Teaching passive subjugation

Defiance: Political dissent in the 1980s led to state reaction, including the death of three youths in the Trojan Horse Massacre. (Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)

Defiance: Political dissent in the 1980s led to state reaction, including the death of three youths in the Trojan Horse Massacre. (Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)


Given all that has been done in memory of the student movement in South Africa, it is surprising not to have had an adequate account of the drives and desires that underwrote the movement of schoolchildren for a period of six months in 1985.

Historians conclude that pupils were driven by a sense of “immediatism” expressed in what is called street sociology and pavement politics. However, history encounters its limit in the Trojan Horse Massacre, in which three youths were killed in Athlone, Cape Town, on October?15 1985. In scholarly works and documentary films, not to mention memorials, poems and works of art, the Trojan Horse lends itself to ideological prescription rather than attentiveness towards what was at work in the student movement.
As a result, we have an event that is returned to the realms of ideology and a memorial that re-enacts a scene of violence – as if these were the only games in town to play.

What we call “an event” today is described by a name that Athlone shares with the Greeks. In 1985, a horse and trailer belonging to the South African Railways carried death to the streets of Athlone. Militia of police and army hidden in wooden crates enacted what became called the Trojan Horse Massacre.

How did this event come to be named in terms of a memory of the Trojans and Greeks handed down to us by a blind, illiterate poet through his wonderfully long and meandering Iliad? What if the pupils, the Trojans who faced the hail of bullets, had, through no fault of their own, yet to arrive at the lesson dealing with Homer’s Iliad, which describes the war that gave rise to the name of their own massacre? These questions do not belong only to history. They also belong to art that offers us a name for the memory of the future that endures into the future.

While many attribute the upsurge of student protests in the 1980s to the economic plight awaiting youth under apartheid, there was seemingly something else that was latent in their agency. We may speak of this latency as thought, but that would be insufficient simply because it pits thought against action, in which thought is ultimately, and once again, negated. Neither was it the repressive atmosphere of corporal punishment and authoritarianism that explains the upsurge. What drove the students to action was precisely what they acted on, namely, schooling.

In Athlone, the school had in effect become a zone of suspension. It resembled an interval, not too dissimilar from the interval associated with the language of cinematography. In the space of interval that broke the venomous repetition of habit, the motion picture was a window on an ever-constricting world. The motion picture produced assemblages that exceeded the technology of subjection by apartheid. In a place where transport was a middle-class luxury, the bioscope offered a ride.

What television brought with it
But movement also produces collisions. 1976 occasioned such a collision to the extent that a major pupil revolt converged with the arrival of television in South Africa – in May 1976, on the eve of the Soweto pupil protests. The earliest images broadcast related to the confrontations between pupils and police in Soweto. Gradually the cinematic interval disappeared. The televisual abolished the time interval in the visual field, only to dilate the image of space.

Long before the structures that housed the bioscope were turned into ones of despair and consumption housing bottle stores, banks and supermarkets in the wake of apartheid, the bioscope teemed with life. Films such as Trojan Horse, Spartacus, Enter the Dragon and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly filtered the senselessness of apartheid.

The Trojan Horse may have been invented by the Greeks through epic poetry, Rome may have put down the rebellion of the slave army of Spartacus, Enter the Dragon may have uncannily affirmed subalternity, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly may have called into question the limits of binary thinking. We cannot know for sure. What we can say is that in Athlone, the mythic, the legendary and the heroic threaded through the moving image of the bioscope.

Much has been said and written about the Trojan Horse Massacre and its memorialisation. Perhaps not enough has been said that would release us from the trappings of the speed of the operation that changed the course of history for the pupils. Yet, in all the ways the Trojan Horse is memorialised, what is unclear is the extent to which the killings resulted in a process of deindividuation – a process in which the very psychic apparatus fell upon a scene of drives disconnected from desire.

The memorial that marks the site of the Trojan Horse killings recalls something of the compunction to mark time that was lost to the compression. It has been criticised for overemphasising the role of the perpetrators of state violence. Today the plates depicting the stories of the mothers of those killed, in their own handwriting, have been removed.

Lurking in the lukewarm reception of the memorial is perhaps a reason for the way in which it repeats the story of a drive without a hint of desire, of nostalgia for a dilated space but not the interval that may have offered a different direction for the idea of the school.

The image, notwithstanding the criticism, is a familiar one for Athlone. It replays the motif of the film posters that once adorned the edifices of the bioscopes of Athlone. If this appears as an interpretive leap, it is only because the Trojan Horse Memorial returns us to the stasis that once dominated the compression of time we have come to know as Athlone, and which is recalled not only as a memory of the past, but also as a memory of what must be repeated – namely war.

The industrialisation of memory
This is a mode of technogenesis we may need to remain fearful of. For the human thus folded into the machine is only ever a technical becoming of the human that is a compression of movement, uncontrollable speed and undulating sadness. This at least is how we may select to read Willie Bester’s unsettling sculpture, Trojan Horse, as a cautionary tale of precisely the operation that folds the human into technology, making technics a part of the industrialisation of memory.

Like the Ancient Greeks who folded the human into a war machine, Bester’s work warns against a practice of memory that is the condition of teletechnics, with surveillance, threat, control, mobility and death rolled into an indistinguishable scene of unending battle.

Returning to the interval, consider an event, four years after the Trojan Horse killings, in which Coline Williams and Robbie Waterwitch were killed in an ambush orchestrated by the state security apparatus. The story of their deaths has become legendary on the Cape Flats, not least because dirty tricks and ambush similar to those that had delivered the Trojan Horse to Athlone’s streets also caused theirs.

In their memory, the space beyond the Athlone magistrate’s court today carries a statue of Williams and Waterwitch. Williams glances over her shoulder, suspiciously looking over her shoulder as if to recognise the scene of interpellation. Waterwitch walks confidently abreast. The magistrate’s court has notoriously become the target of their attention in descriptions of their fateful deaths. Yet, in a broader optic, the space of the memorial brings into view the bioscope that, placed immediately ahead, was once across the street from where the sculpture stands, in a building that is today the government department of communication and information.

Once it was home to the Kismet bioscope, a name that, when translated, gives us recourse to what remains to be said about the spectre of death in Athlone.

It is a word that has its beginnings in the Arabic root qasama (meaning to divide), into qisma (meaning division, portion or lot) and, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the word entered Turkish as kismet (meaning fate or destiny). From here it was deposited into Hindi, Farsi and Urdu, retaining its Turkish inflection, before travelling to Athlone where it came to mean simply “the bioscope”.

That at least is what is left of the memory of the future, a scene of desire that shares in the fate of re-schooling and, in the process, ­re-tooling. The pupil movement of 1985, then, was nothing of the order of school boycotts. It was a desire for a return to an interval, in a space of intensity in which compression of time diluted and dilated space, giving pupils a mode of communication, with little prospect of advance.

What the bioscope shared with the school was a different interval, one that promised a nonsectarian future in place of the difference marked out by the interval of apartheid.

Professor Premesh Lalu is the director of the Centre for Humanities Research in the faculty of arts at the University of the Western Cape. This is an abbreviated, edited version of his recent inaugural lecture

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