Historical Memoir of 1976 Student Protests Launched at UWC

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Staff Reporter

It was a well-attended and celebratory unofficial class reunion at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) at the book launch of the late Dr Enrico G Pedro’s now-completed memoir of the pivotal 1976 uprising.

The book Act and Advance! An Unfinished Memoir of the 1976 Student Protests at the University of the Western Cape, hosted by the UWC Afrikaans Department, brought together alumni from around the province. Some haven’t seen one another in over 45 years.

The book launch was an opportunity to inspire and reflect on a period of youth activism which ignited memories of youth mobilisation and, in some cases, distrust among students.

“Who was your impimpi?” was a common question when students started suspecting one another during tense moments. Informants inevitably led to many student activists being incarcerated.

The memoirs were edited by Emeritus Professor Hein Willemse, an alumnus from the same period, a former UWC lecturer, and now affiliated with the University of Pretoria. He said the book captures the spirit of change that shaped an entire generation.

Dr Pedro, a well-known UWC alumnus, passed away in George on 28 January 2021 at the age of 63 due to COVID-19 complications. Before he retired to the Garden Route town of Wilderness, the former regional manager of the Department of Higher Education and Training was stationed in Mahikeng in the Northwest Province, where he was responsible for technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVET colleges).

Described as a friendly, exceptional educationist, and effective leader, Dr Pedro majored in history and philosophy at UWC and later earned a Master’s degree in history there.

In 1993, he received a scholarship from the Education Opportunities Council to pursue studies in the USA. He completed his doctorate at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and received the Faculty of Education’s award as the best doctoral student in 1997.

Following his university studies, Dr Pedro taught for four years at Pacaltsdorp High School. Later, he took up teaching positions at Excelsior High School in Belhar and at Bellville College of Education.

At the recent book launch, Dr Alice Pedro, the author’s widow and a former chief education specialist in the Northwest Department of Education, said that before his death he undertook several projects, including research for this envisioned book.

He spent hours analysing and transcribing many interviews on the Western Cape’s anti-apartheid resistance history in the 1970s and 1980s.

She officially donated a copy of the book, for the University’s library, to UWC Vice-Chancellor, Prof Tyrone Pretorius.

In his keynote address, Prof Pretorius said the 1976 protests at UWC directly resulted from the Soweto uprising on June 16.

“In his book, Pedro tells us how unaware many students were initially of the dire situation in South Africa as a whole,” said Prof Pretorius.

“Today, we know that the protests against Afrikaans as the compulsory language of instruction was but one of the many factors that led to further uprising. Pedro writes that the dynamics at UWC differed from those in other parts of the country. He also points out that ‘Afrikaans was the mother tongue of most students at [UWC]’.

He says further that: ‘Many may have been proud, emotional, and sentimental about their mother tongue; many were not sensitised to the politics of resistance, and therefore fickle, influenceable, and naïve’.”

When the 1976 cohort arrived at UWC, the institution had only existed for 16 years. From the outset, the establishment of the University was met with alarm in the community because it was regarded as a project that facilitated the National Party’s apartheid vision.

“It is, therefore, no surprise that in those early years, protests and political tensions were associated with the University. For these reasons, the generation of the mid-1970s arrived on the back of a history of heightened tension,” said Prof Pretorius.

Prof Willemse said the 1976 protests fundamentally shaped his generation’s political and social orientation. “It changed those of us who were part of that cohort,” Prof Willemse explained.

“I edited the book for publication and tried to preserve it in its original form. There were parts of the book that Pedro never got around to finishing. It meant that I had to reach conclusions on some aspects, and, having shared his lived experience, I did my best to think about the conclusions he would have come up with.”

The launch was a panel discussion led by Gasant Abarder, UWC Media and Marketing Manager. Panellists included Reverend Leonardo Appies, who was the SRC chairman in 1976, Dr Reverend Llewellyn MacMaster, the SRC chairman from 1984 to 1986, and Ms Olwyn Wessels, a student who witnessed a fire in the Women’s residence in 1976 and had to testify in court.

Well-known alumni and director of the Artscape Theatre, Ms Marlene le Roux, said: “Brown-skinned people also fought for this country, and this needs to be acknowledged. This event highlights the importance of our story. Our story is not done. UWC has such an important role in history in South Africa, and the University should claim its space, and histories should be told.”

Other attendees shared their views on language, emphasising that Afrikaans is “our” language and that these histories should be told while the University takes its rightful place.

The book is published by Abrile Doman Publishers and is available via email order at abrile.doman@gmail.com

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