The 1970s at Wits were a time of mass meetings, all-night vigils, marches, arrests and security police spies. The decade ushered in the June 16 uprisings and the era of Africanisation, when the SRC and the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) took a long, hard look at what it meant to be South African and how to contribute to an African future. It was a time of protest music, culture and art, a time when you could feel the impatience for change. In this feature we profile three Wits SRC Presidents who were also leading members of NUSAS in the 1976 – 1981 era.
RICHARD DE VILLIERS
Wits SRC President 1976/77
Current: Director of Human Resources at Village Main Reef Mines
Richard de Villiers was appointed Wits SRC President in the heat of the June 16 uprisings in 1976. It would be hard to find a more challenging student leadership position.
“I was sitting in my SRC office on the morning of June 16 when reports of shootings and terrible trouble in Soweto started filtering through via the black staff at Wits,” De Villiers recalls. “We realised something extremely serious was going down and we immediately called an emergency mass meeting. In those days we would paint notices about mass meetings, all-night vigils and lunchtime speakers on the wall outside the Students’ Union building. Situated right next to the canteen, it was very visible and great numbers of students would attend.”
This meeting was different. School children in Soweto had thrown down the gauntlet to the apartheid government and life would never be the same.
“People were coming forward and saying that the people in Soweto were rioting and children were being shot,” says De Villiers. “We had access to Jan Smuts Avenue and a large group of students headed into the streets to protest against police brutality. Braamfontein was already full of police and they tried to stop us with dogs and teargas. It was chaos.”
The reports coming through from Soweto became increasingly alarming. Undeterred by the police, the students attempted to march to John Vorster Square police station. They were intercepted on Queen Elizabeth Bridge and dispersed by baton-wielding riot police.
The Soweto riots were broadcast internationally by various TV networks and nationally by the SABC as TV had just been launched in South Africa. Like all the other networks it screened graphic coverage from Soweto and other affected townships.
“The following day we called for a student boycott of classes on campus in solidarity with the protesting school children. A large number of liberal and leftist students responded to the call,” continues De Villiers. Because of this, tensions ran high on campus between the liberal and leftist students on the one hand and the conservative or right-wing students on the other, who objected to the boycotts and accused the SRC and its followers of being communists who were jeopardising their future.
By 1976 campus was teeming with security police and a large number of students had their studies paid for by the state in exchange for infiltrating the SRC and NUSAS, De Villiers explains. “Among them were Craig Williamson, Derek Brune, Andrew Hardy and Miles Conway. You didn’t know whom to trust. Miles Conway presented himself as ultra left and headed our student press, where we printed anti-government pamphlets and publications. On June 16, when the police were clashing with the students in Braamfontein, he climbed onto the roof of a police car and told the students to return to campus because the police were bashing them up. Footage of him as a student hero went round the world and he was one of us, yet he turned out to be a police informer. Derek Brune was Vice-President of the SRC; Andrew Hardy was treasurer of the SRC; Craig Williamson was treasurer of NUSAS, so they all knew exactly what was going on and, as a result, student leaders were persistently victimised.
“For example, they would phone my parents and tell them that I had been killed in a car crash and that they should come and identify my body at the mortuary,” says De Villiers. “My Mom was sickly and my Dad was furious with me for getting involved in politics, so it was difficult to handle.” De Villiers’ image didn’t go down well either. Like most leftist students, he had long hair and wore jeans or corduroys and t-shirts. “In fact I had one pair of green corduroys which I wore to campus every day, so it was fairly easy to cast aspersions not only on my politics but also on my cleanliness,” he adds.
In 1977, ahead of the first anniversary of June 16 and the year that Steve Biko was killed, De Villiers as SRC President and Max Price as SRC Vice-President were detained in solitary confinement along with three other NUSAS members, Joel Bolnick, Peter Lachman and Auret van Heerden. The security police justified this on the grounds that they were “a threat to state security”. One of the triggers was a series of pamphlets produced by Wits students carrying the banner headline “Institutionalised Violence” that had become popular in Soweto. The pamphlets linked the violent reaction against apartheid to the institutionalised violence inflicted on the majority of South Africans through the pass laws and education systems that actively deprived people of access to services and opportunities.
“At John Vorster Square they took me to the 10th floor, as was their custom. I was pushed to the open window and ordered to look down on where I was told [the anti-apartheid activist and teacher] Ahmed Timol had landed when they pushed him out. Of course, our treatment was nothing like what they did to our black counterparts,” says De Villiers. “They wanted information on underground activities. I wasn’t involved in any at the time. I only made contact with the ANC underground after I joined the ANC in 1978 when I was doing my Honours in Industrial Sociology.”
Detaining the NUSAS Five had the opposite effect to what the security police had wanted, and there were massive protests on Wits campus on June 16 1977. The protests were predominantly white. Black students were still very much in the minority at Wits as they had to get ministerial approval to study there.
Black students who belonged to the South African Students Organisation (SASO), a Black Consciousness movement, were targeted by the state, and SASO was banned in October 1977. The subsequent Black Students Society (BSS) kept a lower profile on campus because many of the black students did not want to put their studies in jeopardy.
During this era white leftist students assumed a more radical ideological position, with NUSAS aligning itself with workerist and communist movements around the world, while adding an Africanisation component.
The Africanisation campaign saw a reappraisal of the position of white South African students in relation to their concept of nation and culture, and a questioning of the Eurocentric nature of white South African culture. Black students had sown the seeds of the Africanisation campaign during their split from NUSAS in 1969 when they called on their white counterparts to prove their commitment to a future in Africa, as Africans.
In the 1970s this led to the white student Left lobbying for a reorientation of university courses towards a more progressive and African content. An example of the success of this was the establishment of the African Literature Department.
“We called it ‘Education for an African Future’ and we demanded changes to the curriculum to make it more appropriate to living in a developing country. We looked at everything from the kind of diseases being studied at Medical School to establishing legal aid clinics,” says De Villiers, who remains as committed to participating in an African future today as he was then.
In his capacity as the Director of Human Resources at Village Main Reef Mines, he says: “I try to ensure that we practise good corporate responsibility; we treat our employees fairly, we respect our employees’ elected leaders in the unions and we don’t pollute the environment. I have a good relationship with the National Union of Mineworkers, and a reputation for being a progressive manager, which stems, in part, from my student past and from some of the progressive reforms I helped implement in the mining industry. I am committed to staying in South Africa and helping to make a contribution towards the non-racial democracy we envisaged in the 1970s.”
Wits SRC President 1977/8
Current: Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town
“An important focus during my time of office was to expand student consciousness about what it means to be living in South Africa – a Third World, predominantly black country situated in Africa. As part of this, we needed to understand the role and future of the white intellectual middle class in South Africa,” says Dr Max Price, who was a medical student at the time and who took over from Richard de Villiers as SRC President in 1977.
“Studying medicine we came face to face with poverty and the determinants of ill health and how the apartheid system created health inequalities, which included the university.”
University-implemented apartheid in the medical faculty dated back several decades, explains Price. “In anatomical pathology, for example, black students were not allowed to observe or participate in post mortems on white patients; they could only participate in post mortems on black patients. Professor Phillip Tobias ensured this practice changed when he became Head of Anatomy at Wits Medical School in 1959, but apartheid persisted in other areas for several decades.
“In my clinical years, for example, while white medical students had exposure to the wards at both the Baragwanath and Johannesburg hospitals, black students were restricted to the wards at Bara. They also had to get ministerial approval to study at Wits and they could not stay in white areas,” continues Price.
All this was strongly politicising and, as De Villiers discussed, led to the student Left demanding changes to the university’s apartheid-perpetuating practices and to its curricula, to make them more appropriate to living in a developing country. Some progress was made, such as the development of the Department of Community Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
At the same time, the white student Left increasingly realised their power to help change society lay in using their skills and education off campus. This became the rationale for the establishment of the Student Wages Commission and the labour campaign, which gained momentum through the 1970s and focused on wages and poverty, calling for the unionisation of black workers who were not allowed to unionise. This contributed to the formation of the black labour movement.
“We also participated in a range of volunteer activities, such as providing free tuition in disadvantaged schools and helping to build schools and clinics and rural areas during the university holidays,” says Price. “And we committed to conscientising the broader white community by presenting political views and alternatives in contrast to apartheid.”
All this was against the backdrop of strong opposition from the right-wing lobby on campus, the pervasive campus spy network that De Villiers discussed and terror tactics by the security police.
“During my time as SRC President I was sent a parcel bomb in the form of a cassette. The note said it had come from a certain bookshop but it raised my suspicions, particularly when I checked with the bookshop and they had no record of it,” says Price, who then asked his father, a radiologist, to x-ray it. The x-ray revealed the bomb inside.
The security police also left a series of dead cats on the gates of the house where he stayed and ambulances would arrive at his parents’ home saying they were looking for him as he had been attacked and needed to be taken to hospital.
“My parents supported the values for which we were fighting but they wanted me to get out of politics, as did many of our parents. That wasn’t going to happen, because we were young and we didn’t have to worry about losing our jobs or taking responsibility for a family. Instead, we were driven by the force of camaraderie in the fight against injustice,” says Price. “It was a highly motivating and stimulating time when we made as many black friends as white friends and we moved in circles and communities that crossed the barriers and geographies that apartheid had created.
“To a large degree this was lost after 1994, and the cause that brought students together to fight for a better society gave way to the ANC government’s honeymoon period, when people felt ‘this is our government and we mustn’t undermine it by being too critical’. Today that period has passed and we are beginning to see some social and political activism returning to South African campuses,” says Price, who went into the field of health policy because of his student experience.
In 1988 he joined the Centre for Health Policy at Wits and in 1992 he became its Director. He was Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits from 1996 to 2006. He has had a significant impact on community and population health in South Africa, and spearheaded a series of curriculum transformation initiatives, including the establishment of the Centre for Rural Health at Wits and the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics.
Looking back with hindsight at his student years now that he is the head of a university, he says: “I wouldn’t change a thing. Many of the experiences I had and skills gained in student government and politics have turned out to be an excellent preparation for the other leadership positions I have occupied.”
Wits SRC President 1979/80
Current: Chairperson of the Competition Tribunal and part-time lecturer in Competition Law at Wits
“Stepping onto campus in the late 1970s was quite alienating for me at first,” says Norman Manoim, who studied law at Wits. “Quite a few students had been influenced by the hippie and counterculture era. They had long hair, wore jeans, were openly sexual, and drugs were freely available. In contrast, I had just come out of the army; I had short hair and wore smart trousers and a collared shirt.”
The army had raised many political questions for Manoim and he wanted to get politically involved, but the students opposing apartheid, black and white, were fairly exclusive about whom they accepted in their ranks.
“The white student Left was influential beyond its numbers, with several hundred students at Wits and several thousand across South Africa. They were suspicious because of the proliferation of campus spies and it was not easy to be accepted in their ranks, especially if you dressed conservatively,” Manoim explains. “The black students were at the height of Black Consciousness and they organised themselves separately from the white student bodies and boycotted SRC or sporting activities on campus. Their rationale was that Wits was part of the apartheid system. It was a difficult space because we were supposed to be striving for a non-racial society.”
Manoim stuck to his dress code but he grew his hair and found his route into student politics through the student newspaper Wits Student, of which he became the business manager, and through his older brother Irwin, who was also at Wits and politically involved.
“Our issue as white students and members of NUSAS was to work out our place in the struggle. Post 1976 we got the clear message that we were no longer the vanguards of change because we came from a privileged background and class,” says Manoim.
“We had to re-orientate ourselves, as Richard and Max have explained, to prepare for an African future and to develop educational skills that were relevant to an African country.”
As a law student Manoim contributed by taking a course run by the Legal Resources Centre, during which they served at law clinics for people who could not afford legal fees. Senior anti-apartheid legal pioneers such as Arthur Chaskalson supervised.
“The Africanisation orientation had a far more limited appeal to students because while we still held hotly contested debates and mass meetings on campus, the overall thrust was far more cerebral and lacked the ‘glamour and romance’ of the confrontational politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s,” continues Manoim.
Which doesn’t mean the era was without high drama. In 1981 the South African flag was burned on Wits Campus after an anti-Republic Day mass meeting. On this 20th anniversary of the republic, it was once again emphasised that the majority of South Africans had no reason to celebrate.
This was regarded as treason by the government and then prime minister PW Botha warned students that they would rue their actions. Sammy Adelman (1981 Wits SRC President) and Andrew Boraine (1981 NUSAS National President) were arbitrarily banned without any opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law. Student support for their leaders grew as a result of this repression, expressed in demonstrations, music, art and culture.
“Quite a number of Wits students lived in Hillbrow, Bellevue and Yeoville, which were powerful hubs for alternative, anti-apartheid music, culture and art. It was a very exciting time because Johannesburg was a city in transition with black people in our social network living illegally in places like Hillbrow. It goes without saying that there was constant police presence and harassment but we could feel the impatience for change.”
The same feeling permeated the 12-hour Free People’s Concert held at Wits every year. This unique, non-racial outdoor concert, for which Wits had to get a permit, featured the rising stars of the anti-apartheid generation, including Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu.
It was the antithesis of the separatism between black and white student movements at the time. This persisted until the launch of the United Democratic Front and the End Conscription Campaign, when black and white anti-apartheid activists came together and combined their strengths in one of the most non-racial movements in South African history. It gave the country hope that a non-racist future was possible.
“I remain an optimist for South Africa because we have gone through many dark times and I believe in the resilience of this country and its people,” says Manoim, adding that universities play a powerful role as critical institutions of our society, whatever the power struggles are at the time.
“At Wits I learnt to think strategically, to deal with political issues and to play to my strengths. I’m concerned that we aren’t seeing students today engaging sufficiently in the national and international issues of our time. I hope they haven’t lost their idealism about a better world, and I would like to see them taking on the challenges of freedom of speech and poor people’s issues. I would like to see them debating about what they can do to contribute to a better South Africa instead of simply wanting a well-paid job.”
Thirty years since he graduated from Wits with his BA LLB, Manoim continues to contribute to a better South Africa. “I have always had a commitment to this country and I feel strongly about people staying,” he says. “Those who leave have their own reasons for leaving and I respect their personal decisions, but I believe it is important that people who have benefited from the country should give back to it in whatever way they can.”