Sowetos’ homeless and unemployed warm themselves against freezing mid winter temperatures. From the sidelines they watch the last workers hurry to catch the last trains to Johannesburg.

It’s only six am but most Soweton workers are already there.

Each day some half million Sowetos’ commute into white Johannesburg for work. The railways represent a lifeline between the two cities, providing the whites with cheap labour and the Sowetos’ with their only means of support.

With the freeing of Nelson Mandela much has changed in Soweta and South Africa but the railways remain a reminder of the days when the journey provided a rare opportunity for the workers to be together in large numbers, which elsewhere would have brought down the wroth of the police or the military. The packed carriages have often resounded with political song of fiery speeches.

Within Soweto itself there is still little to employ the people who live there.

Those in need to work must travel to Johannesburg’s mines and industry, commuting in line with the white man’s success formula.

In so doing they support a system that has seen South Africa develop the world’s largest gap between the rich and the poor.

With so many adult Sowetons now at work in Johannesburg, left behind are mainly the children, who with their organisation and their courage made Soweto’s revolution.

STUDENT: “Being a Soweton only means that you should be oppressed and you should live as hard as anything that should live hard”.

Soweto is short for South Western Townships. Though the pictures of the shantytowns have symbolised the injustice of the partite, they only represent a small fraction of Soweton homes; and it is not in the alleyways of the shantytowns that the revolution was fought.
An average Soweton house, as with the rest of the street, the parents left for Johannesburg before dawn. They left behind the children, looked after by the eldest, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: “This house as far as I’m concerned it is a very small house, it is divided into four rooms, then the toilet outside. We have water on the tap and we have electricity. In the house there are eight people, my parents have to get up early to go to work and put water on the stove for us in order to make it warm. Then the children at about half past six have to wake up because its time to wash and prepare themselves for school.”

Still dressed in her nightclothes Jennifer begins her long day of caring for the family. All over Soweto similar scenes are played out, the children left to fend for themselves generally left free from the moderating influence of their parents.
Fired with the idealism of youth, the youngsters of Soweto have taken the crucial role in the battle against the partite.

Ask many young people what plans there are for the city once a partite has been scrapped and they’ll tell you that Soweto must be burned to the ground. To them the township symbolises everything of horror in the whites treatment of black people in South Africa.

STUDENT 2: “Even if we are going to forgive them, yes we will, but the things they have done to us will never be erased from our hearts. Even those who are still
Going to be born they will be told and the most important thing is that by then we will be writing our own history and we will not be reading what has been written by the white man”.

With most adults’ away working for long hours, it was in the schools that the revolution against the white man system erupted. Focusing on their inferior education, pupils lashed out at anyone or anything remotely connected to the hated Bantu education authority.

Since 1976 all over Soweto schools have been burned. Furious battles raged between the South African military and the children. It was their protests, which fired South Africa’s under privileged into rebellion.

This classroom was one of five burned by militant pupils of Orora Girls High only last year, leaving the already overcrowded school short of classrooms.
All over Soweto teachers and their pupils work together in similar scenes of devastation.
Seen to be the servants of the whites, many teachers have little standing or authority. Those unwilling to bend to the radical politics of the pupils have often been forced to quit.

The militant youngsters who led these campaigns have become internationally known as the Comrades. It was with Henrik Va Voot, the master architect of the partite, that the seeds of the struggle were sown.
Drawing up plans for educating the black people of South Africa, he wrote: ‘education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live’.

GENTLEMAN: “We are given education to be inferior, its not that we are inferior naturally. So you have to understand as a black person in South Africa you are only given education to go to towns and work for a white profit”.

STUDENT 3: “Even today most black people think that they are inferior and this is not because of the way they feel but because of their history that is written. When we are doing history we are always told of the white heroes and everything, but this can be rewritten and we can be told about the black heroes. Then we can have a sense of being superior and a sense of being proud of ourselves”.

GENTLEMAN: “I am proud of being an African because that is what I am and I really do believe that as an African I can still do whatever a white person can do, if I am not deprived the right to do this”.

STUDENT 2: “We as blacks should keep on struggling until we get exactly what we want and that is exactly what we are going to do whether it be by blood or negotiations; but the most important thing is that we as blacks are going to get our freedom and the government bear in mind that that is exactly what is going to happen, whether it be now or any other year”.

GENTLEMAN: “I can have white friends, but all I can tell you that it is quite difficult for me to trust them because they have betrayed out trust in Africa, and if you can look at how they got our land and how they are treating us. They have rebuilt themselves to be our enemy instead of our friend”.

These pupils of Saina Maraina High enjoy one of the few relatively peaceful school environments in Soweta, though no school is without its wars.
During times of trouble comrades from more, militant schools will seek out moderate schools such as this and target them for violence. Headmasters in all Sowetan schools need strong doors, seen to be dolling out the white man’s medicine they are often the first to come under attack.
To remain on the right side of the comrades they must walk a delicate tightrope.

HEADMASTER: “My relationship with the Comrades is very cordial because I communicated with them, I called them into my office, and they know my political standpoint, I don’t hide it from them. I am very sincere with them and very open. We have differences there and then but they accept that I have a conviction and believe in it and they respect me for that. So I do not have problems with them, because I think that I have more complete experience than them. Their experience in politics is very limited and I sit around with them and give them good advice on politics”.

Until the release of Nelson Mandela and the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress, such a wall display would have brought a raid from the security police.
Even in the few quiet schools of Soweta, the most common topic of conversation is the struggle and the coming triumph against the partite.

Sowetan pupils are responsible for cleaning their own school, a situation that would be unheard of in the country’s well-equipped white schools.
The schools library is bare. All schools in the township suffer equally acute shortages of basic school essentials.

STUDENT 4: “We do not have electricity in our schools, but some of the experiments which we are tested on at the end of the year need to be practiced under a microscope or electrical microscope or other electrical equipment. So these are some of the things that the government fails to attend crucially to”.

HEADMASTER: “There is a vast disparity between the funding of the black education and the white education, for example, a black child is subsidised 250 (rand) a year, while a white child is about 1680 (rand)”.

By allowing us into his classrooms this headmaster risks being sacked, the Sowetan Education Department does not allow the media into the township’s schools.
For many years since 1976 the pupils of Soweta have been in almost continual dispute with the education authority. The dispute covers fees, shortage of resources, staff policies, the curriculum, anything to upset the hated system.
For months at a time the schools have been closed, but despite requests from Nelson Mandela and the ANC that they return to their classes, the students remain locked in battle.

With most of their time spent aimlessly in the streets, few have received more than most rudimentary schooling. A generation of black South Africans, tomorrow’s leaders, could be ill prepared for the task of leading their country.
For the older generation, the conflict can seem nightmarish. A never-ending spiral of chaos from which the children can only suffer. The youth insist the battle must go on, they hold their parents partly responsible for having put up with the white exploitation for so long.

This often-vicious gulf between the young and the old is one of the saddest aspects of the struggle. With only the dusty streets for a playground the young learn at an early age who wields power in Soweta. The parents become the condoners of the partite the powerful comrades by contrast are the heroes.

A more average Sowetan school where education is a low priority. Until the students gave it a new name Libya High was called Deep Dale Secondary. In similar ways all over Soweta the children have abolished the patronising colonial names given by the whites. Other schools are called Gorbachov, Russia, Arafat and other revolutionary titles.

Each school has its own Comrade hierarchy. In their meetings the comrades make decisions on all aspects of school life. Their decisions become law and are strictly enforced.
Until recently everyone in this classroom risked being detained for attending a comrade meeting.

The revolution is not sexist, many girls have fought and died on the front line. “One reactionary teacher we put acid”, the graffiti with which theses comrades surround themselves indicates their anger and violence.
Libya High school’s headmaster lost control of discipline long ago.
Patrick is one of the comrade leaders at Libya High School.

PATRICK: “I am involved in the struggle because my brother was shot. He was not killed but was involved in the struggle and used to tell me why he was involved and that is why I am struggling today. When you can be detained, tortured and all these things you must still carry on struggling”.

“Solomon, Mahlangu, hanged by the Pretoria regime. Mahalangu, your blood will nourish the tree which will bear the fruits of freedom”.

Leading a version of the famous American military song, Andrew wears an ANC uniform he made himself.
For most the liberation struggle has moulded their entire lives, it’s all they know.
The comrades have developed their own liberation culture, based on their traditional war dances; the tutu has become the symbol of the South African struggle.

PATRICK: “We are not fighting because we like to fight, we don’t like to fight, but it is because of the situation we are living in that we are fighting”.

Just up the road from the high school, a hippo, one of the armoured troop carriers, long since symbol of white oppression in the township. It stands guard in front of the police station which was attacked a week before by armed comrades.
The treatment of black South Africans by the police remains the chief reasons the comrades refuse to lay down their arms.

On a typical nights patrol with the flying squad of Soweto; this man was arrested, bullied, harassed and imprisoned for failing to produce his I.D documents.
The laws that require black Africans to carry identity documents were dropped long ago, but night after night the police demand Sowetos’ show their I.D documents. There is a huge gulf between what the government says is happening and what is actually happening on the streets.
This man will spend the next few days in an overcrowded police station cell.

Tonight the police have been on their best behaviour, for the camera.
It’s this oratory and uncontrolled power of the South African police that continues to fuel the anger of the young comrades.

The slogans and songs that the comrades have adopted often have their roots in the Soviet block. Many young students leave Soweto and go into exile for military training in ANC camps in Zambia, Angola and Tanzania. On their return they pass on and amalgamate with their own culture what they have learnt from foreigners in the training camps.
From distant struggles they borrow names and clothing, which seems strangely inappropriate. The KGB seems the most unlikely of organisations for the Comrades to support.

Even the Lords’ Prayer isn’t safe in the comrade’s hands. Through sheer numbers and willingness to continue receiving an inferior education, the comrades have brought the Sowetan educational system to a state of virtual collapse, but it doesn’t stop at the schools, in the community they wage an even more violent struggle.

Graffiti proclaims their dislike for the independent black councillors, who collect the rent and run the township on a day-to-day basis. The comrades refer to them as sellouts or puppets. It’s them who continue to receive the worst of the violence.

PATRICK: “The action taken by schools attacking the houses of the councillors involves petrol bombs and stones”.

Down the road from Libya High a councillor returns to his home, a burnt out house. Five days before the comrades had come, he was at work at the local council Headquarters. The comrades had allowed his wife and children to leave before gutting the house with petrol bombs.
The councillors and black policemen surround their houses with high fences and razor wire to ward off the comrades. In the streets of Soweto such violence is commonplace. Afraid that their publicity will encourage further attacks the authorities forbid reporting.

COMRADE: “They refuse to resign, so we must take action against them, I feel better if we burn the houses of the councillors, because they will not resign. They stay in the good houses and we stay in the four rooms, in the matchboxes. We are trying to force them to go out of Soweto. I feel very good to burn the houses of the council”.

The Soweto council head quarters the most hated building in Soweto. To deflect council anger from the white administrators, black councillors were established.
The already abysmal council system did not improve; roads remain impassable and rubbish uncollected. In desperation the council drastically increased rents and then boycotts began, all through Soweto. All over Soweto comrades picketed the council buildings refusing to let residents through to pay their rents.

For years most Sowetos’ have not paid rent for their homes, it is one of the most successful comrade’ campaigns to date having cost the South African government hundreds of millions of rand.

A council building covered in comrade graffiti. Desperate to break the comrades hold on the township the government has funded network of youth groups. The comrades denounce and reject anyone who attends these groups.

A weekly community inspired soap opera unfolds in front of an enthralled young audience. It is a sad fact of the township life that beyond these youth groups there is no real recreational life.

The gumboot dance comes from the gold mines of Johannesburg.

From an early age Sowetos’ live and play in the streets. The extensive friendships they make there form the ties that pull them into politics later on.
By the age of ten or eleven most Sowetans belong to a community based political organisation.
Each district has a network of overlapping groups and in times of trouble these structures are used to mobilise the youth. Then everyone must be a comrade. Their ability to invisibly organise and to gather into thousands has often shaken the granite might of the Praetorian government and brought the worlds attention to their cause.

Crucial to the organisation in the streets of the township are the numerous committees. They don’t meant outside because until very recently almost any gatherings had been illegal. They meet anywhere undercover, often in churches leant by the sympathetic South African council of churches.

The government use of informants has made them suspicious of everyone, even today. Few observers, white or black witness their meetings. Their teachers understand best their militancy and lack of trust.

TEACHER 2: “They may be young but the generation under which they have lived has suffered a lot. They have seen some of their relatives die right in front of their feet. They have seen all the things they dreamt they would never see in their life. Stampeding and running over the masse of bodies in the street and they are strong now”.

Just one of many marches that occur spontaneously all over the township. Today Sowetans march almost as others play sport. After years of hiding there is nothing more enjoyable than to openly support their side. There is a sense of victory around the township, but they are a battle-hardened lot and although they wear the ANC uniform they are a law unto themselves. They have yet to respond positively to Mandela’s request to cease the violence.

TEACHER 2:” We’ve got to show them, teach them, discipline because with that force their power will need it and we can direct it exactly where it should be applied. If they feel something has been done very unfair to them, they don’t consult with others, they immediately act on their impulses”.

And in the barren playgrounds of Soweto the children’s army rose, shrugging off what it means to be a child. At the insistence of the children, the parents began to seek a livelihood that did not rely on white Johannesburg.
Black free enterprises flourish and there is a boom in Sowetan based small businesses. It’s typical of the extraordinary role reversal that dictates Sowetan politics, that their iron fisted children police campaigns such as this.

The children call it discipline. A word that has developed a special meaning in Soweto within the context of their struggle. Through discipline they unite as one against the partite. Through discipline they justify violence as harsh as their enemy, the South African police.

Another incident on the same night as the Flying Squad, although Mandela has denounced violence, the South African police still continue to shot young Sowetans.
The suspect has been shot in head through the back windscreen of a car he is suspected of stealing. South African police regulations require them to shot at the tyres unless the suspect draws a gun; this man was unarmed.

As with thousands of similar incidents the shooting went unreported. Soweto faces police who are violent and unrestrained.

The man’s pleas for water are met with sarcasm and indifference.

No one knows why there are three preachers at today’s funeral. Funerals have come to take on a special role in Soweto. In memory of all those who have died fighting in the struggle, many funerals especially of the young become political. Although Lorraine Sarona Mosupye died of an incurable disease her Comrades associates have organised a political or as they call it a ‘progressive’ funeral for her.

While the older generation travel in a convoy of buses and cars the young take to the streets dancing, singing political songs and closing roads for the convoy that follows them.
If she’d been a particularly militant Comrade a number of motor vehicles would be hijacked along the route.

On Saturdays when the majority of funerals are held Soweto’s streets can become a tangled maze of funeral processions each kilometres long and each competing for right of way.

During the burial the young sing a song in tribute to the military wing of the ANC. ‘Ncontwe Wisizwe,’ Spear of the Nation. The song glorifies the armed struggle against the South African regime. This song has often provoked a vicious police onslaught. In spite of the changing times there’s still apprehension amongst the mourners, fear that the police may still be lurking and ready to charge.

Beneath the marquee, in the colours of the ANC, a grand feast is laid out to which the mourners return. While the older generation eat the young militants gather on the other side of the street singing political songs. And often the more radical among them will move off in search of a way to vent their anger and protest. White owned commercial vehicles are a frequent target. This still smoking delivery van was burnt after a funeral. Soweto is littered with burnt out vehicles.

For parents, dealing with their children’s militancy can be nightmarerish

MOTHER: ’’Sometimes we’re just amazed how our children were scarred about the whole thing. Because on the outside they still look the same, clean, they can still love. We feel they are through these thing but deep down you feel that they are bitter, they still want some things to be done.’’

The Comrades have declared war on business vehicles. As a climax to political meetings they often take to the streets in search of targets stopping business cars at roadblocks, they throw out the driver and after an exuberant joy ride through the streets burn or vandalise the vehicle. The practice has become a widely adopted form of protest. While the police hopelessly take down details three comrades seat themselves nearby and taunt the police by singing political songs.

The police do not bother to question pupils from the school next door; they know there’d be little point.

MOTHER: ‘’It is difficult to tell our children what to do because this ‘’amandla awetu, amandla awetu’’ has gotten out of control. They think that this ‘’amandla’’– strength is ours, everywhere, in the house, in the streets, everywhere. So being parents we must try and pour water over the fires. Not strongly because once you go strongly they hit back. You must be tactful because once you impose discipline, real discipline like were used to they fight. They fight so much that you don’t know where you started, you don’t know what you wanted, your just lost’’

The Young Comrades and the ANC have a monopoly on power in the township but at least 20% of Sowetans support the ANC’s opposition the Pan African Congress who believe that Nelson Mandela is about to sell Black South Africans down the drain. The Comrades regard any opposition to the ANC as treason. By publicly supporting his parties’ policy this PAC member risks his life.

PAC SUPPORTER: ‘’The African National Congress is willing to compromise in its policy, it is willing to negotiate, its willing to recon ciliate with the South African government and its ready to accept the White’s as they are. And on the other side the Pan African Congress in not willing to compromise and what it wants is the return of the land, totally without any questions, that Blacks have a complex we can take their land and redistribution of wealth those are the key issues that set apart our political organisations.’’

This tavern is a PAC drinking place. The PACers left the ANC when it decided to allow Whites to join. PAC members tend to be wealthier and older. They socialize with each other and live in the same areas. Their policy, total appropriation of White wealth and no political safeguards for the White minority in the New South Africa.

Placed opposite Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house, for the benefit of the tour buses is a rare example of PAC graffiti that demonstrates their opposition to anything connected to the White mans involvement in South Africa.

PAC SUPPORTER:’’ It is a question of, Do you belong here in South Africa? Are you a Black South African? Are you a true child of Africa? And are you prepared to secure the culture and tradition of the Black South African? This is where the conflicts arise between the ANC and PAC.’’

Through their street committees the Comrades play an aggressive role in providing the township with an alternative to the hated South African police.

A week before, the owner of this house returned to his home to find a drunk urinating against his wall. During the argument that followed the drunk was killed. A peoples court was formed with members from the local community presided over by the Comrades. Judgement was passed on the man. His property was burnt and he was beaten to death.

Theirs is a harsh system of justice. In effect it is a return to traditional tribal law. Though their morality may seem harsh but they do have a strict code of ethics. The Comrades abhor all drugs including alcohol often sentencing offenders to flogging.

These youngsters are smoking ‘mamdrax’ a dangerous and addictive drug which is smoked mixed with marijuana. It’s a very serious problem in Soweto. Denied basic human rights many young people unwilling to take an active part in the struggle choose drugs. Through mamdrax thousands of young Sowetans escape the reality of township life.

The night with the Flying Squad continues.

In the back of a pickup a badly injured man lies bleeding. The patrol found the vehicle on the other side of Soweto. No one called and ambulance, no one offered any help, no one wanted to get blood on their hands. They handcuffed the man where he lay and towed the pickup through a chilly winters night. Now they deride the injured man.

Whatever the hopes of the leaders this is the only face of White South Africa the Comrades know.

In celebration of the re-launch of the largest student organisation young Sowetans gather from all over the city. The Congress of South African Students or COSAS was until recently banned.

Today in a joyous and efficient rally organised entirely by themselves the students of Soweto assert their strength and their role in the victory they all sense. The Comrades, meticulous when it comes to their own brand of discipline search everyone entering the stadium. In direct contrast to the recent past not one South African policeman is in sight. The Comrades take responsibility. A young man caught fighting is immediately arrested and presented to the leaders for questioning.

SPEAKER: ‘’Fellow fighters, you know that today, we as the students of Soweto are assembling here for nothing else but to re-launch our organisation, to re-launch the gigantic organisation that is COSA. So Comrades, I would appeal that all those who are gathered here, let us strive to be cooperative and let us strive to act in a disciplined manner.’’

There is a mood of heavy optimism. The Sowetan teenagers have seen dramatic changes but the struggle has left them determined, unforgiving, violent and impatient. Already they’ve questioned Mandela’s call for them to return to their classrooms and throw away their arms.

After the years of fighting, the challenge is for them to dance to a new rhythm, to understand a new language, the language of moderation and compromise.
© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more info see our Cookies Policy