- Road to Soweto: resistance and the uprising of 16 June 1976 by Julian Brown, and: South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: dissent and the possibility of politics by Julian Brown
Two monographs by Julian Brown propose to reinterpret historical and contemporary political processes in South Africa through the theoretical lens of disruption. Each is empirically and beautifully researched and extremely well-written, and each offers an original and challenging point of view. Together these volumes develop a perspective on South African politics that is unique, provocative and important.
Road to Soweto offers a reappraisal of the politics of progressive struggles in mid-twentieth century South Africa, specifically during decades of the 1960s–70s. It challenges a deep-seated historiography that portrays the period between the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the 1976 student uprising in Soweto (and more specifically the decade 1966–76) as characterised by political quiescence: a period, more specifically, in which campaigns of state repression effectively interrupted the momentum of mass dissent within the territory and pushed its locus overseas or otherwise outside of the country. This periodisation, with its conception of the political as linear, formal and centrally directed, has, of course, offered a seamless and [End Page 136] legitimising mythology for the new ruling power, which continues to claim primacy, if not exclusivity, in the genealogy of struggle politics.
While recent writing implicitly or explicitly counters this prevailing periodisation of struggle–by chronicling numerous fronts of dissent and a wider range of political actors within this supposedly quiet set of years–Road to Soweto seeks a more direct assault. ‘The Soweto Uprising’, the author argues, ‘is not ... best understood as marking the end of a period of quiescence, but rather is better understood as representing a culminating moment in a chain of protests that had occurred throughout this period’ (2016:178). Brown levels his challenge firstly by (re)theorising what should be counted as political struggle, and then (in six substantive chapters) by providing an account inclusive of the varied initiatives, processes and events of this period, mobilisations that have been frequently treated as disparate, undeveloped and contained sideshows to a main-line ‘mass’ anti-apartheid momentum. His insight is that, by viewing the unfolding political field during this set of years as contingent and uncertain–and political agency as responsive and experimental within and across specific domains of uncertainty–we are enabled to perceive a ferment of activity that bears on the events of 1976 and of subsequent struggles. Where other accounts have placed emphasis on differences of social location, identity, interest, aims and strategies which distinguished (and sometimes opposed) ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘private’, ‘public’, ‘worker’, ‘student’, ‘political’ or ‘occupational’ expressions of dissent, Brown places them into a single frame of analysis.
This is convincing though not uniformly successful. As I argue later, I think Brown at times draws fragile causal linkages to the exclusion of external factors, while in other cases does not sufficiently clarify the nature or scope of those linkages in the making of the ‘political’.
His principle lens for thinking about the space of the political in this period is Jacques Rancière, for whom politics ‘can occur anywhere’ that relations of power are ‘rendered visible or challenged’ (2016:184). ‘There is no privileged site of politics: not the state and its political society, not student groups or trade unions, not community organizing and not social movements’ (2016:184). Instead, it can be any of these. Brown wishes not only to demonstrate how disruptions and fronts of activity in this period individually and collectively opened up and transformed spaces of the politically possible, but also how distinctive and varied impulses were mutually influential and interactive. Through both [End Page 137] commonalities and differences, these various initiatives developed new repertoires of political action, ideas and platforms of activity to be taken up, rejected or developed in later decades.
Road to Soweto revisits key points and domains of mobilisation: the National Union...