Forty years after the June 16, 1976, Soweto Student Uprising drew global attention to apartheid’s brutal system of repression, Arushi Raina’s debut novel, set in the weeks leading up to that fateful day, introduces readers to a group of young South Africans.
Zanele, a black student, is secretly plotting against the government. Her best friend, Thabo, is a gang member who’s made powerful enemies. Across the bridge in Johannesburg’s wealthy white suburbs, Jack is enjoying one final summer in his beat-up Mustang before heading to Oxford. Working in her father’s shop, Meena discovers a stack of banned pamphlets, which lead her to a black girl with a secret, the white boy whose car she sometimes drives, and a dangerous tsotsi who’s extorting money from her family’s business. When the characters’ worlds collide, they help to ignite the tinderbox that is Soweto in the summer of 1976.
The characters in Raina’s novel are violent, ruthless, and sometimes morally ambiguous. With most of their political leaders already in jail or in exile, they are also fully engaged with an uncompromising adult world: as the story opens, Zanele is planning to bring down power line towers with dynamite supplied by the armed wing of the African National Congress in Mozambique.
If Zanele is the source of the narrative’s momentum, Meena is its facilitator. Being Indian (rather than black or white), and therefore able to fly under the police radar, she offers the reader an outsider’s perspective. Through Meena, we are introduced to the shadowy figure of Coetzee, a brutal Special Branch officer. Meena also plays a pivotal role in uniting the others toward a common goal, so it’s a shame that her motivation for getting involved in such dangerous business is never fully explained.
By contrast, it’s all but impossible for Zanele to avoid becoming embroiled in the protest against the Bantu Education Act, which decreed that school subjects be taught in Afrikaans and provided the final insult to deliberately underfunded, overcrowded township schools. The murder of a teacher who continued to teach math in Afrikaans despite student threats sets events racing to their inevitable conclusion.
As the groups march toward Orlando Stadium on June 16, Zanele reports, “a hiss went through the crowd, which became a word that travelled down to me. Police. I lost Vusi as he ran ahead to find out if it was true. I didn’t see him again.”
Police throw tear gas, and students retaliate by throwing rocks at a police dog. A policeman fires his gun. By day’s end, approximately 200 students will be dead. A white officer dies after being doused in gasoline and set on fire – an act for which Zanele believes she bears some responsibility.
When one voice drops from the narrative in the novel’s final chapters, it’s hard not to wonder who has paid the highest price. A last-minute reveal is perhaps a bit too convenient, but the tension of those final scenes is otherwise admirably executed, the resolution satisfying but not too neat.
If anything is lacking, it’s greater context for what the teens were up against. Despite a helpful historical note, and notwithstanding one reference to parcel bombs, young readers unfamiliar with this period may come away without a full appreciation of the extent of apartheid’s evils. Still, the novel presents an excellent starting point to inspire curiosity, and serves as a bold and dignified testament to a struggle that shouldn’t be forgotten.