Frank B. Wilderson draws from his memory of student protests in 1993 at Vista University in Soweto, a “historically black” institution created in the early 1980s and run, in no uncertain terms, by the long arm of Afrikaner establishment.
From July 1992 to February 1993 I’d worked at Khanya College in a special programme funded by Oxfam Canada. Khanya was not a university but something between an NGO and an independent school, whose accreditation came not from South Africa but from Indiana University. There, I was the assistant director of a programme to train civic leaders in the townships.
In January, 1993, there was an opening in the English Department at Vista University, the second largest university in South Africa; a Historically Black University (HBU), “managed” by Afrikaners. The university had 21,000 students, spread out over seven campuses in seven different townships, and more than 10,000 correspondence learners enrolled. The Soweto campus, where I taught, was a bit of an anomaly. Though it was run by the iron fist of the Boer, 40 per cent of the faculty at that campus were African and English. In addition, the South African Students Congress (SASCO) branch on campus was perhaps the most revolutionary SASCO branch in the country, outside of the Wits branch, and between them there was much collaboration.
On August 13, 1981, Dr. Ferdie Hartzenberg, then Minister of Education and a senior official of the Broederbond, stood before parliament and drove the last nail into a coffin that buried the University of the Witwatersrand’s initiative to build a satellite campus in Soweto. The debate in parliament was long and acrimonious, but Progressive Federal Party [PFP] MPs were beaten before they began – there was no way the Broederbond would allow English hegemony to encroach upon the hearts and minds of young Blacks. A satellite Wits campus would have given Black students access to Wits’ Johannesburg campus, thus violating a sacred Nationalist tenet: separate development, or apartheid. When the dust settled, instead of an act allowing Wits to be extended, the Broederbond passed the Vista Act No 106 of 1981.
When the PFP MP Dr. Andrew Boraine asked Hartzenberg why African students could not be admitted to existing White institutions, the reply was, “You have your ideology, we have ours.” So fraught with controversy were Vista University’s early days that few people have written about them. Prior to Hartzenberg’s tête-à-tête with Boraine, the Retief Commission interviewed “African witnesses” who all, according to Hartzenberg, now a leader of the rightwing Conservative Party – the party of Clive and Gaye Derby-Lewis – were “overwhelmingly in favour” of a new segregated institution under government control. This is open to speculation since the Retief Commission’s report on Vista is a secret document which has never been released to the public. In 1992, Professor JS Mohlamme of Vista’s History Department wrote a comprehensive history of Vista and sent it to the Rector, Professor SWB Engelbrecht, for approval. Engelbrecht would not give Mohlamme permission to release the document to the public or to other members of staff. Mohlamme’s written queries to Engelbrecht went unanswered.
May 10, 1993
Miller Matola, an English lecturer, bursts into my office and bids me to look out my window. The security gate hangs open like a vacant tooth. Armored personnel carriers barrel through. They halt at our building’s back entrance. Clutching automatic rifles, White members of the Internal Stability Unit (ISU) spill from the sides. Three officers draw their pistols. One orders the Black policemen to stay behind and guard the vans and casspirs.
When Matola and I reach the stairwell at the end of the hall the ISU is already ascending. Through the maze of Vista’s miserly hallways they make their way without hesitation. Along the final hallway, a narrow passage to the campus director’s office, 20 of them line up; 10 facing 10. The third group of 10 charges the door. The lead man kicks it in. Nine others follow with guns, batons and teargas canisters.
At least 50 students seated and standing around a conference table look up only to have teargas sprayed in their faces; their hands, shoulders and heads bear baton blows and pistol whippings. Matola and I stand frozen at the end of the passage. We watch as students scream and cover their heads with their hands. The beatings are relentless. Many stampede for the windows clawing and crawling over each other in a room meant to hold no more than 20. They break the windows and hurl themselves two stories down. The second stampede makes for the door. Most of them are young women too shocked and afraid to jump out of the windows. Sometimes the flash of a face I know approaches. Mbali. Portia. Now, Eva Skosana, a first-year English student who lives in Soweto. She has the cherub face of my six-year-old daughter, and she runs towards me the same way my daughter did on her first day of school. As she comes towards me, rifle-butts descend on her spine and shoulders. She is called names and with each name a cop catches her buttocks with his boot. She runs past me wailing.
In our silent impotence, Matola and I wait as co-ed after co-ed receives the kinds of beating and abuse few White women have ever dreamed of, much less received.
Through our stupor another young woman, Nova, approaches bearing the brunt of boots and rifle blows. She almost reaches us, she’s almost home-free with no more wounds than the welts on her neck and buttocks, when an officer steps in front of her and slams a walkie-talkie into her eye.
“Stop. Stop.” The words come like small frogs struggling to stay within my throat.
Two ISU members turn on Matola and me. They raise their rifles. But just before the blows, a question: “Are you with this kak SRC?”
I force the frogs onto my tongue. “We are lecturers at this university.” They lower their rifles. I tell the warrant officer that he and his men are guilty of the most vile human rights abuses and remind them that the security police are signatories to the National Peace Accord.
“You didn’t see a thing,” he warns me.
“I know what I saw! I know what I saw! I saw these men brutalising women!” I am fighting tears and a tightness in my throat.
“Impossible. These men just got out the bakkie.” Now, he draws his face to mine: “This is not your precious America. Take your fancy talk and go home.”
By now all the students have either leapt to the ground and suffered fractures and broken bones, or weathered boots and rifle butts in the hall.
The tinny taste of teargas lingers in our mouths. Matola and I are joined by several other lecturers in the hallway. The ISU marches into Soweto Campus Director Professor DJP Koekemoer’s office, where they laugh and joke about a job well done. We – Hartmut Winkler, Diane Stewart, Joe Manyaka, Professors Chapole and Mohlamme, Kagiso Chikane, Sipho Seepe, Percy Mackintosh and one or two others – try to follow them into the room to make them leave. They push us back with guns and bratwurst hands.
“This is our university!” Kagiso Chikane tells them, “what right do you have!” She teaches in the African languages department, but she is no stranger to them. Her husband Frank Chikane, the head of the South African Council of Churches, was almost killed when poisoned by a police agent. And Reverend Chikane’s brother, Iscor Chikane was one of Joe Nhlanhla’s men, ferreting infiltrators in the 1980s.
They swear at her in Afrikaans. I demand they speak in English. The warrant officer writes “Afrikaner Volksunie” on a piece of paper and slams it against my face, thrusting my head against the wall.
“In my country,” he says, “You’ll speak my language.”
I don’t want to hold my nose; don’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing the searing pain shooting up into my eyes – but nor do I want to bleed on my shirt.
“C’mon muthafucka! Right now!” I am screaming to keep from crying, “take the guns off, bastard! Just you and me.”
Miller Matola shoves me into a corner, before someone takes me seriously.
Koekemoer stands in the middle of the room weeping from the teargas. He does not even see us. And we are still asking the ISU: “Who called? What right? Who called?”
The one who hit me in the face says they got a call from the university’s head office in Pretoria saying, “a white professor is being held hostage.”
“No,” says Koekemoer, “I w-w-wasn’t being held hostage.” The ISU turns and glares at him. “The stu-students and I,” he stammers, “w-we were sitting peacefully. We…w-we were all just sitting down, talking.”
Tomorrow we will find out that the Registrar for Administration, ANP Lubbe, called the ISU, though we will never know for sure who phoned Lubbe. And Koekemoer will learn the full measure of his verbal blunder. Professor SSWB Engelbrecht will send us a memorandum saying Koekemoer has taken “extended leave”. We will not see him again.
In the corner by the broken window from which the students lunged, Kagiso Chikane admonishes an ISU member while he waves his pistol in her face. “I’ll shoot you!” Saliva gathers in the corners of his mouth.
“Go ahead and shoot,” she says. And I, in all my foreign naïveté, am wondering what he would say if he knew whose wife she is.
The ISU leaves the way they came, through the gate that was mysteriously opened for them. We have no doctor, no pain killers, no plasters. A lone ambulance shuttles up and down the Old Potchefstroom Road until all the injured are safe in Baragwanath Hospital. In a few days lectures will resume. I will stand before my first-year English class and think how strange it is to begin the hour with Shakespeare, as though no tragedy has befallen us here.
In the predictable parlance of American progressives I will share my feelings with them. Tell them how angry and shocked I am by what happened to them. All 70 of them will gaze back blankly and I will strain to remember that blank faces are not necessarily blank minds.
“Don’t you feel anything? Do you just want to go on without discussing it?” I threaten to call on someone if no one speaks. The only responses are ripples of laughter.
“Are you laughing at me or with me?”
Eva, staring skyward because of her neck brace answers, “Both,” adding “sir,” though I have told them never to call me sir, she adds it to soften the blow. “Ever since you’ve come these incidents seem to tear you up inside. For us they’re just a way of life. After a while you get used to them.”
Shortly after the May 10 beatings, I began an investigation on the mêlée and this investigation led to questions about the very raison d’être of Vista. Mohlamme’s office was on the third floor in a wing of offices directly above the English Department, where my office was.
The Wits satellite campus idea was the brainchild of Dr. JD du Plessis, former vice-chancellor of Wits University. He hoped to set up a community college modeled on the California Master Plan which allows students who do not have the qualifications to attend a four-year university a chance to complete two years of bridging, at the end of which they may transfer to the University of California, usually entering in their third year. Those who choose not to go on to a four-year university have a marketable degree nonetheless. This is all Professor Mohlamme would tell me.
In his haste to get me out of his office, Mohlamme had let Du Plessis’s name slip. I might not have come across it otherwise. Getting in touch with Du Plessis was fraught with hurdles. None of the faculty members I spoke with at Wits knew how to get hold of him and few would have given me the information if they did. I was seen as a fellow traveller of SASCO, which was raising hell at major universities like Wits and Vista. There was no listing for him in the directory; which isn’t saying much because in those days the phone book and the operator directories rarely corresponded. Finally, I called the campus operator, who’d never heard of him, but who put me in touch with Public Relations. They knew him, of course, but they wanted to know why I wanted his number.
“My name is Jay Waljasper,” I said. “I represent the Development Office at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. I’m in town for a short meeting with Richard Fehnel at the Ford Foundation, and I thought I might look Prof Du Plessis up. You see,” my voice sank into a deep confidence, “it’s not official yet, but the Dean at Indiana is considering giving the Prof a life-time service award, which of course he’d share with Wits as a whole, for his commitment to nonracial education and the uplift of Blacks during apartheid’s darkest days.”
All the buzz-words needed to animate the White liberal imagination were there: development office; Big Ten University, which will enhance your greatness, if only by osmosis; Richard Fehnel, a Ford Foundation mucky-muck who functioned as the eyes and ears of USAID – neither of which looked too favourably upon the Wits management at the time; the low voice of a secret – like a tip straight from a jockey – about an award and all the fame that goes with it, recognition that you’re better than the Afrikaner. The woman on the other end of the line tripped over her excitement looking for Du Plessis’s unlisted number.
I called Du Plessis. And, as his servant or nurse went to bring him to the phone another dilemma reared its annoying head. What kind of lie could I tell to him which would draw him out in the open as well? And, unless he was going to name names in a big conspiracy, of which this was soon to show itself as, though I had no knowledge of it at the time, then he would need to know that he was talking to a writer and that anything he said stood a good chance of finding its way into print.
After a few difficult preliminaries, for his hearing required most things be repeated twice, I came to the heart of the matter. I told him about the attack on our students by ISU. I told him about the cover-up initiated by Engelbrecht and Lubbe – Broeders who ran the university from Pretoria. I appealed to his vanity by saying how horrible the situation was, which it was, and how wonderful it could have been had English speaking Whites been given the opportunity to shepherd Black sheep into a different future than that imagined by the Boers (though I didn’t say “sheep”). I then tip-toed into questions about the history. He gave me what I’d already scratched out: the Hartzenberg vs. Boraine story of 1981. The kind of stuff you could get by going back to the newspapers of that time. What I wanted was the knowledge Mohlamme was sitting on, the intricacies of the Vista history and inside dope on the Retief Commission. I had no idea that behind all of this was a far more terrifying story. The story of the machine which made all this possible, the story of the Broederbond itself. A story some people would kill to see that it remained a secret. Mohlamme understood this. And Du Plessis made it even clearer to me
“I’m 75 years old,” he said, “I’m frightened. I don’t want to be punished by the Broederbond.” There was a click followed by the hum of a dial tone.
Not long after Du Plessis’s dial tone hummed in my ear, a secret meeting was held on campus between Themba Khoza and several White politicos whose names and affiliations are still unknown to me. Themba Khoza was a high ranking Inkatha Freedom Party official, or warlord (our preferred description of him), for the then Transvaal. We believed him to be responsible for commanding impimpis in hostels the Zulus had seized and held since 1990; for the brutal interrogation and torture of Charterist activists he captured; for terrorising Hillbrow in attempts to break the ANC’s political hold on it, by throwing, or threatening to throw, residents from the rooftops of high rises; and for coordinating massacres in the townships and squatter camps.
Word was that he had come to campus for secret trilateral talks between his organisation, right-wing Afrikaners and, so went the speculation, officials of the Democratic Party. When I first got wind of the meeting it struck me as lunacy – Boers, Brits, and Zulus, here, at Vista? Who would dream of a rendezvous at a university that was home to one of the most left leaning contingents of the Charterist Movement? But what I hadn’t taken into consideration was the fact that (a) the school’s labyrinthine infrastructure was not completely known to us and (b) it was neither in our hands nor under our control. Themba Khoza, his six henchmen, and a White businesswoman in her mid-30s (one of the recent assortment of White intellectuals who’d been hired by the IFP to do their thinking and writing for them now that the political climate demanded thinking and writing) were ushered into a room that none of the people I worked closely with (English department faculty members) or struggled side by side (students and workers) even knew existed.
It had been an operation of military precision. Most of the clerical staff were on tea break. Not everyone had gone to tea, however. The secretary who spotted Themba Khoza not only spotted him, but also recognised him. She stepped into the corridor and waited. Finally, she saw a young man whom, though she did not recognise him, was wearing a SASCO t-shirt.
“We have a crisis my child,” she whispered, “Themba Khoza is in the building.”
The young man laughed as though she’d been drinking or was prone to visions. She grew indignant and was going to reprimand him for the manner in which he was treating an elder, when the White woman from Themba Khoza’s entourage stepped unexpectedly into the corridor, startling them both. She asked for the loo. When she’d disappeared around the corner, pursuing the directions she’d been given, the student burst into the reception area, where the secretaries had their desks, the room from where both women had emerged. He took no more than one step inside. He looked around and saw nothing. The secretary came up beside him. They both saw the campus director’s office door gaping open at the other end.
“Where did she come from?” the young man asked.
“From in there,” said the secretary pointing to the campus director’s office. “There’s no meeting in there,” he said.
“There’s another door, it leads to a private conference room.”
“Who else is in there?” he said.
“Boers. I’ve never seen them here before. And that White woman, but she’s with Themba Khoza.”
He dashed into the corridor. Halfway down he turned around and ran back and apologised for his earlier rudeness. At the SRC office he found Duma and Nova, who were neither SRC executives nor SASCO executives. They were rank-and-file comrades. Nova and the messenger went to find the SASCO and SRC leadership. Duma came to my office. We knew that something had to be done and quickly. That it was only a matter of minutes. Should we kill him and, if so, how? There were two rifles hidden in the crawl space between the ceiling and the roof in the lecture hall where I taught English 220. One for each of us. We could take him out as he went to his car.
The proposal to take out Themba Khoza was riddled with logistical problems. One of us, presumable Duma, would have to fetch the rifles without being seen. Then there was the problem of finding a secure place from which to shoot – again without being seen.
Nova burst into the office panting and out of breath. She asked why we were just sitting around. I asked if she had notified the student leadership. She had. And the workers, I asked, trying to regain my composure. But she had told them as well.
“Well, then,” I said, “what do you suggest we do now?”
“Get the rifles and shoot him,” she said, emphatically.
“We can’t simply fetch those weapons,” I said, chuckling professorially, no doubt with some of the same condescension the messenger had treated the secretary to just minutes ago, “and gun him down in cold blood and in daylight, now can we?” Duma nodded in agreement.
“Four hundred murders a month,” she said, bitterly. “Do you think Themba or Gatsha ever wonder if it’s day or night, if it’s warm blood or cold blood when they come for us?”
We took her point, but neither one of us could tell her who we were and what we had been talking about. I would have to remain her professor and Duma would have to remain her fellow student. I tried to appease her by saying that such a rash action would bring the SADF and the Internal Stability Unit back to campus. At one time, the army had occupied the campus for 30 days. They’d turned the place upside down looking for weapons. They’d make random arrests. There’d be trouble like never before.
“There’d be the same trouble as always,” she said.
I was drawn to my window by the sound of singing and chanting. I turned back to Nova and Duma: “I think our course has been decided for us.”
Nova and Duma went to join the gathering storm of marching students. I ducked out the side of the Humanities and Social Science building and ran around the back of the administration building, trying to take up position somewhere near where I thought Themba Khoza and his entourage would emerge, that is, if they were not already gone.
Though news of the pending ambush had already reached the inner sanctum of the director’s office, Themba Khoza had not been light on his feet. He and his group emerged from a side door, 10 to 20 yards to my right. They kept their backs to the building and looked to their left, looking as it were past me as though I was a mere lamppost or one of the unclaimed cars. His gaze was locked on the approaching students in the distance.
The students, however, had not seen him. They were veering in the wrong direction, moving more towards the front of the parking lot, towards the cluster of cars near the gate and the Old Potchefstroom Road. Taking the students’ navigational difficulties as their cue, the frightened cluster against the wall made a dash for their cars. A shriek shot up from the crowd. Someone had spotted them. Like the ocean rocked by a plunging moon, they surged backward, then forward, then turned round and came running.
To get to their cars, Khoza and his people had to run along the face of the mass of students, as though running alongside a distant wall that was moving closer. They ran as though they were undecided on the wisdom of running for their cars or remaining by the building. The students made up their minds for them. Rocks rose and arced like rainbows, then plunged like a hailstorm. Themba Khoza, his bodyguards, and the White woman whose visit to Soweto might very well have been her first and was shaping up to be her last, hit the asphalt and covered their heads. They were one-third of the way from the building and a good distance from their cars.
At this point, the students halted their advance. They thought Themba Khoza and his bodyguards were armed. Having thrown all their stones, they wavered. In this moment of hesitation, two of the bodyguard dashed for the cars, while the four remaining shielded Themba and his consultant and ushered them back to the end of the lot nearest the administration building.
The White people Themba had met with in the inner sanctum had had the good sense or the good privilege to leave by way of the back. The head of maintenance, who alone possessed keys to the back gate, had probably chaperoned them to safety. They were probably out of Soweto by now.
The two body guards reached the car. One hoisted the trunk open. His head disappeared inside.
One second passed.
He rummaged about.
The students scavenged frantically for stones.
He came up, brandishing a pump action shotgun in each hand.
Now the students shrieked and scattered again.
The decision to leave the rifles in the crawl space suddenly seemed like a bad idea.
Each man jerked a shell into the chamber of his shotgun. One aimed high over heads, the other aimed low. Their heads snapped back as they pulled the triggers. The shotguns boomed like artillery. The students dove behind cars. Where there were no cars, they rolled or fell over each other trying to kiss the ground. One of the bodyguards fished handguns from the trunk and shoved them into his suit pockets. They doubled back to where Themba and the others waited.
A high shrill whistle rose from the students. They were bunched together again, moving forward, throwing stones. The bodyguards stood up straight. Now, four of them took aim, two with shotguns and two with pistols. Again, the students scattered and ran. But they didn’t fire this time. They’re saving their ammunition, I thought. With the multitude strewn once more, Themba Khoza and his people ran to their cars.
Then three things seemed to happen at once.
First: the engines revved but the cars didn’t move. The lead car lurched forward and I saw the woman’s hair swirling around as her neck jerk forward and back. In a state of fear or panic, the driver’s foot had slipped from the clutch and the car had stalled. He tried again. This time his foot pressed down on the brake, not the clutch. The engine screeched in agony. The car behind could only wait in distress.
Then: a new shower of rocks battered the cars. A windshield crackled and etched a spider’s web upon itself. Two of the men lowered two back windows and opened fire. This time, however, I noticed that though they aimed directly at the students, when they fired, they fired above their heads. If they killed a student at this stage, I thought, they’ll only enrage the students more. They’re praying to be rescued and they don’t have 500 bullets.
The third occurrence gave me as great an adrenaline rush as any of the students. Three young men broke out from the back of the crowd. They ran away from the mêlée. This made no sense to me. I could understand the faint of heart wanting to leave: those who’d joined in because others were joining in (which was easy to imagine); those who had not been touched by the violence of the IFP (which was hard to imagine); or those who had no feelings about Inkatha one way or the other (which was impossible to imagine). But why run away? If they wanted to leave they could leave. These three young men could have simply walked out to the Old Potchefstroom road and idled home.
Then, as I watched this footrace I understood where the finish line was. It was something I’d never seen before, something that I didn’t know existed, though I came across it every day: the magnificent iron gate that gave way to the Old Potchefstroom Road. The structure was nearly 10 feet tall and its two leaves of slanted black bars were folded out and flattened against the fence. I had passed through it either walking from the kombi or in a car, on those rare occasions when I hitched a ride from Percy Mackintosh who lived in Yeoville. But I had never really seen it. That is to say, it had not registered in my mind – it seemed, in the manner of Poe’s purloined letter, as though it wasn’t there. They struggled mightily with the right half of the gate. It was stuck. The students had seen them now and were cheering them on.
The lead car ignited (the driver’s foot having found the clutch and his nerves having calmed to the point of being able to hold it down and ease it up properly) but the occupants had no cause for relief, for they too saw what the students saw. The men with handguns opened fire but they had neither the composure nor clarity of sight to take aim. A bullet sang out against the huge iron harp, but that was all. Good, I thought, deplete your ammunition. Themba’s people were forced to divide their attention between two nightmare scenarios, the gate closing in front of them and the hailstorm of rocks and hastening students approaching from the side.
The cars were only inching forward. It was as though the drivers dared not go forward and dared not reverse. They’re getting too close, I thought, the students are getting too close. He will kill you.
“What were you thinking,” I asked Nova and Duma in the days that followed, “getting so close and so soon?”
“We weren’t thinking,” Nova told me, “not the way we think in lectures, anyway. We saw our mothers, we saw our sisters, all the people who’d died at his hands. We weren’t thinking about ourselves, we were thinking of them.”
Too close or not, the students kept advancing. There seemed to be more confusion inside the two cars than there was among the students. Someone was shouting, “go!” to someone else who yelled, “no!” while another yelled, “fire at the gate!” to someone shooting at crowd.
I moved swiftly but cautiously towards the lead car. I didn’t rush at them directly. Such a foolhardy move would have meant certain death. They’d have seen my image ballooning in their rearview mirrors and have only time enough to turn around and gun me down. So, I ran in an arc and then, as I approached them on their right side, the driver’s side of an English model Mercedes, I slowed down to a walk.
Themba Khoza shouted at me as I came up to his backseat window. He may have told me to get back. He may have told me he would shoot me. What I thought he said was, who are you and what do you want? I don’t remember. I held my palms out as though as they held an invisible bundle.
“These are our children!” I said,
“I am a teacher at this university!”
He kept yelling at me, but I caught only a word or two. What was important was the fact he was looking at me, even the others in the car found their attention divided three ways now: between me, the three students closing the gate, and the students on their left, closing in for the coup de grace.
“Why do you want to kill our children!” I said.
Themba Khoza replied with the one answer the wise persona I’d so fecklessly adopted hadn’t counted on.
“Why do your children want to kill me?”
Fortunately, I didn’t have to come up with an answer to his question. Rocks crashed against the car and the second half of the iron gate rattled closed. Two of the young men ducked and ran for cover as bullets whizzed around them. One of them stayed in position and ran a stick through the padlock eye. I drifted away from the car.
The die was cast. The students took their time. They called out the place name of massacres: Nancefield! Meadowlands! Phola Park! Boipatong! They sang. They chanted. They waited.
The more daring and impatient ones, those who’d appointed themselves timekeepers, those who wanted to get the show on the road, stood out in the open and taunted the trapped inhabitants with imaginary AK-47s. Others pelted the car with more stones. One or two shots were fired in response but for the most part Themba’s bodyguards, however terrified and confused they were in those final moments, held their fire. The lead car moved slowly towards the sealed gate. The other one followed. The students sprang up and rushed. The guards thrust their guns out the windows. The students shrieked and dove for cover again.
Some say the whole thing was over and done with in five minutes. There are those like Duma, who remember 15. And then there are the prudent and conciliatory, who split the difference at 10. I was there too, but I can no more measure the time it took than I can explain why I had not seen Percy Mackintosh racing down the hill.
A small contingent of faculty members had gathered on the slope behind the students. They were English and sociology instructors for the most part. They considered themselves party to neither apartheid nor revolution. They were 30-something types who lived in flats in Yeoville, Hillbrow, Berea and Norwood—independent of their parents’ estates. They liked jazz and danced to High Life music. They spoke of liberation in vague euphemisms; and wondered why all people – whatever colour, they were quick to add – couldn’t be like Nelson Mandela. Percy Mackintosh was one of them, though he didn’t teach English or sociology. He was campus public relations director. He smiled a lot. His favourite colour was bliss. He walked the panoptic corridors with a Polaroid camera taking pictures of students and faculty, embracing whenever possible. The politically disaffected students loved him because with that camera he made them feel loved. For some, the photos Percy Mackintosh took of them were the first anyone had ever taken of them; the first moment of recognition that came with a smile and a flash of light. For others, those who’d had their picture taken before, by the police, Percy Mackintosh was a nuisance. Still, it was hard for anyone to hold him in the same contempt they held the Afrikaner professors and administrators. Percy Mackintosh was a happy hippy, all grown up now, with a real job. But he hadn’t lost that live and let live vibe, even in a three-piece suit.
He was almost to the gate. The students could have pelted him with stones. Dropped him in mid stride. But they didn’t. They yelled, no, Percy! Percy, pleeez, no! Dudley-Goddamn-Do-Right paid them no mind. He must have known they wouldn’t unleash the same terror on a White liberal that they would on a Black warlord.
He reached the gate. Only now did those most steadfast in their convictions throw stones at him. But it was too late. They had let him pass right by them. Were they to fall upon him now, now that he was at the gate, they’d be cut down with bullets before they reached him. He braved the feeble onslaught of stones and pulled the stick out. He pushed one half of the gate open. He started to cross for the other side but the lead car wouldn’t wait. It bore down on him so fast he jumped back and clutched the iron bars of the side he’d just opened. The cars screeched through, sacrificing their side mirrors as they did. The students flooded behind them but to no avail.
The parking lot was plagued with depression. It was as though they had all lost the same precious stone. Some could be seen still racing up the Old Potchefstroom Road, throwing stones and choking in the dust of the disappearing cars. Now, others began walking up the road in the normal way one saw them walking to the taxi rank each day; as though nothing had happened. A few stood crying. Others cursed. Two boys were laughing, but they laughed at anything. Most were quiet, dazed, and defeated.
This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.
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