“I Saw a Nightmare…”
Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976
by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick
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"Support Our People Until Power Is Restored to Them", Oliver Reginald Tambo, President of the African National Congress"

Statement at the Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, October 26, 1976
In 1976, for the first time, the General Assembly decided to consider the problem of apartheid in plenary meetings and to permit representatives of the South African liberation movements to speak in the plenary meetings.

For the first time in the history of the United Nations, a representative of the majority of the people of South Africa has been allowed and invited to share this prestigious rostrum with the representatives of the independent and sovereign nations and peoples of the world.

This is a development of considerable significance, for which I most sincerely thank you, Mr. President,1 and this august body, in the name of the African National Congress and the entire liberation movement in South Africa, and especially, on behalf of the oppressed people of South Africa, including their children, the current victims of murderous repression.

Permit me to congratulate you, Mr. President, on your unanimous election as president of this session of the General Assembly. Your vast experience and international standing, no less than that of your great country, make you eminently suited to guide the deliberations of this singularly important session. We take this opportunity to pay a warm tribute to your country and its esteemed leader, Prime Minister Madame Bandaranaike, for its leading role among the nonaligned nations and its unswerving support for just struggles the world over. It is worthy of note that the Non-Aligned Movement and the General Assembly fall under your able guidance2 at a time when these two powerful instruments of progressive change are called upon to bring their collective weight to bear fully and effectively on the struggles for national liberation in southern Africa and in other parts of the world. The African National Congress wishes you a truly successful term of office.

In the course of the past four weeks this session's deliberations have been punctuated by events calling attention to the great victories which have been won in the struggle for national independence and world peace.


The peoples of Botswana, Nigeria, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zambia have been celebrating their independence anniversaries. The United Nations itself has observed its thirty-first anniversary, recording an achievement highlighted by the presence at this session, as full and equal members, of the representatives of the heroic people of Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and other countries who by their sacrifices have enriched the meaning of national liberation and independence. In this context, the idea of bantustan independence is an outrage in Africa. On the other hand, the absence of Vietnam and Angola from this session diminishes the United Nations.

I recall that two years ago the highly commendable act of solidarity by this august body with the brother people of Palestine was crowned by the address from this rostrum of my brother and comrade-in-arms, Yasser Arafat, who, true to the Palestinian tradition of solidarity with all oppressed peoples, called for the same opportunity to be accorded to the leaders of other liberation movements. It behooves me, on this occasion, when the struggle he leads and you support has been subjected to concerted attempts at liquidation, to express our unswerving solidarity with their just cause. We are convinced that, as has been the case in the past, the Palestinian cause will emerge from this temporary setback stronger than ever before.

Will to Be Free

The struggle of progressive humanity for the total and final elimination of the evil system of colonial domination in Africa has entered its decisive, penultimate stage. Confidence in the certainty and imminence of victory is moving the colonized peoples from Djibouti on the Somali coast to Cape Agulhas in South Africa to attain unprecedented heights of heroism in the pursuit of that popular outcome. Despite its imminence, our victory will not come easily. In the last four months, the apartheid regime has demonstrated to all who were ever in doubt that it is determined to fight to the bitter end, without regard for the numbers of our people it butchers in the process. In spite of that practical experience and, indeed, exactly because of it, our people are demanding freedom now. They do not ask that their masters should restore to them their rights as free men and women. Rather, by their own actions against immense odds, they are restoring to themselves the right to call themselves free. After three and a quarter centuries of the most brutal national oppression suffered by any people on the African continent, our people, the indigenous majority, are asserting their will to be free with breathtaking heroism.

There is no vocabulary to describe the nobility and the pathos of the conscious sacrifices that the black youth of South Africa have made over the last four months to free themselves, their people and their country from forces that are determined to keep us forever their chattels. Together with their mothers and their fathers they have seen hundreds of their compatriots pay the supreme sacrifice rather than accept a life of enslavement.

Through their own heroic efforts which are, and have been, supported by the whole of progressive mankind, the peoples of Zimbabwe and Namibia are advancing towards their own genuine independence. Daily in our South Africa, as in Palestine and in East Timor, ordinary people make extraordinary sacrifices in their quest for freedom.


As revolutionaries we are moved to speak out daily, as we must, to salute these extraordinary sacrifices, wherever they occur. Again as we must, we use extraordinary words to describe these sacrifices. They are heroic, they are selfless, they are noble. But alas, in the end, use and abuse turns even those words upon themselves. Their strength of feeling withers away. What then must we say when thousands of hearts have beaten as one in South Africa and hundreds have perished in their unarmed and unequal yet relentless resistance to the oppressor? Shall we say the black people of South Africa have performed a heroic deed and leave it at that? Or shall we coin new words to describe the temper of the young man of ten years who marched undaunted on a French-built armored car in the streets of Soweto, stone in hand, until he was cut down by a torrent of machine-gun bullets?

We say no. No words are necessary at all. The blood that our people have shed calls for action, not for more words. It calls for action to destroy the fascist regime that continues to massacre the innocent.

Terror Is the Essence of Apartheid

For months before 16 June the African student youth of South Africa had protested not only against the enforced use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction but also against the whole system of "Bantu education." Typically, the fascist tyranny in our country did not bother to listen to the grievances of the students and the people as a whole. "It was at Orlando West," writes the black South African journalist Willie Bokala, "near the Orlando West High School where the law, in its own fashion, gave a hearing to their grievances. Tear-gas bombs and gun bullets were the redress they got." That was on 16 June.

Since then, no less than a thousand of the cream of our people have been shot down in cold blood in the streets of our towns and cities and in far-flung villages. Thousands are held in Vorster's prisons. The systematic murder of the patriots of South Africa continues behind the secrecy of those prison walls.

It is not the first time, however, that for redress of their grievances our heroic countrymen have received tear gas bombs and bullets and been subjected to cold-blooded assassinations. The African National Congress has repeatedly declared that repression, coercion and mass murder are the very essence of the apartheid system.


The mass shootings that characterize South Africa today are therefore neither an aberration nor freak incidents. They are the concrete expressions of the policy of the apartheid State, whose central features are extreme national oppression, brutal super-exploitation of the oppressed black people and maintenance of this system through open fascism.

National oppression is in itself a reactionary force directed against the oppressed. Equally, super-exploitation is in itself a reactionary force directed against the producers of wealth. Fascism is rule not merely by force but by terror. Apartheid is a reactionary force directed by the white racist minority against the black majority.

Apartheid Regime Does Not Represent Our People

Inasmuch as the apartheid regime is a product of colonial conquest it is itself an imposition on our people. From the earliest days of their arrival the white settlers, as they did elsewhere in Africa, set themselves the task of subjugating the indigenous population politically and economically. The apartheid system of today is the outcome of a process of historical development which has led to the entrenchment of white settler colonial domination.

The racist regime is chosen by and represents only the white fifth of the population of our country. It exists to advance the sole and exclusive interests of this minority. Everything else in what the forces of reaction are pleased to describe as "the South African way of life" is predicated on this fundamental feature of South Africa.

The black people of South Africa are therefore a colonized people. The majority of the representatives present here will understand what we mean by this because their peoples have themselves been at some time colonized and subject peoples.


This body advanced the ideals and objectives enshrined in its Charter when it declared the system of apartheid a crime against humanity and adopted a convention for its suppression and punishment.3

It was a fault of the times that in 1945 representatives of the colonial system in South Africa were admitted to this organization of the world`s peoples. It is a gross travesty of justice and an evil tribute to the arrogant power of international imperialism that today those representatives are still allowed to walk freely into this forum and pose as spokesmen of our people.

The vast majority of our people—and among them we count some white people who have bravely denounced the criminal regime of apartheid and joined the ranks of the revolution—are neither fascists nor racists. Nor do they oppress or exploit anybody; nor, indeed, do they have plans to oppress and exploit.

It is an insult to human reason and to the charter of this organization, it is to spit on the graves of the patriots of our country and all those other heroes in other lands who have perished in the struggle for liberation that our oppressors should have an acknowledged claim to appear in this assembly as our spokesmen. We do not recognize the legitimacy of the white minority regime inside South Africa. So also do we reject its claim and pretence to represent the people of South Africa internationally.4

Rulers such as those that occupy positions of power in South Africa today have been warned. They have been warned that good as slaves may be in supplying the comforts of their masters, yet they have a fault in that they can think. Our people also are not lacking in this faculty. That is why today they are in open, mass revolt. They are asserting the age-old right of the slave to rebel, the right and duty of the oppressed to rise against their oppression.

Our Vision of a Future South Africa


Like all other patriots, we love our country and its peoples—all its peoples. It is a varied land of snowcapped mountain peaks, of deserts and subtropical greenery covering vast mineral resources. Its warm seas to the east and cold ones to the west contain also large animal and mineral resources.

Our peoples, with their varied cultures which are continuously mingling and interacting to their mutual enrichment, exhibit, despite their conditions, a great love for life and a sensitive joy in the creative and humane endeavors of the peoples of the world, without exception.

These ordinary, industrious and peaceful people want to revolutionize themselves and their country.

As a colonized people we not only assert our right to rebel against the colonizer: We assert also our right to determine for ourselves the means and methods to use to liberate ourselves and our country as well as our right to determine what to do with our liberation. We have a vision of, and we fight for, a future South Africa in which national oppression will be abolished once and for all, in which racism in whatever form it rears its ugly head will be suppressed with all the might of popular power. We fight to restore power to the hands of the people.

In so doing we shall also liberate the oppressor. We know that many whites in South Africa are ill at ease because they are aware of the immorality of the injustices and cruelties that are being practiced in their name and on their behalf to uphold an inhuman social order of which they are the beneficiaries. They already sense that change is coming soon.


We realize that all but a small handful of true revolutionaries, and men of conscience among them, will continue to support the minority regime because of training, because of self-interest, because of fear and because of inertia. Yet they, the whites, also need to be liberated from the obscurantism, backwardness and ostracism into which they have thrust themselves. Our national democratic revolution therefore has the task also of liberating even these our oppressors.

We fight also for a South Africa whose wealth will be shared by its people equitably. We fight to abolish the system which obtains in our country today and which concentrates almost all productive wealth in the hands of a few, while the vast majority exists and toils to enlarge that wealth.

We will create a South Africa in which the doors of learning and of culture shall be open to all. We will have a South Africa in which the young of our country shall have access to the best that mankind has produced, in which they shall be taught to love their people of all races, to defend the equality of the peoples, to honor creative labor, to uphold the oneness of mankind and to hate untruth, obscurantism, immorality and avarice.

We will have a South Africa which will live in peace with its neighbors and with the rest of the world. It will base its foreign relations on the principles of noninterference and mutually advantageous assistance among the peoples as well as the continuation of the struggle against the system of imperialist and neo-colonialist domination.

The Charade of "Independence of Transkei"

With the orchestrated chorus of a coterie of handpicked placemen, Vorster is today declaring the Transkei "independent."5


Today we have had the spectacle in Umtata, the principal town in the Transkei, of one flag raised and another lowered. Soon after that, in continuation of the charade, the national anthem of the oppressed, sung by liberation fighters since 1925, was played in glorification of national oppression in a new guise.

We know from the words of none other than Hendrik Verwoerd, former racist prime minister of South Africa, that the Bantustan policy represents an attempt to perpetuate the criminal system of apartheid. I quote from a statement he made in 1963:

"If we are agreed that it is the desire of the people that the white man should be able to continue to protect himself by retaining white domination … we say that it can be achieved by separate development."

The following year Verwoerd stated that before the collapse of colonialism in the greater part of Africa, the white minority regime had visualized for the African people "separation … that ends at a certain point, self-rule under the care of a guardian." But since the collapse of colonialism, they have had—to use their own words—to "make an adjustment within (the) policy" and not against it, as Verwoerd stressed. This adjustment meant carrying the policy—to quote them again—"further and further to its logical conclusion."

There, in the words of its own architect, is spelt out the purpose of the "separate development" program and its intended logical conclusion: the fraudulent independence of the bantustans.


The African National Congress and the vast majority of our people rejected this program very firmly and unequivocally at its very inception. We, together with the vast majority of our people—including those in the Transkei itself—continue to reject it today.

We state now, as we stated then, that an incontrovertible part of the demands of our people is that there shall be one united and democratic South Africa. We will never abandon our birthright to the ownership and control of the whole territory of our country nor countenance any attempt to balkanize it and to set its peoples one against another in tribal, racial or national conflicts. No independent African country could ever fail to oppose such an attempt, especially when the obvious and declared aim is to perpetuate a colonial system in Africa. No government, country or nation in the world, genuinely opposed to apartheid, racism and colonialism, could at any time lend support to the Bantustan program in general and to the idea of Bantustan "independence" in particular.

It is for that reason that we welcome and hail the stand of the vast majority of mankind and the member states of the Organization of African Unity and of the United Nations, as well as the nonaligned countries, which have adopted these positions. We call upon this world body today to declare its unanimous, unequivocal and irrevocable rejection of the so-called "independence" of the Transkei.

We however think it proper that we should here call for vigilance. Experience shows that there are forces that will try to break this united stand. Already voices have been raised among United States military circles arguing for the establishment of a United States naval base in the Transkei. Nonrecognition of the Transkei does not mean that the forces of imperialism will not give surreptitious support to Vorster's bastard creation. Nonrecognition of the Bantustans as a whole must also mean their total and complete isolation. Such a collective commitment will serve as a warning also to the racist regime and its black collaborators in South Africa that the international community is determined to abide by the principles of the charter of this organization.

Imperialist Strategy

We have stated before that the right to determine what they shall do with their liberation belongs exclusively to the people of our country. This bears not only on the issue of Transkei, the "separate development" program as a whole and any other "solution" that the fascist regime may impose on our people; it bears also on new voices that we have heard raised arguing not only that majority rule in South Africa is a long-term aim, but also that non-radical solutions must be found for African issues, among which South Africa naturally features prominently.


The Vorster regime continues to exist because of the economic, military and political support that it receives from certain countries of Western Europe, from North America, and from Japan. It is clear to us also that another group of countries is being activated to act as conduits and fronts for the big imperialist powers. We refer to countries such as Israel, Argentina, Taiwan, and Iran.

Imperialist strategy with regard to South Africa remains unchanged from what it has been over the years. Its aim is still to strengthen the criminal apartheid regime to enable it to protect the joint interests of the multinational corporations which have invested in and are trading with South Africa and the superprofits that accrue to these companies.

It is timely to commend the United Nations for condemning the apartheid regime as constituting a threat to world peace and international security. In doing so we hail the concerted campaign waged by the vast majority of United Nations member states in favor of the imposition of a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa. The position adopted by certain Western countries in repeatedly frustrating this effort is being closely watched by our people, who expect all nations that love justice and peace to go beyond verbal condemnation and to take effective measures against this international pariah. The duplicity of those countries who join us in condemning the system, while buttressing it economically and enhancing its repressive, terrorist and aggressive potential through the supply of the most sophisticated war equipment, is consistent only with their hostility to African aspirations.

This military cooperation shows no sign of diminishing. Instead, secret military pacts, including attempts to incorporate the South African regime into the NATO defense arrangement, are concluded. And of late this has taken the form of nuclear collaboration intended to help the regime to fulfill its ambition to produce the atomic bomb. We are convinced that this sharply increases the threat to world peace and international security. After all, the Pretoria regime has now arrogated to itself the right to intervene militarily in all African countries south of the equator. It stubbornly persists in its provocative policy against the international community by continuing its illegal occupation of Namibia. For eleven years now it has been the major ally of the illegal Smith regime. It recently committed naked aggression against the People's Republic of Angola and in fact pursues a policy of permanent subversion and aggression against neighboring states such as Zambia, Mozambique, and Angola.

We call on the aforementioned member states, particularly the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, to abandon their shortsighted policy. The young people wantonly killed in Soweto and elsewhere by Vorster's bloodthirsty policy using Western arms are survived by hundreds of thousands who are today swelling the ranks of the revolutionary forces in South Africa. Their determination to lay down their lives for the liberation of their fatherland guarantees the irreversibility of the revolutionary tide that will certainly be crowned with victory over the apartheid regime. And since we have not given up our hope of having the entire international community rejoice with us and the African continent over that inevitable victory, we call on the United States, on France, and on the United Kingdom to support the invocation of chapter 7 of the charter, which we implore the General Assembly to propose for consideration by the Security Council this year.6


While imperialism has these interests in South Africa, while it predicates its own survival on the survival of the white minority regime, the confrontation between the African National Congress and the masses of the people of our country, the liberation movement as a whole, on the one hand, and the forces of imperialism, on the other, cannot but grow sharper, for a strategy for the strengthening of the criminal apartheid regime is simultaneously a strategy for the destruction of the forces within South Africa that seek to bring about a genuinely popular change. The same idea is conveyed in statements made by representatives of the United States government that a nonradical solution for the South African question must, for the long run, be found. We take this to be a very categorical and clear statement by the world's leading imperialist power, on its own behalf and on behalf of its allies in NATO and elsewhere, that it is prepared to accept only such a solution as would leave its interests in South Africa intact.

Neither the African National Congress nor our people as a whole can ever accept such a solution. The attempt to build up collaborationist forces inside South Africa that will accept such a solution will also meet with a dismal defeat. The only basis on which to judge the acceptability of any solution is whether it accords with the fundamental interests and aspirations of the broad masses of our people.

At the present moment the big imperialist powers and their junior partners such as Israel, are quite clearly ranged solidly together against the liberation of our people. It is they who have consistently defied the call by the peoples of the world to isolate and destroy the criminal apartheid regime. It is they who supplied the arms for the butchery of eight-year-olds, which continues to this day; they who have given Vorster the moral strength to defend the South African racist system without regard to the loss of human lives. Their hands are therefore as soaked in the blood of our people, which ran in rivulets in Soweto, in Athlone, and elsewhere, as are the hands of Vorster himself.

Victory Is Certain

Mankind as a whole is, however, still moved by the dread horror of the apartheid system. The time to cry out "enough—no more" has come.

Thousands of our people, including the very youngest, are held in Vorster's prisons, subject to daily torture. Many have already been murdered. This imposes yet another duty on the international community—to press for the immediate and unconditional release of all patriots detained and imprisoned by the racists.


Today the attention of our people is focussed on this august body. In their view, since the nations gathered here have denounced the apartheid regime as one that constitutes a crime against humanity and a threat to peace, they cannot at the same time give it the material and moral wherewithal to continue its crimes.

The victory of our cause is assured. As no force was able to deny the peoples of Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau their right to national self-determination, equally no force will be able to deny us our liberation. The peoples of Zimbabwe and Namibia will be free sooner rather than later, and so will the people of South Africa.

We have set ourselves one task and one task only—to seize power from the fascist regime. To achieve that we have been forced to take up arms. We shall pursue the armed struggle not merely for the abolition of racial discrimination or for amendments to the apartheid system of national oppression, exploitation and fascism. We fight to transfer political power into the hands of the people. When, in June and in subsequent months, our people replied to the fascist power with the cry "Amandla ngawethu," they meant "Power to the people." It is with that power that the people will transform our country into an acceptable member of the international community and create within it a society that upholds civilized and humane standards.

The African National Congress, the vanguard organization of the broad liberation forces of our country for many decades, remains unwavering in its determination to carry out its historic mission of heading all these forces to victory. Despite all attempts to suppress them, its ideas find a ready response among the masses of our people. Since its foundation it has, for instance, fought tirelessly to ensure the unity in action of all the oppressed people. Today the fruits of that labor are evident to all.

We are in the forefront of a struggle in South Africa whose victorious outcome is demanded not only by our people but also by the imperative of world peace. We have come here and spoken to try to get the rest of humanity that loves freedom and peace to renew its pledge in word and deed to support our people until power is restored into their hands.


I am certain that all those assembled here will not fail us. We are strengthened in this conviction by the fact that the General Assembly has affirmed the legitimacy of our armed struggle. We are strengthened in it also by the knowledge that the Organization of African Unity, the Socialist countries, the Non-Aligned Movement and the democratic forces in the imperialist countries have continuously demonstrated their resolve to support our struggling people. We are strengthened by the positions consistently taken by the Nordic countries.

The fascist regime in South Africa is in a more precarious position than it dares to admit. Like a wounded beast, it is exacting a terrible toll on our people. That impels all of us to join in a concerted effort to stop the bloodbath by destroying the criminal regime now.

Source: Oliver Reginald Tambo, "Support Our People Until Power Is Restored to Them," speech, Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, New York, 26 October 1976. The speech is available at the Web site of the African National Congress, at http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/or/or76-4.html (accessed 16 July 2004).


Note 1: Ambassador H. S. Amerasinghe of Sri Lanka was the president of the General Assembly. back

Note 2: Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka, was elected chairman of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries in August 1976. Ambassador Amerasinghe became Chairman of the Non-Aligned Group of States at the United Nations. back

Note 3: International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted by the General Assembly in 1973, entered into force on 16 July 1976. back

Note 4: On 9 November 1976, in resolution 31/6 I, the General Assembly proclaimed that "the racist regime of South Africa is illegitimate and has no right to represent the people of South Africa." back

Note 5: The Bantustan—homeland—of Transkei was declared "independent" on 26 October 1976, the day when Mr. Tambo addressed the General Assembly. On the same day, the Assembly adopted resolution 31/6A rejecting the declaration of "independence" and pronouncing it invalid. No state recognized the "independence" of the Transkei or of other Bantustans subsequently declared "independent". back

Note 6: On 9 November 1976, in resolution 31/6 D, the General Assembly requested the Security Council to take urgent action, under chapter VII of the charter, to ensure the complete cessation by all States of the supply of any military equipment to South Africa, as well as any cooperation to enable the building up of military and police forces in South Africa. The Security Council, however, did not take action on this matter until November 1977. back