Why have we have forgotten the importance of the 2nd of June 1972 in our struggle for freedom? And why do we only remember 16 June 1976, through the words of politicians?
The youth have always been at the centre of modern revolutions, just as they have always been sacrificed by the ruling class in wars across the world. Oppressive regimes and their policies have often been overcome through mass, unarmed resistance, including symbolic protests, civil disobedience, economic or political non-cooperation. Government forces have met this mobilisation with fierce violence, arrests, detention, torture and even the disappearance of high school and university students in Central and Latin-America during the 1970's and ‘80s.
The Arab Revolutions led by the youth, mobilised millions of people across the Middle-East and North Africa, toppling tyrannical dictators. Palestinian youth, joined by Israeli comrades, resisted occupation and Apartheid daily in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Chilean youths have creatively mobilised on an impressive scale. Now students in Montreal, who have pursued their goals through active non-violent struggle, have been met by police brutality and a state of emergecy.
South Africa has a rich history of youth and student rebellion, dating back to the 1930’s, with hunger-strikes at schools and universities. After the crushing of liberation movements in the early 1960’s, students and the youth were led by people such as Steve Biko, Mamphela Ramphele, Abraham Tiro, Geoff Budlender, Cheryl Carolus, Sheila Lapinsky and Paula Ensor. Few people know this history. Almost every young person who wants to rebuild our country, continent and the world, desiring this knowledge, will build their future struggles on the example of their parents and grandparents.
We know and learn a little about the leadership and struggles of black African youth, however we know almost nothing of White, Coloured and Indian youth and student's struggles. All of us have a duty to research this history.
The Apartheid government responded to the youth in the same brutal way used by oppressive governments today - through state-sanctioned violence. They murdered Abraham Tiro, Rick Turner, Steve Biko and Neil Aggett in their jails. Hector Pietersen, Bernard Fortuin and hundreds of others were mowed down in 1976 and in the 1980's by Apartheid security forces.
Racist and oppressive laws allowed the state to ‘legally’ crush resistance through the police and the army.
In Peoples’ Law Journal, Ndifuna Ukwazi today remembers the white students who mobilised thousands of people forty years ago on 2 June 1972. Legal judgments are most often boring, but the facts hidden in them are a vital part of our history.
The State versus Turrell and others’ (1972) is a landmark case, with Prime Minister BJ Vorster attempting to convict 14 students and 2 clergymen for protesting for their right to conduct peaceful protest outside St George’s Cathedral on Wale Street in Cape Town. The students were members of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), initially a mainly white liberal student organisation, that became radicalised and helped build the workers’ movement - a movement that culminated in the founding of Cosatu.
Vorster feared the actions of NUSAS, largely due to the effectiveness of student protests in the United States and Europe. The students were attempting to gain international attention of the injustices of apartheid, which was beginning to face serious opposition from abroad. His other fear was the spread of communism, known as the ‘Rooi Gevaar’, as many of the NUSAS students were illegally spreading communist and socialist literature.
Vorster orchestrated a campaign against the students with police forces disrupting their protests, intimidating students as well attempting to infiltrate NUSAS with spies. The latter often arose from police blackmailing students with criminal records and with exposure if they did not cooperate, promising to clear their record if they did. Craig Williamson, the Apartheid spy who sent the parcel bombs that killed Ruth First and Jeanette Schoon, infiltrated NUSAS and later the ANC. Students conversations were recorded, their letters opened and in some cases their passports were even confiscated. The ultimate action of the state was to eventually ban all the NUSAS student leaders, after they started trying to mobilise workers through the stimulation wage commissions.
The build up to the Turrell case saw the NUSAS students protesting for equal education, after the expulsion of various black students from universities, who had criticised the racist ‘Bantu education system’. Police violently broke up a protest at UCT with batons and teargas. NUSAS was not cowed and organised a protest against police brutality in the centre of Cape Town on the corner of Wale and Adderley Streets, next to parliament, on the steps of St George’s Catherdral.
Ironically but predictably, the state responded to the protest with extreme police violence. It used the ‘Riotous Assemblies Act’ of 1956 to attempt to convict the arrested protesters, but in court they hardly got the outcome they were hoping for. Professor Patrick Harris, then a student in the protest, says he and two women were beaten with plastic batons. Former NUSAS executive member and student Paula Ensor, now the Dean of Humanities at UCT, described police coming into the church from behind the altar to beat students. Even a pregnant woman was thrown to the ground.
The Riotous Assemblies Act made it an offence for more than 12 people to assemble, in contravention of a notice declaring a gathering unlawful by the magistrate. This effectively allowed any anti-apartheid gatherings to be prohibited and allowed the police to use brute force to disperse them. This is was what the prosecutors based their case on.
In court however, the Acting Judge President found that the Chief Magistrate had exceeded his powers, as he attempted to ban all public gatherings on that day. The Act only authorised him to prohibit a clearly identified and particular gathering. The Magistrate’s notice failed to indicate with reasonable certainty, which gathering it purported to prohibit. He further did not promulgate the notice in accordance with the provisions of the Riotous Assemblies Act, which demanded sufficient public dispersal.
The court also found that the accused had committed no offence, as the Riotous Assemblies Act demanded that the acting police officer repeat the order to disperse on three occasions and to warn those assembled, that force would be used should they fail to comply with such an order. The officer failed to do so and so the charge fell away. The appellants won all their cases on appeal.
The extreme hatred and violence of the police, while ignored during the trial, was certainly not ignored in the media. For the first time, the white-middle class was exposed to the brutal tactics of the police, that had previously been only been used against black protesters. This was used against themselves and their children.
Condemnation arose from many sectors, even by some members of the Nationalist Party, but predictably Vorster responded to the incident by saying he was proud of his police and sounded out a warning to English-speaking universities. The protests led to internal pressure on the police, whose actions were more closely monitored and who lost much public sympathy, particularly in Cape Town.
While NUSAS was crippled for a time after the banning of their leaders, the bans landed up backfiring for the state, by only further invigorating student protests during the ‘70s. Radicalised by Steve Biko, Strini Moodley and other members of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) which split from NUSAS, white students played a significant role in the liberation movement. During this period they embarked on many campaigns, including the "Free Political Prisoners" campaign in 1974 and one of attempting to get international boycotts of Apartheid South Africa. NUSAS also joined forces with mass anti-apartheid groups such as the UDF in the 1980’s and joined the Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO), formed after SASO was banned in 1991 to form the current student group South African Students Congress (SASCO).
A major contribution to our liberation movement was the creation of student newspapers such as SASPU, journals such as Work in Progress and political literature often banned for public use, but allowed for use by academics.
Ndifuna Ukwazi pays tribute to the students of 2 June 1972 and their legacy.
(Bruce Baigrie is a research assistant at Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU) and Zackie Achmat now NU’s director, was a high school student who became a political activist during the Soweto 1976 student revolt. Ndifuna Ukwazi is dedicated to the building of youth leaders based on knowledge and understanding of politics, law, society and economics.)
* The views expressed by guest columnists are not necessarily the views of Eyewitness News.