Fear for a Day
Elke Zuern of the politics faculty began fieldwork in South Africa just after the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela. She worked with the Regional Peace Secretariat, an amalgam of groups created to oversee—and restrain, if necessary—political demonstrations. “We had a wide array of people. Among them were one from the former government and another from the opposition. One man had actually tortured the other.”
“The last day that I was there was National Peace Day. There was going to be a big march, organized by the peace committee, to demonstrate how successful they had been in creating peace. There were lots of reasons why none of these people wanted to put their name on the piece of paper that requested a march permit. They decided that I should be the one to go to the Johannesburg city government to sign for it. That effectively made me the one everyone would come back to when things went terribly wrong.
“The whole cast of characters there had had these experiences, but, naïve as I was, I thought they were just sending me to pick up the permit. When I got to the office, the bureaucrats said, ‘Well, you’re accepting responsibility. You’re the one people will come to when they start making claims against this march.’
“I was stuck. It was the day before the march; the office was about to close. If I didn’t sign, it would be an unpermitted march, and unpermitted marches very frequently end in violence.” She signed. “It went through downtown Johannesburg with my name on it.
“It ended well, but I was terrified the whole day. The people I worked with said, ‘You have this wonderful status as an outsider. These things don’t affect you. You should be very afraid for a day. You should experience this.’”