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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 6 6 May 1970

When White Met Black at Fort Hare

page 8

When White Met Black at Fort Hare

The decision of the Dryden Society, a Cambridge University drama group, to tour South Africa last year aroused strong opposition at Cambridge. Harriet Walter wrote this article for The Observer on her return from South Africa.

"I Have come to South Africa to act. I am not interested in politics." Most of us in the Dryden Society supported this view when we arrived in South Africa last July for a three month drama tour, we opposed a culture boycott. Ten weeks later one of us was greeted with vociferous applause when he scrawled in red lipstick on the dressing-room mirror this appeal to the South African authorities: "Please, please deport us."

I had read about apartheid and it's consequences for the African before we left, but the recital of laws and statistics, of facts and figures, had not conveyed to me the essence of race relations in South Africa. Until seeing for myself with my own eyes, I found it difficult to appreciate the everyday humiliation inflicted on the Africans. Nor did I realise how bitterly apartheid is resented by young Africans. Our visit to Fort Hare opened my eyes to both facts.

The college is described by students and locals as the Fort. The visitor is greeted by wailing of sirens which signal the start and end of lecture periods. Driving through the main gate, he is confronted by a large signboard which reads:

No Unauthorised Person May Enter the College Grounds. By Order.

Its history, in brief, is as follows. In October 1915 a 30-year-old Scottish MA, James Stewart, arrived at a small dusty town in the forested hills of the Ciskei determined to start a university for the African people of South Africa. The four or five bungalows which constituted the university in those early days have now grown into a complex of modern buildings and drive-ways. But since the passing of the Transfer of Fort Hare Act in 1960, the college has become a mockery of a university. It is now restricted to Xhosa-speaking students. They are not allowed to leave the premises; to hold meetings; to talk to the Press; to visit any other university or to receive visitors without the Rector's permission. But what I found most difficult to imagine was the police surveillance and intimidation that has become part of the African student's everyday life.

We arrived almost entirely ignorant of all this. We started setting up in the hall and a few students wandered in from their lectures. It emerged that we were the first white students to have been allowed on the campus for over a year and they were therefore very suspicious of us: "Why have the authorities allowed you here?" They had naturally enough concluded that we must be Government stooges to be allowed on the campus, as other student bodies such as the National Union of South African Students and the University Christian Movement are banned.

Photo of Whites only ladies

It was only when we convinced them of our complete dissociation from white South Africa that their hostility broke down. Then they bombarded us with questions about England, British universities, our impressions of their country and our reasons for our visit, but our questions about South Africa, about Fort Hare, about their lives, were usually answered with a shrug of the shoulders and an enigmatic smile. Eventually, one of them took me aside.

"You must understand we are not free to discuss here. The Government pays the fees of most of the students and, if you wish to remain at university, you often have to become an informer."

We left to have supper with the Principal, Professor S.M. de Wet and his staff. The professors were not an impressive lot. The Professor of English Drama asked what play we were putting on and I replied Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade play.

"Oh yes, I've read it. What a very good play. I've always had a great admiration for its author, Brecht." We couldn't altogether suppress our amusement. "I've been telling my students for weeks now honoured they are as Xhosa people to be able to watch a performance of Cambridge University students." We began to understand why the students had been quietly hostile when we first met them.

As the time approached for our performance, the hall began to fill up with whites in evening dress. There were no students inside the building, but some 200 of them had gathered outside the hall. Our intended performance to the students and staff of Fort Hare was obviously in danger of becoming a performance to Europeans only. We went outside and asked the students why they were not coming in.

"We have come to play to you the students" we insisted.

"Then why are there all those Europeans in the hall?" they replied.

Soon the Rector and his staff were standing at the entrance listening to our conversation. He asked: 'Why are you talking to these people?' Beside him stood four Special Branch men taking down our conversation with the students.

Eventually a decision had to be taken.

"Will you come into the hall to watch our performance?"

"No, not under the present conditions," they replied.

"Would you like us to cancel the performance then?"

"Yes", loudly and unanimously.

We went back into the hall and our tour manager announced: "In conscience we feel unable to play here tonight against the wishes of the entire student body."

Pandemonium followed as the Europeans booed the announcement. A woman in the front row threw her bag at the tour manager as she and others stormed out of the hall. Outside, the students cheered our announcement and slow hand-clapped the audience as they left.

We returned to talk to the students, some of whom now wanted to see our play. The dialogue was shortlived, as Professor de Wet soon ordered us to leave immediately.

I approached him and his wife to try to discover their reaction to what had happened. Mrs de Wet lost her self-control and told me: "One thing I can tell you, their leaders will pay for this. We know who they are, don't we, darling? They will be called in tomorrow and will be dealt with."

The Professor was clearly embarrassed by this frankness and merely said: "Now you understand why we don't allow students from other universities on the campus. They must learn to be more respectful."

Later we met the students at the seminary across the road. I was introduced to a young man training to enter the Church. He told me his ambition was to leave the country and train to be a freedom fighter: "You must realise that violence is the only answer to our problems. This may sound strange to you coming from a theological student, but you need only to witness the continuing violence done to our people by the white man to understand."