The legacy of violence in the struggle for South Africa

An excerpt of an essay, titled “Nongoloza’s Ghost,” in Lapham’s Quarterly. It's published in partnership with Africa Is a Country.

Photo by Bongani Ngcobo on Unsplash

The violence of apartheid wasn’t merely symbolic and economic. It was physically enforced by policemen with barking dogs and by armed soldiers who patrolled townships. In everyday life, apartheid was violently upheld by white citizens who beat their employees and assaulted black strangers at a whim.

Inevitably, white violence created reciprocal black violence. After 1976 many black children never returned to school, because the education system had little to offer them. Undereducated, unemployed, and otherwise idle, they saw violence as a form of agency. They burned buildings and violently punished people they perceived to be apartheid collaborators. Their violent acts occupied a gray zone, a liminal space between political activity and criminality.

Sensing the political opportunities of that space, the ANC in exile exhorted the people, the youth in particular, to “render South Africa ungovernable.” In a clarion call for actions that would “hit back at the enemy, arms in hand,” they encouraged the insurrection that was already taking place on the streets.

At the same time the ANC, through the United Democratic Front, played a crucial role in building a culture of democracy by creating major nonviolent actions. The UDF frequently coordinated mass “stayaways,” in which people remained at home on specific days. There were also widespread “go-slows,” in which workers slowed down their productivity, grinding the economy to a halt. It organized sports boycotts and demanded inquiries into the deaths of activists in detention. It held funeral rallies that brought cities to a standstill. From Stockholm to London to Washington, DC, antiapartheid activists held up the UDF as a model of the power of the people and lauded it as an example of participatory democracy in action.

Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, and the ANC was unbanned. Over the next four years, as the party began to operate freely inside the country and exiled leaders returned, it was forced to address its contradictions. For decades it had fostered a culture of accountability among the community-based organizations that belonged to the UDF while it also actively encouraged black people to express their rage through violence. It did all this in the name of a democratic future.

Black activists were both victims of violence and its most strident proponents. They were wounded and killed by police—but they also set purported collaborators on fire, justifying their attacks in the context of the larger struggle and the overweening force of white violence.

Given the centrality of white violence to upholding apartheid, it is important not to pathologize black violence. White people were bound to violence in profound ways. Between 1967 and 1993, a generation of white men was conscripted, with many of them sent to the northern borders to kill guerrilla fighters from Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia. Like the black men they terrorized, many of them returned with post-traumatic stress disorder. In spite of its many victims, the conflict that began in 1966 and ended in 1989 has never been officially classified as a war.

After the historic 1994 elections that installed the ANC as the ruling party, there were hopes that the violence would end. Murders and rapes decreased in the years that immediately followed, but violent crime remained high. The gruesome statistics have once again begun to rise.

In the past five years, South Africa’s economy has tanked, corruption has mushroomed, and unemployment and inequality have spiraled. These declines have led to widespread bitterness, and many see the ANC as having betrayed its supporters.

As it attempts to appeal to a new generation of angry youth who are tired of broken promises, the ANC has begun to use more militant and populist language. Once the champion of peace and reconciliation, the party now plays up its military history, speaking as though the country’s liberation was achieved by force.

As these stories about gun-toting heroes begin to take center stage, the sacrifices of thousands of black South Africans who used nonviolent strategies to resist apartheid are pushed to the sidelines. Yet it is these efforts—not the threat of guns—that instantiated democracy.

South Africans are rightly proud of our vibrant and noisy democracy. We have a stellar constitution, an active civil society, and a fiercely independent media. The fact that each of these institutions works so well is a reflection of the better instincts of the ordinary women and men who made our democracy possible. They tutored children, ran day care centers, and ferried activists to rallies and marches in borrowed and broken-down cars during the apartheid era. Pushing forward without using violence, they created a blueprint for what social relationships might look like after apartheid. Their unheralded efforts stand as a reminder that victory is not made on the battlefield alone.

I was raised to believe that in the context of a just war, the ends justify the means. In other words, the oppressed have the right to respond to the violence of the oppressor with their own forms of violence.

Over time I have begun to question this belief. I compare Nongoloza and the Ninevites with the ANC and the youth of 1976 because I want to understand the difference between the violence of freedom fighters and the violence of gangsters in anticolonial contexts. Can I root for nineteenth-century African gangsters who were oppressed by colonial laws and systems in the same way that I root for twentieth-century revolutionaries opposed to apartheid? Did the Ninevites’ use of violence contain the same radical possibilities for social change? If enough people had followed Nongoloza, might he have been the leader of a revolution rather than of an underground gang?

The differences are vast, but in the end it comes down to this: Nongoloza fully inhabited his violence and was annihilated by it, whereas the young people who taught me “Kill the settlers!” while lovingly helping me tie my shoelaces on Sunday afternoons knew how to carry out violence but would not be defined by it.

For all its flaws, the ANC never abandoned a democratic praxis even when it was advocating for violent insurrection. The party was prepared to use violence but was never defined by its willingness to cause harm. The party could not have brokered the democratic deal that led to the end of apartheid if its constituents had perceived it as a thoroughly violent organization.

Still, the means the ANC used to achieve our freedom were harmful. Too many black people were killed in the years after 1976, and too many more were frozen in time: youths no more, even as they remained “children” of 1976. They fought back as best they could, but their trauma—like that of their radically flawed progenitor Nongoloza—was debilitating.

There is certainly a moral argument to be made about avoiding violence, but consider its tactical limitations: the seeming instantaneousness of violence—its ability to quickly deliver a result—foreshortens both strategy and a commitment to democratic transformation over the long term.

In South Africa, those who spilled blood have found it difficult to enjoy freedom. I am hopeful that the next generation comes to see that true liberation can only be grasped by those with clean hands.

Further Reading