Reflections on the 1990 northern areas uprising

An unidentified man in 1990 in Highfield Road where mass looting occurred
VENTING EMOTION: An unidentified man in 1990 in Highfield Road where mass looting occurred
Image: Mike Holmes

I write this reflection on those “Six Days in August” (the title of a DVD by Mikale Barry), the Northern Areas uprising in 1990, with a visceral memory of that tumultuous time in our history.

We were living in Gelvandale, and shared the property we were renting with the Neethlings — Daphne, Clifford and their four young children.

On one of those six days, Daphne became a widow, and their four children fatherless, when Clifford became one of the early tragic casualties as the streets turned into a battleground.

Forty-nine lives were lost during those six days, and 120 businesses were damaged or destroyed in Schauderville, Gelvandale, West End, Arcadia and surrounding townships.

Lives and livelihoods were lost, never to be recovered.

Hundreds of people still carry the physical and psychological injuries inflicted during the conflict, with buildings, and bodies, left derelict, looking for ways to be repurposed.

Why did this happen? There are other articles, books and resources that recount the history of that time.

But at the root of this discontent that lay dormant, waiting to rise up, was the forced removal of people and families from their homes and communities in South End, Fairview, Willowdene, Salisbury Park, North End, Sidwell, and Central.

New townships that came to be known as the northern areas were set up to house those classified as coloured under the Population Registration Act, and to be segregated from their fellow South Africans by the infamous Group Areas Act of 1950.

This segregation was forcibly imposed from the day a person was born, in a segregated hospital, to the day they died and got buried, in a segregated graveyard.

In between birth and death, in these new congested townships, deprivations and discrimination in the form of inferior planning, facilities, service delivery, housing deficits, lack of amenities, access to health care, transport systems gave rise to growing social ills.

Community organisations such as civics, sports organisations, cultural organisations, trade unions and teachers’ unions arose in resistance to the grand schemes of the Apartheid regime.

To quell the rising tide of resistance, the state attempted to consolidate its “divide and rule” strategy by putting in place a Tricameral Parliament in 1983, thinking that by given the coloureds the (dummy) vote, they could fool people into believing they were participating in a democratic state.

The Coloured Labour Party, under the leadership of Allan Hendrickse and others of his ilk, readily complied to help implement this strategy.

The 1980s saw growing mobilisation against Labour Party complicity in the dummy Tri-Cameral Parliament (1983) and ineffective Coloured Management Committees.

By 1985 and the declaration of the state of emergency, many grass roots organisations were openly organising resistance to the state.

They included the UDF, Sacos, trade unions, civic, religious, youth and teacher/educator formations, many influenced by the underground ANC, the Unity Movement, those aligned to the Black Consciousness movement.

A co-ordinating committee of various resistance organisations was formed (the NACC) and led marches in Port Elizabeth, highlighting the housing crisis and demanding the disbanding of the Northern Areas Management Committee.

In Uitenhage, a similar scenario played out, exposing the complicity of the Labour Party’s Management Committee.

The August 1990 northern areas uprising became the death warrant of the Labour Party and ushered in heightened demands for direct representation locally and nationally.

Though there are many in the northern areas who believe the area is a “special case” because of neglect by the new government, it may be argued that it is merely is a microcosm of systemic failure by the municipality and the state across all townships.

Today the neglect of the northern areas is tangible, worsening earlier social ills with rampant crime, drug and other abuses receiving national attention.

A Weekend Post article on August 1 headlined “Bethelsdorp comes out tops for all the wrong reasons” referred to this township as one that has one of the highest crime levels in SA.

Those living in Motherwell and elsewhere could similarly argue gross neglect in many respects, especially service delivery.  

People’s hopes and aspirations for tangible freedom and an egalitarian society seem more remote than ever.

It is clear that what WEB Du Bois noted in 1903  — “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line” — is still valid in the 21st century.

Our reality is that we have yet to engage deeply about building an all-inclusive SA nation (with our fellow Africans who have chosen to call SA home).

Some suggestions for a way forward:

An integrated economic development and spatial plan is essential.

High levels of unemployment are a breeding ground for continued dysfunctionality.

Perceptions need to be addressed on the awarding of contracts that could alleviate localised unemployment.

Provincial and local government need to immediately resolve outstanding issues such as the completion of work on schools.

Communities require access to properly maintained and managed sport and culture facilities.

Some have referred to the northern areas as a “ticking time bomb waiting to explode”.

Though conditions continue to be dire, I do hope that prediction is incorrect as we should not need another northern areas uprising to be heard by the powers that be.

I invite scholars to consider postgraduate studies that could deepen our understanding of the 1990 uprising. The NAHHP archives housed at Nelson Mandela University are a good starting point.

Allan Zinn, director, Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy

- HeraldLIVE

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