(This blog is from the summer of 2016.)
We spent our first week in South Africa not in Cape Town but in Johannesburg, and each day was jam-packed with visits to museums, memorials, and historic sites. Essentially it was a crash course in recent South African history before we immerse ourselves in our internships in Cape Town. This week really deepened my understanding of how and why apartheid came about, and how the disenfranchised and oppressed majority of South Africans eventually overcame the racist system. Since discovering that I would be traveling to South Africa, I became increasingly interested in studying liberation struggles in South Africa. This past May I ended up writing my final paper for a history class on how an Islam-oriented liberation theology was used in South Africa by the Indian and Malay populations to encourage consciousness, resistance, and solidarity with other oppressed races. The methods of resistance that were used here against apartheid are fascinating to me in how effective, widespread, and grassroots-based they were, and I’d like to learn more about the spectrum of resistance methods that were part of the broader anti-apartheid movement.
During our week in Jo’burg we saw a memorial to a kind of linguistic resistance in Soweto, a Black area where in 1976, school children protested being educated in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, in favor of English. The protest that consisted of children walking down the road with signs was broken up violently by the police, and several children were killed.
I’ve also learned of other methods of peaceful protest: refusing to work, burning passbooks, and finding trivial ways to be arrested to overfill jails and cause logistical problems for the state. I’ve also been thinking more about the place of violent resistance in liberation struggles since it poses such a big ethical dilemma and was part of South Africa’s broader movement.
“I arrived here from KaZuluNatal. I was arrested for not having my pass to be in Johannesburg. I was arrested many times for not having my pass. I was released, arrested again, released and arrested again. A week will never go by without me getting arrested. I grew up in jail.” -Solo Simon Gama
It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. (@ Constitution Hill)
Everyone has heard of Nelson Mandela, who became the face of the antiapartheid movement. But as someone whose initial knowledge of South Africa came from American-produced material, I didn’t know about Mandela’s involvement in armed resistance through Umkhonto we Sizwe, the militant wing of the banned ANC. I would venture a guess and say that most Americans don’t realize that Mandela, the face of South African freedom and democracy, viewed violent protest as justifiable in the face of state-sanctioned violence enacted by the oppressor, or that the state of South Africa considered the anti-apartheid movement as terrorism and thus a crime, under very broadly defined rulings that I assume were made to delegitimize the movement in people’s minds and provide a buzzword to cite as a reason for imprisoning dissidents. The phrase “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” comes to mind, which would definitely apply to anti-apartheid activists and the apartheid government.
It is interesting that Mandela, who the South African government labelled a terrorist, is viewed as a positive, peaceful force comparable to MLK or Gandhi by Americans, while Malcolm X’s approach to black empowerment is viewed with suspicion and disdain and simplified down to violence by citing his “by any means necessary” quote. Why is there this disconnect? Mandela was offered freedom from jail if only he would renounce violence, and he turned that offer down. I also reflected on how as Americans we tend to celebrate MLK’s successful nonviolence because it can fit into a type of nationalism that celebrates us in how far we’ve come, but we ignore his anti-imperialist views, because the US is not past that stage yet (but let’s hope we get over it soon because I think we’ve all had it up to our necks with “regime change” aka inserting pro-US puppets as other countries’ heads of state)
Looking back at how I learned history growing up, I think the dominant narrative I was told regarding social movements is that peaceful methods are always more than enough to bring about change in a reasonable time frame, and that working with the state rather than against it is the best way to go. I feel like another reading of history would show that while nonviolence is obviously ideal and should be adhered to as much as possible, successful movements are rarely, if ever, 100% nonviolent or in the immediate interests of the state. I guess a lot of my wondering about the uncomfortable issue of violent resistance and how it can be portrayed comes back to a topic we have discussed a lot all week, the existence of multiple historical narratives. These narratives have points of harmony with each other that everyone agrees on, points of friction, and points that don’t show up in other narratives, which can broaden and deepen our overall understanding of history.