Why a student demo 50 years ago was the beginning of the end of apartheid South Africa.

23 June 2022 By Paul Martin

Protected: Why a student demo 50 years ago was the beginning of the end of apartheid South Africa.

By Paul Cainer.

Fifty years ago this month the South African apartheid regime’s baton-wielding police attacked white students, including me — and triggered a national State of Emergency. It also led to the racist government of the country accusing Jewish parents of failing to “control your children” when the Interior Minister Jimmy Kruger told Parliament, disparaged what he said were the considerable number of Jewish-sounding surnames listed among the students arrested in the turmoil.

We had been protesting against inequality in the educational facilities between us and black universities. Under the ironically-named Extension of University Education Act, black Africans had been banned from attending the county’s most famous universities, like my own, and were relegated to the vastly inferior ‘Bantu’ universities that were a major plank in creating what the South African racist regime called “separate development”.

Even while we were still at secondary school in Cape Town we had formed a group called National Youth Action and hired a town hall to publicly protest against the huge discrepancies in the resources and quality of education provided to the separately educated racial groups.  Our campaign was sparked by a decision by the government to provide us already privileged white schoolchildren with free books, while the separately run black schools still charged their pupils for books they could ill afford.

When we became university students we decided to go further, demonstrating outside the country’s (whites-only) Parliament building.  The issue was the wider system of discrimination that made whites richer and better educated while providing black university students with second-rate education. 

Police and snarling dogs turned up, and those who refused to disperse were shoved into one large police-van and driven to the police cells.  Every time we started singing the universal protest song: We Shall Overcome, the driver would slam on his brakes and many of us, including me, would bang our heads on metal bars that protruded from the van’s ceiling.  We managed to confuse the police driver, though, when we decided to sing the national anthem in Afrikaans, the language of the racist regime. It was an unusual way to celebrate my 18th birthday!

Released on bail that night, we students returned the next day to protest further. This time, with the agreement of the anti-apartheid Anglican Church authorities, our venue was the steps of the Anglican cathedral, St George’s..  Though adjacent to a big main street, it was private property. The police suddenly charged and we scampered inside – feeling relatively safe because surely Protestant Calvinist white Afrikaans-speaking policemen would not actually use violence inside a church. Technically they did not.  

Instead they created a commotion on the side of the building, then, as we students went to ‘save’ whoever was being attacked there, we were shoved out the door by plain-clothes police who had infiltrated inside.  I was the first to reach the door and be forced outside, to be attacked with heavy plasticised batons.  I am still rather ashamed about the words I yelled out as they dragged me along the pavement by my long hair: “Ek is jammer!” I shouted in Afrikaans. It means: “I’m sorry!” Sorry, I still wonder, for what?

Blood streaming from my head and huge wealds on my shoulders, I was driven in a police-van to the same police-station as the day before. They inflicted what they thought was the ultimate insult to us white ‘kafferboeties’ (a sneering term in Afrikaans equivalent to ‘nigger-lovers’): they locked us up in the ‘Non-White’ police cells. (Yes, apartheid extended even to criminals!)

“Oh so you’re here again,” said a policeman. Seeing I was staggering, dizzy and gasping for air, he took me outside and gave me a handkerchief.  Suddenly he whispered: “You mustn’t think we are all like that.”  To this day I recall that remark when I explain that even in the awful days of apartheid not all white law-enforcers were without some redeeming features. Don’t stereotype, is the message.

The beating up of white students – and of a white lady, aged 50, who was walking by and remonstrated with the police – became worldwide headlines. It was reported extensively and with open shock by the English-language newspapers in South Africa, which to their credit generally had remained critical of apartheid even at its height.

One Member of Parliament came to our aid at the police station: Helen Suzman, the only genuine member of the Opposition, who was of course also Jewish.  I looked so bloodied that I tried to hide from my father when he came to bail me out and take me to hospital.  

At a protest rally three days later, our ranks had swelled from the previous Friday’s hundred protesters. We were joined by around ten thousand fellow-students and by other outraged Capetonians. Five minutes before our march was due to begin, the government declared it to be a riotous assembly and banned it under the Riotous Assemblies Act. We ignored the megaphone announcement.   The crowd was then attacked again and dispersed with very strong tear-gas and more batons, eliciting more massive publicity locally and worldwide.

In parliament, the minister who accused Jewish parents of failing to control their children also ludicrously informed the nation that we male students had been “hiding behind the girl students’ dirty long skirts”.

We were charged with “obstructing the police in the course of their duties” — but, to the credit of our judges, none of us were convicted.

All of this would probably have led to nothing very significant, had not the government vastly overreacted by declaring a State of Emergency across the whole country.  We students held a sit-down demonstration on the steps of our own university, but the police arrived, threatening to attack and arrest all of us if we did not disperse — a by-now-familiar pattern. 

When my father arrived and said he was having heart palpitations that could be fatal if I remained there, I had no option but to leave and go home.

Despite the State of Emergency, June and July 1972 were filled with sporadic protests — and some absurd allegations too, including an Afrikaans government-supporting Cape Town newspaper, Die Burger, declaring on its front-page that our professors had been instructed to give “light marking” to the exam papers of protest students (like myself).

Eight student leaders countrywide were ultimately issued with ‘banning orders’, which meant house arrest, no public comments, and not meeting more than one other person at a time.

In the mid-1970s I spent several more short but unpleasant spells in police custody, and eventually chose to escape to England rather than to accept post-university conscription into a national ‘defence force’ that was suppressing black people nationwide and beyond South Africa’s borders too. 

Political experts now believe the attacks on white students in 1972, and the expanding willingness of some (but by no means all) liberal English-speaking students to stand up against apartheid, were the thin end of a wedge that eventually led to a collapse in white racist morale. 

That in turn helped undermine apartheid, culminating in the unbanning of major anti-apartheid organisations like the African National Congress (ANC), and the release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990.  The world’s most famous prisoner later revealed he had read in a smuggled newspaper on Robben Island about our student stand against apartheid and the beatings we took. “It gave me and my fellow-ANC prisoners hope for our shared future,” Mandela told me in one of six interviews I had with him since his release.

Four years after Mandela’s release and the fraught and sometimes violent period that followed, a miraculously peaceful national democratic election led to a non-racial coalition government, with the formerly dominant National Party becoming a minority in a ruling coalition. My South African passport and identity card were returned to me just in time to vote with great joy — and report on it from Soweto.  

Accompanying me into the polling booth was a woman who had given birth the day before.  I had filmed her baby being delivered as a symbol of the documentary’s theme: ‘Birth of a Nation’, the transformation of South Africa. Twenty years later I tracked down and filmed that family, and the now grown-up girl.   The beautiful baby had been named Ntsidisheng, meaning: ‘She who crosses over from one side to the other’ – a wonderfully apt description of what was just happening that day in the historic election that brought Mandela to power.

Mandela taught South Africans many things, but one that’s often not emphasised was gratitude. His first vist to a white home after his release from prison was to the head of a legal firm who in 1942 had given him an apprentice solicitor’s job —  defying  ‘job reservation’ that was supposed to ban blacks from such a role. “Hello, boss,” was how Mandela greeted Lazar Sidelsky.  

 The person most hated by the white regime was Joe Slovo, whose immigrant family had come to Johannesburg in the 1920s from Lithuania. They lived in a boarding house; he got a lowly job in the clothing industry, became a trade unionist, then a Communist Party leader, and eventually the intelligence chief of the exiled ANC’s military wing.  

In the first official meetings between antagonistic negotiating teams in 1990, a sneering regime minister asked Slovo: Are you still a Communist?  “Oh yes,” he replied, ” from my head to my toes”, and promptly lifted his trouser legs to display red socks.  The joke broke the ice.  

It turned out too that Slovo was instrumental in some of the key deals that brought about compromise and a peaceful final transition to democracy.  He died of cancer while Housing Minister in the first democratic government — a great peacemaker and defender of human rights.

On the steps of my university, where police dispersed us 50 years ago, present-day students annually stage a so-called Anti-Apartheid Week — but that comparison seems to us who fought apartheid to elide two different realities.

I suppose we should excuse the students’ ignorance, though perhaps not excuse people who continue to manipulate them. 

Still, we white students of 1972 played our small role in liberating those young students, and our country — a fact that, despite South Africa’s current corruption, still makes me feel quietly proud.