There was a sizeable crowd that had built up on the streets in town. The pent-up anger and frustration of the black residents had boiled over. The crowd started marching up and down the streets; the anger had to be released somehow. “Azikwelwa! Azikwelwa!” This was the forceful chant of the crowds as their march continued. They were protesting the use of the only available bus service. “Hadipalangoe! Hadipalangoe!” Across one street appeared a group of men, black as well, but they were not with the protestors. Matter of fact, they were a counter-demonstration. These stick and axe-wielding men wanted the bus service to continue without disruptions, this is what they believed.
We would later find out that they were hired by the bus company to ‘protect’ the buses during demonstrations. 24 October 1956 on the streets of Evaton, these two groups were about to face-off. “Azikwelwa! Hadipalangoe!”
Evaton in the 1950s was a predominantly working-class township, in line with the pass laws of those days which regulated and controlled the movements of all black people. Many were employed in Johannesburg, a 40km bus trip away. At its peak the bus service ferried 2500 commuters to Johannesburg daily. The Evaton Passenger Services provided the bus services and had already experienced two major bus boycotts: In 1950 after the operator decided not to enter the township because of lack of tarmac roads, and in 1954 commuters demonstrated against overloading of buses. The longest and most effective bus strike was to come in 1955 and lasted until 1956.
In 1955, after fifty years of existence, Evaton could not go on as a peri-urban freehold area. Disgruntled residents had sent many grievances to the government on issues such as poor sanitary and water systems, increasing crime especially in the Small Farms sector, bad roads and failure by property-owners to obtain deeds of transfer. Evaton residents requested to set up a committee to run the affairs of their township. The Native Affairs Commission rejected this request and did not address the grievances. Resentment for the authorities was at dangerous levels.
Rents and taxes were increasing. Many workers would have preferred to find employment in nearby Sharpeville or Vanderbijlpark but were prevented from doing so by the enforcement of influx control regulations that were meant to distribute supply of labour amongst the different industries and areas. This meant many blacks still relied on the bus service to get to work in Johannesburg daily. On 24 July 1955, when the Evaton Passenger Service raised fares, the frustration and anger exploded into a boycott of the bus service.
By September 1955, a bus had been set on fire during the boycotts. The bus company responded by hiring six men to “protect the buses against pickets”. These men were blanketed Basotho whom had come to be associated with “Russians”, a gang of rough blanketed men armed with sticks and their default mode was physical violence. A small band of men, suspected to be from the “Russians” gang as well, joined the initial six men as self-styled followers. They became the main opposers of the boycotters.
The anti-boycotters were emboldened and recruited more reinforcements from Johannesburg, more “Russians”
Their influence grew and soon extortion was rife in the Small Farms area as residents paid ‘protection fees’ in fear of losing their lives. The police worked with this anti-boycott cohort and would not arrest their members in the many skirmishes that took place with the striking residents. The anti-boycotters were emboldened and recruited more reinforcements from Johannesburg, more “Russians”.
What had started as a demonstration by blacks against the draconian government had now descended into a black on black war. The “Russians” escalated their attacks against suspected boycotters. There were night fights and gun fire exchanges. The authorities were content to sit back and let the blacks destroy each other. Many police officers were observed patrolling the township with members of the anti-boycott team. In May of 1956, John Apolis house was burnt down. He was a colored resident whose son was a known boycotter. John Choko, a bus inspector was tortured to death. Bishop Sims of the National Church of Africa, a declared anti-boycotter, was attacked in his house.
The bus strike persisted throughout the following year. Mr Molefe and Mr Make were arrested and charged with treason for leading the boycotts. The authorities dug in and refused to yield or negotiate on a fare decrease or government subsidy such as existed in townships like Alexandra and Sophiatown. The bus service fleet was cut from 17 buses servicing the Johannesburg route, to only 8. The staff complement was also reduced by 50%. In all the violence, few arrests had been made by the police and they were predominantly of the boycotters. The “Russians” remained at large to ‘protect’ the buses.
As the two groups squared-off; boycotters vs anti-boycotters, the people vs the “Russians”, black vs black. Police were nowhere near the scene, it was heaven for the gangsters. This fateful 24 October would come to be known in Evaton as ‘Black Monday’. The fight was quick and brutal. Two boycotters were killed. When the police finally arrived, they arrested seven men, all boycotters, and charged them with public violence.
…boycotters vs anti-boycotters, the people vs the “Russians”, black vs black.
In the aftermath, there was another major clash between boycotters and anti-boycotters. Dozens of lives were lost. An agreement was reached between the Evaton Passengers’ Service and the Evaton People’s Transport Council, though bus fares were not reduced. The Transportation Board renewed the operating licence for the bus company. The “Russians” continued to operate undisturbed. A shaky peace had been established and would be the foundation for the events that would unfold in this area over the next three decades.