Cape Town

The Freedom struggle in Cape Town

Black Consciousness and student revolt in the Cape

Students protest at UWC, Cape Town, 1976. Source: National Library of South Africa, Cape Town Campus

After the government crackdown on political organizations in the early 1960s, new organizations emerged to fill the political vacuum. A movement based on the idea of being Black began to organize and educate the Black people particularly the youth. The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) defiantly rejected apartheid and found resonance among black workers and the youth. In 1968 December South African Student Organization (SASO) was formed at a conference held in Marianhill, Natal. The conference was exclusively attended by Black students. After its launch SASO became the vehicle through which black consciousness ideology spread to schools and other university campuses across the country. SASO won support from the (African) University College campuses, Indian students at the University of Durban-Westville and Coloured students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Black Consciousness Movement

In the Western Cape, one of leading figures who proponents of BCM at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) was Henry Isaacs.  Isaacs became an outspoken critic of poor quality of education received by black people in South Africa. He was elected as the Student Representative Council (SRC) president and became the chairman of SASO at UWC. Isaacs was expelled from university after forming a Student Representative Council (SRC) that was not recognised by the university’s administration. Even after leaving the institution, he was denied letters of recommendation to continue his studies elsewhere in the country.  Other leading figures of SASO at UWC included Peter Jones who went to work with Steve Biko on community related issues and hold positions in the Black People’s Convention (BPC), Steven Carulous and Jonny Iseel. By the mid 1970s the government began a crackdown on BCM leaders. For instance, in 1973 eight leaders of movement were banned and detained under the Terrorism Act. The following year the nine leaders of BCM and BPC were charged for inciting disorder.

On 5 June 1973, students at UWC submitted a list of student grievances to the university authorities calling for reforms. When the administration failed to respond to student demands,   a mass meeting was held on the 8 June resulting in the detention of Isaacs.  Subsequent to this, protest erupted forcing the university to shut down and call reapplication and admission of all students. On 12 June a mass meeting was held at St John’s Cathedral in Belville where students rejected the readmission demand placed by the university. The initiative gained support from parents, religious figures and students in other parts of the country. Protests culminated in a rally on 8 July 1973 at Athlone Athletic Park attended by an estimated 12 000 people.

Those that addressed the rally included Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Sonny Leon and Adam Small and Fatima Meer. Small who was the head of Philosophy Department at university resigned from his academic position in 1973 under pressure from the university because of his involvement in BCM. On 10 July the university dropped its demand to force all students to be readmitted. Protests against the conservative university board continued forcing the institution to appoint a commission to look into student grievances. As a result of sustained student protests, the white rector of UWC was replaced by the first colored rector Richard E. van der Ross in 1975.

In 1974 the South African Minister of Bantu Education and Development, MC Botha, issued a enacted a law that that imposed the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools. This was to be compulsory from students on Standard 5 upwards. Poor education given to Black people and the addition Afrikaans fueled the youth hatred for the apartheid system. As early as March 1976 students began passive resistance against Afrikaans. The outbreak of Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 spread to other parts of the country in the subsequent months. Despite the announcement of government regulations on 6 July 1976 annulling Afrikaans as a compulsory medium of instruction and leaving that choice to principals, the student revolt spread to other parts of the country. Thus, apart from Soweto, Cape Town also became another important site of protests. Student demonstrations took place in African townships such as Langa, Gugulethu and Nyanga.

On 10 August 1976 part of a prefabricated building of the Peninsula College for Advanced Technical Education was burnt. Explosives were found Goodhope Primary in Bellville South. In both incidents educational institutions were targeted, thus linking these to the wider activities of the revolt. By the 11 and 12 August 1976 violence had spread to Cape Town’s black townships of Langa, Nyanga and Guguletu. African pupils from schools in these areas protested in solidarity with the students of Soweto. Students marched through township streets such as Jungle Walk Street with placards written “Down with Bantu Education”. In other cases teachers marched with students to keep order while in some instances teachers stayed at schools. Students were placed under police surveillance. In Langa students marched to the police station where they handed their grievances to the police. One student was shot dead and others were scattered as pandemonium ensued. In Gugulethu students were ordered by the police to disperse, but when the stood their ground the police fired teargas canisters at them.  As a result of the incident between 25 and 30 people were arrested. Later students went to Gugulethu police station to demand the release of their comrades. For the first time Coloured townships joined in the protests. In Bellville, 600 coloured students marched from the Bellville Training College and clashed with the police. Elsewhere in the Western Cape, students at the Esselen Park High School in Worcester demonstrated in front of the school were tear-gassed and baton charged by the police.

The outbreak of the revolt in Cape Town did not end in the township schools, student leaders at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) organized marches. A poster parade by UWC students with placards written “Sorry Soweto, Kruger is a pig; the revolution is coming” was broken up by the police. Those bearing posters were arrested and detained. Students from UCT marched towards the city centre giving the Black Power Salute to black people passing until they were stopped by the police. As a result, 73 students were arrested. Several student leaders from UWC including community leaders were detained and held at Victor Verster prison, near Paarl.

On 1 September 1976 the unrest spread to city of Cape Town itself. An estimated 2 000 students from Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu marched through the Cape Town central business district (CBD) unhindered without notice or publicity. The following day the government reimposed a countrywide ban on public gatherings until 31 October 1976. During September coloured students intensified their protests by targeting Cape Town. For instance, on 2 and 3 September 1976 they marched peacefully to the city, but the police set up roads blocks in the CBD. The police sprayed teargas in the city for two consecutive days to disrupt the marching students. In the process, they also disrupted the working activities in the city as people that worked in buildings were smoked out of their buildings by the teargas. The unrest took a violent turn as coloured students burnt schools, libraries and a magistrate’s court. This was followed by huge strike on 15 -16 September where an estimated 200,000 Coloured workers stayed away from work in the Cape Town area. Meanwhile, on 13 September the government appointed the Cillie Commission of Inquiry into the Soweto Uprising. On 18 November 1976 the Cillie Commission was given a detailed account of the loss of life and damage to property in the Greater Cape Town area as a result of student unrest. By December 1976 the revolt had died down but outbreak of violence was still reported in the townships of Guguletu, Nyanga and Langa. Clashes broke out between youths and hostel dwellers, causing the destruction of numerous houses forcing several people to flee the affected areas.

The government responded with force to protests. Several people students, student and community leaders as well as some teachers were detained under the infamous Section 6 of the Terrorism Act. Some were slapped with banning orders while others were sentenced to prison terms in a series of Terrorism trials in the late 1970s. In October 1977, the Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger, banned all the organisations associated with the Black Consciousness movement including the Western Cape Youth Organisation (WCYO). According to the TRC Report, the Western Cape had the second highest number of deaths and injuries associated with the 1976 revolt. The violent government crackdown on the 1976 student uprising across the country drove the youth into exile where some joined the ANC and MK for military training.