BBC: From our Own Correspondent – UCT protest revisited

Martin Plaut

Cue: Fifty years ago – at the height of apartheid – students at the University of Cape Town occupied the university administration in protest. Over one thousand students joined what was called a ‘sit-in’. They were rejecting the university’s decision to withdraw the appointment of a black lecturer. Among them was the BBC’s former Africa editor, Martin Plaut. He has just returned from a reunion of the veterans of the 1968 protest.


Fifty years has taken its toll. We are certainly greyer and somewhat less mobile than we were in those heady days. But those of us who made the trip, from across the world, are no less committed to our university and the cause that we stood for.

Sit In 50th Anniversary Reunion
Reunion of the veterans of ’68 Martin Plaut collection

Looking back, it is hard to explain just how complete the hold apartheid had over South Africa at that time. Nelson Mandela had been jailed, his party – the ANC, and other political movements – had been crushed or driven into exile. White rule was complete and all but unchallenged. Hardly a ripple of dissent was to be seen.  Which was why the appointment of Archie Mafeje was such a surprise. Asked to lecture on African government and law, he was an outstanding scholar. No wonder he got the job.

But the University of Cape Town had been decreed a white-only university: his appointment was an outrage – in the eyes of the John Vorster’s government. The university senate buckled, then backed down. Mafeje would have to pursue his career elsewhere.

We – as students – were outraged. Mass meetings were held. Resolutions passed and then we marched down the hill to occupy the administration building. We held out for ten days, making front page headlines in every newspaper. We even caused a minor international stir – receiving messages of support from the barricades in London. and other centres of student revolt, during the heady days of ’68.

Demonstration on De Waal Drive 1968

In the end – however – the protest failed. There was the unremitting hostility of the government. And students from the neighbouring University of Stellenbosch, a bastion of apartheid, arrived, threatening to evict us with violence.


We cleaned up and marched out. We went our separate ways, but few of those who spent those days sleeping on the floor and listening to alternative lectures, were untouched. One of our leaders lost his passport. Some parents never spoke to their children again. Others of us went on to participate in the black trade unions, or join the anti-apartheid movement, wherever we ended up.

sit in on stairs

Returning to Cape Town this year was a poignant event, and not just because we remembered those who could no longer be with us. The university is by no means at ease with itself. Since 2015 there has been division, violence and anger.

The vast estate on which the university was built was donated by that Cecil Rhodes. His statue, brooding with his chin in his hand, stood at the foot of the main campus. I winced every time I went by – aware of his legacy as an imperial figure – and it was good for me. It was just the kind of barb students need to prod them into inquiring into the past.

But the students of 2015 saw things very differently. Human excrement was flung at the statue. Demonstrations were held. The university administration, attempting to contain the rage, removed Rhodes, but the fury only escalated. The Vice-Chancellor’s office was trashed. Works of art were removed and burnt. Lecturers were abused and classes disrupted. Each time the administration attempted to reason with the students, to no avail. Amnesties were given and criminal action forgiven. Yet still the anger burned.

UCT Rhodes Must Fall

One of our fellow members of the ’68 protest was forced to abandon his classes – in the history of economic thought, of all things – and lecture from home by video. Finally, and tragically, the bullying contributed to the death of one of South Africa’s finest black academics: Professor Bongani Mayosi.  Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, he took his own life. The circumstances are contested, but few deny that the aggression and abuse he received played no part. As the Vice-Chancellor put it: “all of us at UCT failed him.” President Ramaphosa sent his condolences to the family. None of this will bring Professor Mayosi back.

Perhaps it is impossible to separate the university from its surroundings. South Africa – far from being Mandela’s rainbow nation – is mired in corruption. Former President Jacob Zuma is facing a myriad of accusation, all of which he denies. Unemployment and poverty are rife. Young black students have a mountain to climb if they are to build successful lives for themselves. No wonder there is frustration.

At the same time, it is hard not to see what the university might become. It is among the best on the continent – attracting young men and women from across Africa and beyond.  We met some of the students we had supported through a bursary we have established. Bright and articulate, they were everything one could want from a graduate. Let’s hope that if we next meet in five years time they will be the face of the country that we so cherish.

Credit: Apart from the photograph from my collection, the other images are from UCT Special Collections, with thanks

Sit in press cutting