Young Women against Apartheid: Memories of South Africa’s Liberation Struggle

The idea for this book initially emerged when I was conducting research on a woman who, although only mentioned in a few pages of Young Women against Apartheid, is nevertheless fundamental to the story it tells: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The dynamic (and to some notorious) anti-apartheid activist and wife of Nelson Mandela was the subject of my master’s research at the University of Oxford. I was particularly interested in the role Winnie played in her home township of Soweto during a period of particularly intense political resistance and state retaliation there in the 1980s. In the spring of 2013, I travelled to Johannesburg seeking to interview anyone who had been involved alongside Winnie in Soweto’s militant political activism at this time. In particular, I sought out members of the ‘comrade’ generation – boys and young men who confronted the apartheid state, took on the roles of community defenders, and were said to be Winnie’s main supporters.

Yet I also came across a group of people I did not expect to meet: female ‘comrades’ who, as girls and young women still in their teenage years had also put their lives on the line to fight against apartheid. Alongside young men, they protested in the streets, took up rudimentary arms to defend their communities from apartheid soldiers, and helped to mobilise more young people into the struggle. These were unconventional roles for such young women to play, and thus required a significant defiance of gender norms and a rebellion against parents and peers. Yet in taking on these roles, these young female activists found great inspiration in Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – her boldness, militarism, and flouting of gender rules inspired them to take on their own unconventional roles in the anti-apartheid struggle. But these young women were not represented in the scholarship I had read about the liberation movement. In fact, the previous historiography largely dismissed girls and young women who participated in the struggle as being too marginal and few in number to even warrant specific research.

I was thus inspired to return to South Africa over the subsequent three years to further explore these young women’s pasts for my PhD research. I was incredibly lucky to tap into a group of women in Soweto who, now in their forties and fifties, had joined the liberation struggle as teenagers in the 1980s. Most were eager to share their experiences, all too aware of how their contributions had been neglected in dominant accounts of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. The stories they shared were captivating, moving from thrilling accounts of confronting police in township streets to harrowing narratives of their detention, interrogation, and torture. They were punctuated with the full spectrum of human emotion – excitement and joy, agony and revulsion, nostalgia and melancholy. They were also often contradictory and ambivalent – the same women would long for their days as a young activist and the excitement and freedom this brought, while also lamenting just how difficult those years were and the high price they paid for their political involvement.

The book addresses a persistent gap in our understanding of South Africa’s past. While much has been written about the involvement of young men in the liberation movement, and about older women’s roles, girls and female youth have been almost completely excluded from South African history. Yet their narratives also expand and complicate our understanding of the liberation struggle more broadly, as they highlight issues often eclipsed in men’s accounts: they tell us about how activism was practiced not just in the streets but also in the home and classroom; how young people struggled to balance their conflicting roles as activists, children, friends, and parents; and the emotional highs and lows that political activism brought, and continues to bring, for those who dared to involve themselves in it.

These women’s narratives thus offer us a different picture of South Africa’s liberation struggle than those usually told by men: one that is messy, non-linear, and startlingly candid. It is no rosy, unequivocal celebration of a war won, but an introspective tale of what it meant to be a young woman against apartheid, both at the time of the liberation struggle and in the three decades since. For these women, the roles they played as activists have not been consigned to the past but continue to shape their lives today – their relationships with their parents, children, and partners; their positions in their communities; and their physical and emotional health. Young Women against Apartheid is a book that details these pasts but also highlights their continued relevance in the present, as these women insist that today they are ‘still struggling’ to achieve the dreams they had for South Africa’s future as teenagers.


This guest post was written by Emily Bridger, a Senior Lecturer in Global and Imperial History, University of Exeter.