Anelia Schutte, For the People: A Small Town’s Struggle against Apartheid (HQ, 2019)

MUCH of the struggle against apartheid took place in dorps like Cradock and Oudtshoorn, their particular histories overshadowed by the main centres, particularly Soweto and the Cape Town townships. Certainly Knysna, best known as a popular coastal resort, would not readily spring to mind in this regard. But its geographic location at the intersection of eastern and western Cape gave it particular significance.

Anelia Schutte grew up there during the 1980s and has subsequently become a member of the wide South African diaspora. Hers was a typical middle-class, Afrikaans family; father a high school teacher and mother a social worker. But Owéna was far from ordinary and her work for Child Welfare brought her into regular contact with coloured townships and increasing numbers of African people in informal settlements. The author returns to Knysna to reconstruct its past through her mother’s career and commitment, interviewing some of the people with whom she worked.

Owéna was no radical, but she was certainly an activist. In the absence of an African township, facilities were non-existent and she became involved in establishing crèches, training their teachers, and founding a Masakane co-operative group. She protested loudly when the temporary, sub-standard township of Bongani was built to make way for road development. When the 1986 national emergency was declared and mass detentions started, she berated the police station commander and then supported the families of the detained. A couple of years later she helped schoolchildren draft lists of grievances. But always careful to define social work as non-political, she found herself in difficult, highly charged circumstances and made a change to epilepsy support.

Her daughter, whose own memories go back to the informal settlement crèches, interviewed a range of Knysna residents to try to reconstruct a history of life for its black communities before liberation. One of the most interesting issues is that of identity. Incomers from Transkei and Ciskei were at risk of deportation back to their places of origin, so many passed as coloured. Apartheid race classification was brutal but not necessarily very scientific or precise, although tongue-twisting tests in Afrikaans could easily lead to relocation.

Thus Amy Matungana was born Jackson and educated as Afrikaans, her name having mutated from Njemlo through Jansen. She, however, opted for classification as African. Queenie Bambi’s parents had likewise made a conscious decision to raise their children in Afrikaans and she had a coloured identity card. But with a Xhosa husband, her children were classified African and her family had to live in Oupad squatter camp rather than the township.

The truth about specific events during the emergency years inevitably proved elusive for Anelia Schutte:  rival narratives inevitably take on the perspective and partial recall of the commentator. Detail is maximised and minimised accordingly, and police and detainee views of alleged torture diverge significantly. Truth will always remain an elusive target and it is the job of historians to establish a likely scenario.

Unfortunately, there are some historical errors. For example, the Black Sash never had black founding members as it was an organisation of women voters. In discussing whether or not her home phone was tapped during the emergency, the author creates an analogy that is way off beam: that the police security branch was the equivalent of the British MI5 and the Bureau for (not ‘of’) State Security akin to MI6. This is nonsensical.

Nonetheless this book is both enjoyable and readable, assembled with skill, and raises interesting and consistently neglected historical questions. Who liberated South Africa? Who was responsible for the fall of apartheid? The populist hard-line narrative is currently dominant, but truth lies in a wider perspective. So social workers who helped to set up crèches, enabled self-help groups, supported schools in various ways, and lobbied for children’s rights undoubtedly played a role in empowering and conscientising people en route to liberation. Who did more to create a democratic South Africa: stone throwers or crèche builders?