South African blacks boycott apartheid in Port Elizabeth, 1985-86

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Time Period:  
15 July
12 June
Location and Goals
South Africa
Location City/State/Province: 
Port Elizabeth
Location Description: 
Residents of black townships specifically targeted businesses in Port Elizabeth
Initial goals: the integration of public institutions, the removal of troops from black townships, and the end of workplace discrimination.

Goals later demanded/long-term goals: State of emergency to be lifted and political prisoners to be released.


Apartheid, the legalized segregation of blacks – and other people of color – and whites, was actively employed in South Africa. Black South Africans experienced discrimination in facilities, workplaces, educational institutions, medical care, and public services. However, organizations and individuals began rising up and demanding the end of apartheid. The African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912 and was the primary organization through which black South Africans began actively pursuing their rights through legal means. The United Democratic Front was also established in 1983 to fight against apartheid and initially included 600 local civic organizations.

Black township leaders also began organizing to fight back against apartheid as security forces became increasingly aggressive and anti-apartheid sentiment was continually being quelled. Mkuseli Jack was one of these leaders who had been a youth organizer since his teens. He, the other leaders, and the frustrated black South Africans in the township demanded the integration of public institutions, the removal of troops from black townships, and the end of workplace discrimination. The repression by the security forces and strife that occupied black townships were unknown to most white citizens of Port Elizabeth since white-owned newspapers and news stations did not report these disturbances.

To launch an effective campaign to cripple the white-owned institutions of Port Elizabeth and undermine the legitimacy of apartheid, several women suggested the idea of a consumer boycott to the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization (PEBCO) in May of 1985. Instead of shopping at businesses in Port Elizabeth, black South Africans would be encouraged to shop within the townships. This economic boycott began on July 15, 1985, and was met with a 100% compliance rate as noted by observers who were sent to monitor the outcome of the boycott. Within five days of the boycott, a white Member of Parliament noted that the economic boycott was the most effective weapon used yet. Due to the success of the consumer boycott, the government declared a state of emergency. Through the state of emergency the government imposed curfews, made thousands of arrests, restricted the movement of individuals, and ordered the South African army to occupy townships. The boycotters then responded to the state of emergency with a few more demands: the end of the state of emergency and the release of long-term political prisoners, such as Nelson Mandela.

By September 1985, white business owners became desperate and called upon the government to meet the demands of the black South Africans. In November, the boycott was still hurting the white businesses in Port Elizabeth greatly, and so a deal was reached: the boycott would end until March if the business owners arranged for black leaders to be released. Not only was this decision helpful for the businesses, but it was also helpful for the campaign as well. Christmas shopping season was coming up, which could have strained the South Africans' commitment to the boycott. By halting the boycott for a few months, it ensured the unity of the people for the next fight.

In 1986, as the deal was approaching its end, the boycotters imposed a deadline of March 31, stating that the boycott would resume if the initial demands were not met. On March 11, the government unexpectedly banned two leaders, one of whom was Mkuseli Jack. However, on March 22, the ban was lifted by the decision of a Supreme Court Justice on the grounds that the government had given insufficient reasons. Mkuseli Jack ripped up the ban papers, and used the celebration as a way to represent the solidarity that the campaign required.

As the demands of the boycotters were not met by March 31, the boycott was renewed on April 1. Mkuseli Jack re-energized the boycott by proclaiming that, "our buying power is going to be the key that is going to decide the future, that is going to decide our destiny in this country." The boycott continued for nine weeks, but on June 12, 1986, another state of emergency was secretly imposed. Security forces searched through the townships, arresting thousands and raiding the offices of black civics, trade unions, the UDF, the South African Council, and churches and also confiscating documents. Botha also spoke out to Parliament claiming that the boycotters and the campaign were aspects of the scheme by the African National Congress and Communist Party to take over the nation by force. Peaceful protestors in front of the Parliament building were arrested. This state of emergency was not the last as it was renewed every year for 3 more years. Repression became the primary instrument utilized by the South African government. Anti-apartheid organizations were driven underground, ending the consumer boycott.

Research Notes

Consumer boycotts in Port Elizabeth led to boycotts in other cities in South Africa. (2)

Ackerman, Peter, and Jack DuVall. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. Print.

Glickman, Harvey. Toward Peace and Security in Southern Africa. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1990. Print.

Johnson, Shaun. South Africa: No Turning Back. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Print.

Smith, Charlene. "S. Africa Boycotts: Last Peaceful Resort?" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 01 Apr. 1986. Web. 23 Sept. 2012. <>.

Swilling, Mark. "Urban Social Movements under Apartheid." Cahiers d'Études africaines: 363-379. Persée. Web. 1985.

Additional Notes: 
A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict (Documentary) also covers this campaign.

The state of emergency was repeated every year for 3 years.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Yein Pyo, 23/09/2012