JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Millions of blacks, confronted with the harshest government crackdown ever, today staged a nationwide strike to mark the 10th anniversary of riots in Soweto that killed 600 people and galvanized the anti-apartheid struggle.
Residents in black areas said clashes with security forces increased toward evening. Youths in Soweto and New Brighton near Port Elizabeth blocked streets with blazing tires and threw stones. Incidents of stone-throwing, gasoline bombings and burning buses were also reported in townships near Cape Town and Durban.
Telephone service to major black townships was cut off for a time but was restored later in the day.
Journalists were barred from entering black areas and reporting on operations of the security forces, such as their response to the unrest.
Government spokesman Leon Mellet said security forces "are on standby at every possible place where trouble could have been expected, anywhere in the country."
Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, the nation's leading black anti-apartheid activist, told about 500 white supporters at St. Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg that the government is "trampling our dignity under foot and rubbing our noses in the dust."
Noting that the government had banned gatherings to mark the Soweto uprising, the Nobel Peace Prize winner thanked those who came to the nation's main Anglican church for "vicariously enabling black people to commemorate this day." The service proceeded without interference from security forces.
Barred from entering Soweto, a group of whites from Johannesburg's affluent northern suburbs organized an airdrop of flowers on the black township as a sign of solidarity.
The 1,000 flowers had been gathered at services in white churches Sunday. Thirty carloads of flowers were also left at entrances to the sprawling township outside Johannesburg, but organizers said they were not sure that the flowers would be allowed in.
Mellet said at a news conference in Pretoria that no one had been killed since 6 a.m. A spokesman for the government Bureau for Information described the violence as "the normal type of thing, nothing serious, nothing out of line from what we expected."
Since the government declared a state of emergency Thursday, 31 people have died in violence, Mellet said. In declaring the state of emergency--which gives security forces almost unfettered powers--the government claimed that activists had planned a day of violence today.
The government asserted that today would be "a normal working day," but millions of blacks stayed away from their jobs.
On a typical block in downtown Johannesburg this morning, only 10 of 30 shops were open. Many businesses that were open hired special security guards--but there were few customers to protect.
The streets of black townships also were reported deserted, with most residents staying at home.
Mellet said 90% of the Johannesburg area work force stayed away, and high absenteeism was reported in other major cities.
In the Johannesburg-Pretoria area, the Putco bus service, which normally brings about 670,000 black commuters to work, shut down, and buses and commuter trains in Cape Town, Durban and other cities were reported nearly empty.