Introduction

This book places storytelling in historical perspective. Amagama Enkululeko! Words for Freedom: Writing Life Under Apartheid is an anthology of short fiction, poetry, narrative journalism and extracts from novels and memoirs which frames these texts as lenses through which to engage South Africa’s past.

The energy for Amagama Enkululeko! comes from Equal Education’s camps and ‘Youth Group’ meetings. Youth Group is where over three thousand equalisers – EE’s school-going members – come together each week, in branches across the country. It is the foundation of Equal Education’s organising and campaigning: it is where the core of EE’s mass membership of high school students assembles to build their political consciousness and imagination. They do this by engaging with history and politics in dynamic and collaborative ways, clearing a path to collective action. Those facilitating the meetings are former equalisers. Amagama Enkululeko! speaks directly to this intellectual project by opening a door to the past, to traditions of struggle and everyday life, which are a vital part of the moral arsenal of those taking forward the liberation project in the present. The literary works of Black South African writers of the 20th century – who wielded their pens against the oppression of the Apartheid State in the name of a just and equal society – are indispensable to taking freedom forward into the future.

The pages of this book turn from writers who resolutely chronicled our past to celebrated artists of years gone by, many absent from, and forgotten by, the mainstream publishing industry. Their work speaks with urgency to our present, to post-Apartheid South Africa. RRR Dhlomo’s “The Death of Masaba” reflects on the abuse of black bodies by the Apartheid migrant labour system, an injustice which remains today, made worse by the violence against black miners asserting their right to a fair wage. Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s poem “They’re Stealing our Cattle on Misty Plains!”, written in the early 20th century, channels the anger and despair of land dispossession we see in the ongoing struggles of shack dwellers and landless people today. All of the texts recall what happened during the brutal years of Apartheid while showing us some of the ways everyday life and the forces of history met and shaped each other through the lived experiences of ordinary people. They also confirm the ugly truth that many of those made invisible by State power and Capital in the past remain excluded from the count of who is human in the present.

We know from the voices in this book that writing can do more than raise awareness. Their words are testament to the places and people who resisted the crude impositions of Apartheid. Their work was, and remains, radical. In their context, to write was an act of resistance: it preserved the memory of experiences the government tried to destroy and gave insight into what South Africa was, and could become. Writing about Sophiatown or District Six has survived long after the bulldozers did their work on those areas. In this way, and in many others, the short fictions, poems, memoirs and narrative journalism in this book are an archive of people battling Apartheid, exposing its moral bankruptcy. While not all the narratives are strictly factual, they stand as a living record of black people and black communities’ experiences struggling for freedom against the evil of racial prejudice and economic exploitation. They all reflect what it was like to suffer, live, love, and strive for freedom and dignity under Colonialism and Apartheid.

Amagama Enkululeko! has six chapters – each one unfolds with a short historical introduction: beginning in the early twentieth century, as racial capitalism cemented its control over the people and land in the region that became South Africa, and ending in the early 1990s with Apartheid on the retreat. These histories are followed by the fiction, poetry and other texts, in which black writers, and their characters, respond to the political, social and economic conditions of their time. In Amagama Enkululeko! we acknowledge that to critically examine and know our past is a task vital to writing a just future for the youth of South Africa and the world.

Tshepo Motsepe
General Secretary of Equal Education