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Growing up in Diepkloof, Soweto, Zanele lived with her grandparents – a strict couple who, like most township parents, expected their granddaughter to cook and clean most evenings after school. But after joining her school's SRC, Zanele found that she was often busy in meetings until six or seven o’clock in the evening, leaving little time for her domestic work. As she became increasingly involved in the struggle, her household chores became more and more of an impediment. ‘It was a little bit difficult,’ she explained, ‘because sometimes you want to go somewhere to attend maybe the meetings. But you know that at home you must go and prepare the fire. You must go and put the pot for supper.’ She continued:
And then when you go there, maybe you are preparing the fire. Then you hear next door, they loud telling that, there's police who are coming! Then you have to leave all those things, and the pots are going to [laughs] be ruined. You know, it was so difficult. Maybe it was easy for men but for us it was difficult because I got beaten everyday by my grandmother. I didn't finish to do this [cooking, cleaning]…I was beaten, maybe in a week, thrice.
Once the police became aware of her political activities, Zanele's home life was complicated further. ‘Because I wasn't allowed to go inside the house,’ she explained. ‘When I go inside the house, you’ll hear my grandfather and grandmother, “Ai, ai, ai! You are going to bring the Boers here!” All those things, you know?’ Yet Zanele's relationship with her guardians was not a simple one of disapproval and chastisement. As a supportive gesture to her granddaughter's new political lifestyle, Zanele's grandmother would prepare food and leave it outside the house to make sure that Zanele was fed, even though she could no longer sleep at home. While Zanele at times expressed her joy in rebelling against parental pressures, she also spoke openly about the personal difficulties her politicisation caused: ‘It was so painful, because I missed them. I want to see them, you know? I want to change my clothes. But I wasn't allowed.
‘Nobody taught me politics,’ Florence explained early on in our first meeting in 2014. At eight years old, Florence witnessed the chaos that engulfed Soweto in the wake of the 1976 student uprisings. Curious about what was happening, she constantly pestered her parents for answers and explanations, but they refused to give her any. ‘You mustn't ask such questions, because you’ll be arrested,’ her mother told her. A year later, Florence opened a newspaper to see a picture of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela standing in front of her Brandfort home. ‘She was so pretty,’ she described, ‘and I started reading because then, the only black pictures that we’d seen in the newspapers, they were adverts…and the prettiest ladies would be advertising Lux, the soaps, the creams.’ But Florence did not understand the context of the article, which presumably detailed Madikizela-Mandela's banishment to Brandfort in 1977. Florence asked her mother and grandmother about Winnie and what had happened to her, but ‘nobody could explain that because they were scared of explaining…And it started triggering something in my mind,’ she said, ‘why are these people not telling but I can see that there's something happening politically and people were dying?’ It would be another seven years before Florence finally found the answers she was looking for – not in her home or in Soweto's streets but in her secondary school, Bopasenatla, at the age of sixteen. There, she met male students already politicised and heavily involved in COSAS. Rather than shooing her away, the male comrades she met at school encouraged her curiosity, answered her questions, and helped to equip her with the understanding necessary to recruit other girls into the student struggle. ‘With COSAS,’ Florence exclaimed, ‘I felt I had a voice; as a human being, as a South African, and as a woman.’
These stories from Florence's childhood are illustrative of how and why girls growing up in Soweto made the unconventional decision to join the liberation struggle while still teenagers and school students. They resented being shielded from politics and moments of political disruption in the townships. They could see violence escalating around them, and yet were offered few answers at home as to why this was happening.
Describing her childhood in the South African township of Soweto during the final decades of apartheid, Redi Tlhabi writes in her memoir, ‘to be a girl meant to be powerless.’ Born in 1978, Tlhabi's childhood coincided with the township uprisings. The now-renowned journalist and writer grew up in Orlando East, just down the street from many of the women interviewed for this book. She narrates her adolescence in Soweto with a mix of longing and lamentation, describing the township as:
…certainly, a perplexing place. The palpable jubilation and energy on the streets was no veneer; it was genuine. There were choir competitions, games in the streets and dancing at weddings, all of which offered some respite from the quagmire of suffering and oppression of the black nation…People made the best of an enervating situation and got on with life, work, childrearing and church…But poverty and unemployment lurked everywhere, always threatening to bring weary men and women to their knees. And the deprivation and violence brutalised many, crushing dreams and swallowing innocence.
Despite the increased interest in global histories of childhood and youth over the past few decades, we still know very little about childhood and youth in apartheid South Africa beyond the resistance paradigm. Given the emphasis placed on the histories of young activists, it is difficult to ascertain what a ‘normal’ adolescence was for African children and youth in apartheid South Africa. But primary and secondary sources alike demonstrate that during the 1970s and 1980s, young people's lives were increasingly shaped by escalating political conflict and violence. As Tlhabi acknowledges, ‘The Soweto in which I grew up in the eighties was very different from that of my father's day. Political violence was now the norm; young men and women disappeared, swallowed up by the never-ending struggle.’ Tlhabi's memoir offers a rich personal narrative of how young people's lives came to be distinctly shaped by the liberation struggle – even for those who stayed far away from politics themselves. She writes of the interruptions caused by ‘comrades’ at school who would ‘barge into our classrooms and order us home’. She grew accustomed to the large army tanks that patrolled Soweto's streets, and found herself fascinated by the ‘menacing soldiers with their big guns’.
After joining COSAS in 1985, Beatrice became a particularly active young comrade in her home township of Pimville. Throughout the latter half of the 1980s she worked as a women's organiser for the student and youth movement. When negotiations between the apartheid government and the ANC began in 1990, she continued her political participation and is still an active member of the ANC today. During our interview in 2015, my first impression of Beatrice was of a confident and passionate woman who was eager to share her story with a foreign researcher. She spoke about her past with a tangible sense of personal agency and pride in her accomplishments. At times this was expressed in terms of the collective achievements of her generation. Drawing on and contesting wider public memories of the struggle, she argued, ‘I think it’s, to be honest, normally they say June 16th , that's the era of the people that liberated our country. But it's not true. I’m not saying it because I was there, but I believe it's our era, from 1985, yes, the COSAS leaders, SOSCO, they are the people who liberated this country.’ Yet she also clearly believed in the importance of the individual role she played. Discussing male comrades in Soweto, she stated ‘I think most of the guys, they would say it's Beatrice; when they talk about Pimville they will talk about me.’ Far from overstating her personal importance to the liberation movement, Beatrice was right – when I spoke to male comrades from Pimville they did mention her as a key political force in the community.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Beatrice if she today feels empowered by everything she went through as a teenager. Given my initial impression of her, I expected her answer to be an explicit ‘yes’. However, her response was more complex than I anticipated:
Not exactly, because I’m still struggling now. You can see [laughs, motions around her township home]. I was supposed to have my own house, have my own car, but I’m not driving. It's difficult…But what can I say, at least I have something for my family. But basically, I’m battling, and you wouldn't say that I’m a politician other than that I’ve donated a lot.
In the years that have passed between the interviews conducted for this book and the writing of its conclusion, a new generation of young, black female activists have come to the fore in South Africa through the university-based ‘Fallist’ movements of RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall, which arose in 2015 and 2016 out of demands to decolonise the country's higher education sector. In many ways these women's activism has diverged from that of their female comrade predecessors: they are slightly older and generally better educated; they self-identify as radical feminists; and they have found a louder and clearer articulation of the multiple inequalities they face through the concept of ‘intersectionality’. They have refused to let their involvement in post-apartheid student politics fade into obscurity or be side-lined by the actions of young men, and have taken to journalism, social media, and academic writing to ensure their voices are heard.
Yet there are clear continuities as well as changes between these two groups of young female protestors, despite the thirty years and profound political changes that separate them. Both groups chose not to initially organise separately as women around explicitly gendered issues but joined wider political causes with shared motivations to their male counterparts. Yet once politically active, both groups also found that issues of race and class cannot easily be separated from those of gender and sexuality. While female students have occupied prominent positions in the Fallist movements, they have also encountered misogyny and sexual violence within its ranks. After a female student was raped in a University of Cape Town building occupied by RhodesMustFall activists in 2016, a new effort – EndRapeCulture – was started by the movements’ female members. Across several South African campuses young women staged protests, often while topless, promoting a ‘liberatory construction of the black female body.’ Some women even carried sjamboks as a symbol of their fight back against rape culture – a characteristic that made these 2016 protests starkly reminiscent of female comrades’ use of sjamboks against suspected rapists in Soweto in the mid-1980s. Both groups thus initially joined their respective movements in the hopes of affecting political change, yet within them also staged a wider challenge to gender inequality, sexual violence, and patriarchy.
Born in Diepkloof, Soweto in 1969, Lucy first became involved in South Africa's liberation struggle through her school's SRC around the age of fourteen. As an SRC representative she campaigned against the poor quality of education in her school – Bopasenatla Secondary – and was soon encouraged to join COSAS by older, male student activists. Lucy was an excellent storyteller – a quality which led me to interview her several times over three years. In each of our meetings she discussed her childhood experiences of racialised inequality, her views on gender, and the strong relationships she forged with her male comrades. Yet almost an hour into our first interview I still had little sense of her day-to-day tasks and activities as a comrade. ‘Can you tell me a bit more about some of your tasks?’ I asked. ‘Or what activities you participated in?’ Lucy responded:
We used to participate in all, in all of the tasks. There were boycotts…when we’re boycotting the buses and all those things, we used to go there and [laughs] hit the buses, throw stones to hit the buses. When maybe we were boycotting the shops, like Pick n Pay and all those things, when [pauses], maybe you come out of the bus with grocery we used to take them and throw the groceries all over the place [laughs]. So we used to do the same things with the males.
After experiencing a number of attacks from police and security forces at school or in Soweto's streets, Lucy learned to walk around the township with her pockets full of stones so that she would always be ready to fight. ‘They were so heavy,’ she lamented, ‘but we know we have to fight’. ‘Sometimes,’ she continued, ‘we’ve got matches and all that. Then when they come and attack us, we have to attack back with petrol bombs.’
Throughout our interviews, Lucy's description of her ‘tasks’ as a comrade repeatedly focused on confrontations in Soweto's streets such as those described above. She spoke candidly about throwing stones at police vehicles, making and using petrol bombs, and punishing suspected gangsters or informers. She repeatedly emphasised how her actions in the struggle were no different from those of her male comrades. Lucy's memories contrast starkly with depictions of township streets during the 1980s as deeply masculine spaces, ‘clearly demarcated as the social territory of young men only.’
Bessie became engaged in student politics as a young teenager in Dlamini, Soweto. Of all the women interviewed for this book she was the first to join COSAS in 1982 at the age of sixteen. During her initial years in the organisation she was often the only young woman present at COSAS meetings, but this soon changed as she focused much of her efforts on recruiting more female students to the struggle. This helped propel her into a leadership role in the organisation, first on the Soweto executive and then in the regional executive of COSAS. Bessie understood that there were certain societal factors that tended to hold girls back from the struggle. Women were expected to remain in the home, cooking, cleaning, and raising families, whereas the more challenging domains of politics and war were ascribed to men, she explained. ‘Our struggle was seen like a man's domain, you know?’ But Bessie insisted that she never witnessed such attitudes affecting female comrades in COSAS. Personally, she never experienced derision or disrespect from the young male activists she worked alongside. ‘They were so wonderful,’ she said of her male comrades. ‘I never had any problems…I was respected, highly respected.’ She shunned the idea of organising separately as women, believing that she personally could grow more as an activist by participating alongside male comrades. ‘I felt I grew faster, I grew much stronger engaging directly with men,’ she explained.
Bessie's account of being respected and treated as an equal by her male comrades jars with the previous historiography on young activists during these years, which describes comrade culture as deeply masculinist and disparaging towards young women. This chapter seeks to understand such contradictions and asks how young male and female activists related to one another at a time when township society was highly patriarchal, and during a period when young men increasingly asserted their masculinity through participating in the struggle. It explores both the gender relations that developed within the student and youth movement and how women remember these relations today, asking important questions about their overwhelmingly positive narratives.
Unlike the others in this book, this chapter does not address a single or concrete space or place, but rather a conceptual one: the ‘meeting’ – where young activists discussed ideology, shared dreams for the future, and planned their actions.
Shortly after the declaration of a state of emergency in South Africa in July 1985, Florence, a female comrade from Diepkloof, was rounded up by police along with fourteen male comrades. Then aged seventeen, she was taken to ‘Sun City’, as Diepkloof prison was colloquially known, where she spent the next two weeks in solitary confinement, her isolation broken only by regular trips to Protea Police Station for interrogation. As a COSAS leader, she explained, she experienced particularly harsh abuse: ‘you think of anything, they’ve done it to me.’ During her interrogations police forced her to strip naked, placed a wet sack over her head, beat her, and made her perform strenuous exercises. Yet despite such violence, she cast her arrest and time spent in detention as a central marker of her political commitment. In our first interview in 2014, she presented detention as a terrible experience, but one that could be overcome through a focus on the goals of the struggle and steadfast commitment to the liberation movement. ‘I told myself that even if I die, I’m happy,’ she stated. ‘Because I’d be dying for a cause.’ She narrated her experiences in detention fluidly and assuredly, without being specifically asked to do so, and as we were wrapping up the interview she added, ‘The only thing that I was praying for was to come out of that alive, so that I can tell a story one day. Luckily, thank you for coming today.’
A year later, I arrived back in Florence's Diepkloof home for a second interview but found her demeanour as an interviewee to be remarkably different. She opened by saying that she was so nervous and anxious to speak to me again that she had not slept the night before. ‘I feel so traumatised after talking about it,’ she admitted. ‘I realised that there are things that even though I want to remember… I cannot, because they can't come back to my mind… When you relive those moments, they bring up sort of anger in you and they open a chapter that you never knew you had.’
Vicky was seventeen years old when, in 1983, police came knocking on the door of her family home in Diepkloof, Soweto – a township located fifteen kilometres from central Johannesburg. It was the middle of the night and Vicky's family – her mother, two sisters and three brothers – were all asleep in their small two-bedroom house. Vicky lay beside her sisters. Her hair, which she wore in short tight curls during the day, had been neatly plaited into braids by her mother before bed. The police burst into the house searching for Vicky, shouting for the lang en skraal meisei met krullerige hare (the tall and slim girl with curly hair), as she had been described to them by a local informer. But in her night-time braids Vicky was indistinguishable to the police from her sisters. The officers returned to their van and brought in the youth who had informed them that Vicky was involved in anti-apartheid student politics in the area, demanding that he point her out to them. With the correct sister in their grasp, the police took Vicky, along with six young men they had also rounded up that night, to Moroka Police Station.
At the time of Vicky's arrest, South Africa was still in the midst of apartheid. Yet after two decades of heavy suppression, the country's anti-apartheid activists were beginning to feel a faint sense of hope. New resistance organisations were forming, township communities were organising against local grievances, and the apartheid government was beginning to implement a number of concessions and reforms. In the same year as Vicky's encounter with the police, activists came together to form the United Democratic Front (UDF), which helped to inspire a new period of mass insurrectionary politics. By the end of 1984, many South African townships were engaged in uprisings against the state and its local allies. This year marked the beginning of an unprecedented period of protest and political violence, as burgeoning activism was met by the state's increased militarisation and use of coercive tactics against township residents.
During these township uprisings, which lasted in various forms until the country's formal transition to non-racial democracy in 1994, it was often African children, students, and youths who became the vanguards and shocktroops of the anti-apartheid struggle.