The 35th Anniversary of the Vaal Uprising

By Dr Lehlohonolo Kennedy Mahlatsi

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Vaal Uprising. Throughout 1984 rent increases were met with fierce opposition from the residents. The increase came in the midst of deepening economic recession. The apartheid colonialism was experiencing a general crisis. All the factors that were directed against it were converging and making it impossible to extricate itself.

In the January 8 Statement of that year, ANC President Cde Oliver Reginald Tambo uttered these words: “You are aware that the apartheid regime maintains an extensive administrative system through which it directs our lives. This system includes organs of central and provincial government, the army and the police, the judiciary, the Bantustans administrations, the community councils, the local management and local affairs committees. It is these institutions of apartheid power that we must attack and demolish, as part of the struggle to put an end to racist minority rule in our country. Needless to say, as strategists, we must select for attack those parts of the enemy administrative system which we have the power to destroy, as a result of our united and determined offensive. We must hit the enemy where it is weakest.”

On Sunday, 02 September 1984, residents at three mass meetings in the Vaal resolved to stay away from work and school and embark on a peaceful march to the administration board offices the following day. On 3 September 1984 a stay-away and peaceful protest march against rent hikes in the Vaal turned into a bloody confrontation between residents and the police. In the ensuing conflict four councillors were killed. Conflict spread throughout the Vaal triangle and 66 people died in the first week.

The Vaal massacre was the first since the 1976 Students Uprisings in a number of massacres committed by the apartheid security force -i n Langa on 21 March 1985, Mamelodi in November 1985 and Alexandra in January 1986.

The brutal massacres of our people had not dampened the people’s determination to resist. If anything, racist violence had educated and prepared them for higher forms of struggle. Revolution is creative work of the masses through their daily confrontation with the enemy. The people had acclimatised themselves, not as a result of theoretical reasoning, but under the impact of the course of events, at an appreciation of the new and higher tasks of the struggle. 

The uprising in the Vaal signalled the end of the Black Local Authorities throughout the country. When the United Democratic Front (UDF) campaigned against the BLA’s they warned that this policy would intensify conflict and bring about violence. Even, a government commission, the Van der Walt Commission, established to investigate reasons behind the Vaal unrest, found that residents had “genuine grievances” and that government bodies were guilty of “maladministration”. Our people were geared to the offensive which had already resulted in the abolition, through popular mass struggle, of so many of surrogate organs of apartheid state.

There had been mass protest in other townships. But the Vaal uprisings marked the growth of mass-based organisations throughout the country and put mass rejection of apartheid colonial rule high on the liberation agenda. The special significance of the 1980s upsurge lies in the fact that, for the first time, the retaliatory violence of the people had become a permanent feature of the protracted rolling mass actions, as distinct from the occasional occurrence that characterised the 1976 Soweto revolts. These new outbreaks of revolts by workers and students had been constantly accompanied by unorganised and sporadic street fighting and other acts of violent resistance on a nation-wide scale. Unlike the lull which followed the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the outbreak of 1984 Vaal Uprisings was followed by prolonged and widespread civil uprisings. Organisations like UDF Area Committee, Vaal Youth Congress (VAYCO), Vaal Students Congress (VASCO), Vaal Council of Churches (VCC) and Vaal Civic Association (VCA) emerged as indispensable weapons of our people for the consolidation of the united action and to sustain the momentum.

Eight people in the Vaal were sentenced to death. The Sharpeville Six- Mojalefa Sefatsa, Oupa Diniso, Duma Khumalo, Francis Mokhesi, Reid Mokoena and Thereza Ramashamola- were sentenced to death for killing a councillor in Sharpeville. Daniel Maleke and Josiah Tsawane were sentenced to death for killing a policeman in Sebokeng. On 11 June 1985, 22 anti-apartheid activists, including leaders of the UDF and VCA were charged with treason, murder, terrorism and subversion in what was known as Delmas Treason Trial.

The apartheid regime had declared war against the people. Thousands of its troops were deployed in a massive show of force. Sjamboks, birdshot, rubber bullets and live bullets became methods the enemy was using in its futile attempts to crash opposition. The prison and police cells were crammed with thousands of patriots detained for no other reason than the participation in the massive democratic struggle.

South Africa was rapidly becoming ungovernable and the regime was more and more finding itself in a crisis situation. The regime was trying to implement a policy which was unworkable because it was not based on consensus and the mass of the people were no longer prepared to acquiesce in their opposition. Lacking popular support, the regime was forced to resort to more use of force but the more the force so too was the rise in popular resistance.

The points of conflict, both internally and externally, multiplied. The spiral of violence turned inexorably towards catastrophe. In October 1984, 7000 troops invaded the township of Sebokeng. On the 5th and 6th of November 1984 the stay away in Transvaal was called to support the demand for; inter alia, the withdrawal of the army police from the township, resignation of community councillors, the release of detainees and political prisoners, a stop to rent and bus fare increase.

The stay-away experience gave strength and confidence to the hundreds of thousands who went on strike. It sent a strong message to all our working people that political and economic demands could not be separated putting the class and national dimensions of our revolution into proper perspective. A crisis of unprecedented scale had descended South Africa. At no other time in our history has the popular uprising of the masses rendered the apartheid system so unworkable and the whole country ungovernable, and at no other time in history had the apartheid power been exposed as devoid of both ability and strategy to survive. This precipitated the clarion call made by Cde President Tambo to our people on the January 8th, 1985, to render South Africa ungovernable and make apartheid unworkable.

Resistance and defiance were spreading. The whole army was acting like a police force. The revolutionary spirit and fervour of our people were never broken. The people were inspired by the example and leadership of our liberation movement and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. The mass movement gained impetus. Our youth continued to display militancy and made supreme sacrifices for the liberation of our country. The economic and political crisis and the growing strength of the revolutionary forces had opened the way, as never before, to people’ s advance.

Virtually all forms of struggle were evinced during this epoch. These manifested in the spheres of ideological, political, economic, military and organisational spheres with a view to increasing the capacity to weaken the ability of the racist regime to govern our country. The underground maintained the momentum of the offensive. Through practical revolutionary action those segments of the repressive apartheid state structure were destroyed through the sheer weight of united mass action. The international community exerted pressure on the Pretoria regime to save the lives of our comrades and patriots on death row. The armed struggle escalated as scores of young women and men left the country and swelled the ranks of the people’s army, Umkhonto We Sizwe.

History of the struggle of Vaal is written in blood of our martyrs. The Vaal region experienced many massacres committed by the apartheid killing machinery than any other region in the country. Other massacres in the Vaal include: Sebokeng Massacre on 26 March 1990, Night Vigil Massacre in Evaton on 12 January 1991, Boipatong Massacre on 17 June 1992.

As we observe the 35th anniversary of the Vaal Uprising, let us honour the living memory of our martyrs by advancing the Second, More Radical Phase of the National Democratic Revolution. Surely, they did not die in vain.

Dr Lehlohonolo Kennedy Mahlatsi is the South African Communist Party (SACP) Free State PEC Member. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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