Reviewed by Dawne Curry (Michigan State University)
Published on H-SAfrica (April, 2005)
In this compelling study, sociologist Belinda Bozzoli meticulously weaves together the origins and subsequent evolution of one township's struggle against apartheid. Her "theatre of struggle" is the densely populated northeastern Johannesburg township of Alexandra. Founded in 1905 as a whites only area, Alexandra is one of Johannesburg's oldest and most storied townships. Government officials granted Alexandra freehold status in 1912, which allowed blacks and Coloureds to own property in Johannesburg's city of gold. Because white suburbs encircled Alexandra, the township earned distinction as "a black island in a white sea." In this work, Bozzoli masterfully shows how township dwellers, the police and the army, used Alexandra's bounded or enclosed space, to create several theaters of resistance and domination. Through this gripping narrative, readers understand how laws, memory, culture and racial identification defined the residents inhabiting Alexandra's square mile (p. 11). Bozzoli accomplishes that goal by outlining the Alexandra Rebellion, a devastatingly bloody six-day war, sparked by the controversial death of youth activist Michael Diradeng. She uses two major treason trials, involving Moses Mayekiso and Ashwell Zwane respectively, to tease out the complex nature of mobilization that developed in Alexandra during those horrific times. The scholar situates her study in social movement theory, which she couches within a highly textured narrative centered on the motif of the theater. The story unfolds chapter by chapter and Bozzoli delves deeply into its production.
Using trial and police records, interviews, periodicals, her own experience as a defendant, excerpts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and a wide array of secondary sources, Bozzoli draws readers into her intellectual web. Bozzoli provides an extensive overview of Alexandra's history while also weaving together theoretical constructs to discuss how township dwellers "scripted, staged, performed, and interpreted different meanings of power" (p. 10). The work's overarching argument is that before the 1986 Alexandra Rebellion, the township experienced years of "normality," which this event shattered: "from 15 February, the people of Alex began to revolt in a manner unprecedented in our history ... it was a crucial period of awakening" (p. 68). Residents used Diradeng's death to transform the racially sequestered township into a highly contested political theater. Each township stage held a different performance. Witch burnings and necklacings provided the eye-catching and heart-wrenching ritual of unsanctioned death, while yard, block, and street committees divided the township into different administrative parts. Bozzoli takes readers further with this interpretation to analyze the overlapping formations of space within the public and private arenas.
By dividing the analysis of space between the public and private realms, Bozzoli discusses the transformation of Alexandra's built environment as well as the ideological and tactical initiatives that residents employed. Township dwellers, as Bozzoli convincingly argues, wanted to create a humanely habitable utopia where blacks ruled and morality supplanted indecency. These activists had a millenarian vision that they played out on unofficial and official stages, which included the People's Courts, public funerals, and at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Bozzoli uses these different arenas to show contrasts, but also to highlight the significance of public spectacles and their relationship to historical memory and private recollection.
In the chapter, "Private Utopia," Bozzoli examines the People's Courts, a township-run judicial system that had its origins in the Eastern Cape and older traditions, such as the traditional court known as the kgotla and the unsanctioned "Kangaroo courts." These courts waged a campaign against crime because "criminals were not outsiders who came in to rob and kill. They were not the 'other,' the simply deviant" (p. 144). Instead, these criminals were people who lived among them. To trace the trajectory of the courts "from morality to brutality," Bozzoli examines those courts held at Seventh, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Avenues. Often held in corrugated iron shacks, People's Courts adjudicated cases involving crime, domestic abuse, car theft, parental problems, assault, murder, marital disputes, and theft. Bozzoli provides detailed charts concerning these cases, listing the dates, and outcome while also discussing the difference between mediation and sjambok courts. According to Bozzoli, sjambok courts "mirrored and parodied the legal system." These courts had their own order of operation. Judges heard the accusation and then followed this trajectory: investigation; arrest, followed by the subpoena; trial confession; sentence; and the punishment. Bozzoli's use of these examples shows how residents constructed order within the confined space of the shacks.
Residents also created a systematic form of structure during the highly charged, and decorative political funerals held within the stadium's enclosed confines. Here, in the chapter entitled, "Nationalism and Theatricality," Bozzoli explains the significance of political funerals in constructing the "imagined black nation." This nationhood, as Bozzoli shows, developed on stages alongside wood draped coffins, amid regalia of banned political organizations, the crescendo of fever pitched freedom songs, and the firing of teargas. Persons chosen to eulogize the deceased prepared written speeches, spoke extemporaneously or rendered poetry. Besides their public production, political funerals served another important function. These ritualized events highlighted the interface between the youth and the adults. Comrades ritualized the funeral process by using megaphones to summon people, whereas adults created various planning committees. Public mourning became synonymous with mass political rallies. These scripted, dramatized, and theatrical events symbolized the nation's freedom, but also the deceased's spiritual liberation: "The funeral itself became sublimated into notions of peace and justice, and the row of coffins became a symbol for the fight of liberty, like the crosses in a military cemetery" (p. 219). Political funerals created a picturesque public memory that used the stadiums, but also the streets to create and alter space. Bozzoli transfixes the reader's attention to the grand stage, but she leaves room for further interrogation and elaboration in the private domain. There she alludes to the continuation of the celebrations within these domestic confines. This is where a gendered analysis of the funerary space would add splendidly to this ongoing conversation, so that readers could understand how unofficial venues produced their own scripted ritual. The meaning of death and the practice of mourning changed over time, and Bozzoli gives readers one capsule of this exploration. Were the same rituals of pomp and circumstance always part of the bereavement process for Alexandra's residents or did national laws or historical circumstances determine their production? Bozzoli brilliantly shows how these rituals formed part of the township's mythology. Attendants came to funerals, often banned events, and openly challenged the symbolism of apartheid's Caspirs and hippos with their sheer presence. These events also enabled the bereaved and their sympathizers to define death, but also to decide its method of celebration.
Unlike political funerals where grieving came under a mandate issued by the government, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission encouraged this public display, but behind closed doors. In 1996, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which held its hearings in Alexandra and in other areas around the country was to supposed to unearth the truth from the past. As Bozzoli argues, "in the case of the Alexandra Rebellion, the TRC simply reinforced myths" (p. 259). The TRC heard testimony of key activists who spoke about and for the community. These witnesses interpreted Alexandra's history from its humble beginnings to the Six Day War and its aftermath (p. 261). Patience Phasha who represented the first community activists provided an historical overview of Alexandra, going back to the "bus boycotts of the forties and fifties, the gangsterism of the fifties, the removals and upheavals of the sixties, the Six Days' War of the mid-eighties, the orchestrated conflict between ANC and Inkatha, and the plight of the displaced people, of the nineties" (p. 260). Other stories came from ANC activists Benjamin Lekalakala and Obed Bapela. In this penultimate chapter, "Memory and Forgetting," Bozzoli convincingly shows how the "TRC's mythologising elided 'community' and 'nation,' while it permitted the ANC to represent both" (p. 260). The TRC complemented these testimonies with those from ordinary people, and then wrestled with the idea of making them public.
This theme of the public and private emerges again, as Bozzoli concludes that the latter testimonies represented the individual rather than the collective. Metaphors and imagery of the nation subsumed when ordinary citizens intimately described their personal atrocities. What was personal becomes communal when these private recollections become public. These memories not only transformed the public production of historical knowledge, but also the individuals who gave testimony. Private narratives defined the community by identifying important township landmarks that contributed to the resistance struggle, rather than showing allegiance to a public narrative that defined the community's actions (p. 274). Informants overlooked key events that defined the period 1985-86, which created the impression that the community represented a cohesive monolithic unit. Because the TRC participated in this mythological production, the body privileged ANC activities, and downplayed the significance of the youth's involvement. Youth activists in Alexandra "manned the barricades, reconstructed social and cultural relations, and tried to create alternatives to the governance in the township" (p. 269). The TRC's complicity in dividing the youth into groups of good and bad, also helped to create myths rather than truths. The Alexandra Six Days' War captured the imaginations of people via television and newspaper coverage, but its reprise on the national stage altered former memories and redefined the space of violence that bred its appearance.
Bozzoli uses these theaters to provide a detailed analysis of the Alexandra Rebellion, its aftermath and the end of apartheid. With this examination Bozzoli encourages scholars and lay people alike to examine Alexandra today using the prism of "the cultural, ideological, moral and structural underpinnings of the drama [that unfolded during] the 1980s." This may seem as if Bozzoli is painting a bleak and sobering commentary on the history of a vibrant and dissident community. While this may or may not be the case, the scholar does challenge readers to understand Alexandra's present by examining its turbulent past. This time the narrative appears etched on the physical landscape, because the community altered Alexandra's confined space by the events it staged. Thus, Bozzoli's provocative study will provide endless debates on Alexandra's history and space as an analytical construct. Her study transcends disciplines and fields, which adds to its accessibility as a case study of a social movement.
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Dawne Curry. Review of Bozzoli, Belinda, Theatres of Struggle and the End of Apartheid.
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Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.