Fridays in the 1980s at the University of the Western Cape were tumultuous. Students would take over an unused lecture hall to listen to anti-apartheid lectures to plan a new South Africa. After a few hours, the students would start chanting “na die poort,” which means “to the gate,” referring to the gate of the university. The group would then rush the gate of the college and throw stones across the highway at the government-owned train station. Shortly after the students massed at the gate, police in their armored vehicles would come and shoot the students with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Since opening in 1959, the UWC student movement against apartheid was active and vocal. What started as demonstrations became clashes with the police. Because of the near constant demonstration against apartheid, UWC was referred to as “the Struggle University.” But UWC did not protest in a vacuum. Because of different restrictions for coloured people and the commitment to the struggle of Coloured people in Cape Town, UWC was uniquely able to mobilize against apartheid.
While still oppressed, Coloured people had more political rights than other racial groups under apartheid. Even at the height of state violence against protestors, students at the University of the Western Cape were allowed more freedom of expression than at majority Black schools. After the Soweto uprising, those classified as Native were limited in their right to assembly, which included students at universities. Other racial groups’ rights were not curtailed as severely. This racism allowed for other racial groups to organize against apartheid with less but still considerable risk.
Coloured people in Cape Town had a civil society that predated UWC and fed into its growth as a place for political action. Trafalgar High School was the alma mater for many of UWC’s radical students and teachers, including the Coloured rectors. Serving Coloured students in the Coloured-majority District 6 neighborhood and some Black students, the high school was known for its rigor and political education. “They were Trotskyites,” said Rector Brian O’Connell, a former student of the high school. Many of the teachers were Marxists and specifically followed the beliefs of Leon Trotsky. Harold Herman, a former student at Trafalgar High School and a professor at UWC said that while he is not a Trotskyite, his experience at Trafalgar shaped his political beliefs as a young man. Professors at Trafalgar encouraged him to pursue a university education instead of going to a teacher’s college and encouraged other students also.
When UWC was first opened, activists were skeptical of the all-White staff and administration. Would it be a good idea to participate in a government institution that is clearly trying to indoctrinate students with the ideology of apartheid? This question motivated some young Coloured students to not attend UWC, instead going to vocational schools.
Distrust of a White-run university dissipated after Richard Van der Ross was hired as rector. Van der Ross was the first coloured person to earn a PhD from a South African university. He was active in labor union politics and regularly wrote in White and Coloured newspapers on issues of race and politics. He also is one of the central writers on Coloured history and Coloured identity. His books chronicle the otherwise ignored history of early Cape Coloured people. His books “100 Questions About Coloured South Africans” and “Myths and Attitudes: An Inside Look at the Coloured People” and his newspaper editorials in White newspapers meant to give a Coloured perspective on his identity.
Because Van der Ross was viewed to be a moderate voice, the government thought that he would be the perfect compromise between what activists at UWC wanted and the government desire to maintain the political system. Instead, Van der Ross stood with the students against police violence and paved the way for more revolutionary leaders at UWC.