SOWETO, South Africa -- Thousands of blacks boycotted their jobs and marched through the streets singing militant songs yesterday as the African National Congress launched a mass protest campaign that could last for weeks.
ANC President Nelson Mandela said the campaign of "mass action" was organized to put pressure on the white-minority government to accept democracy "not tomorrow but today."
Business leaders said up to a million people stayed home to join the protest or to observe the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto student uprising.
Although both police and ANC leaders had appealed for nonviolence, police reported at least 20 violent deaths in townships in the general Johannesburg area. It was not clear how many were connected to the protest. Snipers also wounded several people who were returning home from a rally commemorating the Soweto uprising.
Hundreds of township residents followed Mr. Mandela on a six-mile march through Soweto, chanting songs about AK-47 assault rifles and doing the "toyi-toyi," the dancing march of the liberation struggle. Some demonstrators wore the green and khaki colors of the ANC's military wing, Spear of the Nation, while a few carried wooden rifles and sticks.
Speaking to almost 30,000 people at a stadium in Soweto afterward, Mr. Mandela warned the government that there was much more to come if negotiations for a transition from white rule to a multi-racial democracy do not move quickly.
"We are not going to sit down and fold our arms. We are determined that majority rule will be introduced not tomorrow but today," said the ANC leader, who wore a black track suit with ANC lettering and a New York Yankees cap.
The ANC's campaign was planned in response to the breakdown in negotiations between the government, the ANC and 17 other political groups. The talks, which began with a burst of optimism in December, collapsed in May and show no sign of getting back on track.
"Mass action is being used in order to achieve what they were incapable of doing at the negotiating table," four top government officials said in a statement this week.
The government wants "power-sharing" between the whites and the now-voteless black majority, while the ANC wants a straightforward democracy that would inevitably result in a transfer of power to blacks.
Mr. Mandela said President F. W. de Klerk wanted a system in which white politicians would have veto power over any government action, even if they represented a minority of votes.
Mr. de Klerk, in a speech in Ulundi, the stronghold of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC's main black rival, responded that his government would not be "bulldozed" into accepting a constitution unsuitable for South Africa's "complexities."
While Mr. Mandela led the charge against the government, it also was clear from his speech that he was battling to keep his younger supporters in check.
Mr. Mandela said the ANC was under pressure from its frustrated followers to resume their guerrilla war against the government and to take the battle to white areas.
The 1976 Soweto student uprising galvanized the anti-apartheid movement after police fired on unarmed students and sparked major riots.
More than a million blacks normally observe the anniversary by not working. Business leaders said it appeared that 90 percent of the nation's work force stayed home this year. More than 70 rallies were planned around the country.
Mr. Mandela unveiled a marble memorial to the hundreds who died during the Soweto uprising. The students were protesting the use of Afrikaans, the language of the white minority, as the official language of instruction in black schools.