A distress signal from Soweto in 1977

Joyce Sikakane-Rankin is an apartheid-era journalist, writer, poet, documentary filmmaker and struggle veteran. She was the first woman journalist at The World and the first black woman journalist at the Rand Daily Mail. In 1969 she was arrested as part of the “Trial of 22” with others such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Shanthie Naidoo, after which she was imprisoned for two years — 18 months of these in solitary confinement charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. 

Sikakane-Rankin is featured in a new book, Women in Solitary: Inside the Female Resistance to Apartheid, by Shanthini Naidoo. Also featured in the book are Rita Ndzanga, Shanthie Naidoo and Nondwe Mankahla. It is a good time to remember Sikakane-Rankin as an author in her own right. Her book, A Window on Soweto, was published by the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (Idaf) in 1977 from its headquarters in London. 

There are several things that make the publication of the book extraordinary. A Window on Soweto was a significant and game-changing publication for Idaf at the time, with regard to its relative success in terms of sales and cultural influence, as well as its departure from the organisation’s regular output, which avoided subjectivity. (The all-time bestseller from Idaf was Nelson Mandela’s The Struggle is My Life, a collection of his speeches and other writings at that time, which sold 50 000 copies.)

A Window on Soweto can be read as a distress signal or an SOS from one community to another and gives a portrait of both the writer and Soweto as home. In a cinematic opening, Soweto as a whole is personified through scenes typical to a Sowetan home. The reader is invited to “imagine” the familial and domestic lives of the people Sikakane-Rankin describes as the “inmates” of Soweto.

Denis Herbstein in his book, White Lies: Canon Collins and the Secret War against Apartheid, makes clear the radical nature of the aims of Idaf for the decades of its existence. It was structured primarily around ensuring that people standing trial for the opposition of apartheid received the best possible defence. It also ensured that the dependents of those resisting received assistance and conducted research to produce factual information about South Africa. The book fell into the work of this third, important unit.


A Window on Soweto represents the autobiographical voice of a black South African woman within this cultural output of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). The book was published within what Christabel Gurney describes in her paper “The 1970s: the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s Difficult Decade” as a time of organisational disarray for the AAM. It was also unclear how “the development of worker militancy and student rebellion, and the growth of independent trade unions and the black consciousness movement would impact on the development of the struggle within South Africa and the role of the ANC”. 

Published by Idaf a year after the student uprisings of 1976, A Window on Soweto appeared in the context of a muted British response to the massacre of schoolchildren; more muted than for Sharpeville or the later township insurrections of the 1980s. The Brits were preoccupied with threats of cuts in public expenditure and record post-war unemployment. 

Sikakane-Rankin was a political activist who could write first-hand about the repressions going on in South Africa and the Idaf was well-placed to use this book to inform a reading public that was deliberately being kept ignorant by apartheid censorship laws. For the first time, a resident of one of the locations under the spotlight was able to share a first-hand view with the Idaf in the form of a manuscript. 

Jan Marsh, then an employee of Idaf and the book’s editor, described it this way: “By 1975 the significance of the (mainly African) townships in South Africa was clear from the location of many aspects of political repression, from unequal health and educational services through forced removals to deaths in detention. But the areas themselves were not well known to the outside world, and published information was scarce. Many Europeans were hearing about Soweto for the first time from the Western media.”

A Window on Soweto represented a departure for Idaf from its usual publication style. The book is part life-writing, autobiography or memoir, and part sociology. 

As Marsh put it: “Generally, Idaf did not publish externally submitted manuscripts in unedited form; each had to conform to Idaf standards of ‘objective’ or at least non-polemical, evidence-based material. Many texts were written anonymously ‘in-house’. So, typically, a manuscript would be treated as a proposal on the subject, to be developed in co-operation with the author.”

In the last three pages of A Window on Soweto in the section “Into Exile”, Sikakane-Rankin reveals that she left the country in July of 1973 under fear of a clampdown by the apartheid regime and fled to the ANC camp in Lusaka, Zambia. The account then jumps to the time of publishing, with an update on pass laws in South Africa from March 1977, a mere three months before the book’s publication in late June 1977, a year after the student uprisings. 

In my interviews with Sikakane-Rankin, she reveals that, without access to a library, she wrote much of the manuscript from memory, relying on her journalistic knowledge. She kept up with happenings in Soweto from press clippings provided by the ANC in what was a solitary project. At the end of it, Sikakane-Rankin discussed the manuscript with Ruth First, who then read and loved it. First passed on the manuscript to Jan Marsh in London in 1975. 

Sikakane-Rankin pegs the exact timeframe for the writing and handing over of the manuscript to the birth of her third child, Kenneth Samora Rankin in 1975. The manuscript was written while she was pregnant, over the course of less than six months. In 1974, Kenneth Rankin Sr and Sikakane-Rankin left Zambia for Britain. Sikakane-Rankin, at this point was a stateless person and the trip was, in part, to secure her citizenship documentation through her marriage to Kenneth, as well as to meet her in-laws. 

The story was important to her in the sense of it being a premonition: “Well, first thing that made me feel it was important was that I had this intuition that something horrible is going to happen in South Africa and you know, indeed, it happened. We had the student uprisings in South Africa so I felt that the oppression would explode. The students will do something about it. 

“So I thought, well, let me just write about what being in Soweto meant, that’s why it’s called A Window on Soweto. And, of course, the uprisings did happen, and … the proceeds of the book helped families of political prisoners to be able to get lawyers for … those who were arrested and detained. So I felt it did something important.”

Sikakane-Rankin remembers that while in Great Britain, through the help of Idaf fact papers, more up-to-date information was added to the text. Marsh describes the work as follows:  “[…] a good deal of the editorial process took place when Joyce Sikakane-Rankin was in Scotland. I worked from the research department in Finchley. Following the initial assessment, she undertook a great deal of revision and expansion of the text, in collaboration with myself. Other Idaf colleagues in Newgate Street read the text and commented. 

“Another colleague who indirectly assisted with the book was Shanthie Naidoo, based in the research department, who had been Sikakane-Rankin’s friend and comrade in South Africa. Her knowledge of the era and events described in A Window on Soweto was valued assistance during the editing.”

In 1978, A Window on Soweto was published by Norwegian publisher, JW Cappelens. The translated version was called Vindu Mot Soweto. In 1979, the Idaf publications department received word that A Window on Soweto was being serialised in the Japanese Anti-Apartheid Movement bulletin. By early 1979, a blanket ban on all Idaf publications was instituted in South Africa. The book sold more than 15 000 copies (excluding foreign rights) both in the UK and the rest of the world.

This article was produced as part of a partnership between the Mail & Guardian and the Goethe-Institut, focusing on various aspects of innovation.

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