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Tales from Dystopia XXIII: Academic freedom and university apartheid

16 April 2019

Sixty years ago the Extension of University Education Bill was passed by the South African parliament, which enforced university apartheid. At the time I was a student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and on 16 April 1959 there was a protest meeting addressed by the Chancellor at which all members of the university were asked to affirm the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy.

Wits University, 16 April 1959

We made the following declaration:

We are gathered here today to affirm in the name of the University of the Witwatersrand that it is our duty: to uphold the principle that a University is a place where men and women without regard to race and colour are welcome to join in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge; and to continue faithfully to defend this ideal against all who have sought by legislative enactment to curtail the autonomy of the University. Now therefore we dedicate ourselves to the maintenance of this ideal and to the restoration of the autonomy of our University.

The Extension of University Education Act, which curtailed academic freedom, essentially turned all existing universities into tribal colleges for Afrikaans-speaking and English-speaking whites, and made provision for new ones, separate colleges for Xhosas, Zulus, Tswanas, .Coloureds, Asians etc.

It was, however, a case of “You don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.”

The only really “open” universities that had non-white staff and students were Wits and Cape Town, and non-white students were not admitted to the university residences (OK, there were laws preventing that). No Afrikaans-speaking universities admitted black students, and other English-speaking universities, like Rhodes and the University of Natal did not do so either. The University of Natal (now UKZN) did have a separate campus for “Non-European” medical students.

Wits University 16 April 1959

About a month before. we had held another protest demonstration, when the bill was first introduced to parliament. About 1000 students stood on the traffic island in Jan Smuts Avenue, during the evening rush hour, holding a chain to symbolise the enslavement of the university. One of the organisers of the protest was our Latin lecturer, Saul Bastomsky, and a newspaper reporter asked him whether first-year students even knew what the protest was about. I was standing nearby and Saul Bastomsky, much to my consternation, pointed at me and said “Here’s a first-year student, ask him.”. The reporter asked me what I thought we should do next, and I said, “Stand outside the houses of parliament.” We didn’t, of course, it would have cost far too much money to get there. But there was the very dignified, very official formal protest meeting on 16th April, which made quite a deep impression on me. .

Not all agreed, of course. While we were standing holding the chain in Jan Smuts Avenue about 20 students stood at the side of the road with placards reading “Fight liberalism at Wits” and “Not all agree with the SRC”, But there were about 1000 students holding the chain.

Ten years later, on 16 April 1969, I observed another protest, this time at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. In 1959 I had been a rather naive first-year student; Ten years later I had completed my full-time studies, and would never been a full-time student again. My last year as a full-time student, 1968, was the year of student power, and son on 16th April 1969 I was asked to speak at a student meeting in Pietermaritzburg organised by the University Christian Movement on “methods of protest”. But it seemed to me that the methods of protest are very much determined by the aims of protest, and that not enough thought had been given to that.

Children fleeing from a burning village in Vietnam.

So I tried shock tactics, which proved to be a little too shocking for many of the students. I told of a group of students in an American city who publicly burnt a dog as a protest, and it caused a huge uproar. Many said that it was counterproductive, and that they weren’t “helping their cause” by doing such a thing. But the uproar itself was the point. They demonstrated clearly that the American public was more concerned about the burning of one dog in San Francisco than about the burning of hundreds of children in Vietnam, which their government was doing with the taxes they paid. The girl in the centre of the picture on the right was one of those children; she eventually recovered, but many others did not.

I don’t recommend burning dogs as a form of protest, but in that instance it clearly made its point.

By 1969, too, many protests were directed at university authorities as much as at the governments. There were sit-ins at university administration offices, and the fees-must-fall protests of a couple of years ago show that some things have changed little. In 1959 it was the government deciding to segregate universities on the grounds of race and colour. In 2019 students are being excluded on the grounds of wealth, or rather the lack of it. As one British friend once said to me back in the 1960s, when South Africa has sorted out the problem of the black and the white, it will come face to face with the real problem — the haves and the have nots.

A luta continua. Die stryd duur voort.


This is part of a series of posts about life in South Africa during the time of apartheid, called Tales from Dystopia. You can see more Tales from Dystopia here.



One Comment leave one →
  1. 23 April 2019 2:36 am

    Thanks for the careful, thoughtful work you do. You are in a world beyond my ken yet in my heart. I’ll be away for a couple of months but I’ll catch up late summer.

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