In the late 1980s the South African government had clearly lost much of its legitimacy and its actions became more pragmatic. Part of this change in society was that the practice of segregation in certain spheres was clearly being phased out, e.g. the exclusion of black students from the student residences of the so-called white universities. This article is a description and analysis of change in this regard in an important phase of South African history. The Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (PU for CHE) (henceforth: the university) was the last higher education institution to open up its residences for black students. Its belated action was mainly because of its conception of Afrikaner nationalist interests and the Christian character of this institution.
The main emphasis in this article is to trace and analyse the process of resolutions taken by the authorities and their implementation or the lack thereof in the period from 1987 to 1990. Likewise, the actions of their critics on campus and the unfortunate experiences of the excluded black students will be followed, using information in archives, journals and newspapers and personal information obtained from a number of individuals who were involved in the events.
Several analysts of the period endeavoured to fathom the association between the academics of this institution and the broad Afrikaner ideology of Christian National Education and also the crucial crises of the 1960s, when criticism of apartheid ideology was levelled from within Afrikaner circles (Norval 1996; Giliomee 2003; Viljoen 1979; Hexham 1980). This ripple in the pool became a veritable storm in the late 1980s when, for instance, the student members of Jeugkrag-Suid-Afrika/Youth South Africa’s branch on campus and the Senate insisted that the Council of the university was not acting in accordance with its own credo. It is notable that when even the ideological framework of Christian Nationalism was rapidly changing, the university had lost track of these developments as well as of the rapidly changing socio-political framework of South Africa, and persisted in maintaining the practice of having exclusively white residences.
More than one approach is possible to write about recent South African history, and in this case the history of universities, during the era of the crumbling of apartheid hegemony and the social forces for and against change playing a role, specifically on this campus. Seeing that a significant part of the information, in writing or of a verbal nature, was gathered from participants, the approach of Legassick (2016) and Tomaselli (2004) is significant. The former was both an actor (role player) and a historian, resulting in his production of a “history in action”. I was also present at the “scene”, at the university, and my daughter played a notable part in the events. This, of course, emphasises human agency and the concomitant necessity for historical work to comply with the directives of reasonableness and validity, and at the same time for an acceptable degree of subjectivity.
The university’s process of providing black students with accommodation started in 1987 when a site was acquired in the “coloured” township of Promosa for erecting a residential unit for “coloured” male students as well as temporary accommodation for eight black female students in the university’s De Klerk-gastehuis (De Klerk guest house) on campus. Council also had discussions regarding “renewal” of the nature of university accommodation and the “choices” that had to be given to all students, without in any way indicating that all this should have concrete relevance for black students and should serve their needs. At this stage it was already possible for the university to apply to the government for permits in order to legally accommodate black students both on campus and in the proclaimed white township, opportunities they did not use in any way.
From September 1989 Senate requested Council to make all university residences racially inclusive. Council, however, decided to keep their conservative constituency satisfied by denying the requests, thereby only intensifying the insistence on the opening up of the residences. When the heat of opposing interest groups was building up, also in the town of Potchefstroom, many of the academic staff mobilised themselves into a vocal pressure group. They criticised government policies and Council, as well as the town council (ruled by the Conservative Party), on related issues such as the law on separate public amenities. However, the most active pressure group on campus was the local branch of Youth South Africa, an organisation that expressly took sides against old- fashioned apartheid measures affecting black students. The racially mixed organisation took up the cause of the black students in Promosa, those of the black students in the Gastehuis, and all others who were excluded from university accommodation. This occurred while all other previously white universities, and especially the liberal English universities, had made good progress in ending exclusive white privilege in this regard.
The members of Youth South Africa at the university were concerned that the true position of black students was not known on campus and distributed a leaflet Dit Raak Jou! (It concerns you!) to rectify this, resulting in encouragement, but also severe criticism. A senior official took it on himself to level stark reproofs against their actions and motives. In this leaflet and in their newsletter the insecurity, discomfort, discomposure and even the abuse of black students were graphically and personally portrayed. Several officials on campus berated the black students because they were supposedly not grateful, that they had fabricated some of their discomfort, while some incidents they complained about were later repudiated. During their stay in the Gastehuis, all eight female students were at one stage relocated from their double rooms to one large apartment because of overbooking, and in another case they abruptly received a letter, on short notice, that they now had to move to Promosa, the university’s student residence for “coloureds” in the township. These incidents were later denied by officials.
This duplicity started after some university officials had earlier given the impression at secondary schools that the university was “open” to all students. Black students then discovered, to their dismay, that this did not include residences. They also learnt that none of them, not even the eight women accommodated in the Gastehuis, could use the dining halls on campus; in the latter case this meant that they had to cook in their rooms or use the cafeteria or other private facilities off campus. Except for the residents of the Gastehuis, black students had major transport problems because the black townships were about eight kilometres from campus, and there the political turmoil of the time was not favourable for their studies. Some white students also acted in an abusive manner towards black students and made the black students feel like social lepers.
Black students who were interviewed for the Dit Raak Jou! leaflet expressly stated that the general discomfort was a limited aspect of their problems and that they suffered more because of emotional stress and the disregard for them as students and as human beings. All these experiences also resulted in some of them developing extreme political views. Apart from the support they received from some (white) academic staff, a number of white students cared for them and became their close friends, even assisting them in attaining a more sensible view of those who were aggravating their distress.
In the last phase of this period, Council did not take a clear and concrete decision on the issue at hand, viz. the opening up of existing residences, but planned for what they called “multi-purpose accommodation”, and they even misled Senate and probably satisfied their white conservative, mostly Christian, supporters. The local branch of Youth South Africa, however, understood this for the diversion that it was, and this insight may have applied to some other critics – on campus, in South African society and even abroad. Council’s and management’s most vocal critic, Youth South Africa on campus, constantly reminded Council of its erroneous ways and also, in a way, spoke on behalf of all South Africans who were struggling on the margins of society. By postponing really constructive decisions for yet another year, and also in their own peculiar way creating alternative accommodation for black students, they consistently used the motivation that this was motivated by the “character” of the university, being Christian and Afrikaner National. By this, in every instance, they chose for the status quo and not for clear, principled action, and extended the predicament of social isolation of their black students.
Keywords: access; accommodation; apartheid; PU for CHE; residences; segregation; students; universities; Youth South Africa