Fight against apartheid remembered at Cape Town’s ‘coloured’ university

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

University of the Western Cape (UWC) alumni from the 1980s gathered this weekend at their old campus for a reunion honouring their fight against apartheid.

They were students during a definitive decade and their campus was a battleground with government forces intent on suppressing protests.

Elizabeth Petersen from Retreat studied social work at UWC from 1986. She recalled that she was detained for protesting against the police.

“We were very passionate about the Struggle. We were very active. We had a common goal and that kept us together. It was a passionate time for us,” said Petersen.

“I’m looking forward to reuniting with my old friends. I haven’t seen some of them for years. We were studying together.”

Her classmate at the time, Marlene Dumas from Lavender Hill, said her 21-year-old daughter and UWC’s current students “have no idea about the appreciation we have for just simply getting an education”.

“They have no memories of apartheid. It meant a lot to us to get an education. UWC was the only place where coloureds could be accepted and be part of the future of this country,” said Dumas.

“The Struggle created a bond among students. We felt like one. If we had to run to the gate, we all ran to the gate. It was pure motivation to change our country so that we could all be equal citizens.”

Dumas said one of her fondest memories of studying at UWC was the “first time I entered a real library”.

“The university’s library was only two floors high but it had books that we could take out. There were reference books and I could do research.”

UWC’s outgoing rector and vice-chancellor, Professor Brian O’Connell, said the alumni gathering for this weekend’s reunion “will forever be remembered for their fearless engagement with the apartheid regime for our freedom”.

“They formed an important part of the national popular force that broke the hold of the apartheid state,” he said.

Current students were meanwhile conscientised about the university’s history via monthly talks in the main hall and other venues.

Ryno Meyer, a third-year education student, said knowing this “rich history” was “empowering”.

“Some of the discussions have been about women and gender. Because of that, I’m also aware of what happened in the 1980s.”

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Memories of their battle against apartheid will reawaken for University of the Western Cape (UWC) alumni this weekend when they retrace steps taken during ‘hek toe’ protests.

UWC has organised an alumni reunion for students from the 1980s, calling on them to gather on campus tomorrow (SUNDAY) for a nostalgic “hek toe protest”. Of course, police violence would not feature as it did when the alumni protested for freedom on campus during apartheid’s last decade.

Just like back then, the alumni would be encouraged to chant ‘hek toe’, which is Afrikaans for ‘to the gate’. This was a rally cry to gather support for their protests against human rights injustices in South Africa at that time.

UWC’s reunion for its 1980s students is scheduled to run all weekend. The university has organised a “jam-packed nostalgic weekend to honour its 80s alumni with a gala dinner, an 80s Old School jol, campus tours and inter-faith service”.

A photographic exhibition, depicting 1980s campus life, will also be on show. These photographs have also been published in a booklet documenting the decade-long history.

A comment in this booklet, entitled ‘Hek Toe’, sums up the university in the 1980s as a “radicalising place”.

It continues: “If you weren’t an activist before you got there, by the time you left you sure were an activist”.

Patricia Lawrence, chairperson of the UWC ‘80s alumni reunion organising committee, writes in this booklet they “hope it will serve to remind you (alumni) of the rich slice of campus history of which you were part, and the courageous stand that many of you took against apartheid”.

The booklet informs: “For the young men and women at UWC in the 1980s, whatever their political convictions – whether activists, supporters or simply affected by the events on and off campus – the Struggle was the backdrop of their academic lives.

“UWC students contended with poor amenities, long commutes, financial strain on working class families, class and exam disruptions, police invading the campus, tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests, fear, uncertainty and frustration.

“Despite the obstacles, most stayed the course and emerged educated, mature and committed to society in a unique and interesting way.”

The 1980s has been described as having begun and ended with “students and youth confronting the might of the apartheid regime”.

“Many young people put aside their learning, their career dreams, their youthful interests, in pursuit of liberation. Some paid a high price, losing their chance at higher education, their physical freedom and even their lives,” reads a passage in ‘Hek Toe’.

“This was also the decade that the apartheid project was unceremoniously turned on its head by a new breed of academic leadership… UWC students slowly began to dislodge the conservative, male Afrikaners who had been sent to school a compliant ‘coloured’ intelligentsia.”

UWC had been established as one of various “ethnic” universities in South Africa. Its students were mostly coloured and working class. Alumni recall in ‘Hek Toe’ that Afrikaner lecturers taught “racism”.

“The crude racism of white staff and dire conditions on campus brought the students into regular confrontation and conflict with the administration,” reads the booklet.

By 1987, UWC had been coined the “intellectual home of the left”.

“What was established as an apartheid ‘bush college’ had become ‘Bush’, an autonomous black university growing steadily in size and stature, its staff and students already starting to look beyond apartheid to the future democratic society.”

Coloured students thus “became more conscientised by what they saw on campus” and “experienced the beatings… attacks of the security forces”.

The booklet reflects also on the enduring and crippling reality of apartheid’s aftermath.

“We do not have the advantages of institutions that benefited from apartheid. They were able to accumulate and invest surpluses in reserves for many decades; reserves that now and for generations to come can be deployed to advantage them in the competition for the best students, the best teachers, the most appropriate resources,” it states.

“They have a sizeable lead in knowledge production founded on decades-long investment in research capacity. They have an alumni base that has commanded the economy for generations and still holds sway over most corporate social investment. We do not have any of these advantages.”

It recalls that funding was used as a means to pressure the student population into complying with apartheid.

“Also in 1987, in a direct attack on UWC, then minister of education FW de Klerk tried to make subsidies contingent on student and staff conduct. Although the courts declared this unlawful, in 1989 UWC’s subsidy was reduced by 51%,” it states.

Despite this, UWC produced a number of leaders during the 1980s. Prominent students have gone on to play leading roles in academia, politics and government.


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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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