Cape Town - “ABSOLUTE hysteria broke out.” That’s how Anneliese Burgess described the reaction that awaited a group of Stellenbosch University student leaders on their return to South Africa from Lusaka, where they had met an ANC delegation in 1989.
The ANC was still banned, and Nelson Mandela had not yet been released from prison. The party’s main headquarters in exile were in Lusaka.
Burgess and most of the 18-strong group that travelled to Zambia, amid protestations by university management, met on Saturday at their alma mater to celebrate the 25th reunion of the trip.
Burgess said the group experienced a “momentous shift in consciousness” when they met the ANC leaders in exile, including Oliver Tambo, former president Thabo Mbeki and former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni.
Their trip, she said, helped trigger a “year of protest and resistance on campus”.
“On the day we left Lusaka, former president Thabo Mbeki stood on the tarmac at the foot of the aeroplane,” Burgess recalled.
“Most of us were in tears. I was so overcome with emotion I could hardly speak. It felt so wrong that we were going home and the leaders of our country were unable to return.
“I remember Mr Mbeki putting his hand on my shoulder and quietly saying to me: ‘You must now get in this plane, you must go home and you all have work to do.’”
On that trip, the students – 10 men and eight women – also met officials from Eastern Bloc countries, and were hosted at a three-hour breakfast by Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda.
Burgess said the trip had split the Afrikaans and English press. Die Burger had taken a critical tone, publishing a cartoon of a group of “useful idiots” caught in an ANC trap.
An editorial in the Cape Times, however, noted that many Stellenbosch students were “right behind their fellow students who visited Lusaka”, adding: “The disapproving university authorities are out of touch.”
Progressive Afrikaans weekly Die Vrye Weekblad was extremely supportive. It called the trip a “victory for South Africans who support dialogue with the ANC”.
The trip changed attitudes; three students resigned from the National Party on their return.
At the university on Saturday, Mboweni, who had been part of the ANC government in exile in Lusaka, chaired a discussion about the events 25 years ago.
He explained why the ANC had welcomed the students: “We understood very well that a visit by a group of students from Stellenbosch to Lusaka would not change the world. But if viewed as part of a series of actions, such acts helped … in building a momentum for change.”
Roelf Meyer, in 1989 the deputy minister of constitutional affairs, on Saturday praised the 18 students for having had the courage to “break the rules” of the “autocratic” apartheid state.
Public Protector Thuli Madonsela gave the keynote address, saying the students had had “the courage to step out of line” and discover truths for themselves.
Madonsela also took the opportunity to pay tribute to Epainette Mbeki, Mbeki’s mother, who was buried on Saturday, calling her an “unsung hero”.