said, asking not to be quoted by name. “Our initial task is to politicize the whole community and to build a strong, issue-oriented, action-oriented organization that will become the main vehicle of the struggle and later the basis for a people’s government.”
The thousands of street committees around the country are increasingly manning the front line of black politics, supplanting the youths who led the anti-apartheid protests of the last year.
According to their leaders, the committees are attempting to channel the community’s anger into coordinated mass-action programs, ranging from consumer boycotts to short general strikes, from revamping of school curriculums to establishment of “people’s courts.” Through this process, they say, they hope to build what they believe will become a national organization within a year.
“For the past year, we have been educating those who did not know what the struggle means, what it requires from each of us,” Siphiwe said. “We have also worked to unite the people and get them to put aside those minor differences, even differences in political outlook, that the (government) uses to divide us.”
Explaining his reasons for attempting to ban two Port Elizabeth leaders from all political activities last month, Louis le Grange, the minister of law and order, told local white businessmen that, because of the street committees, the government had lost Uitenhage to the African National Congress, was in danger of losing the black townships around Port Elizabeth and was determined to cede nothing more.
The street committee system began in Uitenhage and nearby Port Elizabeth almost a year ago and has spread throughout eastern Cape province, to many of the ghettos around Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria and, most recently, to some remote rural areas where elected village councils are replacing government-appointed tribal authorities.
“The street and area committees are to become the basis of ‘people’s power,’ ” said Mark Swilling, a political scientist at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, who has studied their development over the last year. “Many are already rudimentary forms of ‘people’s power,’ replacing the community council system that has collapsed. In this, they prefigure the intended seizure of power . . . . This potentially is one of the most significant developments we have yet seen here in black politics.”
Zwelakhe Sisulu, son of the imprisoned African National Congress leader Walter Sisulu and United Democratic Front co-president Albertina Sisulu, told a national conference in Durban last month that making the country ungovernable, the initial step in current black strategy, had to be followed by “people’s power” and the establishment of more “semi-liberated zones,” as many of the eastern Cape townships are now considered.
“In a situation of ungovernability, the government doesn’t have control, but neither do the people,” Sisulu said. “While they have broken the shackles of direct government rule, the people haven’t yet managed to control and direct the situation. There is a power vacuum. In a situation of people’s power, the people are starting to exercise control.”
The committees’ organizational structures and functions vary considerably from place to place. Most committees here and elsewhere in the eastern Cape are political bodies to “mobilize the masses,” but others around Johannesburg and Pretoria also operate as civic associations concerned with housing, trash collection and similar problems.
Many Have Problems
Many are still beset with organization difficulties, personal and political rivalries and police infiltration. Some, while maintaining their legal status, clearly constitute the above-ground arm of the African National Congress, but most describe themselves as affiliates of the United Democratic Front or simply as local organizations.
“Street committees are a top priority here, too, but careful preparations must be made to ensure they succeed,” Albertina Sisulu said in a recent interview in Soweto. “We want to strengthen unity, not divide the community, and we do not want to confuse people’s power with coercion, which is undemocratic. . . . Yet, we must get on with this. Our crime is too high, many of the youths are undisciplined, some of our efforts lack a focus and community support.”
The majority of the street committees, including those here in Langa and Kwanobuhle, had as their initial task curbing the increased crime after routine police patrols were all but abandoned and black policemen were forced to move out of the township because of their neighbors’ hostility. When residents complained of the rising crime rate, police told them, “Go tell the comrades,” as the militant youths call themselves.
“This was a popular demand, and a political priority because these tsotsis (gang members) were close to hijacking the struggle for their own criminal ends,” a member of the coordinating committee here said. “We still have a crime problem, but it is under control now.”
Matthew Sathegke, a United Democratic Front official in Pretoria’s black townships, recalled how “between 20 and 30 people were murdered in our area each weekend. Now, thanks to the comrades in the street committees and their Operation Clean-Up, these killings have been more or less ended.”
The street committees drew heavily on plans drafted by Nelson R. Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, first to streamline the organization and make it more manageable after mass protests in the early 1950s and then to take it underground after it was outlawed in 1960.
Most of the street committee organizations here have a clandestine leadership--some are actually cells of the African National Congress--in order to avoid police harassment and detention under South Africa’s severe security laws. Siphiwe, president of Langa’s Fifth Avenue Street Committee, was elected under that name, which he assumed as a nom de guerre, explaining that “we still have informers at almost every general meeting we hold.”
Generally in their early 30s, the committee leaders are regarded as “middle-aged” in black political terms--out of school long enough to understand the harshness of apartheid, experienced enough to make considered judgments when life-and-death issues are involved. They are also young enough to have the energy required for “the struggle” or “the revolution,” as many have recently begun to call their fight against South Africa’s system of racial separation and minority white rule.
Unlike those who have been thrust into high visibility leadership posts in the United Democratic Front, its affiliates or black labor unions over the last two years, most of the street committee organizers emphasize their desire to remain at the grass-roots level.
In political terms, this appears to have been designed by the African National Congress to put those in public leadership positions under considerable pressure to “listen to the masses,” as one area committee member put it. “The masses now have their own organization that they themselves control, and it is not easy to manipulate it against their wishes,” he continued. “If a consumer boycott is called, for example, it will not come to an end unless the people get what they wish, whatever might have been agreed on their behalf. We want political honesty.”
But the strong loyalty of the grass-roots leaders to the African National Congress as an organization that they are sure will not sell them out, and their willingness to put themselves under its discipline, will give it unrivaled strength in the black community as the street committees grow.
Youths, mostly high school students but others who have left school and not yet found jobs, provide the strength and energy that the street committees require to organize the whole community. At the same time, they are placed under older and more mature political leadership.
When Gugile Nkwinti, chairman of the federation of black civic groups in the small eastern Cape town of Port Alfred, saw that the women’s, students’, workers’ and pensioners’ groups there could not manage the settlement of 6,500, he recruited the youths to organize street committees to ensure that the whole community was involved in the local campaign to improve the township and to establish one integrated municipality with Port Alfred. And he then ensured that the area committees overseeing them were led by older residents.
“The youth are our vanguard,” Nkwinti, 36, a law student and former psychiatric nurse, explained. “They are the ones who have awakened all of us to what must be done, but the struggle is not theirs alone.”
The most controversial element of the street committee system has been the “people’s courts” established in many communities to try residents on both criminal and political charges. Their decisions at the beginning were often harsh--"If you took a life, you forfeited your life,” one Kwanobuhle leader remarked--and the quality of justice was questionable. Some people laid false charges to settle personal grievances.
Most of the trials are before 20 to 30 residents and are presided over by the street committee president or other local leader. The criminal charges range from petty theft and robbery to rape and murder, and the punishments may be 10 or 20 lashes with a whip or death in the case of murder. The most frequent political charges are those of informing against other community residents, and the penalty has come to be execution by being doused with gasoline and set afire with a burning tire around the neck.
“People are angry, and when they are angry they do not always think so clearly or they go too far,” says a middle-age schoolteacher who sits on an appeals court of “elders” several evenings a week in Kagiso, a black township outside Krugersdorp, northwest of Johannesburg. “We hear the cases again and weigh the evidence a little more carefully. Usually, we confirm the community’s judgment but reduce the sentences.”
In an effort to ensure fairness in these courts, several “codes of conduct” have been drafted recently stressing the need for due process, the right of defense and the right of appeal.
The latest project of the black community organizations, including the street committees, is development of a “people’s education” system. At its Durban conference at the end of last month, the National Education Crisis Committee called on local communities to begin the progressive takeover of the school system, improving its facilities, hiring and paying more teachers, adapting the curriculum and eventually assuming administration.
In their continuing campaign against local black governments established by Pretoria, the street committees are also planning to upset the elections of new community councils by working for a total voter boycott. To deprive the local administrations of funds, they are organizing rent strikes; at the same time, black youths have been burning down the government-owned liquor stores and beer halls whose profits provide considerable township revenues.
“For years we have been saying we want to control our own lives and to do this through our own democratic organs, but we really got nowhere,” Siphiwe said, reflecting on the establishment and growth of the street committees. “We needed a breakthrough, and that is what we have made by destroying the structures the apartheid regime imposed upon us to continue our oppression and by developing what we call people’s power.”