On a night in 1983, the apartheid police came knocking on the door of a family home in the township of Soweto, located just outside Johannesburg. They were looking for ‘Vicky’ – a seventeen-year-old school student who, according to their informant, was involved in local anti-apartheid politics in the area. They found Vicky asleep in the bedroom she shared with her sisters and drove her to the local police station along with the six young male activists they had also rounded up that night.
Upon arriving at the station, Vicky was relieved. Her father, a local township policeman, was on duty. Surely he would release her, she thought. Yet instead, he was furious to see his daughter amongst the night’s catch of young political troublemakers. To him, her transgression was two-fold: first, in participating in the liberation struggle she was defying apartheid laws and threatening the hegemony of the apartheid state; and second, she had done this as a girl. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ He shouted at her. ‘Why don’t I get your brothers here? I only get you here, hey? You are a woman! How can you do this?’
This belief that girls and young women had no place in South Africa’s liberation struggle was held by many in Soweto at this time. And, in the almost four decades since, the presumption that political militarism was a male prerogative has led historians to paint the final, turbulent years of the country’s anti-apartheid struggle as a male-dominated affair in which girls and young women appear only as marginalised bystanders or victims of male-instigated violence. Since the mid-1970s, the struggle had been increasingly led by the country’s black male youth – children and students who became the vanguards and shock-troops of the anti-apartheid movement. As township politics grew increasingly confrontational during the 1980s, with renewed political resistance met by the state’s increased militarisation, girls and young women were thought to have been largely excluded from township politics.
Yet from 2013 to 2016 I met and interviewed dozens of women in Soweto who, like Vicky, had put their lives on the line to fight against apartheid while still teenagers and school students. Alongside young men, they had protested in the streets, picked up stones to throw at police vehicles, launched petrol bombs at enemy targets, and been detained, interrogated, and tortured by the apartheid state. Yet unlike young men, these young women had fought a battle on two fronts: against both the white supremacy of apartheid and local gender norms which confined them to the home, made them vulnerable to overlapping forms of personal and criminal violence, and stigmatised their political militarism.
It is these girls’ stories that Young Women against Apartheid seeks to tell. Based on three years of oral history and archival research, it explores what life was like for African girls under apartheid, why some chose to join the liberation struggle, and how they navigated the benefits and dangers that political activism posed. At the heart of the book lies the life histories of these women themselves. Now in their forties and fifties, most were eager to share their past experiences, repudiating arguments of young women’s absence from political activism during these years and constructing themselves as decisive actors in South Africa’s liberation struggle.
The stories they shared were captivating, moving from thrilling accounts of confronting police in township streets to harrowing narratives of their detention and torture. They were punctuated with the full spectrum of human emotion – excitement and joy, agony and revulsion, nostalgia and melancholy. They were also often contradictory and ambivalent – the same women would long for their days as a young activists and the excitement and freedom this brought, while also lamenting just how difficult those years were and the high price they paid for their political involvement.
The book addresses a persistent gap in our understanding of South Africa’s past. While much has been written about the involvement of young men in the liberation movement, and about older women’s roles, girls and female youth have been almost completely excluded from South African history. Yet their narratives also expand and complicate our understanding of the liberation struggle more broadly, as they highlight issues often eclipsed or overlooked in men’s accounts: they tell us about how activism was practiced not just in the streets but also in the home and classroom; how young people struggled to balance their conflicting roles as activists, children, friends, and parents; and the emotional highs and lows that political activism brought, and continues to bring, for those who dared to involve themselves in it.
These women’s narratives thus offer us a different picture of South Africa’s liberation struggle than those usually told by men: one that is messy, non-linear, and startlingly candid. It is no rosy, unequivocal celebration of a war won, but an introspective tale of what it meant to be a young woman against apartheid, both at the time of the liberation struggle and in the three decades since. For these women, the roles they played as activists have not been consigned to the past but continue to shape their lives today – their relationships with their parents, children, and partners; their positions in their communities; and their physical and emotional health. Young Women against Apartheid is a book that details these pasts but also highlights their continued relevance in the present, as these women insist that today they are ‘still struggling’ to achieve the dreams they had for South Africa’s future as teenagers.
Dr Emily Bridger is a social and cultural historian of modern South Africa, with particular research interests in histories of gender, violence, and memory during the apartheid and post-apartheid periods. Young Women against Apartheid: Gender, Youth and South Africa’s Liberation Struggle is her first monograph and was published by James Currey in January 2021. As of January 2020 she has taken up a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship to explore the longer history of sexual violence in South Africa. More about this project can be found here.
Dr Bridger’s blog was first published on Exeter’s Imperial and Global Forum. We gratefully acknowledge the opportunity to re-post it here.