Book highlights life under apartheid

To forget the past is not only to have amnesia about where we came from but about who we are…

These are the thoughts of renowned South African author Zakes Mda in the forward of a new book Amagama Enkululeko!, which was compiled by Equal Education.

Amagama Enkululeko!, which is sub-titled Words For Freedom: Writing life under apartheid, was launched at the Book Lounge, in Roeland Street, on Wednesday August 10.

The book contains extracts from works of anti-apartheid activists and authors about life under aparthied.

Some of the authors in the book include Nat Nakasa, Richard Rive, Don Mattera, Zubeida Jaffer and Oswald Mtshali.

The image on the front cover was provided by activist and photographer Omar Badsha.

Equal Education is a community organisation advocating for quality and equality in the South African education system.

According to co-editor Daniel Sher, the biggest challenge in putting the book together was finding the literature as many of the works had been out of print. “We went to libraries, and looked in digital archives, in order to find more of the sorts of writing we were looking for.

“What we were looking for was also quite specific, in that it needed to be well-written, and it also needed to speak explicitly to social and political conditions of life under apartheid.

“It was sometimes difficult to find a piece of work which spoke specifically to certain historical times. So, for example, while it was easy to find writing about Sophiatown, it was much more difficult to find writing on the subject of women coming to the city from rural areas, or the subject of farm workers. It was also very difficult to track down all the rights holders in order to get copyright permission.”

Mr Sher said he hoped the book would end up in classrooms all around the country. They aimed to shine a spotlight on authors that had been banned or “swept under the carpet” during apartheid. Mr Sher added: “We hope that when learners in high school read this book, they will be captivated and enjoy it.”

The Observatory resident add-ed: “We also hope that it will encourage an understanding of history which focuses on ordinary people, and looks at the ways they responded to big events in history and how their personal lives were interwoven with these larger events.”

The book came out of Equal Education’s reading groups there, so in that sense the inspiration came from Equalisers, the high school members of EE. It was also motivated by an appreciation of South African history and literature, and a desire to make this more accessible.

“The book includes more South African history than most learners get to study in school, for example the Rural Revolts of the late 1950s, so in that sense we hope to broaden this knowledge. We also want the book to help restore the heritage of these black writers, which is not nearly widely known or appreciated.

“In our own work, we hope that the book will help to encourage activism, and link today’s activism to historical activism,” said Mr Sher.

The general secretary of Equal Education, Tshepo Motsepe, said at the launch that times are changing and they are changing fast. However, he said it was vital to recognise the contribution that these authors played. He said because of the country’s history “there is a vast amount of work that is sitting somewhere collecting dust. And no one is paying it attention”.

“We need to start talking about some of these people (some dead, some still alive) who have contributed greatly to this democracy. By just taking a pen and paper, sitting down and documenting the contribution to the struggle for liberation.”

He said that we needed to ask simple but difficult questions about why these authors didn’t feature in the classrooms. “Those who are saying we should not tamper with the current curriculum, we need to question that, while there are people who have written extensively about South Africa and about the lived experiences. That is something that we need to treasure and we need to put this into classrooms. These are some of the prolific writers that apartheid set up an institution to make sure their work never saw the day of light.” Loosely, translated, the book title means words for freedom, but to those at Equal Education, it means so much more.

Anti-apartheid activist Dinga Sikwebu was also at the launch. He said that he longed for a situation where books like this one made their way to classrooms. He said that he gave the book to his two daughters to read and review. One of the things he says his daughter picked up was that they weren’t taught about the wives of the migrant workers at school. He said “the erasure of women” was an important thing to fix.

According to Zakes Mda in his forward: “Like all members of the human race we are today because of who we were yesterday. We have been shaped by our past for better or for worse. Our identities are tied in with our individual and collective memory. We are often reminded of the saying: ‘you will not know where you are going unless you know where you came from’.

“Forgetting the past would be forgetting the legacy the writers in this collection have bequeathed us, and indeed all other legacies that have shaped our humanity.”