“My Children! My Africa!” – minds under revolution

In Athol Fugard’s 1989 play My Children! My Africa! currently playing at the Signature Theater in New York City, each of the three characters has the opportunity to deliver a soliloquy that allows us to follow the course of their evolving consciousnesses. The young white student Isabel speaks of her cloistered and privileged life away from “the location” where most of the Africans live a ghettoized urban existence. An exciting world opens to her once she is granted the chance to debate against an African school and decides to study for a competitive exam with one of the a male students, Thami, and his teacher Mr. M.  Mr. M, an African teacher unnerved by the violent, revolutionary rhetoric sweeping the country, facilitates the study sessions between these two young students who come from different worlds and who embody the potential progressive future of South Africa. Mr. M also nervously eyes the rapid evolution of his star student Thami’s political thinking, a conflict between revolution and reform that becomes the crux of the play. Young Thami’s monologue allows us to hear the thoughts behind a black skin ready to shatter his white mask. The dates and trivia of English literature and European history that Thami and Isabel challenge each other over to Mr. M’s delight are no longer neutral facts when History has begun to erupt everywhere and the country is on the verge of a social and revolutionary explosion. Thami tells us:

Does Oom Dawie [Mr. M] think we are blind? That when we walk through the streets of the white town we do not see the big houses and the beautiful gardens with their swimming pools full of laughing people, and compare it with what we’ve got, what we have to call home? Or does Oom Dawie think we are very stupid? That in spite of the wonderful education he has given us, we can’t use the simple arithmetic of add and subtract, multiply and divide to work out the rightful share of twenty-five million black people? … My head is rebellious. It refuses to remember when the Dutch landed, and Huguenots landed, and the British landed. It has already forgotten when the Old Union became the proud, young Republic. But it does know what happened in Kliptown in 1955, in Sharpeville on twenty-first March 1960 and in Soweto on the sixteenth of June 1976. Do you?

Do I? I heard these words as a challenge that I cannot neglect—–

One could add more dates to help sketch out this constellation of rebellion against the white apartheid state: the massive 1946 strike of migrant African mineworkers, which was culmination of a strike wave throughout the late 1930s and 40s as the African proletariat swelled with the industrialization of the country that continued throughout World War II as white workers went to war. The strength of the miners strike and the state’s brutal repression in turn led to the arrest of the 51 members of the South African Communist Party and the eventual electoral victory of the racist and authoritarian white Nationalist Party in 1948, the party that would begin the process of creating the racialist, racist, and segregationist code of apartheid legislation. To mention only a handful of these laws: Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), Suppression of Communism Act (1950), Pass Laws Act (1952), Bantu Education Act (1953). The African National Congress (ANC), which had begun as predominately middle-class organization in the mold of Ghandi’s early Natal Indian Congress, was faced with rising class of citizens demanding organizational forms in order to express their rage at the hardening stance of the state, the worsening labor conditions, and the bloody police repression of any act of protest or disobedience. While the Communist Party was banned in 1950, its members went underground and joined the ANC, but it must be noted that this Communist Party was firmly in the Stalinist, popular front mode of winning a path with the middle-classes towards liberal bourgeois democracy, not workers’ power under a revolutionary strategy–Nevertheless the SACP and the ANC both were seen as serious threats by the government, the majority of whites, and capital.

This predicament, and others, can be discovered in a deep study of Kliptown in 1955, a study I will refrain from undertaking here, except to point out that the Freedom Charter that resulted from the mass meeting of 3000 people called the “Congress of the People” is a document worth studying in detail. Not only for what it contains, but the nuances of wording and how these nuances reveal the class and race contradictions in the movement. The Congress of the People in 1955 was a general assembly of sorts, and thought to be the most diverse meeting in South Africa’s history. Present were the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the white anti-apartheid Congress of Democrats and the South African Congress of Trade Unions, a recently formed union of African workers shut out of the white unions. Participation from all corners of working class life was encouraged and thousands of demands were sent in from meeting groups of workers across the country. This enthusiasm for the event by working-class circles was met with trepidation from some other quarters such as the ANC, which originally called for the meeting. One clause remained controversial among the ANC leadership, but shows the participation of a deep strata of workers:

The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth!

The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people;

The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;

All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people;

All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.

–Commitments that the leadership of the ANC had to slowly back away from or cleverly reinterpret in order to not alienate the middle-classes and liberals nervous over the implications of “nationalization.” Nelson Mandela in particular had to back-pedal from the Charter’s potential revolutionary meaning by stating that it was ‘by no means a blueprint for a socialist state’ and later stating in court in 1964 that “the ANC has never at any period in its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.”

Kliptown 1955 and the passing of the Charter also led to the eventual split of the Pan Africanist Congress from the ANC because of the document’s insistence on a color-blind society inclusive of all minorities (even white) and a denial of African nationalist language. The late 1950s saw the state condemnation of the Congress of the People as treason and a general widening and deepening of the struggle which would result in the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960. This very Pan-Africanist Congress, in competition with the ANC, decided to jump the gun on an anti-passbook campaign planned by the ANC by calling a march 10 days before the scheduled date. The resulting confrontation of thousands protesting the pass-books containing one’s identity and race that Africans were forced to carry resulted in the police opening fire on the crowd. 69 protestors were shot dead. The resulting furor, anger, riots, general strikes that lasted up to two weeks, violence, and demonstrations of tens of thousands led to a state of emergency being called by the government and divisions within the ranks of the rulers over whether to suspend the passbook laws. This potential revolutionary situation eventually failed to congeal into a coherent struggle and the hesitations in the leadership of the Africans allowed the government to regain the initiative, arrest thousands of workers and militants, and ban both the PAC and ANC.

The 1960s saw a turn to guerrilla violence with the creation of underground organizations such as the ANC and Mandela’s Umkhonto we Sizwe and the PAC’s explicitely anti-white Poqo. Violence becomes explicit and theorized– The Soweto Uprising, being led by high school students protesting the enforcement of both Afrikaans and English as languages to be employed equally in the African classrooms–Afrikaans being the language of the “elected” oppressor–leads us back to “My Children! My Africa!” and its concentration on the educational environment as a locus for revolutionary consciousness. To do justice to the intersections of this uprising and Fugard’s play is perhaps a task for another post, when the difficult nuances of Soweto can be teased apart and placed against the intricacies of the play– Helena Pohlandt-McCormick’s text “I Saw a Nightmare…” Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976 is an excellent (and free!)  analysis of the uprising that attempts to restore a voice to the subaltern actors who created the history, as opposed to the government and ANC and others who attempted to bend the history to suit their different self-serving goals.

In the meantime, to the question,  do you “know what happened in Kliptown in 1955, in Sharpeville on twenty-first March 1960 and in Soweto on the sixteenth of June 1976. Do you?” I hope we can answer tentatively, but not definitively, “yes”

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