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One of the key pillars of the apartheid regime had been the Separate Universities Act of 1959, which forbade racial integration at tertiary education level. This was a tremendous blow to the liberal English-speaking universities — Witswatersrand (Wits), Natal, Rhodes and UCT, which all fought and protested strongly against the new Act. Thereafter black students were consigned to (inferior) “tribal colleges” within the so-called “black homelands”. Inevitably, political dissent spread from the black campuses into black schools, finally resulting in the explosion of the Soweto riots of 1976 which then spread right round the country. This in turn created a climate of continuous unrest in the nation’s black schools. The exiled ANC naturally seized on this new opportunity and extensive political mobilisation took place within these schools under the (educationally disastrous) slogan of “Liberation now, education later”. In practice this meant continuous school boycotts, stay-aways and protests and the enrolment of many schoolchildren as full-time political activists. The result was a steep decline in the standard of these “Bantu Education” schools, leading to a so-called “lost generation” of schoolchildren whose school lives were punctuated by continual and often violent clashes with authority.

Thus when the apartheid system began to crack in the mid-1980s and the English-speaking universities were again allowed to admit first a trickle and then a flood of black students, the situation quickly became very difficult. (I was teaching at the University of Natal in my Oxford vacations in those years and experienced the resultant problems at first hand.) Inevitably, the black students now pouring into these universities were hugely disadvantaged — many not even all that literate. The universities hurriedly devised remedial courses for them but this often only deepened the resentment such students felt at finding themselves at such a disadvantage compared to their white, Indian and Coloured peers. They were also in a high state of political turmoil and were continuously ready for protest action of one sort or another. Some were engaged in guerrilla activities for the ANC and carried weapons.

More and more this made these campuses a cauldron which it took considerable political agility to negotiate. I write advisedly for I was a regular visitor to these universities in those years, something I managed unscathed only because I had grown up in South Africa, was thus returning home and anyway knew the ropes. Even so, I was often greatly taken aback as, for example, when I was interrogated by student leaders in Durban as to my attitude to freedom of speech. When I said I favoured it they furiously denounced me: the official “line” was now that that would mean giving Chief Buthelezi an equal right to that of the United Democratic Front leaders to speak on campus. Similarly, I could hardly be unaware that one of my faculty colleagues clanked when he walked because of a large amount of concealed weaponry and that he was meeting at night with black students to plan armed raids (“in self-defence”) against their Inkatha enemies.
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