In 1972 I became a first-year student at the University of Cape Town, an epochal event that may or may not have had something to do with the fact that massive student protests broke out that year at white, liberal, English-speaking campuses across the country.
While the events at UCT, and Wits, and the other English-speaking campuses were filling the newspapers, with big black typography headlining the front pages and dramatic photographs, the black universities had their own thing going, protesting against conditions on black campuses and the apartheid system, but this attracted much less attention – for all the obvious reasons, given that this was the height of the apartheid era, but also because many of the black campuses had been located, by design, off the grid, outside the main cities.
I soon learned – you had to learn fast, in that turbulent period – that there was another reason the black universities were doing their own thing. These were the days of the Black Consciousness Movement, and four years earlier, in 1968, when I was still in high school, Steve Biko had led black students out of the non-racial but white-dominated National Union of South African Students, NUSAS, to form SASO, the black South African Students Organisation – a development that was still causing, in 1972, much anguish and debate amongst the white liberals and lefties who were my university seniors and first-year classmates.
All this was happening four years before the 1976 Soweto Uprising.
So the events of ’72 were, in a very real sense, a precursor to ’76, though few of us could have guessed that, and perhaps none of us could have foreseen the magnitude of the Uprising, or its seismic effects. Nor could we have imagined the unbelievable bravery and sacrifice of the Soweto students, and those who followed them in protests and demonstrations that ricocheted around the country and shocked the regime and ordinary citizens to the very core, leaving no doubt that it was black students – the Class of ’76 – who were in the forefront of the struggle against apartheid.
I played a moderately active but utterly insignificant part in the events of ’72 – joining with the masses of students on the steps outside the university’s Jameson Hall, to confront the ranks of policemen who lined up before us with batons and dogs; signing up for shifts in the Rose Garden, overlooking De Waal Drive, in a silent vigil so that the evening traffic could see us standing there, gagged, while the security police drove slowly past, taking photographs; joining Aquarius, the cultural wing of NUSAS, and taking part in endless arguments about struggle, Marxism, and the role of art and the artist – was art, in the face of apartheid repression, supposed to be propaganda, subordinate to political imperatives (and whose politics, anyway?) or was art its own domain, where the artist and not some vague collective notion of ‘the people’ was sovereign?
Needless to say, I stood with art and the artists.
Even though my part was marginal, insignificant, I did manage to get myself arrested, on the steps of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town early one evening, along with Rev. Theo Kotze of the Christian Institute and some forty or so others, the day after the police had savagely beaten hundreds of students inside the building, dragging some out by their hair. We were released a few hours later, after being finger-printed and charged under the Riotous Assemblies Act; we appeared in court once or twice before charges were dropped.
Theo, incidentally, had been my grandfather’s minister, at the Sea Point Methodist Church, and had carried my grandfather out when he collapsed and died suddenly during a Sunday service, and it was Theo I turned to when I needed advice on how to leave the country, to avoid military conscription – though that is another story, for another post.
Four years after the student protests that had marked my first year, I was doing English Honours at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg when the Soweto Uprising erupted. The events of ’76 changed the country, changed the course of history, and changed the course of my life, too. As long as I could remember, literature and writing had been at the centre of my conception of myself, and I had imagined a career, perhaps, as a university lecturer, studying the great works, publishing novels and criticism, dabbling in poetry, but now – now, with the country in flames and the young lions battling in the streets against armed police and militarised vehicles, what sense could I possibly make of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, of a bookish life?
It was a stupid view to take, but this was visceral, not rational analysis. I simply couldn’t do it any more. I had to be useful, engaged, and for the first time in my life I just couldn’t see myself in that world of books and seminars, lecture rooms and libraries. I abandoned my plans to do a Masters in Eng. Lit and became instead an English teacher, in an African school in the Transkei, then a coordinator at SACHED – the South African Committee on Higher Education and a leading anti-apartheid NGO – helping to establish Khanya College, a bridge into higher education for young black activists, until the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990 turned everything upside-down, and the world I had hoped for and believed in suddenly seemed possible, not in some imagined hypothetical future but here and now and in my lifetime.
They say you go to university to broaden your mind. Looking back, it is extraordinary to see how clearly those two years, 1972 and 1976, served as book-ends to a crucial and transformative period of my life, shaping who I am and the road I have travelled in ways that are both obvious and profound. I was shaped and buffeted, not just by the books I read, and the people I met, and the lecturers who taught me, but by the student leaders I looked up to, and the events, the head-spinning upheavals, the febrile atmosphere, the intellectual currents and intense passions of the times. The press of the moment obscuring perhaps the wheel of history, but history nonetheless.
And yes, despite the turn that I took, there is a part of me, still, that hasn’t given up on the writing life.