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'Street' Groups Spur Fight to End Apartheid

April 17, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

UITENHAGE, South Africa — 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.

Mass-Action Programs

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.

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