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Tales from Dystopia XIII: Police riot in cathedral

5 June 2012

Forty years ago today (and yesterday) the police rioted in Cape Town Anglican Cathedral, and arrested the dean.

There have probably been many police riots, before and since, but I think that this was the first one to take place in a cathedral in the centre of a large South African city, so it is perhaps worth remembering.

It is also one that I was only very peripherally involved in, so I hope if anyone who was more directly involved in these events reads this, they will add their own memories of the events by way of comments.

On 1 June 1972 a group of students from the University of Cape Town staged a protest outside the Houses of Parliament, and several were arrested. The following day about 400 students, lecturers and Christian leaders gathered on the steps of the Cathedral to protest against against apartheid education. The cathedral was quite near to the Houses of Parliament, but was private property. The police arrived and ordered the students to disperse. They refused, claiming they were on private property. Without warning the police baton-charged the students. They fled into the Cathedral pursued by the police who beat up the students, some of them in front of the High Altar.

There is a good description of what happened next here The Witness:

UCT students numbering perhaps 400 were sitting on the cathedral main steps protesting about racial inequalities in education. After a discussion between police colonel Pieter Crous and a student leader over the use of a loud-hailer, a large squad of policemen suddenly baton-charged. The attack instruction was given by Brigadier Martinus Lamprecht, who later appeared in a series of Cape Times photos watching a snarling police sergeant club a student already sprawled on the pavement. Interviewed on the spot, in a shaken, trembling voice Lamprecht stated that the protest had become a “public meeting” and “these people refused to move, so I gave the order to disperse them”.

The police beatings were witnessed by thousands of members of the public and over the following days received widespread condemnatory press coverage.

The Dean, the Very Revd Edward (Ted) King, ordered the police out of the Cathedral, and for the rest of the day the Cathedral was under siege. The students remained in the Cathedral and were joined by many more, while the police were outside firing teargas canisters at the Cathedral through the openings. Ted King was arrested for obstructing the course of justice as was his wife, and Theo Kotze, a Methodist minister who was Director of the Christian Institute..

The web site of the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town describes how the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Revd Robery Selby Taylor, arrived on the scene Anglican Diocese Cape Town

Later that evening into the Cathedral came Robert, he stepped into the pulpit and in a loud booming voice he began “It has been an long day and we are all very tired. The police have given me an undertaking that if we leave quietly we will not be molested. I therefore suggest you leave singly or in very small groups. Good night and God bless you.” And then almost as an after thought, he continued “By the way there is a service here tomorrow morning at 08h00, so would you please tidy up before you leave.” The calming effect which he had on that situation was quite amazing in fact almost surreal.

I had been in Cape Town a couple of weeks earlier, but missed these events, and was back in Pietermaritzburg, where students held protest demonstrations against the police riots in Cape Town. This is what I wrote in my diary 40 years ago:

Monday 5 June 1972

I went to town and bought newspapers. Friday’s police riot in Cape Town is still front-page news, and all sorts of protests are planned for today, including another one at Cape Town Cathedral.

I went home and wrote a little leaflet on “Church and community crisis”, an adaptation of something in the Free Church Collective Handbook published by the Berkeley Free Church, about first aid and defence against tear gas. I took it up to the university and gave it to John Morrison in the SRC office. News came that several people were arrested at Wits after an illegal march into town.

I went home and in the afternoon wrote letters and then walked into town. I walked past the Cathedral and there were about 150 students standing with placards, doing exactly what they had been doing in Cape Town last Friday, but this time the police weren’t rioting; there were just a few SB guys watching. I walked past the SB office and there were a whole lot of SB guys standing in what looked like a silent demo on the SB office steps, about 15 of them, all looking solemn in the rain.

On that occasion, at least, there was a marked contrast between the behaviour of the police in Cape Town and Pietermaritzburg.

The commemorative article in yesterday’s Witness, which is well worth reading, goes on to say:

The fact that a central Anglican building of worship had also been so defiled cut no ice with Prime Minister John Vorster who was quoted as saying “he was proud of his police” and he warned English-language universities “to get their house in order” or face extreme legislative sanctions.

National Party politicians liked to claim that they were defending “Western Christian civilization”, but on this occasion at least it was clear that the police were behaving like heathen barbarians.

Ten centuries earlier the heathen Danes invaded Kent, captured Canterbury, beat up and killed many of the citizens, and set fire to the cathedral. They captured the archbishop, Alphege, and demanded that the citizens pay a ransom for his release. Alphege refused, saying that the poor should not be burdened with having to pay for his release. The drunken Danes, celebrating their victory, pelted him with bones from their feast and beat him to death. His tomb is in Canterbury Cathedral, and bears the epitaph “He who dies for truth and justice dies for Christ”.

No one died in the police riot in Cape Town cathedral, though the savagery of the police was little different. But five years later Steve Biko died in a similar manner to St Alphege, and he surely deserves the same epitaph.

A rather minor postscript to the story is that I thought that if a church building was defiled by bloodshed, as Cape Town Cathedral had, it needed to be cleansed or exorcised or something, but nobody seemed to be concerned to do that with the Cape Town cathedral. There were certainly no press reports of such a ceremony taking place.

I tried to learn more about this, and having seen that the publications department of the Anglican Church had advertised for sale a Rite of Exorcism I wrote to them to order a few copies. They responded by sending me their entire stock, without charge, saying that as no one had ever ordered a copy before, and I was the only one to do so, I might as well have all the extant copies.

When they arrived, however, I was disappointed to see that the rite was concerned only with the exorcism of demonised persons, and had nothing to say about the cleansing of defiled church buildings. I had to abandon my mental picture of the Archbishop of Cape Town, in full canonicals, wreathed in clouds of incense, solemnly exorcising the evil spirits of the apartheid police.

This can be the excuse for adding more quotes from John Davies’s book The faith abroad, which I reviewed recently:

Catholics who are competent in exorcism assert that, in their experience, demon-possession of individuals is very rare. And we have to acknowledge that the theologians who have tried to delete the demonic from our contemporary Christian witness have done so because they have been horrified by the terribly destructive effects of incompetent exorcism when practised on individuals. Unless we handle the exorcism stories in the gospels in this corporate style, we will find them being claimed by people who want to find in the Gospels a licence to get involved in the secret and irrational world of the occult, or who find satisfaction in diagnosing themselves, as individuals, to be possessed by demons. In my experience this self-diagnosis never accords with the marks of demonic possession as recognized by Jesus. But this is not to deny the reality of our supernatural warfare. There are demonic forces which threaten human beings, and the church is called to recognize and attack them. Every baptism is an exorcism, an attack on the powers of darkness, and every baptized person is enlisted as a member of the exorcizing community.

And, with special reference to the policemen who attacked the students on that occasion (and later, more seriously, in Soweto in 1976)

There are millions who are now victims of racism. I do not mean the victims of policies of low wages, migratory labour and racial injustice. I mean those whose minds are so attuned to racist lies that they cannot see the truth either about themselves or those they oppress. You can no more blame a young white man growing up in the Orange Free State for thinking that blacks are inferior than you can blame the man in the Gadarene graveyard for talking with the voice of Legion. But that does not mean that you fold your arms and say, “It’s hopeless.” Like Jesus you attack the demon and cherish the demon’s victim. This may look, to the rigid followers of political ideology, to involve compromise and blurred edges. Perhaps. But the use of demon-possession as a political and therapeutic model can save us from the propensity of some political activists to see everything in terms of blame and guilt. A moral intensity which insists on locating guilt, especially on especially on maximizing the guilt of one’s ideological adversary, is in a literal sense satanic; it positively depends on the enemy being as bad as possible, and therefore one sets oneself up in business to be a tempter. So those who try to solve problems by means of this sort of moralism themselves become victims of a kind of ideological demon.

But I had to become Orthodox to find the fullness of the Christian faith, and the missing thing that I looked for in vain forty years sgo. The Book of Needs (Trebnik) has prayers for the opening of a church desecrated by pagans or by heretics. Here is one of them:

O Lord, our God, who hast shown this temple to be Thy dwelling place, by the coming of Thy life-giving Spirit in the precious chrism, who didst sanctify the prophets and apostles: For the sake of our sins it has been permitted by Thee that Thy most pure altar be desecrated by those who, out of renunciation and impiety, have troubled and torn the Church of the most-pure Gospels, and of the traditions of the Apostles, Fathers and the Righteous.

Do Thou Thyself again, with merciful eyes, accepting us of the True Faith who have come unto Thee, and who, in repentance, have confessed our sins committed knowingly, and who desire to offer the pure and bloodless sacrifice to Thee in it, cleanse it from the defilement of them that have abused it, and, as Thou Thyself only art pure, manifest it, as it was before, filled with purity and the super-essential holy things, and as Thou only art able to sanctify them that Turn theitr hearts unto Thee, purify us also most completely from the counsels of the evil one, and of every doubt and division of thought. For Thou art our sancrification, and unto Thee do we send up glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 June 2012 10:47 am

    Very interesting, Steve, both the history and the thoughts of cleansing and purification of the sacred defiled. Over the years I have always cleansed each new home before moving in and again after every explosive argument, feeling guilty about the “new age” feelings such a ceremony aroused but not being able to either justify or condemn such a practice biblically.

  2. Alan permalink
    5 June 2012 10:44 pm

    Some ten years or so ago, when my co-pastor and I discovered that the congregation we were serving had been in the habit of conducting “Masonic Services” at which “those elders who are Masons” had served Communion, we performed (privately) an exorcism ritual based on the Roman Catholic one.

  3. 9 December 2013 4:20 pm

    I agree that the church needed cleansing after the racist police had rioted in it.

    I can’t say I agree about cleansing a church after a Masonic service – although it does seem discriminatory of the participants to only allow the elders who were Masons to serve communion.

    I hope it is several centuries since any pagans have desecrated a church. I would certainly hope that contemporary Pagans would not do so – although there have been occasions when Pagan sites were desecrated by people claiming to be Christians.

    • 9 December 2013 5:50 pm

      I think in this case the thing that had defiled the Cape Town Cathedral was violence and bloodshed.


  1. Forward to the past | Notes from underground

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