Thirty years ago… Way down south…

Exactly thirty years ago today, a large gathering of students took place in the South Western Townships of Johannesburg: then and still now, one of the most miserable place you could ever set a sight on. On that day, a few thousands black students were protesting yet another humiliating law passed by the pro-apartheid government, when armed policemen started firing real bullets at the crowd.

The resulting mayhem and deaths of many children had for indirect consequence to force the world into reconsidering its fairly lenient take on the Afrikaners’ quasi-aryan policies. The international community slowly but surely issued official condemnations and accompanying trade cutbacks. Although it should be noted that, until 1986, any UN attempt at imposing worldwide economic sanctions against South Africa was promptly vetoed by both US and UK.

Indeed, neither Maggie nor Ronnie ever deemed it necessary to have any lower an opinion of their South African (white) friends over such trifling details. I’ll let you guess which of the two, in 1987, labeled the ANC a “terrorist organization” and equalled the chances of it ever gaining power to “living in cloud cuckoo land”… though I must say the flowery language is kinda giving it away.

Worry not yourself, you may have done your part to help teenage-shooting, citizen-torturing, white-supremacist pro-Apartheid government of South Africa survive through most of the 20th century: all you had to do was getting engaged more than a dozen years ago.

Eventually, beside internal Black resistance and increasingly disadvantaging demographics, the fall of the apartheid system would seem to hang more on South Africa’s loss of credit on the financial market and ensuing economic turmoils, than any concerted efforts from so-called civilized nations to put significant pressure on its leaders. As it was, these countries were in no rush to lose their privileged trade relations with the ever courteous and oh-so-exquisitely well-mannered good old fair-skinned boys leading South Africa at the time. You know, the same countries who will jump on the first occasion to bomb moustachioed dictators back to the stone-age, out of their deeper concern for the well-being of the people and the advancement of freedom and democracy throughout the world.

Happy Soweto Riots Day.


  1. How far we havent come….

    Australia has ONLY JUST (ie in the last 2-3 years) lifted its originally offical, and then later unofficial ban on black immigrants, accepting a very visible number of refugees from Africa nations. Our fucked up world indeed…

  2. History clouds the reality of most situations, to plainly see the situation as “black and white” (no pun intended)is a serious mistake. There is evil on both sides and the motives of politicians no matter which side they represent are never pure. To assume that the situation in South Africa is now idyllic is far from realistic though the horror of war and insurgency has at least set the groundwork for some possible freedom in the distant future. It is fortunate that a great man such as Nelson Mandella was there to smooth the transition.

  3. Can’t we just blame the British for what happens in Johannesburg? I mean, they’re the ones who tried to colonize every part of Africa, right?

  4. Well written blog post. Very thought provoking.

    Shawn: That doesn’t quite work. I think if you look at the big picture, you may be able to “blame” parts of that situation on the British, however the US’s further support (or lack of opposition) for the things that came are far from ideal.

  5. Yeah, well we all play some small part in the function of the world but at some point you hand the reins to somebody and say “Your destiny is in your hands”. As unacceptable as the old system in South Africa might have been, most of the white people were no more to blame for it than the black people. Yes indeed, the ability to sit back and criticise is kind of a luxury from some enlightened country but its like saying, “well if I were in your shoes I would have done …” As to the subject of how things are now, The transition was to sudden, it is something that people were unprepared for, look at what happened in Russia, same thing. Everyone pushing for change should have “in their great wisdom and enlightenment” realized that after the fall comes the vaccume. But as I say, we cannot really shoulder all of the blame, in some ways our intentions were good (the intentions of the average person). Though maybe we should all realize that just because we think we understand the situation we havent walked in their shoes. I guess some of what I think might sound a little contradictory but the world is a confusing place and its hard to sort out our own backgrounds when we make these kinds of judgements. Mick

  6. Hmn, before we go any further: much of this has also been discussed to exhaustion on this blog, here and here principally… And frankly, unless you have some fairly breakthrough stuff to bring to the debate, I don’t think I’m really up for reopening it.

    Now. and to contradict myself immediately, let me argue with some of the above comments:

    If someone has no idealistic view of Africa and [black] Africans, trust me, that’d be me. I have witnessed a sufficient sample of the fucked-upness of it all to last me a few lifetimes. I don’t think you’ll ever hear me wax lyrical about the Eternal Continent of the Ancient Wisdom of the Ageless Golden Traditions of the Respect for Mother Earth and You Love that Rug I Bought It For Twenty Shillings On My Last Trip to Kenya…

    Africa’s fucked up today, and a lot of it has to do with black Africans chopping to bits their black brethren when they get a chance. There’s little discussing that.

    NOW, that shouldn’t mean by any way, that you cannot hang the responsibility on whitie for the most of it. Sure, perhaps Africans would still be killing each other or starving, even without what happened over the past few centuries… The fact of the matter remains, the reasons they are doing it now are all intimately related to the meddling of Westerners into the business of Africa. Then and still now.

    In the case of South Africa, and it may be why I bothered to single out this one piece of commemorative news out of the literally hundreds that probably deserve attention every day, there isn’t even the start of a debate: whites were oppressing blacks. They weren’t doing it morally, culturally or unofficially: they had laws. Laws that officially proclaimed you weren’t quite a full-ranking human, let alone citizen, if your color didn’t fall on the right side of the color charts helpfully provided by the authorities. Not just the law, but the unbelievable level of meticulousness going into their elaboration and application should just be enough to justify of the unambiguous labelling of the people condoning such a thing as “BAD”. mmkay?

    Shawn: Thanks for commenting, but I fear you may need a slight brush up on your knowledge of African histories. I suggest you start here (hint: they lose at the end). As an ironic aside, the British may not have managed to claim full paternity for one of the most evil government of the 20th century, but they still did inaugurate with a concept that was to gain much popularity in subsequent history: The concentration camp. So no, the Brits are to blame for a lot in the state of Africa (as are the French, the Belgian and about every other Western nation), but not so much about South Africa. I believe the people you might be thinking of is “Dutch”. Which would be historically more accurate, but still irrelevant. As I don’t quite care to know what country the Afrikaners’ grandparents were born in, or what language they spoke, but rather that they condoned in block an unambiguous and institutionalized form of racism.

    Mick: If there’s ever such a thing as a “black/white” situation, I do believe this is it. Yes, “the whites” were a tad more to blame for the system than “the blacks” were. And I’m not sure you’re quite aware of what you are writing when suggesting things could have been “taken more slowly”… Are you suggesting we may have started by perhaps allowing Coloured people within one mile of non-Coloured areas without threat of being shot on sight and gradually move toward where they would eventually be granted full-on citizenship again, by the end of the 22nd century?

    We aren’t talking about a shift in political systems or a mere repartition of riches, we are talking about the conception of what makes a human and what rights they have. Something a bit more easy to agree on, hopefully.

    I am not trying to play “What I would have done if…” either. First, because I don’t particularly believe in carrying over guilts and responsibilities from one generation to the next endlessly. Second, because lots of people did do something and that’s what mattered in the end.

    However, whatever little I may recall of being there as a kid on the 10th anniversary of these events made me think it bore reminding to all that this is not, by a stretch, “old” history, and also that many contemporary figures that enjoy near sainthood in some media, were all but complicit of this situation.

    PS: Mick, I do not think you are aware of it, but adding both name and URL at the end of your comments is both redundant and, in some circles, outright rude (for the URL) as it may be interpreted as a not-so-subtle attempt to hawk your own blog, more than common netiquette allows. Something we do not kindly look upon around here. But I believe this is more ignorance than malice and will just make this an advice for future reference.

  7. My apologies Dr. Dave, I meant no offence or rudeness. The post was of sufficient interest to provoke thought and of course, as should be expected, comment. Like you, I have also travelled and worked in Africa though possibly I lack the ability to express quite clearly what I am trying to get across. Everyone will of course agree with the idea of freedom and the vote etc. but in living for as long as they did under an opressive regime, maybe a transition would have been a more responsible way to go. There is more involved in the running of an industrialized country than the simply the will to do so. I suppose it depends upon your point of view, is immediate freedom more important than a strong and lasting freedom? A case in point-Zimbabwe; its hard to imagine whether the people feel free today. I doubt they even care.

  8. Mick

    None taken: I was only talking about comment form usage and inclusion of URL, and I’m sure there were no intents to do wrong…

    As for the rest (Africa), I do agree that transitions rarely work the way you’d expect, and the whole “Let’s drop freedom/democracy/[whatever great concept we’ve come up with in our enlightened era] onto these people and things will be fine” has been proven times and again to be somewhat of a delusion. But my point remains: there’s little way you could justify even taking the time, from the 1950’s on, to deal with a “smooth” transition from apartheid to non-apartheid. In order to avoid comparing the incomparable and grab a Godwin point at it, I will refrain from citing examples, but will let you think of other countries or governments, at other times in history, that you would probably not consider “giving transition time” to…

    Overall, the transition in South Africa could have gone much worse (for example: to a full reverse of what the situation was before, which it hasn’t). Not to say that it’s great, or even good, but it’s definitely better than what was before, so at least there’s some hope.

    Now, *other* countries in Africa are yet another problem… The problem of their “freedom” usually being that it’s not freedom as one would usually conceive it, but mostly freedom to go and vote for whatever fashionable despot has gathered the most militia or foreign money to buy the votes… Which is only a very tenuous, literal and pointless definition of freedom. Obviously real freedom comes with a certain guarantee that your needs do not directly control your power of free-will.

  9. I agree, things could have gone far worse and things could also be better. Your perception of freedom in Africa (in my opinion) is quite accurate. Who is to say that everybody even wants freedom as we see it.

  10. Interesting post – you unfortunately over simplify a very complex situation.

    South Africa is one of the few countries with a large white population. That population can unfortunately not quickly move (although a substantial amount has already immigrated). Being a minority is unfortunately not a viable option in African countries.

    You also ignore the fact that Africa was a battle ground for the cold war (fought via proxy). Marxist ideology was spread throughout Africa, and more importantly, Soviet arms were spread throughout Africa.

    All of the newly liberated states were taken over by a Marxist government – these Marxist governments are most to blame for Africa’s current sorry state (not colonialism).

    As countries go, South Africa is probably the most stable sub-Sahara African country. Maybe it can just avoid Marxism/Socialism phase, maybe [not](

  11. Yea…

    This entry seems to attract quite a few nostalgic of the good old days when Black Man knew his place and South Africa was white and happy (all of whose comments have been deleted and will not show above, by the time you read this). As well as a couple even less articulate racist morons. Neither of which was the original intent.

    Consequently, the comments for this entry are hereby closed, sorry for those who posted thoughtful comments about this issue. Feel free to continue the discussion by posting to your own blog and sending a trackback to this page.

Comments are closed.