South African writer Nokuthula Mazibuko says her recently published book, Spring Offensive, is concerned with the “missing link” in her country’s much-documented struggle against apartheid. She has set out to narrate the sacrifices made in the 1980s by South African youth, who formed underground structures at the height of the popular resistance to the racist policies of the National Party (NP) government. Mazibuko says much has been written about the fight against white supremacy in South Africa. But she feels that most of the young people who fought the might of the apartheid machine in the townships have received little or no recognition. In the fourth part of a series on new African authors, VOA’s Darren Taylor tells of Mazibuko’s quest to herald South Africa’s unsung heroes.
In her various narratives about anti-apartheid resistance, Mazibuko presents the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa as two “very different eras,” albeit with education tying the two decades together.
“I wanted to join the dots between the 1970s – when there was this drive to get education; that was seen as your only hope as a black person – and the meltdown that happened in the 1980s, when the slogan ‘Liberation Before Education’ was prevalent amongst militant township youth. It’s to understand why that happened, and how we can recover from it,” she explains.
Mazibuko acknowledges her father, Fanyana, as a great influence on her. He was a teacher at Morris Isaacson High in Soweto, the sprawling township on the outskirts of South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg. The school served as a breeding ground for anti-apartheid activists.
“My father, although he encouraged his pupils to express themselves politically, was part of the same generation as Steve Biko (the South African black consciousness leader who was beaten to death by the apartheid police in 1977). They placed a great premium on education, while still advocating resistance to racism,” Mazibuko told VOA.
“A lot of the planning for the historic 1976 uprising by black pupils in Soweto against the teaching of Afrikaans, the language of the white oppressors, in their schools happened at Morris Isaacson.”
Mazibuko grew up hearing these stories “about the young lions my father had taught.” The police arrested Fanyana Mazibuko for his activism and served a banning order upon him.
“There was this funny situation where people weren’t allowed to come to our house and things like that, and my father was not allowed to teach. So politics was always there, in the family space, and this had a big influence upon me,” she says.
As Mazibuko became older, she began to notice the “huge difference between the white world and the black world” in South Africa, where “whites had everything – like good roads and things – and the blacks had nothing.”
In the 1980s, frustrated township youth abandoned the “old ways” of their elders like Mazibuko’s father – who had considered education to be the only means possible for a black person to gain a “passport” to a better life – and seized any weapons they could to fight the apartheid authorities.
These youngsters abandoned education in favor of militancy, with this attitude being best expressed in their slogan, “Liberation Before Education."
In what was anathema to Fanyana Mazibuko, the youth who supported banned liberation movements, such as Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and its affiliate, the United Democratic Front, burned their schools and tore off their uniforms. The township streets, where they fought running battles with policemen and soldiers, became their classrooms – as did the apartheid jails. Books were abandoned in favor of petrol bombs and stones.
Some youngsters fled South Africa to join the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), in camps in neighboring countries. Those who stayed fought a bitter, isolated battle against great odds.
Whereas Mazibuko’s father had venerated education and its institutions, many South African youth in the 1980’s regarded their schools and teachers as representatives of the apartheid regime and symbols of their subjugation – and, as such, legitimate targets for attack.
This is the story that’s reflected in Spring Offensive through Mazibuko’s use of two protagonists – Nhlanhla Mabaso and Hlula Msimang.
“I’ve changed their names, but Mabaso and Msimang are real people who I had close contact with. The scenes I describe in my book really happened. It’s not fiction,” Mazibuko explains.
Her book details how the boys, from the Rockville area of Soweto, joined underground organizations and conducted clandestine operations, like weapons smuggling, for the ANC.
“I deal with a very small aspect about what was going on in South Africa at the time. I focus only on one underground youth cell,” says Mazibuko. “But there were many, and there are countless other stories waiting to be told.”
In Spring Offensive, Mabaso and Msimang talk in secret codes to avoid detection by the police and their informants, they meet contacts in queues at fast food outlets and dress in the uniforms of soccer players, for example, so as to be identifiable to their fellow underground anti-apartheid operatives.
In writing about two of South Africa’s youth activists, Mazibuko regarded it as her mission to reflect the “escalating revolt” in the 1980s against the “ridiculous system” that favored whites over the black majority.
“So many people were involved, both locally and internationally, in the underground anti-apartheid struggle. But people don’t know (about this). And that for me was the strength of the anti-apartheid movement – it had so many people, a kind of hodgepodge, diverse group of people. So the cops didn’t know what to hold and what to let go; they were really seriously outnumbered! I just wanted to bring a fuller picture to a lesser known story.”
Despite the thousands of oral testimonies recorded at South Africa’s historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, Mazibuko believes there’s still a “lot of space” for the addition of “smaller voices.”
“We’ve had the TRC, and the big biographies are, by and large, written: The biographies of Nelson Mandela, (ANC stalwarts) Walter and Albertina Sisulu, (musician) Miriam Makeba and (musician) Hugh Masekela. The challenge now is to include the smaller voices. There are collections that are coming out, like last year there was a collection of poetry commemorating the 1976 youth uprising in Soweto.”
She says the Internet has helped to include some of these “minor voices that tell major stories” in the narrative about South Africa’s past.
“So, in a sense, South Africans have started to write their own history, and my book is a contribution to that,” she says. “So it is happening. But in my view – still not enough. Because I think the publishing industry (in South Africa) is still kind of working towards really taking off, in a way that is empowering to all South Africans and not just small groups with a bit of money.”
A “little” story that Mazibuko seeks to reflect in Spring Offensive is one that’s very far removed from the book’s overarching theme of youth rebellion against apartheid.
“There’s a group of Christian, little old white ladies who were hiding the kids when they were underground; they would hide them at the Grail Center (in Johannesburg), because the police wouldn’t think of looking there. Their voices, as well, need to be heard. The more diverse narratives come up, we’ll get a fuller picture of what went on.”
Spring Offensive also tells how Mabaso and Msimang, who are now in their thirties, are struggling to come to terms with life in a democratic South Africa.
“Many of these former youth activists are deeply traumatized as a result of what they went through in the 1980s. We’re talking about people who suffered terrible police torture. They were never allowed to be children. They were brutalized, and in many cases they inflicted brutality as well. They are finding it difficult to be normal members of society, because they still define their lives according to the past and cannot seem to move on,” says Mazibuko.
“These are not famous activists who’ve received international recognition for their sacrifices. They have largely been ignored in the new South Africa. I hope my book will show that they are also heroes, and that their voices can be added to those of the famous South Africans who fought against apartheid.”
And what of the “new South Africa” Mazibuko speaks of? Is it just black people in the country, like her, who are seeking to remember? Are many white South Africans still refusing to acknowledge the past, as they did when they belittled the TRC proceedings and denied that they’d known about the atrocities the NP government was committing in the 1980s?
The writer smiles at the questions, and then answers: “I feel that many South Africans across all races are proud of the resistance to apartheid. I think that story is one that a lot of South Africans are very proud of – black South Africans and white South Africans. Of course, there will be some people who say: ‘Hey, no, this is too hectic; let’s just forget about it,’ you know. But I think most of the people are saying that: ‘Look, it’s part of who we are, and this is what we transcended, and this is the story that we have to tell.’”
Mazibuko says this can be seen in the films that are being produced and the books that are being written.
But South Africa remains beset by massive challenges. She names poverty, crime and education as three of them.
“The black majority is still poor. Crime is a reflection of this poverty. Officially, blacks and whites have access to the same education. But blacks are by and large poor, so they can’t afford the good education,” she says, before adding: “But good things are also happening. More blacks are being granted bursaries to study.”
Mazibuko remains optimistic about her the future of her homeland.
“We didn’t annihilate one another, as the world expected us to do. That is amazing. We have one of the most powerful economies in the southern hemisphere, in spite of all our problems. Life is improving, although it’s happening very slowly. We need serious job creation.”
But Mazibuko says South Africa is the only place she’d consider living.
“South Africa is an interesting country. A friend of mine likes saying that South Africa is not for sissies. It can be really hectic. But also, it can be really hectically beautiful! There’s no kind of middle ground to South Africa. There’s joy, there’s ecstasy and then there’s horror as well.”