Students march to the sit in at the UCT Senate building
Students march to the sit in at the UCT Senate building


South African student protest, 1968: remembering the Mafeje sit-in

Martin Plaut

The student rebellions of 1968 across Europe and the United States received wide coverage in their fortieth anniversary year. What has had almost no publicity was the student protest that took place in South Africa; an event which was a small, but significant turning point in the country’s long march away from apartheid.[1] It transformed the outlook and – in many cases – the lives of those who participated in the protest, of whom I am one.

It is important to remember just how barren the political landscape of South Africa was in those days. The South African Communist Party had been banned in 1950 and had disbanded itself, before reforming in 1953. The liberation movements had been attacked after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 when sixty-nine unarmed protesters were shot down by police and a further 180 wounded. Their leaderships had been driven into exile, their members deep underground. The National Party ruled over a country in which opposition was restricted to the floor of the white-only parliament.

Discussion of socialism or communism was effectively forbidden, with most books on the subject proscribed. As white students we knew little of the stirrings of anti-colonialism in the rest of the continent. Africa was portrayed as a dark and deeply troubled ‘terra incognita’ by the media.

By 1968 the organised left in South Africa was almost non-existent. The African Resistance Movement, a white organisation which attempted launch a bombing campaign in 1964, had been wound up a year later, with the hanging of John Harris for setting off a bomb in Johannesburg station, in which 23 were hurt.[2]  On the campus of UCT there were two small left wing organisations, the Modern World Society and Radsoc (Radical Society).[3]  These had some influence on the Student Representative Council (SRC) at UCT.

The spark that ignited student anger took place in May 1968 when Archie Mafeje was appointed to a senior lectureship at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the department of social anthropology. He was eminently suitable, having graduated from the university with an MA in the subject, cum laude three years earlier. At the time of his appointment he was studying for a PhD at Cambridge.[4] But the appointment flouted the spirit of government legislation dating back to 1959, which had declared the university a ‘white only’ institution and Mr Mafeje was black. Black, Indian and Coloured students could only attend if suitable courses were not available at black institutions, like Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, the heartland of the African National Congress. Fort Hare educated a generation of African politicians (from across southern Africa) and indeed Archie Mafeje had spent a year there in the mid 1950’s before coming to study at UCT, but it was not able to offer the range of courses available at white universities.

At the same time the legislation did not extend to lecturers, and the “white” universities continued to employ a small number of black people in courses teaching African languages. So in 1968, taking advantage of this loophole, UCT appointed Mr Mafeje. The government was not at all pleased and within days the Minister of Education, Jan de Klerk, wrote to the university objecting to the appointment of a “Bantu” and demanding that the vacancy be filled by a suitable white person. He argued that it was “tantamount to flouting the accepted traditional outlook of South Africa.” [5]

The authorities also went onto the ideological offensive. UCT had a large number of Jewish students and the government reminded the Jewish community that a year earlier it had lifted tight exchange controls to allow Jews to send funds to Israel during the 1967 war. Is this – the government demanded to know – any way to the way you repay us? [6]

Within a month the UCT Council had caved in, following threats that their funding would be cut and laws brought in to close the loophole. In effect the university withdrew the offer of appointment to Mr Mafeje in order to protect the theoretical right to offer him a job! Such was the logic of the time.

A section of the students at UCT were determined that this would not stand. The issue was discussed at the congress of the National Union of South African Students and the idea emerged of a sit-in – along the lines of the occupations then taking place in the rest of the world. The European protests were widely reported in South Africa, and we followed them with interest. As far as I know no-one at the UCT sit-in had been involved in any of these activities, although some went on to participate in other sit-ins at a later stage. [7]

At first there was an attempt to hold a joint mass meeting of the university, organised by the  university administration and the SRC. But a group of students, led by Raphael “Raphie” Kaplinsky, of Radsoc destroyed the united front between the student leadership and the university authorities. Kaplinsky spoke out strongly against any idea of co-operation with the administration.

“…the anger on campus over the weakness of the administration in caving in to the government was expressed in an unplanned and impromptu speech by Kaplinsky. Condemning the meeting as ‘a salve to conscience and a ritual,’ he slated the administration for doing the government’s ‘dirty work’ for them. Giving them a week to change their minds, he called for a second mass meeting, which if the demands of the students had not been met would lead to a sit-in.”[8]

The university authorities failed to act and by August 1968 enough of a head of steam had been generated to hold a second mass meeting in the imposing surroundings of Jameson Hall. After rousing speeches from student leaders, including Duncan Innes (President of the National Union of Students) and Kaplinsky, most of the 1,000 strong audience marched out, down the broad granite steps that are the focal-point of social life on the campus, and occupied the administration building.

Six hundred of us decided to participate in the occupation, determined not to leave until UCT reversed its decision. For ten days we held out, sleeping on the floors. Food was cooked communally – even by the men who, at that time, were largely ignorant of the workings of a kitchen. Plenty of wine and marijuana were consumed and virginities were lost, but on the whole it was a carefully managed protest, with a signs asking for rubbish to be removed and the areas being occupied to be kept clean. Messages of support flowed in from students in Paris and London and there was favourable coverage in the international media. [9]

Perhaps the most important thing was that we discovered intellectual liberation. Alternative lectures were organised on the stairs. We got a newspaper up and running. In one fell swoop we had thrown off our mental shackles. At last we were not just some isolated racist outpost of empire, but part of an international student movement. And the times – they really were a changing!

Yet it was not to be. The university stubbornly refused to concede to our demand to reappoint Mr Mafeje and gradually our spirits flagged. Students from the Afrikaans university of Stellenbosch, fifty kilometres away, were sent to try to beat us up. Shots were fired at the doors.  The government threatened to act, if the university would not. As support ebbed away we finally packed up and left. Some of our leaders were called in by the Prime Minister of the time, the notorious John Vorster, who harangued them, warning that if anything like this ever happened again he would send in his men to ‘sort us out.’[10]
A failure? Not really. It gave the lie to the government’s claim that all whites supported its racist policies. In the intense debates that took place new ideas came bubbling up. “What will I tell my children if I do nothing,” one student asked to loud cheers, “especially if they are black!” It is hard to convey the shock that went through us all at these words. Laws prohibited all sex between races; this was the luxury of pure heresy.

Forty years later those of who could make it gathered for a reunion at the University of Cape Town in August 2008. Organised by Duncan Innes and his partner, Helene Perold, it was an opportunity to recall the events. About sixty of us attended, with nearly a third coming from outside South Africa. It became clear during the discussions that many had gone on to play active parts in the trade unions that emerged in the 1970’s and in the movements of the 1980’s that finally led to the end of apartheid.[11]

The sit-in also had reverberations that went beyond the confines of UCT or our own lives. One linkage was particularly important. Richard ‘Rick’ Turner, who had studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, had returned to South Africa and was living on a farm near Stellenbosch at the time off the sit-in.[12] It is not clear whether he participated in the protests directly, but afterwards he held informal discussions at his home. Lessons were drawn from the sit-in that went on to influence his thinking.

Richard Turner moved to Durban and became a driving force in the resurrection of the trade union movement, which was assisted by the Wages Commissions he inspired, established by white students to investigate and act upon the poverty that resulted from the poor wages paid by South African industry.[13] In 1972 he published one of the seminal books of the period: “The eye of the needle: An essay on participatory democracy.”[14] Six years later he was brutally assassinated, almost certainly by government agents. His book not only contained a trenchant attack on apartheid, it was among the most important left-wing, non-Communist critiques of the regime of the period. Highlighting the need for new forms of organisation it inspired the generation that went into the unions. Its spirit was inculcated in the unions, with an emphasis on open debate and on the need for leaders to be held accountable for their actions by their members. Union militants took these lessons into the United Democratic Front, which they helped found in 1983 and the UDF, in turn, played a critical role on overthrowing apartheid. The influence of Turner’s thinking can still be found within the South African left.

The other linkage was with the black consciousness movement, which was beginning to take shape at this time. This is something that has not previously been revealed, but Kaplinsky argues that it took place just after the sit-in ended.

“….this is little known, (but) there was a direct link between key sit-in activists and the Black Consciousness Movement. Directly after the sit-in, and inspired by the sit-in, Steve Biko and others at Fort Hare asked the UCT students to join them in their own planned protests. Details of what took place are sketchy, but although thwarted by police blockades, this act of solidarity was important to Biko. Later, in 1969, he and some of the ‘sit-in graduates’ shared a platform. Together, they argued the case that if change was to occur in SA, it would not come from paternalistic white opposition politics (however well-meaning), but through the struggle of the black population itself.”[15]


When we met in Cape Town last August, forty years on, we discovered there was a twist to the tale. An investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr Mafeje’s treatment conducted by UCT had uncovered evidence of why the university authorities acted the way they did all those years ago. Although the full findings of enquiry have not been made public, information from it has helped lift the veil on why the university held out so strenuously to retain the right to appoint black lecturers, even if it meant not appointing Mr Mafeje in the process. It turns out that, unbeknown to the government, UCT had already managed to appoint a man classified as Coloured to the academic staff. He was Johnny van der Westhuizen, but since his name was Afrikaans, he had slipped past the authorities, who had assumed he was white. It appears that the university had rejected one black appointee in order to safeguard the employment of an existing member of staff; another example of the strange and terrible consequences of apartheid.

Our reunion was tinged with sadness and some bitterness.  The university had never made its peace with Mr Mafeje. He had gone on to live the life of a wandering scholar in exile in Tanzania, Egypt, Senegal and Namibia.[16]  He published widely and was a respected figure, but his family rightly felt he had been shabbily treated by UCT. Yet attempts at reconciliation had been made.  After white rule ended in 1994 he was offered a research post. But as a professor at the time he declined to accept it. When he finally applied for a chair at the university, he was once more rejected as being unsuitable for the position. The 2008 UCT enquiry established why this was, but its findings have not been revealed to protect those who participated in the appointment selection panel.

Archie Mafeje died in March 2007, apparently a deeply embittered man. UCT has now, belatedly, apologised for the way he was treated.[17] At a ceremony attended by some of us who had taken part in the original protest, his family formally accepted the apology and the university awarded Mafeje a posthumous honorary doctorate. A scholarship is to be inaugurated in his name and his works published. The room in which the university Council meets, and which we occupied all those years ago, has been renamed in his honour.

[1] Most of the information for this article was obtained during discussions held at the University of Cape Town in August 2008 at a re-union of those who, like the author, participated in the original sit-in.

[2] Illustrated History of South Africa, Readers Digest, 1988, page 415.

[3] Hughes op cit. says this about these organisations. “ …my generation – the intermediate generation after ARM and before 68 – a generation which included Keith Gottschalk, Sheila Barsel and Rick Turner – drew several lessons from the ARM fiasco – one was to abhor violence, another was to scorn the false romance of underground action, and most importantly, to practice tolerance and cooperation on the Left as best we could – if only  to avoid the terrible infighting  which had undone the previous generation.  Thus Keith Gottschalk handed over the previously Liberal campus organization, the Radical Students Society to Raphie Kaplinsky – who came out of a Marxist background (his brother Simon had fled the country after being rumbled printing pamphlets for the Communist Party.) On the other side the formerly Communist Modern World Society, was inherited by Andrew Colman, who had Trotskyist leanings, and by myself – a mere Social Democrat!

See also Clement Erbmann, ‘Conservative Revolutionaries;’ Anti-Apartheid Activism at the University of Cape Town 1963-1973.

[4] Citation for the Honorary Degree for Dr. Archie Mafeje at the University of

Cape Town, delivered by the University orator, Professor Francis Wilson at the installation of the University’s new vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, 19 August 2008.

[5] “Lessons of the Mafeje Affair”, University of Cape Town, brochure, August 2008

[6] Recollection of Mike Khan, from Notes of the UCT Sit-in reunion, 17th August, 2008. Unpublished.

[7] Ken Hughes had been involved in a sit-in at Warwick University in the UK and another in the United States. “Lessons of the great UCT sit-in  of 1968,” unpublished.

[8] Erbmann, op cit. page 12.

[9] Erbann quoting the UCT student newspaper of the time and interviews with Kaplinsky and others, says: “The event also received favourable attention both in the local press and the international media, with footage reaching the television screens of approximately 400 million people across the world, as well as being the first event supported by the Voice of America and Radio Moscow since World War Two.”

[10] Recollection of Phillip van der Merwe, Notes of the reunion. Op cit.

[11] Notes op cit.

[12] Erbann, op cit, page 14

[13] Erbmann, op cit. page 18

[14] Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society 2, Johannesburg 1972, isbn 0869750038

[15] Little acorns and big okes. 40 years on from the UCT sit-in. Raphie Kaplinsky, unpublished.

(okes is a South African term roughly translated as blokes)

[16] Citation 19 August 2008.

[17] UCT Statement and Apology regarding Professor A B Mafeje, August 2008.