UCT leaders gather to remember student sit-in

By Tanya Farber Time of article published Aug 18, 2008

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The University of Cape Town is awash with nostalgia this week as it pays tribute to a student protest that shook the campus exactly 40 years ago, after a black academic was prevented from taking up a post there during apartheid.

On Sunday a group of ex-students, now in their 60s, reunited at Bremner Building in a room that changed their lives - and the student movement in the country - in August 1968.

During this month, UCT appointed Archie Mafeje - a black anthropology lecturer - to its staff. But, when the government resisted the appointment, UCT acquiesced and withdrew the job offer.

This led to the start of a nine-day sit-in at the Bremner building by the student body.

Two of those who flew to the Mother City for the reunion on Sunday were a pair of former Nusas leaders - Professor John Daniel and Duncan Innes - who handed over presidency from one to the other just days before the sit-in began.

And now, said Innes, while the reunion had been an opportunity to "bond with friends from all over the world who haven't seen each other for 40 years", it had also prompted a reconciliation between the university and the Mafeje family, a year after Mafeje's death.

"When we decided to celebrate the anniversary this way, it put pressure on the university to resolve the outstanding issues with the Mafeje family and now they are going to honour him and what he achieved and we are happy that the issue is now closed, because it wasn't a positive part of the university's history.

"We would have liked them to resolve it 40 years ago, but they didn't. At least it is a closed chapter."

Daniel had ended his Nusas presidency just days before the sit-in began and, by the time the crisis unfolded, he was on a boat to the US to take up a scholarship.

"My passport had been taken away, but I managed to get a British passport which I used illegally.

"I thought I would never be able to return to South Africa."

Daniel, a politics professor who returned from exile when apartheid was dismantled and who now lives in Durban, was invited to the workshop to deliver a talk on the impact of the 1968 sit-in.

"For us, when we talk about that particular year, there are two impacts we need to look at.

"The one is the global and the other is about domestic politics. The student protests that took place in Paris earlier that year influenced the students at UCT," he said.

And the Mafeje sit-in had radicalised the student protest movement in SA. "Up until that year, and for about 10 years before that, Nusas and the student movement had engaged in ritualistic protest.

"It had been a period of polite reactive protest but, after the occupation on campus, students took the struggle way beyond campus. This had a long-term impact and it is good to see this past event being recognised for doing that."

Innes and Daniel both said that the resolution of the Mafeje saga augured well for the values of in-coming vice-chancellor Max Price, who is to be inaugurated this week.

"He has a history of activism and, while I think it is brave of the university to appoint a white vice-chancellor, he clearly has transformation high up on his agenda," said Daniel.

Said Innes: "He has already done a brilliant job with the Mafeje issue and I think he is going to take this university forward with transformation. He certainly has the leadership ability to do so."

On a lighter note, the reunion has been a trip down memory lane for many of the "sit-inners" - many of whom even met their partners behind the doors of the building.

"It is great seeing everyone after all these decades and one can't help comparing how we've all aged.

"Clearly, some have done better than others," laughed Daniel.

Said Innes: "It wasn't just a sit-in! It was a sleep-in. By day we had makeshift lectures and meetings, but at night it was like a party.

"As we sat in the Senate Room for the workshop yesterday, we laughed about how that was the actual room we slept in.

"And we were trying to remember who slept where!"

- Tonight UCT is hosting a symposium entitled Lessons of the Mafeje Affair - 40 Years On.

Tomorrow night is the official installation ceremony of vice-chancellor Max Price, who will also confer a posthumous honorary degree on the late Archie Mafeje.

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