This book is not the final word on the Soweto uprising. Like all events and experiences, those of Soweto needed to be given meaning. This book, at its most fundamental level, explores the convoluted interrelationship between history as it occurred, history as historians have written it, and the memories of those who participated in or witnessed the Soweto uprising.109 Much of this book is about the processes through which memory is produced and constructed. I begin with the premise that memory and forgetting, remembrance and obliteration, social amnesia and its institutional or legal counterpart, amnesty,110 are a central part of collective and individual identity and history. The pasts of any country or people are multiple, diverse, and constantly changing. This book tries to disaggregate memory, to investigate how these multiple pasts give meaning to and are (re-)constructed by individuals, groups, and institutions for changing and different purposes. The uprising in Soweto has been described and analyzed by historians and political scientists. It profoundly shook apartheid authorities, and the meaning of the events in Soweto and other townships has been manipulated, diminished, and then laid to rest by the government. It surprised an unprepared ANC, which then used its momentum to reestablish itself in South Africa. It was, as events unfolded throughout the African communities in the country, described and commented on by the media, in the end dooming some newspapers, including The World, to closure at the government's hands. It preoccupied the legal system, which was at once charged with punishing those who had "threatened the security" of the state and disrupted "law and order" and with arbitrating the war of definitions that raged before its benches. Together, these many storylines constituted the multiple memories of "Soweto."
My book does not offer merely another alternative interpretation of the story of Soweto, no single narrative of the past or single interpretation, but rather the multiple stories that were told and the contested meanings that were attributed to the events of Soweto. I seek to describe the relationship between these multiple narratives as well as the processes of societal and individual remembering and forgetting, looking at the many levels, layers, spaces, and times in which they took place. I would like to advance five arguments.^top
Chapter 4: "Dissent, Division, Difference—Solidarity" This book presents a reassessment of the imaginative, creative, and often desperate actions of Soweto's youngest activists. Student participants spoke from inside the uprising. The following chapters lay open some of the ambiguities, differences, and contradictions in a series of stories by and about the historical actors, establishing, for example, that a person might be torn between the impetuous new politics and her father's authority and wisdom, both of which simultaneously drew and repelled her. The narratives surprise with the proximity of comedy and ridicule to the horror of violence, death, and disappearances, with the contradictions between the everyday (a tupperware party) in the midst of the outrageous, the macabre, the unheard of (the midnight dumping of bodies at Avalon cemetery by helicopters).111 They also show how little-known but horrifying situations, such as disappearances and long searches for lost children, became part of the everyday rather quickly.
Allowing for the existence of such ambivalences and contradictions is precisely to acknowledge the diverse experiences and realities of those who were there. It is in the messiness of personal stories that the true heroism is discovered as well as the daring ability of students to overcome their differences and take on the immense power of the state. It is the very messiness of the story that allows me to trace the impact of the continued experience of violence and the efforts and capacity/ability of each individual to act and think and remember historically, engaging with what was happening around her at the time and remembering and making meaning of it as time passed into the present.160
At the same time, I argue, it is this messiness and the fast pace of change that literally overtook events in Soweto, although perhaps some of the pace, some of the urgency may be attributed to the Soweto uprising itself, its explosiveness, the speed with which it enveloped the country, its youthful abandon. But events in the 1980s and later also superseded Soweto. New school boycotts and the further radicalization of youth politics as well as concerted attempts to unify resistance (in the form of the United Democratic Front) and keep the pressure constant on the government drew attention away from what had happened in 1976. At a broader analytical level I am therefore posing the question of how to historicize political change, arguing that its pace was highly variable along a scale that had on the one end the slow attrition of a government's authority and, on the other, the explosiveness of a coup d'état or revolution.^top
Chapter 5: "To Hell with Boere Taal:" Student Voices One of the insights that emerged out of the participants' accounts of the uprising was the symbolic and material/experiential importance of the Afrikaans issue. In her analysis of the youth organizations, Gerhart pointed out that tensions remained unresolved between those who cautioned action and those who wanted to fight, and she pointed to the exact way through which conscientization—that first agenda of Black Consciousness—could be transformed into organized political action and institutions.112 But the students had already found their "exact way." By carefully revisiting the issue of Afrikaans, this book argues that students had hit upon the single most important issue in their lives, and one that could capture the imagination of all by the very way it spilled over into the nonstudent population. The question remains not whether students consciously chose Afrikaans as the most likely rallying point for student protest but whether they were aware of its power. Although I do not think this question can be resolved, as it reflects the wide variety of experience and expertise of the students (who was involved, and when, and how, and what stage?), I do think that, at the very minimum, some students must be credited with having found the perfect rallying point, even if they themselves were perhaps taken aback by the capacity of this issue to provoke protest.
Students consciously chose the issue around which to organize as well as the tactics of their action, but they could not consciously choose, or even determine, the outcome of their choices. Their protest march led to a series of events, some of which could arguably have been foreseen, but they also included things, such as an unprecedented level of violence, they had not imagined or experienced before. The outcome of their choices in turn changed students' strategies, targets, and issues. The chapter that analyzes the centrality of the Afrikaans issue in more detail is particularly important in supporting my central concluding argument: that the role of the Black Consciousness Movement and of Black Consciousness as a resistance philosophy with very broad implication has to be reevaluated, that the literature and collective memory have tended to underplay its importance partly because of the apartheid government's banning of it and because of the death of Steve Biko but also because of the overwhelming authority of the ANC's history and because of the imagery of struggle as it has emerged since 1976. If one takes Black Consciousness seriously, one has to take the vast symbolic importance of Afrikaans seriously. Alternatively, it may have been that the issue of Afrikaans could have held such a strong appeal only because of Black Consciousness, which laid bare its long-term consequences and meaning.^top
This book will try to re-place the Black Consciousness Movement into the history of struggle in South Africa to show that the movement was central both to the formulation of what it meant to be Black and to the conceptualization of psychological liberation as necessary to political liberation. We cannot misjudge the callousness of the government and its institutions such as the Bureau of State Security and the political and historical implications of its deadly resolve. For many it was the callous death of Steve Biko, as much as the arrest of Winnie Mandela, Aaron Matlhare, Aubrey Mokoena, and three hundred black leaders in 1977, that signaled the—temporary—victory of the security forces and took the very heart out of student resistance. A careful consideration of the political and historical context behind the Soweto uprising, including its grounding in the philosophy of Black Consciousness, forestalls such tendencies to see the events in Soweto in isolation and thereby echo the government's myth of the spontaneity and irrationality of the uprising. It opens the space to consider the "will and reason" of participants that not only "constituted the praxis called rebellion"113 but that was grounded in the recognition of the promise of political consciousness and political action of Black Consciousness.
The relative quiescence of the African people in the years after the Sharpeville shootings in 1960 was a consequence of systematic repression and harsh security legislation that crushed labor movements and any other form or institutions of political protest. This was also a period of great economic growth offset only by the lack of skilled African labor. By the 1970s, however, the international economic crisis was felt in South Africa in the form of simultaneous recession and inflation, with profits and the actual value of wages falling precipitously. The situation was explosive on the labor front, and strikes did indeed erupt in 1973 and 1974. Outside of South Africa, the revolutionary processes in Mozambique and Angola threatened South Africa's internal security and isolated the country. The General Laws Amendment Act of 1974 banned all sending of information outside South Africa. The Publications Act severely curtailed the rights of a free press, and the Affected Organizations Act sought to further control political expression. The Internal Security Act (formerly the Suppression of Communism Act), which provided for the "preventive detention" of those whose actions endangered "the security of the State or the maintenance of public order," was enacted by Parliament in the first half of 1976.114 Everything pointed to the fact that the South African government was well aware of a brewing crisis and that it had prepared itself brutally to meet it. In 1973, the government called on the Schlebush Commission to investigate leftist organizations in South Africa (among them SASO, the South African Students' Organization), with suggestions that a permanent commission be called on to follow up on such organizations. One of the most prominent political trials of the early 1970s was the so-called SASO trial, which ended in 1976, during which Steve Biko himself spoke from the dock to explain the goals of the Black Consciousness Movement. It is important not to let "turning points" such as the Soweto uprising divert attention from the way in which these preparations were linked in unbroken sequence with the repression of the student uprising and ended with the murder of Steve Biko in 1977 and were part of the orchestrated and coordinated resolve of the apartheid government.165
Notwithstanding that Jimmy Kruger—the minister of justice, peace and the police and, in this context, the official voice of the government—seemed increasingly "bewildered"115 as the uprising spread, the "coherent purpose" of apartheid should not be underestimated. Nor can the implacable will of the South African government to uphold the political order be overstated, despite what at times must seem like shameless lies and ridiculous contortions. As John Kane-Berman, one of the first analysts of the uprising, commented, "Apartheid [was] … as modern and methodical as the latest computer. George Orwell would have understood it perfectly."116 Assumptions about the inconsequence of Black Consciousness would abridge the history of those who initiated the movement, organized it, and died for it and who would complete the work of a government that sought to contain its influence by destroying its leadership, its institutions, and its spirit. They would constitute a refusal to look at the meaning and lived experience of Black Consciousness at the time and from the point of view of those who were part of it. Although it was the government that destroyed these lives and took away these histories, historians (and other thinkers) can perpetuate that violence if their own agendas and political allegiances (whether they were to the apartheid government or to any other political resistance movement, such as the ANC) underestimate the role of Black Consciousness and silence its stories.^top
Chapter 3: "Official Stories" In her book The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo, Luise White concretely tries to analyze what she had addressed more theoretically elsewhere: what to do when there are multiple accounts of the same event.117
Fixing blame… helps to organize a national narrative in which agency and causation are subsumed. If, as the Chitepo Commission argued… the assassination was caused by ethnic tensions, then ethnic factionalism becomes one of several founding myths, and one of the problematics, of the new nation. If the assassination was the work of Rhodesians, secret agents with technical expertise, then Rhodesian interference becomes one of the founding myths of the new nation and, if not a problematic, certainly an on-going phenomenon with which the new state had to deal…118
I will argue that the events of the Soweto uprising took both the apartheid government and the ANC by surprise. Both tried to fix blame or claim control during the course of the uprising and in its aftermath, if for very different reasons. In later years, the victory of the ANC changed the place of the story in the historical memory of the event. The choices the apartheid government made in terms of attributing meaning to the uprising reflected the challenge it represented to the legitimacy of the state. The choices the ANC-led government has made, largely through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reflect, I will argue, a deliberate decision to incorporate the uprising as a founding myth of the new nation, underplaying the historic political schisms it represented at the time, and underplaying the debate, which continues today, over the authoring of the uprising.
Public memory in South Africa has made the uprising into the "starting point that makes a new and linear national narrative possible,"119 has made it into a heroic first chapter in the story of resistance. I think this has important implications for the present and the future. In this case, the "problematics" that the uprising represented have been silenced anew, with important consequences for the completeness of the story and for setting a pattern of old and new silences and exclusion.170
The "traces of the past" that the many versions of the stories of the Soweto uprising contain—with all of their contradictions, differences, and ambiguities—are important precisely because of what truths about the past they represent, what linkages and elements of the past that their celebration as a turning point or as a beginning will obscure. Thus, Soweto as a "turning point" or as "the beginning of the end of apartheid" unmoors it from its historical roots (continuities and discontinuities) and obscures its internal inconsistencies and ambiguities, so eloquently described in Sifiso Ndlovu's Counter-memories of June 1976120 and so powerfully evidenced in the oral and textual archives of the participants (See: Chapter 4, "The Participants.")
Luise White's recent work has lent support to some of the thoughts I have been grappling with about the purpose of the different discourses and narrative that emerged, and continue to emerge, about the Soweto uprising. Clearly the uprising was an important event in the self-understanding and national narrative of the apartheid state, as it so directly put its legitimacy and standing to the test. But if it was to be a "founding myth" that needed to be included in the national narrative after 1994, as popular memory demanded, then referring to it as the beginning of the end of apartheid, the turning point, was to neatly sidestep the divisions and the powerlessness that it represented for the ANC at the time. For the ANC and the first postapartheid government, the Soweto uprising was an unhappy event to include in the pantheon of "founding myths." Like the exile experience and the turn to armed resistance, it represented a necessary but slightly unsavory episode in an otherwise heroic resistance narrative.
For the ANC, at the center of the Soweto uprising lay not a quandary/puzzle of culpability or clarification (for example, about who killed Hector Pieterson)121 but a question that would have struck at the very heart of the ANC's identity and at a potential problem facing the new nation: Black Consciousness, nonracialism, the role of whites in the liberation struggle, etc.—issues that had caused a bitter rift between the ANC and the Black Consciousness Movement and that the new conciliatory approach of the transition government could ill afford.
And this is where the Soweto uprising is different from Herbert Chitepo's assassination: It is the event itself, not just the contested or multiply constructed meanings of an event, that has to become part of the national narrative, or not, especially when the force of public memory does not allow for alternative versions. Soweto has become an icon of resistance in the public memory.^top
In the search for these determining factors among the processes of history in South Africa, symbolic, verbal, or actual violence was to be found everywhere, and it is therefore my argument in this book that it was the experience and memory of literal and figurative (symbolic, verbal, or actual) violence that held sway over the memories of South Africa and the making of its histories. The introduction of violence, the show of force, on the part of police, but also the immediacy and quickness with which students reacted with violence (i.e., an experiential, historical, and physical context of violence) transformed the march/demonstration into, first, destructive rioting ("circumstantial revolt") and then into a momentous, vital, adaptive, generational, and earnest movement. From a longer historical distance, I suspect, it will become clear that the movement indeed had revolutionary qualities and that they account for the profound and ongoing destabilizing effects that emanated from the uprising.122175
The violence was replicated throughout the country. The initial strategic error that the state authorities made by first discounting student protests and then meeting the student march with police gunfire immediately caused a groundswell of solidarity and outrage on the part of the African and Coloured population. It is probably impossible to determine how much of the protest movement was the consequence of a spontaneous popular uprising or insurrection and how much of it was built on already existing political organization and structures (such as those described by Zakes Molotsi and Sam Mashaba in Chapter 4.) But the police shootings caused such outrage that even the smallest existing structures were enough to galvanize resistance and create a larger social movement that reverberated throughout South Africa. Every time and everywhere the uprising touched a chord, it reconstituted itself both locally and nationally.
The shift in perspective toward the historical actors in the uprising, the shift that I propose in this book—because it is individuals who speak with the participant or witness voice that, together, compose collective memory—also permits an analysis of the effects of violence (and its absence) on historical memory—because it is the individual that experiences violence, which always has tools and always is enacted on somebody by somebody. I have grappled with such methodological issues as the meaning and context of the production of certain types of documents; with such theoretical issues as the influence of violence on memory and the relationship between individual memory, collective memory, public memory, official memory, and history; and with historiographical issues that I believe have shaped the way official and public accounts of Soweto have been cast. In this book I argue that violence in the broadest sense was central to the lived experiences of historical actors during this time because it was central also to the practices and ideology of the authoritarian apartheid state.
These forms of violence, in their physical and discursive shape, forged individual memories that remain torn with pain, anger, distrust, and unanswered questions; collective memories that left few spaces for ambiguity and doubt; and official or public histories that were tarnished by their political agendas or by the very structures, and sources, that had produced them. This book therefore places violence in all its aspects over all other influences that have shaped individual and collective historical memory in South Africa.
Violence experienced at the hands of the state or, as the consequence of brutal state policies, within society, is an essential element of historical memory in South Africa. Its effects—physical destruction of and injury to bodies and minds—threatened the basic ability of individuals to think historically, with immense consequences for collective public history. This book poses fundamental questions about the relationship between the experience of violence, memory, and the creation of history, arguing that beyond the experience of actual physical violence there lies a form of discursive, rhetorical violence that continues to do harm in the minds of people and that disrupts the ability to find continuity and meaning. If sufficiently pervasive and enduring, this violence moves beyond the harm it does to individuals and coagulates in collective memories and official histories—which may be in tension with each other, as they were for so long in South Africa—and returns to haunt the future in new forms of physical violence.
Centering violence in the historical memory of South Africans has consequences for historical research that go beyond shifting the perspective to include the unheard voices of the historical actors and, also, to look at documents in a different way. This is an approach that seeks to penetrate the silences; to look at the way language as well as concepts became and were made (unintentionally or willfully) accomplices in the process. For example, it was all too easy for historians and political thinkers, at the time, to pick up uncritically the South African government's portrayal of the spontaneity of the uprising, thus inadvertently, perhaps unthinkingly characterizing Soweto as a turning point. Certainly, the vehemence of the student rebellion, together with the speed with which it spread across the country, was striking and caught many off guard after years of relative quiescence among the African population. It was necessary but not sufficient to look for the causes of the uprising in its immediate historical context. But a treatment of Soweto as the turning point both in the history of apartheid and in the history of resistance needs to look carefully at the many reasons why Soweto was considered a turning point and at how that concept in and of itself reflects a certain vantage point. The students of the Black Consciousness Movement had been struggling for years to emancipate their own thoughts and to transform their philosophies into effective political action and institutions for change. This was certainly not news to the South African government, which had feared their potential power all along. The importance and impact of the Black Consciousness Movement, I argue, was underestimated and could be diminished partly because placing June 16 as a turning point inadvertently shifted analysis and understanding toward a chronology that began with that day, as if there had not been much to prepare for it.180
I have sought throughout for explanations for the cynicism, hypocrisy, and self-deception articulated by the spokesmen of the South African state during the Soweto crisis. My analysis of the state's discourses shows the state, in the face of the failure (then still temporary) of its practices of containment and repression of black resistance, adopting the tired rhetoric of crowd or "mob" behavior. This was rhetoric that, according to George Rudé, had historically treated the crowd as "irrational, fickle, and destructive; as intellectually inferior to its components; as primitive or tending to revert to an animal condition"123 — explanations typically capitalized on by those concerned with the threat that crowd violence posed to the security of the state and the status quo.124 This rhetoric became more strident as violence spiraled and panic rose with official inability to contain it.
In addition, I have constantly had to remind myself that one cannot simply demonize the perpetrators, just as one cannot romanticize their victims. In this struggle between empathy with or condemnation of the perpetrators, I have recalled Christopher Browning's words, "Explaining is not excusing; understanding is not forgiving."125 It is impossible to write this history without at least attempting to understand the state perpetrators in human terms, because otherwise one is drawn back inexorably into a structuralist analysis that does not acknowledge that the structures of apartheid violence and its practice would not have existed without its individual participants. Although my sympathies lie unequivocally with those who fought against apartheid and who were caught in its violence, human agency also has a more shadowed, brutal, but no less human face. If we do not consider the humanity of the perpetrators, and think of them instead as dehumanized machines, animals even, we reduce the immorality of their actions126 and diminish the reality of the bodily experience of violence and the validity of its memory for those who endured it:
"I got to the point during torture where I'd think to myself, 'This torturer, this guy torturing me now, is a man like me… not a martian, not a cockroach.'… I had just one goal—to stay alive until the next day… But it wasn't just to survive, but to survive as me." Rather than as a mutation of them.127
My approach would point to a conclusion that the South African apartheid state was no monolith, that it was not undifferentiated and unconflicted. A scrupulous history of something like the Soweto uprising helps to expose not only the fault lines in the totality of political, social, and intellectual control but also the contradictions and collusion between the state's totalitarian practices and democratic ideology—even if that ideology was a pretense and reserved for white South Africans only.
Sometimes the cool language of historical analysis seemed unequal to the task of adequately describing or understanding the events for which even ordinary language lacks a vocabulary. It is tempting to use a language of outrage and condemnation, just as it is tempting to quote and deride the words of government spokesmen. But I think this may do the cause of the children of Soweto a disservice. It allows the impression that those responsible, either directly through their acts of violence or indirectly through the system they upheld, may have been ridiculous, outrageous instances of police and state excesses: isolated cases, exceptions, perhaps numerous and terrible ones at that, but still exceptions. The larger outrage was the malevolence with which the South African state sought to maintain a society of racial exploitation by brutally repressing and deriding legitimate dissent, discrediting it where the suddenness and strength of the protest allowed them to vilify the original cause and justifying its policies by associating them with white society's fears and need to maintain law and order. Conservative estimates held that 294 people had been killed during the first three months of the uprising. Two of the dead were white, while 2,440 Africans and 5 whites had been injured.128 By the end of 1976, 630 African students and between 200 and 300 African adults had gone into exile in Botswana, Swaziland, and Mozambique following extensive police raids and arrests.129 The repressive machinery that had accomplished this was created and maintained by quite normal, intelligent, organizationally talented and schooled people. The overwhelming majority of them were white, although a small but consequential number of Africans had been co-opted into the system as police officers and administrators. Before this background, the acts and thoughts, even the speeches, of those individuals who were part of the state's structures and practices were simply the most outrageous expression of a methodical system of state-ordered repression and power. If, in this telling, an individual case stands out more distinctly before the system that forms the background, it is only because these events need to touch hearts and minds, because it is essential not to forget, or to underestimate, what degree of cynicism and callousness a regime of power can reach and to what terrible brutality it can lower its agents in its pursuit to maintain and reproduce itself or its power.
Note 109: Jacques Le Goff, History and Memory, tr. Steven Rednell and Elizabeth Claman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), x. back
Note 110: Claudia Braude and Derek Spitz, "Memory and the Spectre of International Justice: A Comment on AZAPO," South African Journal on Human Rights 13 (1997): 269-82 (paper also presented at the conference Legacies of Authoritarianism: Cultural Production, Collective Trauma, and Global Justice, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 3-5 April 1998). back
Note 111: See Kane-Berman, Soweto, 26, and Patience Tshetlo's story in chapter 6. back
Note 112: Karis and Gerhart, From Protest to Challenge, 5:156-63. back
Note 113: Guha, "Prose of Counter-Insurgency," 2. back
Note 114: See Kane-Berman, Soweto, 38. back
Note 115: Ibid., 8-9. back
Note 116: Ibid., x. back
Note 117: White, "Telling More." back
Note 118: Luise White, The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 9. back
Note 119: Ibid. back
Note 120: Ndlovu, Counter-memories. back
Note 121: Luise White, Assassination of Herbert Chitepo, 9. back
Note 123: George Rudé, The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730-1848 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1964), 9. See also Ranajit Guha, "The Prose of Counter-insurgency," Subaltern Studies, no. 2 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1-3. Guha has similarly pointed to a tendency among those colonial writers on rebellion, revolts and insurrections to depict them as "purely spontaneous and unpremeditated affairs" in which the "masses" had little "will and reason." Such explanations are characterized by "metaphors assimilating peasant revolts to natural phenomena: they break out like thunder storms, heave like earthquakes, spread like wildfires, infect like epidemics. In other words, when the proverbial clod of earth turns, this is a matter to be explained in terms of natural history." Such historiography has assumed an "identity of nature and culture, … of a very low state of civilization … exemplified by … crime and lawlessness." In South Africa, the state's discourse was similarly characterized by explanations of criminality or deviance, irrationality, corruption and, instigation, with a generous sprinkling of anticommunist rhetoric so familiar to the Cold War era. back
Note 124: Stephen Reicher, "The Determination of Collective Behaviour," in Social Identity and Intergroup Relations, ed. Henri Tajfel (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 42: "… nearly all the work on crowd psychology has occurred at times when the crowd was seen as a threat to the stability of society; … early work has an obsession with the rise of socialism, and the recent work arose out of the student protests and the civil rights demonstrations of the sixties." back
Note 125: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), xx. back
Note 126: Hannah Arendt also makes this argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Viking Press, 1963). back
Note 127: Mario Villani, quoted by Feitlowitz, in Lexicon, xii. back
Note 128: These numbers were published by the South African Institute of Race Relations, which quoted Colonel J. J. Gerber, divisional inspector of police in Soweto. See SAIRR, Survey 1976, 85. back
Note 129: SAIRR, Survey 1976, 105. back
Note 130: Guha, "The Prose of Counter-insurgency," 38-39. back
Note 131: Murphy Morobe , interview by John Robbie, Radio 702 Talk Radio, 16 June 1993. back
Note 132: While this list is by no means exhaustive and there are many other works that, in their entirety or in parts or chapters, address the Soweto uprising, I consider these four book-length treatments the most important, not necessarily because of the weight or lack of weight of their arguments but because of the richness of their detail and the meticulousness of the research and breadth of their scope. back