Late in the afternoon the coal-burning stoves of Soweto are fired up to cook the evening meal. As pots of vegetables and meat boil furiously inside, smoke rises to the outside and hangs in a serene and quiet pall over the thousands of uniform match-box bungalows spread as far as the eye can see.
According to residents of this huge, all-black community southwest of Johannesburg, this is an accurate analogy to the mood of Soweto. "The people are boiling under the surface," said one black social worker. "They are angry and they are getting angrier," said a newspaper man.
Yet, externally, all is quiet. "It's true there is a lull now," said one young black journalist, putting it mildly.
The government swoop of Soweto political leaders on Oct. 19 has stopped practically all political activity. According to their own admission, the students, who spearheaded Soweto's political protest two years ago, are today awash in disarray, confusion and apathy. The Soweto Students Representative Council is inactive and its last leader recently fled the area, according to one informed source.
"They've run out of ideas," one young black said of the students.
The school boycott was a double-edged sword for the students. Although it successfully brought bantu education in Soweto to a grinding halt, it also deprived them of their most valuable asset - daily contact. Without telephones and cars, it is difficult to arrange political meetings.
With the demise of the Students Representative Council, some students have reportedly said they will join cells of banned groups like the African National Congress. Since this is underground activity, there is no way to judge just how much of it is going on.
"People are getting reorganized, but it's more difficult," said one black executive.
The Soweto Action Committee and the more conservative Soweto Residents Committee are keeping up the semblance of organized political activity, but they are not openly defying the government. At the last public meeting called by the Soweto Action Committee on Dec. 16, the attendance was only about half what it had been in the days just before the bannings and detentions. Many stayed away out of fear, Sowetans said.
Meanwhile, at the offices of the West Rand Administration Board, which runs Soweto, a white township manager said, "As far as I can see, we have no problems right now in Soweto." As he talked, typists in the next room were preparing the voters' rolls for the forthcoming elections for community councils in February.
As Sowetans see it, announcing elections for the councils, which all the arrested leaders opposed, is just one of the initiatives the government hastened to take while the township was reeling from the Oct. 19 crackdown. Elections were announced Oct. 21. Soon after, the Biko inquest took place and them 2 rent increases came in December.
The Soweto Action Committee has kept up some vocal oppositions to these measures, but the facts are that most people have paid their rents so they won't lose their homes, that there was no protest at the Biko verdict and that the West Rand Administration board is now claiming thousands of voters have already registered for the elections. The figures are disputed by Soweto's organized political groups.
In any event, the February elections will be watched as a barometer of Soweto's mood.
No one can tell you when the boiling anger of the Sowetans may run over again. They deny that another era of political quiesence is setting in, such as happened after riots in 1960 at Sharpeville. All they can say is that when an eruption does come, "it will be unorganized, and spontaneous." "It will be unpredictable and therefore more dangerous," said one black social worker.