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Children Without Childhoods

South Africa

Children without childhoods
A lost generation of thugs and hooligans? Or anti-apartheid soldiers who have not received their due?
Nancy Scheper-Hughes looks at the classroom warriors of the townships.

At a special showing in Cape Town of the once-banned anti-apartheid film A Dry White Season I was unprepared for the spontaneous audience reaction: boos and hisses accompanied scenes of the 1976 Soweto schoolchildren’s uprising.

It was August 1993. I had just arrived to spend a year as a visiting academic in South Africa and was still suffering from a combination of jet lag and culture shock.

‘Decent people are just sick and tired of violent schoolchildren on the rampage,’ explained Pamela, my new colleague. She was the same person who, when driving us into Cape Town from the airport along the notorious N2 highway, warned us to be ready to duck for cover at any time. ‘This is the part of the road where township “totsies” (young black thugs) stone “white” cars,’ she said, flashing her brilliant, tense and biting smile. And no wonder, I thought, looking out on the ugly stretches of plastic, cardboard and corrugated-iron shacks behind razor-wire – fenced-in squatter camps that looked like bombed-out concentration camps, surpassing in sheer physical misery any Brazilian favela I had ever seen.

But before the month was out I too had seen my fill of media images of local township schoolchildren burning textbooks, toi-toying to the chant ‘one settler one bullet’, overturning and ‘torching’ the cars of suspected government ‘agents’ who dared to enter black townships during an ANC-initiated black teachers’ strike called ‘Operation Barcelona’.

The strike took its name from the torches carried at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. In South African townships torches were also a symbol of liberty but they were used ominously to keep out ‘settlers’, burn out police collaborators and other ‘bad eggs’, some of whose shacks were torched and others of whose bodies were set on fire with ‘necklaces’ of petrol-filled tyres hung around their necks.

One of those ‘bad eggs’ was 15-year-old Ernest Mphahlele from Tembisa township near Johannesburg who made the mistake of running with the wrong crowd, one of several street gangs that terrorized the township. Ernest dressed smartly and, until some rival gangsters shot him in the calves and put him on crutches, he was a notorious run-around. So much so that when local teenage vigilantes came looking for Ernest his mother gave her son up for as good as dead.

Harsh codes
Dolly Mphahlele understood the harsh codes that governed township life and when the young dictators warned the woman that her son would be ‘disciplined’ she demurred, saying: ‘The one thing I won’t stand for is I don’t want fire on my son. You can kill him, but do not burn him.’

Her maternal plea was ignored. The day after Dolly Mphahlele buried the charred remnants of Ernest his handsome, grinning face was on the front page of the Johannesburg Sunday Times under the headline: ‘Horror Necklacing of a Teenage Boy’. Soon after that the story was carried in the New York Times and other US papers as well.

By this time I was carefully documenting the everyday violence of township life, especially for young people. What was extraordinary in this case was the personal recognition given to the ‘senseless life and brutal death’ of young Ernest Mphahlele. Most violent deaths in South African townships are recorded, if at all, as mere body counts. In news reports white deaths ‘count’ – they have names, personalities, grieving family members and so on. Black deaths are merely counted.

Nearby black townships turned into increasingly hostile ‘no-go zones’ for non-blacks of any political persuasion, comrades or not in the struggle. We learned our lesson when our car was angrily chased away by trash pickers at a muddy, littered entrance to New Crossroads squatter camp.

But when the American student Amy Biehl was dragged from her car in Guguletu township – she made the error of carrying her black comrades home – and brutally pummelled to death by politicized youths shouting ‘Death to the Settler!’, the circle closed. I began to internalize the horrible and sensationalist media image, the ‘lost generation’ of African youth: deranged, demented, destructive and demonized.

Murdered feelings
During the trial of three youths that followed, when eye-witnesses came forward to describe in horrible detail Amy’s final agony, the youths packed into the upper gallery of the courtroom laughed and cheered. This story played in newspapers throughout the world. But something was missed in the reporting. Mzikhona (‘Easy’) Nofemela, one of the defendants, had whipped around to address the gallery: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he shouted. ‘Get out of here! Go home, all of you!’

‘The laughter was not acceptable to me, or to anyone else,’ said Nona Gozo, the soft-spoken lawyer for the defence. ‘But it did not shock me. I live in a township and I know the extent to which apartheid has murdered human feelings.’

‘Who are the defendants; what can you tell me about them?’ I asked.

‘In every sense they are children... In fact, lovely children, just like any other children. Under normal circumstances they would have had a wonderful, normal life. But they are children of apartheid.’

I knew what she meant. The little black children of Chris Hani squatter camp, where I had been working, played games like ‘funeral’ and ‘AK-47’.

As for the three boys accused of killing Amy Biehl the history of apartheid is graphically inscribed in their bodies, their social skin. A doctor testified that he had personally examined ‘Easy’ Nofemela at the time of his confession. Each of the nine scars on his young body told a story of township life: stab wounds, brick bashings, chops to the head from a machete, burns, scars from untreated infections and poor medical care. A veritable topology of South African violence.

After an 11-month trial marked by disappearance of key witnesses, accusations of police torture and dancing on the courtroom steps by their young supporters, the three young men were convicted of killing Amy Biehl.

Since the elections last April reports continue to surface of a new spate of murder-necklacings in the black townships, used not as they had been in the past to discipline known police collaborators but to rid the most wretched squatter camps of suspected witches, thieves and other ne’er-do-wells.

It is widely believed in liberal academic circles and the ‘progressive’ white press that most township violence was perpetrated by ‘gangs of youth’ who once participated in political struggle but had become involved in violence for the sake of violence alone. We are left staring at a ‘violence machine’, fuelled by a primordial ‘will to destroy’. The images are terrifying and archetypal: the play of shadows on the wall as witches-cum-collaborators are burned alive; the dark beasts braying at the city gates.

This perception was even shared by Nelson Mandela who in a speech in 1992 lamented the passing of the once-proud ‘Young Lions’ into an anarchistic and purposeless ‘Lost Generation’ of young thugs and hooligans. Mandela cautioned sadly: ‘The youth in the townships have had over the decades a visible enemy – the Government. Now that enemy is no longer visible because of the political transform-ation that is taking place. Their enemy is now you and me – people who drive a car and have a house.’

But the ANC is partly to blame for this. The Young Lions were used by the ANC in campaigns that kept township youth out of school, in the streets and above all available to ‘the struggle’. When the struggle was reaching its grand and concluding phase the youth were swept aside. Old enough to fight, the Young Lions were told they were too young to vote. Mandela’s promise to lower the voting age to 14 was unfulfilled.

Robbed of schooling, manipulated by political slogans, (‘revolution now, school later’), controlled by gangs, arrested and tortured by the police and pursued by local death squads, they are children without childhoods.

Among them I met a girl from Nyanga township who was arrested during police sweeps in the late 1980s, when political organizations were still banned. The child had innocently put on her older sister’s T-shirt with its banned ANC logo. The police prodded her with electric shocks until she ‘produced’ names of ‘comrades’. Terrified and knowing nothing, she made up some names and was released, only to be arrested several times more throughout the following months. Finally she was transformed into a police informant, in danger both at home and in prison so that, she said, the boundaries between jail and home were completely blurred.

Instrumental ends
When social analysts stress – as they do now – the expressive, performative quality of the ‘new’ forms of youthful violence, there is a refusal to see that violence, even violence with studied and horrendous cruelty, may serve instrumental ends in civil wars, guerrilla wars, wars of liberation, ethnic and religious wars. The death of Amy Biehl asks us to face what liberal, progressive, Enlightenment-oriented democrats find almost impossible to assimilate: the political nature of cruelty. The violent eruptions of township youth were no more expressive, irrational and chaotic than the everyday violence of the apartheid state against which the violence was mobilized.

Township youth was recruited by the thousands to serve as largely unheralded foot soldiers in a war of liberation that spanned decades and cost them their childhoods, their innocence, their health, their education – and therefore, ironically, their freedom. The death of Chris Hani, the hero of the Young Lions, turned the roar into Rachel’s lament. But grief can be readily mobilized into murderous, even gleeful rage. It sometimes felt as if the soul of the country had been amputated and eaten by the ‘monsters’ of apartheid and now by apartheid’s children.

Writing as I am now, after the elections, there is much to be hopeful for. In the necessary settling of accounts that lies ahead the wounded Young Lions deserve first dibbs. Their heroism needs to be recognized, their losses mourned and their bodies mended. Above all, their wandering souls need to be captured and firmly anchored in a new moral economy where the roar of the Young Lions is an assertion of life, not a cry of danger; where the toi-toi can be (like the frevo in Brazil) a leaping, ecstatic dance against death, rather than a prelude to or mournful celebration after death.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. During 1993-94 she was Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Ringside seat F R A G M E N T S    O F    T H E    D A W N



Mpho Mathebula Ringside seat
Mpho Mathebula, a student at Vista University, Soweto, gets some
critical verdicts on the new Government from his neighbours.

‘Is it yet Uhuru?’ sings the Bird of Africa, Miriam Makeba.

We have the long-awaited government of the people, by the people. But do we really feel free? I went to find out from a cross-section of grassroots opinion among the youth in my neighbourhood.

Bongani Makhathani is a young teacher. ‘The new Government will deliver nothing to the oppressed majority,’ he says. ‘The diversity of political interests within it will render it a failure. ANC policy is to address bourgeois interests.’

Lethola Modise is the third-born in his family and is sceptical: ‘Our leaders talk about change – and the more they talk, the more things stay the same.’

But his elder sister Tebogo is more hopeful: ‘Even though history bears testimony to the failure of black leaders, the South African situ-ation will be an exception. The youth should not lose hope, because good things come to those who wait.’

Mama Dolamo was born in Soweto but grew up in the rural areas. She is a garment worker, a member of the ANC Women’s League and much more confident. ‘I trust that the Government I voted for will deliver,’ she says.

Buti Kgosinang is from Bophuthatswana. He came to Soweto in 1984 and works as a waiter. ‘I earn peanuts because my work is not regarded as a profession. I’m not prepared to wait any longer: this is the time for all people who were oppressed to have a share of the big apple. The Government has the backing of the people, so why should it not succeed?’

Gweje Methula is the only member of a family of eight who managed to break through the education barrier and is now a postgraduate student. ‘Rural areas are the point of departure for human development,’ he says. ‘Urban people should not forget about them – nothing can be properly balanced without them. In these areas the culture of participation and mass struggle is non-existent. The history of black leadership may be characterized by nepotism, but this cannot be permitted in South Africa. Black élites are inevitable: there have been no egalitarian societies in our times, not even in Cuba.’

And what do I think? No more than a year ago we were still engulfed by politically motivated violence. Now ‘the winds of change’ have finally blown through our country. But material conditions on the ground will only improve if people are genuinely empowered. The Government should not be given time just to relax and rest on its laurels. We must keep it on its toes, as if it were in a ring and we were at the ringside.

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