OCTOBER 12, 2017
UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, the story of black life under South African apartheid has been a tale of ceaseless resistance to oppression culminating in successful national liberation with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. Dozens of books by and about Mandela have depicted the African National Congress (ANC) leader as one of the most eminent statesman of the 20th century. Dozens more books focused on his comrades in arms have evoked a tale of heroic struggle in which the ANC played a leading, if not singular, role. The 1976 youth revolt in Soweto, the rise of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness, the Indian Congress, the international anti-apartheid movement, even the communist party, also played their part in the drama of national liberation. Although postcolonial disillusion with the ANC has now clearly set in, for the most part the “heroic struggle” narrative remains an untainted element of the party’s brand.
With the partial exception of some recent research on the functioning of the “Bantustans,” the ersatz African nations established by (and contained within) the apartheid state, only the works of Jacob Dlamini have struck much of a discordant note. In his controversial 2009 book, Native Nostalgia, Dlamini explored how black people in his childhood township had forged livable, “moral” daily lives within a politically repressive environment. More recently, in Askari (2015), he attempts to understand the experience of an ANC activist who switched sides and worked against his former comrades on behalf of the South African security services.
As Dlamini’s work suggests, the story of black life under apartheid is, of necessity, more than just the story of ceaseless resistance to the state and its manifest injustices. Many, perhaps most, black South Africans had to learn how to lead ordinary lives within the extreme constraints imposed by a system of total white supremacy. But that system, run by a tiny white minority,…