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Belated apology for Apartheid casualty

In 1968 the BBC's Africa Editor Martin Plaut was one of 600 students at the University of Cape Town protesting because black lecturer Archie Mafeje had been denied a teaching post there. Returning to Cape Town 40 years later for a reunion of campus rebels, he discovered the real reason for the university's stance.

Archie Mafeje courtesy of the University of Cape Town
Apartheid legislation forced Archie Mafeje into exile

Sitting in the cool winter sunshine it seemed impossible to believe that four decades had somehow slipped away.

The giant steps on which much of the university's social life is conducted still cascaded down the mountainside, as the mist lifted gradually, revealing the town below. The view was, as ever, hauntingly beautiful.

In 1968 it had been easy to sit here and dream, with the music of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan floating out of the student union.

But the steps had seen more than idle revelry. For in that year Cape Town was a small outpost of student revolution.

Government pressure

It started when Archie Mafeje - who had graduated from Cape Town before African students had been excluded by law from attending the university - was about to finish his PhD at Cambridge and had been appointed to a senior lectureship in the department of social anthropology.

But this was at the height of apartheid. The University of Cape Town was officially designated a white university and Mafeje was black.

Under intense government pressure the university authorities struggled to find a way forward.

The law, extraordinary as it may seem, continued to allow the university the right to employ lecturers of any race, so it could hold its head high on the international stage as a "multi-racial" institution.

Students protesting in 1968
The students held out for 10 days

But when it acted on this right, the government threatened to amend the law.

So the University of Cape Town withdrew the offer of employment to Archie Mafeje in order to maintain the theoretical right to offer him a job.

At a mass meeting we decided to act. One thousand students marched down the mountain, with 600 of us occupying the administration building, vowing not to leave until the university relented.

For 10 days we held out, sleeping on the floors. Food was cooked communally, even by the men who, at that time, were largely ignorant of the workings of the kitchen.

Alternative lectures were organised on the stairs and we got a newspaper up and running.

Student barricades

Messages of support flowed in from the barricades mounted by students in Paris and London.

At last we were not just some isolated racist outpost of empire, but part of an international movement. And the times, they really were a changing!

But the university stubbornly refused to concede to our demand to reappoint Mafeje and gradually our spirits flagged.

Students from the Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch were sent to try to beat us up. Shots were fired at the doors.

The government threatened to act, if the university would not. As support ebbed away we finally packed up and left.

The university had rejected one black appointee in order to safeguard the employment of an existing member of staff

A failure? Not really. It gave the lie to the government's claim that all whites supported its racist policies.

And in the debates new ideas came bubbling up. "What will I tell my children if I do nothing," one student argued to loud cheers, "especially if they are black!" Pure heresy in 1968 when all sex between races was forbidden by law.

The sit-in certainly changed those of us who had been there.

Many went on to play active parts in the trade unions that emerged in the 1970s and in the movements of the 1980s that finally led to the end of apartheid.

Strange twist

About 60 of us who were originally involved in the sit-in have just met up for the first reunion in 40 years, some flying in to Cape Town from homes overseas.

We discovered there was a twist to the tale, in why the university authorities had held out so strenuously to retain the right to appoint black lecturers all those years ago, even if it meant not appointing Mr Mafeje in the process.

It was because they actually already had, unbeknown to the government, managed to appoint a man classified as "coloured" to the university staff.

But since his name was Afrikaans he had slipped by the authorities, who had assumed he was white.

So the university had rejected one black appointee in order to safeguard the employment of an existing member of staff.

Another example of the strange and terrible consequences of apartheid.

'Shabby treatment'

The celebrations which surrounded our reunion the other day were tinged with bitterness. The university had never made its peace with Mafeje.

Map of Cape Town

He had gone on to live the life of a wandering scholar in exile in Tanzania, Egypt and Namibia. His family rightly felt he had been shabbily treated.

Yet an attempt at reconciliation had been made. After white rule ended he was offered a research post. But as a professor at the time he declined to accept it.

When he finally applied for a chair at the university, he was once more rejected as being unsuitable for the position.

Mafeje died in March last year, apparently a deeply embittered man. The University of Cape Town has now, belatedly, apologised for the way he was treated.

At a ceremony attended by some of us who had taken part in the original protest, his family formally accepted the apology and the university awarded Mafeje a posthumous honorary doctorate.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 September, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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