Book review: lessons from a township that resisted apartheid

Oukasie residents protest over poor service delivery in 2010.
Jaco Marais/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Steven Friedman, University of Johannesburg

Can people on the wrong end of power change the world by working together? Or are the moments when the powerless take control of their own lives doomed to be snuffed out?

The question is raised by Kally Forrest’s book Bonds of Justice: The Struggle for Oukasie. It is another in the Hidden Voices series which aims to recover and preserve writings on society which would otherwise fall through publishers’ nets. The book is short and highly readable, and so is accessible to a non-academic audience. It has been some years in the making – it uses information gathered in 2011 and 2012. But the story it tells raises topical issues.

Forrest details the fight, in the last years of apartheid, of the people of Oukasie, a township near Brits in North West Province, against an attempt to force them to move to Lethlabile, 25 km from Brits, primarily because their presence offended white residents. While it was common under apartheid for black people to be removed to areas where they would be out of sight to whites, it was uncommon for those who faced this threat to resist it successfully. Oukasie did manage to defeat the attempted removal.

It organised to do this despite a sustained campaign by the apartheid authorities. This included the murder of anti-removal leaders and members of their family, but its chief strategy was to divide residents. So, resistance could only succeed if the resisters were organised and united. While thousands were induced to move, enough stayed to force the authorities to abandon the removal and agree that Oukasie be developed.

Unusual circumstances made Oukasie an ideal site for strong grassroots organisation in which people remain united because they share in decisions.

Hidden Voices/Fanele

The resistance

Brits was the site of strong worker organisation, largely the work of Young Christian Workers (YCW), founded by Roman Catholic priests as a vehicle for European workers to change exploitative conditions through organised efforts. YCW, which in Brits was open to non-Christians, stressed democratic grassroots organisation based on careful strategy summed up in its motto – “See, judge, act” – which encouraged members to reflect on what they saw before deciding what to do about it.

Young Christian Workers was political, since it challenged the effect of economic power on its members. But it was wary of the political movements which, it believed, wanted workers to act in ways which advanced the movements’ interests but not their own. It was able to maintain this stance because, in contrast to much of the rest of the country, the political organisations were not active in Oukasie.

Its attitude was identical to that of a section of the trade union movement which happened to be strongly represented in Brits. Its vehicle was the union which became the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Young Christian Workers’s members gravitated to it and it developed a strong presence in Oukasie. The resistance to removal relied on the same stress on grassroots participation and careful strategy which Young Christian Workers and Numsa adopted in the workplace.

The Oukasie resistance became, therefore, a test for an approach which relied on the efforts of grassroots people rather than high profile political leaders to change the world.

In one sense, this route to change worked. Oukasie was reprieved, and this was followed by a period of development. The Brits transitional local government which was elected in the mid-1990s was led by Levy Mamobolo, a unionist and anti-removal leader who, until his untimely death, led the area effectively and honestly. The first few years seemed to show that democratic local organisation could also produce political leadership which serves the people rather than itself.

But, as Forrest shows, the Oukasie story does not end happily. Leaders committed to public service were forced out of the local government; public services declined and corruption increased.

Forrest therefore frames her book not as a story of the triumph of a particular way of fighting for change but as evidence of what is possible if people organise themselves in the way Oukasie did. The author of an important book on Numsa, she is an advocate of the approach followed by Young Christian Workers, Numsa and the Oukasie resisters. She contrasts this with the selfish elitism which gained control of Brits.

But she leaves unanswered the key question: is the grassroots organisation which saved Oukasie a realistic route to change, or is it doomed to give way to the top-down leadership to which Brits succumbed?

In 2010 Oukasie rose again, in furious protests over poor service delivery. More than 100 were arrested.
Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

What does the ultimate defeat mean?

Given the importance of this question, it is a pity that Forrest does not analyse the defeat of grassroots democracy in Oukasie. We are left wondering how and why control passed from the “good guys” to the “bad guys”.

One reason may well have been that the governing African National Congress’s (ANC’s) politics turned out to be more powerful than those who supported the Oukasie resistance hoped. Forrest records that key figures in the resistance to removal joined the ANC and served in its committees once it was unbanned. This suggests that Oukasie’s ability to maintain an independent path was purely a result of happenstance (the lack of a political presence in the area).

Despite these limitations, the book makes an important contribution. Forrest’s sympathy for the Oukasie campaign does not prevent her from highlighting weaknesses. She acknowledges that the campaign failed to prevent thousands leaving Oukasie, and she documents the defeat of the politics she champions as Oukasie moved from resistance to local governance. This makes the book a highly credible account of the events it describes.

The book should, therefore, be read by anyone concerned with democracy’s future in South Africa, but in other contexts too. It should also trigger a debate on whether the political approach it describes is feasible.

Bonds of Justice: The Struggle for Oukasie is available online.The Conversation

Steven Friedman, Professor of Political Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

LA Times Book Prize for Young Adults Winner for 2020

The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2020 LA Times Book Prize for Young Adults.

For more visit:

2020 Ondaatje Prize Shortlist

The links below are to articles reporting on the shortlist for the 2020 Ondaatje Prize.

For more visit:

After the plague: Lauren Beukes’ new book is about a world without men

Tabitha Guy

Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria

Based in 2023, South African writer Lauren Beukes’ novel Afterland captures the devastating effects of a global pandemic.

A highly contagious virus, called HCV, has killed around four billion men. Society is in disrepair and, with no cure in sight, women are barred from procreation. The few males who have proven immune have become hot commodities for various agendas. And the odds are stacked against the protagonist Cole in her bid to return home to Johannesburg from America with her young son Miles – who possesses the HCV-resistant gene.

Cole has lost her husband and been forced into a quarantine facility so that the government can conduct experiments on Miles. She is relieved when her sister, Billie, shows up to help them break out. Yet, ever duplicitous, Billie has been enticed by the price of black market sperm.

Nedine Moonsamy interviewed Beukes about the book.

Nedine Moonsamy: How does it feel to have written this novel now that COVID-19 is here?

Lauren Beukes: The book isn’t about the pandemic, but the aftermath, and how Cole and Miles navigate this radically changed world in which boys are suddenly precious commodities. But it’s not a dystopia, it’s not a total apocalypse. I did want to model a society that still functions.

In the world of Afterland, most of the male population has died, leaving only 35-50 million men and boys on the whole planet. It was challenging and hella fun to explore what sectors would be hardest hit, especially in what the novel calls PMdI (Previously Male-dominated Industries), such as satellite technicians, undersea cable maintenance divers, truckers and pilots and engineers and mine workers and mechanics; and what measures the women in charge would have taken to manage that.

It mainly comes down to a whole lot of upskilling, but there are also some political shenanigans in the book: the US, for example, offers lucrative immigration deals to citizens from Egypt and Qatar and India where they have more women software engineers. The president of Colombia shuts down coffee exports until America legalises drugs because women don’t want to lose another single person to the violent narco trade.

Lauren Beukes.
Tabitha Guy

There are religious groups that believe this is God’s punishment, and terrorist groups setting oil fields alight to bring about the true end times. But that’s all mostly background.

Cole and Miles do run into an anarchist community in Salt Lake City who are mobilising – hacking hotel cards to give people access to housing, for example. It’s been fascinating, and inspiring, to see South Africa’s own Community Action Networks reaching out across our huge divides to partner with under-resourced neighbourhoods.

Nedine Moonsamy: How did you approach the research for the book?

Lauren Beukes: I interviewed a lot of experts: I spoke to my friend Scott Hanselman about female coders, economist Hannes Grassegger about what this new imagined economy might look like, and scientist friends like Janine Scholefield explained viruses and keyholes and x-linked genetic variances to me. I asked Cape Town metro police officers on the ride-alongs I did, what would happen to the drugs and gangs if all the men disappeared: would they grind to a halt? “Are you kidding?” they said. They maintain it would continue in much the same way, maybe worse: “The most ruthless leader of the Americans was Mama American because she had more to prove.”

As Billie says in the novel, “Power is a fickle slut” – and yeah, absolutely, many of the old power structures are going to hold. Even in a world where 99% of the male population is dead, patriarchy is still a very comfortable pair of shoes and very easy to slip into.

It’s inspiring to see people talking about how we’re all going to reinvent the world post-COVID, go full socialism, bring in universal basic income, healthcare for all, proper minimum wage, income protection, continued bonds of support and care between wealthy neighbourhoods and disadvantaged ones. But capitalism is an old god, and it’s going to be very difficult to overthrow completely.

And of course there will be backlashes; epidemics are often terrible for women’s rights. Look at where women are the primary caregivers at cost to their careers, and vulnerable to violent partners. Plus they don’t go back to work and girls don’t go back to school in nearly the same numbers as men and boys.

I hope this has already been such a system shock that we will have no choice but to make significant changes to the way the world works now. But I’m afraid of what the cost to us is going to be.

Nedine Moonsamy: I can see that you steered away from a radical feminist novel in order to tell a story about the best version of familial love. From this angle, the novel seems to converse with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where father and son travel through post-apocalyptic America to get to the coast. In Afterland the journey has a more optimistic spin. Were you attempting to rework this “great American novel” in some way?

Lauren Beukes: It depends on what you mean by radical. I didn’t want to tell a story that was all about the world, or the characters changing it, à la Harry Potter or Children of Men, but rather about the ordinary people caught up in that world. The Road was definitely a reference point, and again, something I was writing in conversation with (like The Handmaid’s Tale). I hated the ending of The Road. (Spoilers!) As a parent, I would never, ever let my kid go out into a world full of cannibals and rapists on their own. What kind of hope is that? It was blind luck that the next people he stumbled across were good.

Penguin Random House

From the feminist perspective, there were two ideas I wanted to play with: flipping the narrative, where suddenly Miles’s bodily autonomy and agency are under threat because people are treating him as a commodity, a reproductive resource, a sex object, a matter of “future security”. And exploring the idea of how a world of women is not necessarily going to be a kinder, gentler, friendship-bracelet-and-communal-gardens kinda place, where we can all go walking at night on our own and the country’s national women’s football team Banyana Banyana gets to play the huge stadiums.

I’m not big on the binary idea of masculine versus feminine, and I wanted to interrogate that. A world of women is a world of people, still, with full human capacity for good or evil. Because women are just as capable of being power-hungry, violent, self-interested, abusive and evil as men can be, especially when we’re still living through the same society, but maybe in different ways.

Likewise, men are just as capable of being compassionate, nurturing, primary caregivers – and making friendship bracelets.

To buy a copy of Afterland visit Penguin Random House over here.The Conversation

Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.