Lessons of the great UCT sit-in —Ken Hughes

LESSONS of the great UCT SIT-IN of 1968


Speech to the 40th anniversary reunion of the 1968 sit-in, August 2008


After taking part in the great UCT event of 1968, I spent just over a year working on a doctorate before leaving to continue my studies in the United Kingdom.I fortunately arrived at the University of Warwick,just in time to occupy the Registry as part of their famous sit-in (an account of which appeared in an instant Penguin called WARWICK UNIVERSITY LIMITED edited by the celebrated new left historian E P Thompson.)
A year or so later,I went on to MIT,where I also took part in an MIT sit-in -I joined a small group of students who occupied the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) building in protest against the Vietnam war.

This was all somewhat paradoxical in that I – who have always been a shy and retiring person- had suddenly acquired a major career as an international student agitator!

Now ,of course ,this is not really about me – it was the times which were out of joint. But the major point I really want to make is something else – an international comparison. I took part in three sit-ins ,in South Africa, in Britain,and in the United States – but it was the first – the University of Cape Town sit-in – that was by far the best – the most outstanding -by a longshot !

Some statistics will bear me out. The UCT sit-in was the result of a mass-meeting where 697 students voted in favour of sitting in-and approximately 160 either abstained or voted against. On the first night some 300 students slept over in the Bremner building. This fell off to about 200 over the next few days,and by the tenth day,had shrunk to 120.On the other hand many students came for short visits,(especially over the weekend)and by the end of the sit-in more than 5000 visitors or supporters tickets had been issued.Even allowing for some double-counting, when you consider that the UCT student population at the time was only about 8000 students,this was a truly phenomenal level of support.

By way of comparison, fewer than 200 students voted for the sit-in at Warwick,and fewer than 80 occupied the Registry. While at MIT there was no mass meeting and the number of students in the ROTC building was I think,less than 20.

Now the obvious question is:Why?

TWO factors I believe explain why UCT’s was the best.

The first is :mass-participation. The UCT Sit-in was the product of a mass-meeting culture that was highly democratic.Mass meetings were very exciting events; people took them very seriously, (they even wrote and rehearsed speeches in advance!). Yet anyone could speak,and anything could happen;one was constantly agog at new turns in the debate.What made the UCT sit-in so great was that it was a mass-meeting on the move: with formal leaders yes, but often driven from the bottom up, and each day the agony and the ecstasy of new shared fears and excitements .It was both a supremely magical and a dangerous time.No wonder lives were changed.

The other thing which made the UCT sit-in great was the fact that we were confronted with very real and serious issues in our university and our society: with Apartheid which connoted Racism and Authoritarianism,and with questions about the nature and limits of University Resistance to State Power. In contrast many of the issues at Warwick seemed frivolous -(one for example,which I remember,related to whether students had the right to decorate their campus with scenes from Winnie-the-Pooh!) ,while at MIT the issue of the Vietnam war was indeed deadly serious, but somehow vastly disconnected from the feeble ROTC programme that we got our teeth into.

But the UCT sit-in was important also for fitting into a national political context.There is a prehistory to the sit-in,to which we must now turn.


If the events of 68 dominated the tail-end of the sixties , the start of the decade was dominated by the unfolding drama of ARM- the African Resistance Movement. This was an underground movement, started by Liberals (together with a few Trotskyists like Baruch Hirson) which drew in a major part of the Leadership of NUSAS (the National Union of South African Students) under Adrian Leftwich, and mainly dedicated itself to spectacular acts of sabotage, such as blowing up pylons,and destroying State property.It is now – nearly fifty years later -extremely difficult to imagine,but in those fevered times,liberal UCT students might have been found crawling around the Rondebosch station-yard late at night wanting to detonate rolling stock .They sought to damage property not people, but in the end it was the Liberals who perpetrated the first act of terror, when John Harris, a late recruit, left a bomb on a crowded Jo’burg station.But by then,it was all over,most of the ringleaders had been arrested, and the movement collapsed ignominiously.(Leftwich,who had earlier volunteered for a psychological experiment on the effects of isolation at UCT, was disabled by the knowledge that he could not withstand solitary confinement, and broke down and confessed everything within a matter of days.After he appeared as a witness in the trial of his associates,he left the country,a broken man.) It was disaster heaped upon disaster.

The impact on the apartheid state was paltry:but the damage done to Liberal causes was immense. Campuses swung massively to the right;parents admonished their children never to take part in politics;calls were made for disaffiliation from NUSAS,and -one historian tells me- all the branches of the Liberal Party in the Eastern Cape,retreated into confusion never to meet again.

How could it have happened? I believe it is often helpful to see politics as an error-correcting process, where two sides compete and who wins is often a matter of luck-and almost always of making fewer mistakes than your adversaries.One cannot hope to be immune from error – there is no life without grief! It is always a question of flexibility,of forgiveness ,of learning from one’s mistakes. Talleyrand ,the foreign minister under Napoleon,is generally censured for his cynical witticism : “Crime? No,it was worse than a crime:it was a blunder!” . But if one is engaged in a serious political struggle blunders may be worse than crimes in handing opportunities over to the enemy.In general in politics great policies are hard to come by and scoring an “own goal” is more common than in football.ARM was both a crime and a blunder , and my generation spent several years having to pay for it and pick up the pieces.
How could it have happened?

Two factors I believe were decisive in shaping this history. One was the apocalyptic tenor of the times. There was a general conviction that the endgame was afoot in Southern Africa. There was to be an armed struggle, followed by a round-table where a new dispensation would be hammered out: and if Liberals ,a tiny visionary minority , wanted a seat at that table,they needed to be part of the armed struggle,and they had better have forces in the field !

The second factor was bitter and intense rivalry between Liberals and Communists.If the SACP-ANC Alliance had Rivonia, the Liberals had ARM. I’ll never forget hearing one Liberal Party veteran – who was in ARM – proudly telling me:”We lead the way–WE were already using PLASTIC EXPLOSIVES at a time when the ANC had only gotten as far as wire-cutters !”

Now this was crazy. Because of rivalry the Liberals and Radicals had taken their eyes off the prize- and the only beneficiary was the Bureau of State Security (BOSS).
So my generation-the intermediate generation after ARM and before 68- a generation which included Keith Gottschalk, Sheila Barsel and Rick Turner- drew several lessons from the ARM fiasco -one was to abhor violence , another was to scorn the false romance of underground action, and most importantly, to practice tolerance and cooperation on the Left as best we could – if only to avoid the infighting which seemed ( to some of us) to have undone the previous generation. Thus Keith Gottschalk handed over the previously Liberal campus organization , the Radical Students Society to Raphie Kaplinsky – who came out of a Marxist background (his brother Simon had fled the country after being rumbled printing pamphlets for the Communist Party.) On the other side the formerly Communist Modern World Society, was inherited by Andrew Colman, who had Trotskyist leanings, and by myself- a mere Social Democrat! We were often critical of NUSAS, but we respected it.The Kennedy visit ,combating the rise of right-wing campus movements , getting an SRC constitution outlawing racial exclusion in student societies , the struggle over editorial freedom for VARSITY newspaper – all these things were very important to us.

Student generations are short – at most 3 to 4 years.There is always the need for intense efforts to socialize the next generation.In those difficult years, our minimal goal was survival. In 1967 a right-wing organization- the Moderate Student Movement (MSM) – captured more than one third of the seats in UCT SRC elections.This meant that mass-meetings became ever more important – and ever more frequent. A centre-left coalition could usually command two-thirds of the vote, and allow the SRC executive to gather a mandate to bypass the conservatives. In this context, the Mafeje affair,appeared both as an opportunity and as a challenge.


The basic story is well-known.The University of Cape Town,acting under the inspiration of the distinguished anthropologist Professor Monica Wilson, first appointed a black lecturer in Social Anthropology -Archie Mafeje; and then, responding to government pressure and threats exerted on the Vice-Chancellor,Sir Richard Luyt, the Council of the University withdrew the offer of apppointment, claiming it was yielding to force majeure.Students were outraged and occupied the Bremner building for 10 days, in the hope of getting the Council to reverse it’s too-ready capitulation, and take a firm stand against Government interference and racialism. In this they were not succesful.
This much is agreed-but some mysteries remain-what, for example, was the exact nature of the threats that UCT faced? And in addition to mysteries,there are also some persistent misunderstandings, and indeed,new myths which threaten to propagate like weeds through the histories.

Any proper appreciation of the Mafeje drama, must turn on a clear understanding of the character and motivation of the principal actors-in particular,of Professor Monica Wilson and of Sir Richard Luyt.

Sir Richard, had been a student at UCT in the 1930s ,then went to Oxford, and subsequently joined the British Colonial Service. In World War II,he had lead African irregular troops fighting in Ethiopia . There an exploding grenade deposited shrapnel in his back,a wound which continued to trouble him throughout later life. After the war he played a vital role in the decolonization of Africa, and on the basis of a recommendation by Kenneth Kaunda went on to be the Governor of British Guiana before returning to UCT as Vice-Chancellor. He was an accomplished politician.

His manner was altogether that of the stuffed shirt- cumbrous and given to elaborate euphemisms and circumlocutions-but he nonetheless could be politically radical. He stuck his neck out supporting the End Conscription Campaign in the turbulent 1980s.
Monica Wilson (born Monica Hunter),came of Missionary stock and grew up in the Eastern Cape.She studied at Fort Hare and then at Girton College, Cambridge.At LSE studying anthropology with Malinowski, one of her fellow students turned out to be the later first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta.Her earliest writings about the history and anthropology of her home country became a classic book-REACTION TO CONQUEST.Marriage to the Cambridge anthropologist Godfrey Wilson,was followed by relocation to the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Central Africa, and eventually by fieldwork in East Africa among the Nyakusa people.Jointly they wrote:THE ANALYSIS OF SOCIAL CHANGE.In 1944 Godfrey suffering from severe depression,committed suicide,leaving her alone with two small boys to bring up.She held down positions at Rhodes and UCT, while writing up her fieldwork,which became a trilogy.In her spare time she was a gardener, and created at Hogsback,one of only 3 South African gardens to rate a mention in the Oxford Book of Gardens.As a social historian she collaborated with Leonard Thompson in producing the first “post-colonial” OXFORD HISTORY OF SOUTH AFRICA.

She was Archie Mafeje’s mentor, and wrote jointly with him the book LANGA.She believed firmly in his talent , and hoped it would be allowed to flourish at UCT.
On the Selection Committee she argued her case powerfully, and managed to get Archie selected despite the fact that two other candidates had better qualifications – as regards publications and degrees. (There must have been spies on the Selection Committee : the conservative academic DC Robertson, vociferously queried the selection on grounds of merit,when it came before the UCT Senate.)

The situation at UCT at that time was legally anomalous. Elaborate legislation governed student admissions,but there was no statute laying down racial rules for staff.Several people have said ,too hastily,that UCT then enjoyed the right to make appointments regardless of colour; but this is incorrect :silence of the Law does not create a right-at best it creates a grey area. Judges faced with a gap in the Law would look to related statutes – to the tendency of decided cases- and to custom , to fill in a gap , if the issue ever came before the bench.It would be more correct to say that UCT had no firm right of appointment, but had established the custom of appointing African lecturers to teach African languages. Monica Wilson saw the appointment of Archie Mafeje as a natural extension of this precedent- one would be appointing an African sociologist to teach about African societies.I well remember her saying to me that she thought this was very important both for South Africa and for anthropology-“because up to now all the people we have appointed have been outsiders to the societies we are talking about – here for the first time we would appoint someone who was an insider !”

Sir Richard Luyt was happy to go along with this.It fitted in with his earlier participation in moves towards Africanization in British Africa, it fitted with his hopes for progressive easing of racial tensions in South Africa.

And there was another thing:there was also great mutual respect between him and Monica Wilson.This point can be sharpened-but one must be careful when making it not to let it sound like conspiracy theory. There was a profound understanding between Luyt and Monica Wilson partly because both were devout Christians- very specifically : high-church Anglicans.But this was no conspiracy.Compare the following : in America prior to 1960 nearly 40% of the Presidents were Episcopalians despite the fact that Episcopalians have always been less than 10% of the population.In this and many other English-speaking countries there exists a strong tradition of public service among the members of the Anglican communion and here we have an example of it.In fact ,of the last five UCT Vice-Chancellors, Max Price is only the second to be a non-Anglican ! (If there are any Anglicans in the audience who are feeling alarmed by this news,never fear !-the former Archbishop is now heading up the Council and Mr Hugh Amoore will continue as Registrar!)

One continuing mystery about Sir Richard Luyt’s response to the Mafeje crisis, is why the letter of appointment drafted by the Registrar Mr Benfield was held back and not sent to Mafeje promptly as Council had instructed. My own surmise is that Luyt was anticipating back-door negotiations with the government. As well as using official channels, Luyt had employed the services of the Principal’s Liaison Officer -the somewhat ambiguous character Danie Fourie, who claimed to be devoted to UCT but who,as an Afrikaner and a patriot, was very well-connected in Pretoria.Ever the diplomat, Luyt also liked to keep his options open .Perhaps he hoped at the eleventh hour to exact guarantees or concessions.

Another thing which has aroused negative comment is the letter which Monica Wilson wrote to Archie Mafeje ,in which she sounded him out about his coming here and possibly having to give it all up after a year or two. It has been suggested that she and Luyt were hoping Archie would voluntarily withdraw thereby saving the University embarassment.This does not square with my recollections of the time: -in those days PR was the last thing anyone thought about , and I think there is a far simpler and more innocent explanation: Monica Wilson was concerned about the impact on Archie of his coming out here and facing a possible struggle with the State which might be carried on for a year or two,but where the University would eventually in the end have to concede defeat.If the Law changed UCT would not venture into illegality.


There was indeed one compelling argument which was powerfully and repeatedly deployed by Raphie Kaplinsky:Why should the University do the Government’s dirty work ? If there was to be segregation, let the State bear the odium of it! We must above all,look to our own integrity,and see that our own hands remained clean !
I too felt the power of this rhetoric, but I also felt the logic of the argument was seriously flawed: when one is in a hostage situation,nobody comes out with clean hands.
That it was a hostage situation , was undoubtedly how Sir Richard Luyt saw it, and this does much to explain the apparent weakness of his response. The situation was as follows. From 1957 the university had employed Johnny van der Westhuizen, as a tutor in Anglo-Saxon language and literature in the English department.He was in fact racially classified Coloured -but when his name went forward to the Ministry among a list of appointees no exception was taken – they may well have assumed (wrongly) that UCT was (gratifyingly?) taking a decision to employ a White Afrikaner.In effect Luyt felt that Johnny was a hostage.And he also felt that his obligation to look after the interests of the man who was already in his employ trumped any obligations he might have to the new appointee.

My own take on all this was altogether different. I f I did not buy the “clean hands” rationale, I did feel strongly that UCT was the victim in a serious blackmailing situation.Now it is in general rational and important to resist blackmail -even if one gives in partially ,it is vital to impose some costs on the blackmailer, because otherwise , he will feel he can costlessly repeat his little stunt. So I supported the sit-in ,not because I had much confidence that we would get Mafeje reappointed but because I thought it was important to bring pressure to bear on the University Council (which would need to be more resolute in future), to give the lie to the claim that all whites supported apartheid , and above all to embarass Pretoria and to thoroughly expose the bully-boy tactics of the Government.

In this last aim the sit-in was hugely successful: when Vorster frothed at the mouth and threatened to “send his boys in” ,it was evident that we had struck a raw nerve and the conservatives felt threatened. But rank and file members of the sit-in did not see it this way – they tended to be maximalists who would be satisfied with nothing less than the full reinstatement of Mafeje.


A gap had opened up between leaders and lead even before the sit-in started. The first proposal for a sit-in over the Mafeje issue had been made by Mark Orkin at the NUSAS Congress at Wits in midyear, which Raphie had attended – originally merely to participate in the National Debating Competition. He must have taken the idea of the sit-in from there.At the Congress I had been horrified when an emotional call to sit-in came onto the floor and swept all before it ; but with a little help from Dave Sonnenburg and Duncan Innes,I managed to stop the Juggernaut in its tracks ,calmed the audience and shut down the discussion. I thought it was absolutely wrong and irresponsible to commit ourselves to a dangerous and possibly counterproductive tactic in public especially when there had been no effort on the part of leaders to think through the costs and dangers involved. In the weeks leading up to the sit-in I did a little thinking about those risks on my own.The main benefit, I could see ,was for building our movement. If we could make a splash, we would join the ranks of the insurgent student movement throughout the world.The main dangers,I came to think, were that we would flop ignominiously – a mere handful would join in- or that the sit-in would have a ragged ending, either fizzling out through dwindling support, or ending violently with the police being called in .I thought the latter was unlikely- so long as cool heads prevailed at Bremner.(I did not foresee the possibility of attacks from outsiders,such as marauding Maties.) So my main worries were how to get as many people as possible into the building, and how to ensure that they all left together.VARSITY newspaper helped with recruitment:on the day of the second mass-meeting it came out with banner headlines:SIT-IN EXPECTED TODAY.Nonetheless , I stood on the Jameson Hall steps and counted as the crowd streamed out and flowed down the hill marching behind banners reading REINSTATE MAFEJE and COUNCIL:JOIN US !.I heaved a sigh of relief when my count started approaching 100. Happily ,I went off to teach my maths tutorial .But I knew the next problem would be how to get the students out of the building.

Raphie has said that he did not expect the sit-in to last more than a few hours – and Duncan has said that “we made it up as we went along”. I was ahead of them there -but after 48 hours, everybody in the leadership group recognized full well that we needed an exit strategy.Rank-and-file members of the sit-in did not perceive this – they felt only the heady excitement of occupying the building- and the challenge of organizing living arrangements including “liberated classes” (provided by sympathetic staff members such as John Webb and John Atkinson.)

One evening Duncan, feeling that the real dangers of our situation must be brought home to the assembled students, approached the mass-meeting retailing a fearsome rumour that we were about to be shafted by a fierce attack in the next day’s CAPE TIMES.I spoke immediately after him, and faced one of the most daunting speaking tasks I have ever had to face in my life.I had to rescue Duncan from an implausible and overexposed position,while recognizing the feelings of the sitters, but nonetheless underlining the fragility of our situation – we would be really sunk if we were to lose public support. I vigorously denounced interference from unnamed “BARONS OF THE PRESS”,and carefully enumerated what we had achieved so far.Eventually I sat down after receiving a standing ovation, but I was inwardly shaken ; knowing that there were huge gulfs opening between what the leadership knew, guessed or understood, and what the rank-and-file imagined our situation to be.It was an old dilemma: whether to be wrong with the people,or right against them.Like all democratic politicians I hoped temporizing would provide a third way.But the decision to maintain the occupation for the moment, was made later that evening by a powerful speech from a first-year student,Dennis Raphaely.

For many students,the sit-in was a very important learning experience-not least in putting into practice democratic theory. Direct democracy was the main thing -it was the student masses who had the ultimate say, and debates about whether or not to have a group of peacekeepers ( for example ) grew very impassioned, and generally were decided truly democratically by speeches from the floor. Nonetheless there existed alongside the sovereign mass-meeting also a corps of formal leadership, notably embodied in the Sit-in Steering Committee.This comprised the SRC Presdent Duncan Innes, the Vice-president, Phil van der Merwe, Raphie Kaplinsky,myself and Dave Gilbert. .We met irregularly and constantly discussed strategy.Duncan and Phil spent much of their time negotiating with the Deputy Vice-Chancellors and the Registrar, I liaised with academic staff (I went daily to tea with Monica Wilson),Dave handled the Press,and Raphie-as the charismatic leader of the Sit-in – was in demand absolutely everywhere .We faced the exit problem daily, and if we shared the general enthusiasm engendered by favourable Press reports and messages of solidarity from around the world, we also faced the sobering reality that we were steadily losing support on our own campus among a constituency that should have been supporting us -senior academics.
Sir Richard Luyt had been deeply worried about a split opening up between campus and the University Council. But in the event the important split which opened up was between students and Senate.Some of the demands that had been made were addressed to Senate, and in order to deliberate on them, in the middle of the sit-in ,the students had to vacate the Senate Room, so that the Professors could assemble.Some of the student demands were unwise and dubiously threatening (“if our demands are not met,we will reconvene and escalate our demands”), and Senate-which had earlier meekly given in to Government threats, now came to feel it was being threatened by all and sundry.Consequently,it dug in its heels.Julian Beinart was the only Professor to speak up in favour of joining the students and reinstating the offer to Mafeje, and the meeting broke up with a motion which was partly bromide,calling for the University to unite in defense of Academic Freedom, and partly protest against Senate having to deliberate with a gun held to its head.

As the second week began tensions mounted.Two strands which had been present in the sit-in from the beginning came into open conflict.One was the idealist -pacifist strand, which included the twice-daily minute’s silence (which was of Quaker inspiration), and the Gandhian tradition of passive resistance recently reinvigorated by the North American Civil Rights movement, and brought to our campus,just two weeks before by Erik Erikson in his T B Davie lecture,devoted to “Gandhi’s Truth”.The other strand was the physical force tradition of the Irish Fenians and the American Abolitionists.One evening,Dave Gilbert came to us,with a proposal to deploy physical force against UCT functionaries – secretaries,and administrators. He had been talking to two American sit-in veterans, who told him that the next thing,should be “to ratchet up the pressure”. I was absolutely horrified. If our approach to Senate had been a big mistake this was even worse-we would lose all our support among the public-and also divide our supporters within the University..The trouble was that many sitters-in did not understand the strategic situation at all – they thought that occupying Bremner was a position of strength – whereas it was in fact a highly vulnerable one.In general, a sit-in is a weak tactic, because it can be defeated by the authorities sitting on their hands and doing nothing, just letting the discomfort of irregular living impose a process of slow attrition on the occupiers.It was the sympathy of the outside Press which kept the pressure up, and the moment we lost that we would have been in real trouble.
With benefit of hindsight I am sorry that we did not do more to explore the idealistic option, because it now seems to me that Gandhi was onto something deep and profound when he looked for ways to change his opponents’ attitudes without wounding their self-esteem.It must always be possible to resist blackmail without engaging in blackmail.
But at the time we were once again mainly concerned with survival, and awaited the news each day with anxious anticipation.


The writing was on the wall very quickly , once the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia wiped the UCT sit-in off the front pages of the World’s newspapers.Anxiety mounted in response to physical attacks:an incendiary device was attached to a metal railing near one of the outer doors filling the building one evening with smoke,and there were other bizarre and harassing incidents involving what were or what sounded like gunshots … But the actual exit from the building occured a few days later ,and was precipitated by the invasion of drunken Maties, who forced their way in past a cordon of police and smashed the downstairs glass doors,during which time the line was held by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Donald Inskip and a few other UCT officials.After wave upon wave had been repulsed, Inskip addressed us in the Senate room, and urged us to”bugger off” in the morning. This unparliamentary language had the desired effect of communicating seriousness and confronting the sitters with a reality check; so, forlornly, the final remaining student contingent withdrew on the morning of the tenth day.

I had understood , from early on ,that since there was no ” plan B” , the withdrawal of the sitters would be felt as a bitter defeat. Consequently Monica Wilson and I had laboured to try to find some straws to clutch at,some small consolation. One idea, which I believe was mine, was the proposal that we create a “Mafeje Fellowship”, to be kept as a live memorial to the affair.One even fantasized that this could possibly function as an oasis of non-racialism in a naughty world , since it could be treated more like a scholarship, than as an appointment.This idea was accepted by Senate and Council,who also went along with Luyt’s more conventional proposal to erect a plaque at the entrance to the Library.At the height of the sit-in Maurice Pope ,the much-loved Professor of Classics,had publicly announced his resignation ,on the grounds ,he told us,that he could not abide the idea of occupying a position subject to racial job-reservation.He did not object however when Luyt asked him to compose an elegant Latin inscription for the plaque, although to Raphie and most other students the University’s commemorating the Mafeje struggle in this way,smacked of nothing other than hypocrisy.

As a final footnote,I must report the proposal for a Mafeje Fellowship foundered the following year, when Peta Jones was unable to get any funding for it.The Senate was simply too embarassed and turned its back on the proposal.If the students had been unimaginative,and unable to foresee how Senate would resent their bluster ,here too was a monumental failure of the imagination,for it should have been easy for Senate to reach out to Students and support them in what after all had been an agreed policy only a year before.

For most students the aftermath of the sit-in was somewhat bitter,though RADICAL Student Society recruited a lot of new members, and Marcia Silbert, a young Israeli student (who was ,a year later,tragically killed in a car crash) started up Saturday morning seminars on social and political themes, called THOUGHT UNCHAINED and held outside on the grass in University Avenue (the section already known as “Freedom Square”.) For a smaller minority Rick Turner also offered weekend seminars and workshops out on his farm above Stellenbosch, which proved formative for some of the participants..

But student generations are short.Most of the sit-in leadership dispersed ,and left UCT within 18 months.Some went abroad to study,some dropped out for other reasons..Duncan Innes served out a term as NUSAS President.Sally Couacaud ,a foreign student,went back to her native New Zealand (where she was among the founders of HART-Halt All Racial Tours.) After a brief stint on SRC Raphie Kaplinsky left the country on a one-way exit visa.

In general the Sit-in was a hard act to follow.There was a certain flatness in student politics for the succeeding two years.Considered more generally, one might say ,that ,as a recruiting device, the Sit-in was altogether too successful. The conservatives were permanently cowed on campus, and mass-meetings lost much of their excitement and sparkle.(There is much to be said for a natural two-party system . I recommended that to get debate going,proponents and opponents should be recruited from the Debating Society, but I don’t think this expedient was ever tried.) By the mid seventies mass-meetings had declined to a level where one mass-meeting discussed- in all seriousness- whether-the situation being altogether hopeless- the main duty of White students should not be to emigrate to Australia !

In the 1980s doctrinaire leftists shut down mass-meetings altogether, and the ideas of participation through debate and democratic leadership accountable to the student body,took an apparently permanent nose-dive.


The most important achievement of the sit-in was undoubtedly to keep alive the ideals of a just and non-racial society. Though many former participants in the sit-in continued anti-apartheid activities in their individual capacities into middle life, and others got drawn into other struggles in other parts of the world, the main continuing influence of the sit-in was by inspiration and by way of example.The torch got handed on to other generations.

Should one not say something about those difficult years , the 1970s? About NUSAS’s long struggle with the security apparatus, about Labour activism, and about Black Consciousness ? All these brought new challenges quite unlike those faced by the class of 68.More useful perhaps is to note the diverse and sometimes harsh fates of some of the former sitters.After further education quite a few became academics. Jeremy Cronin, having returned from studying in Paris,joined the South African Communist Party, and was eventually arrested and imprisoned for underground political activity while teaching at UCT. Rick Turner,having moved closer to NUSAS and having involved himself with emerging trade-unions in Natal,was one night gunned down and killed by an assassin’s bullet.

In the long run apartheid was overthrown -but not by liberals or radicals. Instead the main protagonists were -on the White side, Big Business, and (mainly Afrikaner ) Bureaucrats, and on the Black side – the Soweto generation. Eventually ,it was Mandela and de Klerk.

The influence of the 68 generation did live on however in the New South Africa in two ways-firstly a very few sit-in veterans (but rather more former students and colleagues of sit-in veterans) took part in the talks and negotiations which lead to the drafting of a New Constitution for South Africa .This ensured that the New Constitution incorporated a right to Academic Freedom, and had a claim to being the most liberal in the world.
And secondly those students -some of them (like Martin Plaut and Mike Morris), sit-in veterans, who had participated in labour organizing , and looked to the trade-union movement to lead the way to liberation,saw instead COSATU become one of the most important Civil Society organizations in post-apartheid South Africa,a government ally which was nonetheless an independent base for criticism and dissent.
So the South African story had ,(in general),a happy ending.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the fate of the Sixties generation in South Africa, with that of the New Left in the rest of the world.Of course there were huge variations within these movements which in any case differed vastly between countries,so we must be wary of statements admitting many exceptions. In general one may say that it was the life-style movements – the women’s movement , the gay movement , and the green movement which enjoyed the most success.Those movements whose goal was more global and grandiose,like socialism in Europe,populism or anarchy in the United States,were the ones which suffered the greatest defeats.(No industrial country made the transition to socialism,and indeed in the 1990s most socialist economies collapsed.Only one country saw the state wither away-Somalia, and there the outcome was not a federation of town-meetings but rather the Hobbesian one that life became nasty,brutish and short.) Of course, we have been here painting a broad-brush picture,when we look more closely at the details- more specifically at individual New Left careers – the outcome is sometimes more stark,perhaps, tragically so.

Now there are two concepts of tragedy in the world.The ancient Greeks, the medieval Vikings, the feudal Japanese, all warrior societies ,had a conception of the tragic which rests on defeat- of nobility in failure. The Spanish, English and French – all mercantile societies ,introduced a second kind of tragedy ,not the tragedy of failure but the tragedy of corruption (though one notes there are also examples like CORIOLANUS where there is both defeat and corruption.) In many countries the fate of New Left often possessed elements of both.. In the US McGovern Democrats made the mistake of alienating substantial numbers of working-class voters, as well as outraging religious fundamentalists ,thereby inaugurating 30 years of right-wing rule.This was prolonged defeat.On the US campuses a later generation of tenured radicals suppressed free speech in the name of “political correctness”, thereby reversing what the Berkeley Free Speech movement of 1964 had been all about.This was a form of corruption.

In several societies New Left elite movements imbued with revolutionary vanguard ideology strayed far from the people ,and plunged into terrorist violence-recapitulating -usually on a vastly greater scale- the mistakes of South Africa’s ARM. One thinks here of the Weathermen in the US, of the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Brigate Rosse in Italy.(But it was the Third World which saw the worst violence reaching unspeakable levels of horror in countries like Ethiopia, Peru and Cambodia.)
But sometimes the mistakes made were appreciable even among the moderate and democratic Left.If American radicals antagonized workers, in France to the contrary, 1968 mobilized a radical fraction of the working class,but frightened the middle classes-so much so that the spectre of revolution brought back the Gaullists with an increased majority. In the need for good policy and for democratic consensus building the lessons from Italy were similar but perhaps even more chilling. In the hot autumn of 1969 radical students and workers occupied the factories and wrung from the employers concessions making it more or less impossible to fire workers without the consent of the labour movement.Investment dried up,and in the long run,to get the economy moving again,the Italian Communist Party had to preside over retrenchments. And as for the lifting of the taboo on violence -in the end this too boomeranged -for by 1990 a census of violent incidents suggested that in Italy , Fascist violent attacks had outnumbered Leftist attacks in a ratio of about 5 to 1.Only in Germany did the mistakes of the German Left seem not to matter.This was partly because of vocal principled opposition lead by people like the philosopher Juergen Habermas and the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and partly because the older generation in Germany had made even more horrendous mistakes than the young -they had voted for Hitler !

So the generally happy ending in South Africa also stands out in a world context- only Spain seems comparably felicitous where , as in South Africa, radicals also helped the transition to democracy .(And in some respects South Africa did even better than Spain ,since Spain still has a festering sore in the Basque country.)

But we must not be complacent or triumphalist.If the ending was generally happy in South Africa it was not always so at South African Universities.Several Universities used their new-found autonomy to behave badly. Thus the turn of the century saw a number of administrations engaged in efforts to suppress the Free speech rights of staff and students (including that of sit-in veteran Rob Shell, who returned from America to become an AIDS activist at Rhodes University.) In another direction,managerialism took a terrible toll on University workers . At UCT a strong managerial team fired about 700 workers,while at the same time, taking away freedom of research from academics-who would be given a substantial salary increase -partly funded from money saved on wages -provided they worked according to norms laid down by management and at projects of which the management approved.To many of us veterans this particular cannibal’s feast was far worse – and far more destructive of Academic Freedom – than anything that UCT did under apartheid. A LUTA CONTINUA.


(I) A great University needs a vibrant student movement with mass participation by students.In the 1960s UCT was a world-leader in the seriousness with which its students pursued democracy.

(II) A FREE Press is ESSENTIAL -there must be a FORUM where truth can be told and policy debated.In the 1960s after many fights,UCT had such a press.

(III) Because ignorance is universal there will inevitably be mistakes,competition and conflict.This can be creative if it is channeled and kept within bounds. Civility is essential.

The 1968 sit-in was the creation of a diverse body of students-both liberal and radical-who came together despite many differences in personal political philosophy,and focussed on what they perceived to be a serious Injustice and the University’s giving in too readily to outside pressure.

(IV) Leadership is a two-way street.If there is no mass base,leaders will be unrepresentative and unaccountable.On the other hand democracy without leaders is blind, and consent of the governed will not be informed consent.
The sit-in threw up unprecedented dilemmas in the relations of leaders and lead,but it also found creative ways of resolving them.

(V) Constant grappling with concrete issues around Academic Freedom is vital.
We repeatedly got into arguments about Academic Freedom and University Autonomy; wasn’t it possible that an autonomous university could act in a bad way? Our conclusion :that University Autonomy is good but it is not the whole of Academic Freedom.Properly conceived Academic Freedom means civil rights for students and professors.It means freedom to study and to teach,and freedom to follow one’s own ideas in research.It is buttressed by institutions like tenure,and achieves its full flowering only in a University with a widespread understanding of the need for Freedom ,and a deep commitment to Human Rights.

Finally I would like to end with a quote from the poet Edwin Muir. This quote was a great favourite of Monica Wilson’s – if I’m not mistaken it appears in the book LANGA which she wrote together with Archie Mafeje.

“This”, the poet says: “this,is a difficult country,and our home.”

Forty years on, South Africa is STILL a DIFFICULT COUNTRY and it is STILL OUR HOME.
And that is why the lessons of the UCT Sit-in of 1968 are STILL relevant -and will continue to be relevant even into the twenty-first century.

To download this text as a PDF click the link below:

Ken Hughes Lessons of the great UCT sit-in

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