Emily Bridger’s latest publication, which explores the involvement of female youth in South Africa’s liberation struggle, is now available from the Journal of Southern African Studies. ‘Soweto’s Female Comrades: Gender, Youth and Violence in South Africa’s Township Uprisings, 1984-1990’.
Previous literature on South Africa’s township uprisings has overlooked girls and young women’s involvement in activism and political violence. Through oral history interviews with former male and female comrades, this article presents new evidence of girls’ involvement in student politics and collective action in Soweto. Seeking to participate alongside male comrades rather than separately from them, these young women erased their femininity and adopted many of the characteristics of struggle masculinity in their dress, behaviour and use of violence. However, the gendered hierarchies of township life shaped the nature of female comrades’ involvement in protest and violence, as their adolescent experiences of sexual violence and subordination remained salient in determining why and how they engaged in the liberation struggle. While female comrades participated in many of the same forms of protest and violence as male comrades, they speak most nostalgically and in most detail about their roles in policing and punishing perpetrators of sexual violence. This article demonstrates that the gendered hierarchies that shaped girls’ lives were central to their involvement in the liberation struggle, and how, for female comrades, this involvement was not always or only about politics and ideology but was also a means through which they addressed the injustices and victimisation they faced as young women growing up in apartheid’s townships.