ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

One Dark Night and Freedom

In 1990 I had finished high school and joined the University of the Western Cape, enrolled for a BA degree. Some specifics are important as background. As many of you know the 1980’s were turbulent years in South Africa.  And for much of the period between 1985 to 1989 we lived under a state of Emergency. I had been active in the student’s movement, and students across the country were highly organised in parts of the popular revolt. Many ran pitched battles with police and the army on the streets, pitting children barely 12 years against the armoured and well resourced might of the South African army.  Anyway, lest this become a social history of the period, what I want to recall is the electric effect that in this context — where there was the discipline of organising, the strength of numbers, the rudimentary technology of the rock and the petrol bomb--  the figure of the guerilla soldier returning ‘from the Bush’, wielding an AK 47, was an image that could propel a crowd into merging with that image in symbolic ways. 

When I arrived at the University of the Western Cape, incidentally also called ‘a Bush college’--because as a university it was literally out of the city centre and in the bush in its early years in the 1960’s—I entered  a new social utopia of sorts. As much as we had broken down barriers through the student movements, I went to a school designated for Indians. Now, I was at a university that had subverted its racial classification for Coloured students (mixed race) to become a ‘home of the left’, open to all.  As a student registered for History, Sociology, Political Studies, Philosophy and English I quickly encountered new worlds and new stories.  I learnt from a friend from Namibia that there was to be a massive celebration of the Independence of Namibia in March 1990. The Student Representative Council  (SRC) at UWC was organising busses and we only had to pay R10, which to us as students then was really almost for free. We had to go.

The bus was no luxury chariot for the epic journey. No air-conditioning and no creature comforts. But the mood was enough to numb us all to the uncomfortable seats. The road along the West Coast of South Africa’s shoreline is a straight and empty landscape of low brush, caught between the ocean and semi-arid muted pale green scrub that extended over the vast landscape - flat, hot, empty. There was much singing on the bus. Songs of the liberation movements were our soundtrack. And every one hundred kilometres or so, one of the students would declare, 'this is the (little rural) town that I came from', and the bus driver was commandeered to make a stop. These detours if truth be told, were mostly to replenish alcohol supplies, since the students from those areas knew where the illegal outlets for liquor supply could be found at any hour of the day.  This was important local knowledge. And I will admit that most of the bus was in some state of euphoria, not simply heady at the prospect of Namibian independence, but induced by the copious amounts of libations which were consumed.

When we eventually got to Windhoek and our place to stay in Katatura, that was another story---about 30 of us ended up sleeping inside the national stadium the night before the independence day concert. To our amazement the main headline band, led by Ziggy Marley was there doing rehearsals. Soccer was played, and much conversation took place, amongst other things.  It was incredible to hear him sing Bob Marley’s songs—his father had performed at the independence concert of Zimbabwe 10 years before. For us South Africans starved of cultural contact by the cultural boycott, seeing an international star was a phenomenon doubly amplified by the great affection for reggae enjoyed in this part of the world. But a highlight, as I recall it, was that first experience we had when we crossed what was now a border post not manned by the South African army  but by a member of the Swapo liberation army. It was about 3 am in the morning when we reached what was the border post, in the dead calm of night, groggy and bleary eyed. There was one lone soldier, himself groggy and sleepy; his fatigues I recall in a shabby shape too. But this soldier was  quick to wake when he was beset by the 100 or so of us on the bus like a swarm of sea gulls — the reason being he was carrying a weather-beaten AK 47. We had never really seen a real one, being banned and treasonous and all the rest of it. We piled out of the bus to pose with this soldier and to hold the AK47 as we took pictures with it. We suddenly also worried that we had to return to South Africa, and a picture of yourself posing with an AK47 was certain to get you thrown into jail. But we didn’t care in the moment. We were now in a liberated country breathing liberated air. Not quite the heady days of Ghana or Tanzania or the Congo in the 1950’s and 60’s, but a little rush of excitement no less to the young crowd of students.

I recalled all of this when I read about the death of the designer of the AK 47, Mikhail Kalashnikov recently.  I also read an article describing how Kalashnikov himself confessed to religious leaders in Russia that he felt his conscience gnawing at him because of the number of deaths his superior technology had inflicted.   Under  a star filled road somewhere on the West Coast, where one country became another on 21 March 1990,  that worry was not ours.  We were still of the moment when the AK 47 was on the right side of history, where the Cold War certainties were still there, if only just.   They  were already giving way to the disorientation of a world after and a world now. A world,  at least in Southern Africa, were many young people born after the wars in Angola and Mozambique and South Africa,  would be  luke-warm about rushing to pose with that weapon. Much has happened to give us reason to pause and wonder about ‘revolutionary violence’, and the iconic presence and legacy  of the AK 47 as a sign in that wonder.

About Author

<p>Suren Pillay ( is a writer, photographer and academic, based at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town, South Africa.</p>
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