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SOUTH AFRICA: After Soweto, Anger and Unease

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Shock waves from the worst racial violence in South Africa’s history (TIME, June 28) reverberated through that tense country last week. While heavily armed police stood guard around the smoldering ruins of Soweto—a satellite township for nearly 1 million blacks on the outskirts of Johannesburg—sporadic rioting broke out in neighboring ghettos and in black suburbs near Pretoria. In both cities, whites rushed to buy arms and ammunition for protection against the so-called swart gevaar (black peril) —although at no time were any white communities threatened.

Unlike the bloody riots in Soweto, which were touched off by compulsory teaching in the Afrikaans language in schools, last week’s violence was provoked largely by harsh police tactics, including firing pointblank into crowds. Soweto itself was largely quiet, although trains, taxis and buses taking black workers to and from Johannesburg were occasionally stoned. To avoid further trouble, schools in the township were shut down until July 20.

Private Scores. The week-long rioting had taken a fearful toll: at least 176 dead (all but two of them black) and 1,139 injured. Another 1,298 blacks were arrested, and property damage was estimated at $40 million. Police sought to blame many of the casualties on black tsotsis (hooligans), who undoubtedly did seize on the disorders to settle some private scores, but most observers considered the police claims highly exaggerated. Said one white eyewitness who was in Soweto last week: “It was obvious that the police weren’t there to practice crowd control but to kill.”

Black reporters allowed into Soweto last week (whites were still barred) said that people were shocked and sullen, aghast at the death toll and destruction of most of their social facilities and schools. “They may not challenge white authority openly again for some time,” said a black businessman, “but they will never forget what has happened. Their anger is now deep and permanent. Unless the whites change their policy, there is bound to be another explosion—and another and another.”

White officials took the line that the disorders were primarily fomented by agitators seeking to embarrass Prime Minister John Vorster on the eve of his talks with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in West Germany. That the riots damaged Vorster’s cultivated image as the statesman of segregation seemed clear enough. Nonetheless, Vorster remains the only key to solving the growing racial conflict in neighboring Rhodesia. Thus Kissinger went ahead with the meeting—as he put it earlier—”to see whether South Africa would be willing to contribute to a moderate and peaceful evolution of events in southern Africa.”

South Africa’s main leverage over Ian Smith’s white-minority regime in Salisbury is economic; Rhodesia gets virtually all of its arms and ammunition and most of its imports via South African rail lines. Just how far Kissinger went in urging Vorster to place economic sanctions against the Smith regime was not clear. Kissinger declined to speculate on the outcome of the talks, but expressed optimism that “the process is in motion” for a peaceful transition to majority rule in Rhodesia. He also discussed the possibility of resettling white Rhodesians in Western Europe and South Africa, perhaps with American aid. For his part, Vorster sought to prevent the isolation of South Africa and win acceptance for its policies. In particular, Pretoria would like an end to the U.S. arms embargo and the granting of Export-Import Bank loans.

Vorster’s response to the Soweto massacre was not a very promising omen for peace in the area. The way to prevent more such violence in the future, he declared, was not to make concessions to blacks on the teaching of Afrikaans but to take even tougher law-and-order measures. Before leaving for West Germany, he appointed Petrus Malan Cillie, a white Transvaal judge, to launch a judicial inquiry into the riots. Both white and black newspapers found the action insensitive and called for a multiracial commission. Asked the Johannesburg Star in an editorial: “Is it possible for a white investigator, no matter how distinguished, to see the grievances and subsequent disturbances in the same perspectives as they were seen through black eyes?”

Berserk Rule. Despite the official hard line, there were expectations that the Afrikaans requirement would be modified or dropped. “You don’t know what stupid subterfuges we have had to use to enable our children to learn something,” said one Soweto council member. “We have met the Afrikaans requirement by using it to teach such subjects as gardening, where the important thing is to show students what to do, not tell them. In other subjects, the teachers instruct first in Zulu, then spout Afrikaans while the students copy down what they’ve heard in Zulu. The rule is Afrikaner nationalism gone berserk.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of distraught Sowetonians last week began the grim task of identifying and claiming the bodies of their loved ones. “Her body had many bullet holes,” sobbed one black mother after identifying her 18-year-old daughter. One family, searching for their ten-year-old son, waited in the Johannesburg morgue from 6 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, only to be told to come back the next day, when more bodies would be brought in. Headmasters at Soweto schools asked for permission to hold a mass funeral for the dead Soweto schoolchildren on July 3. Even that simple request seemed likely to be turned down by white authorities. Their grounds: it might prove inflammatory.

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