In 1984, as South Africa’s liberation struggle entered its final, turbulent decade, African students and youth – loosely referred to as the ‘comrades’ – rose to the forefront of the struggle, engaging in militant confrontation with state security forces and their perceived allies, and suffering the bulk of state retaliation. Both academic and popular narratives of this period have painted the comrades as uniformly male, with little to no attention paid to the experiences of politicised girls and young women during these years. Yet girls did join the liberation movement during the 1980s, and the roles they played were not confined to those of side-lined supporters; rather, they participated widely in both non-violent and violent political actions, ranging from toyi-toying in township streets, to petrol bombing houses, to punishing suspected sell-outs and informers.
This paper explores how former female comrades remember their time as activists, and how they position their individual memories within collective histories of South Africa’s liberation struggle. Drawing on oral history interviews, it highlights how these women contend with and narrate their status as both victims and perpetrators of violence. Female comrades talk about violence in ambiguous ways: on the one hand, they try to overcome gender stereotypes and their own marginalisation from history by overemphasising their individual, personal roles in township violence; but simultaneously, they draw on their own status as victims of violence – sexual, domestic, and political – to justify and explain their involvement in the struggle. Listening to female comrades’ voices thus helps to complicate distinctions between victims, agents, and perpetrators in the South African context, and to better understand how African girls’ join liberation struggles and participate in violence in part to overcome or address their own experiences of victimisation.