June 2 1972 was a day Cape Town should remember: A peaceful UCT student protest outside St George's Cathedral was bludgeoned apart by the SA Police; the first occasion in South Africa where white students had been physically attacked and injured in significant numbers during any political demonstration. During the 1960s white civil rights activists and the Congress of Democrats representatives would use the Johannesburg City Hall steps to demonstrate and often faced abuse from white right wing thugs. However the extent of violence attained could never compare to that meted out against UCT students forty years ago this month.
Since the 1950s and 60s"liberal" student protest at UCT involving deputations and gowned processions on campus; a marked exception being during the early 1960s when a handful of UCT and other English-language students left liberal colleagues and embarked upon sabotage as members of the short-lived African Resistance Movement.
By 1972 some student leaders and lecturers were calling for more assertive protest, based loosely upon the "sit-in" and "teach-in" strategies at American and Western European universities. On the 1st of June an initial "teach in" call at UCT was conducted by Natal University political studies lecturer Rick Turner, along with UCT sociology lecturer and future Progressive Federal Party leader Van Zyl Slabbert, amongst others. It initially attracted minimal attendance or interest from the larger student body, partly perhaps because they were also called upon to boycott lectures in order to attend.
Later during the day 51 students were arrested for protesting outside the Houses of Parliament, carrying posters such as "End our police state" and "Equal opportunities for all". But the following day saw the worst of the police violence occurring over the several days. UCT students numbering perhaps 400 were sitting on the Cathedral main steps protested about racial inequalities in education. After a discussion between police Colonel Pieter Crous and a student leader over the use of a loudhailer, a large squad of policemen suddenly baton charged.
The attack instruction was given by Brigadier Martinus Lamprecht, who later appeared in a series of Cape Times photos watching a snarling police sergeant club a student already sprawled on the pavement. Interviewed on the spot, in a shaken, trembling voice Lamprecht stated that the protest had become a "public meeting" and "these people refused to move, so I gave the order to disperse them". The police beatings were witnessed by thousands of members of the public and over the following days received widespread condemnatory press coverage.
What particularly shocked bystanders and journalists was the sheer hate demonstrated by the police towards the students. Mostly in their late teens and early twenties the students were mercilessly beaten regardless of gender, several suffering injuries requiring hospitalization. The police pursued students into the Cathedral, grabbing women students by their hair and hurling them down the outside stairs into the street.
The Argus described how during the following day at the next clash, again at the Cathedral, Crous attempted to restrain some of his men by grabbing and even hitting policemen for striking out at students and bystanders. This time the police even received a little of their own medicine - the Argus reported how thousands of office workers, labourers and other students had turned out to boo the police, with some SAP members even "beaten back at the top of the stairs by fist-swinging civilians". Crous whom it was reported had served in World War Two and been captured at Tobruk, received some guarded press praise for his apparent but failed attempts to contain his men. It was further suggested Lamprecht had usurped Crous's authority.
But the students, journalists and public easily received the worst of the fights. An antique dealer Peter Visser sheltered several terrified students in his shop's attic. A war veteran and well known military author Neil Orpen described how he appalled was at the police, whom he considered no way akin to those he had served alongside in the desert campaign of World War Two.
A shocked Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Robert Selby Taylor demanded a full report from the police concerning their conduct within the Cathedral. Another Anglican Bishop, Rev Hollowes of Natal compared the police and particularly the purportedly "plain clothes members" who had been prominent amongst the assaulters, as akin to the violent role played historically by Hitler's Brownshirts. Students had been clubbed in the Sanctuary under the High Alter by policemen swearing and clearly out of control. Dean Edward King and his wife were arrested for "obstructing the cause of justice".
A pregnant woman was amongst those beaten in the Cathedral into which the police also attempted to throw tear gas. Outside, the 50 year old wife of a National Party MP, one Yvonne Van Oudehove, who had reprimanded a policeman for assaulting a student, was smashed to the ground and arrested by a constable old enough to be her son. Bruised and dazed, according to a contemporary report, the policeman presented her for charging stating: "Dis die tannie wat ek geslaan het".
In reality the students and police, indeed the police and most of Cape Town's southern suburbs public were culturally poles apart. Despite the beating incidents occurring when apartheid was at its most intense, the students shared citizenship and even a common "apartheid white race classification" with the police; but that was where commonalities ended.
The students represented liberal and "radical" white English South African middle-class youth, drawn mostly from comfortable backgrounds and imbibed with the idealism of 1960s, early 1970s Western students. They believed social and political conditions could be changed through protest and activism. Cape Town's southern suburbs and city centre was supposedly far removed from the harsher obvious conflict points of apartheid, but actually, the Group Areas Act had wracked havoc on Cape Peninsula coloured communities during the 1960s.
The police demonstrated to white Capetonians, most of whom were not NP voters, just how vicious law enforcement state agencies could be if the government was publically confronted over its racial policies. A protest meeting was held inside the Cathedral on the 6th of June, addressed by a range of leading citizens, political and religious representatives, including Helen Suzman, Dean Edward King and heart surgeon Marius Barnard, whose brother Professor Chris Barnard publically warned provincial government authorities not to threaten his brother with dismissal, or the world famous heart surgeon would himself resign from Groote Schuur Hospital.
The police attack at the cathedral succeeded in mobilizing moderate UCT students who were not necessarily politically aligned or supportive of the National Union of South African Students. NUSAS at this time was strongly influenced by people like Rick Turner with their Marxist-derived interpretations of apartheid being only comprehensible through class based rather than race-based explanations. But most UCT student outrage and that of the English-language newspapers, church leaders, opposition politicians and public was against the brutality of the police, whose ugly side was generally completely hidden from the white middle class residents of Cape Town.
The SAP members involved were also mostly young and grew up in markedly different social environments to average UCT students. Virtually all Afrikaans, the policemen were the products of a community which by 1972 were almost exclusively government supporters and had benefitted from the aggressive Afrikanerisation of the civil service after 1948.
Even long before this date, the police force had been an attraction for working class Afrikaner men and a catchment point for Nationalist supporters and even more extreme right-wingers. Raised through the cultural autarky of Afrikaans schools, government supporting churches, the SA Police College and unquestioning obedience to authority, police members reflected the National Party's acute suspicion of "English" youth influenced by what they clumsily understood as permissive, "hippie", "communistic" student culture emanating from Britain and the United States.
Press reports utilised intimate Crous virtually lost control over his violent young subordinates. If some of the NUSAS supporting students represented the most extreme left of white South African political thinking in 1972, their police assailants definitely represented local versions of jackbooted right-wing Nazi storm troopers, whose minds were drenched in Afrikaner-nationalist propaganda allowing no space for any diversity in political expression.
Embolded with full state authority, the police with their warped, misguided perceptions and gleeful vengeance, laid into what they viewed "kommunistiese Engelse hippies". The fact that a central Anglican building of worship had also been so defiled cut no ice with Prime Minister Vorster who was quoted saying "he was proud of his police" and he warned English-language universities "to get their house in order" or face extreme legislative sanctions.
In South Africa today where deep concerns are expressed as to the competency of the SAPS, the alleged poor quality of its leadership and their connections to ANC leaders, it is worth reflecting back forty years ago to St George's Cathedral to ponder the state of the police then, their relationship to the government of Vorster and their hateful, shocking conduct towards the students and public of Cape Town. It would be hell for this country, under the current government, to ever return to those dark days.
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