WIKIPEDIA, the online encyclopaedia has become a haven of neo-conservative tinkering and revision of history under apartheid. A recent internet debate (archived here), shows the mindset of a generation which has grown up without direct knowledge of the apartheid system yet hankering after a period in which a minority white government ruled over a black majority denied the franchise.
A controversial article about an incident of unrest, equivalent in scope and political fallout to the 1960s Kent State shootings, at the prestigious University of Cape Town, during the 1987 State of Emergency was narrowly voted out, after right-wingers gained the upper hand, deleting the piece as being “not significant enough to warrant an article.” Despite criticism of systemic bias by two contributors, one of whom confirmed “accusations of censorship at the time”, the view that the incident was “just another storm in a students’ teacup to protest a military cross-border raid” has prevailed.
During the state of emergency South Africa’s press were under orders restraining their ability to cover an incident in which 500 students, black and white, staged a protest and were shot at by police on campus. 6 students were injured by buckshot. It was the first time since 1972 that police had used gunfire to quell a student disturbance on a predominantly white campus. Dozens of police with tear gas, guns, whips and attack dogs stormed a protest march against forced conscription, the war in Angola, cross-border raids by the SADF into neighbouring states, the continued detention without trial of student leaders, the banning of the African National Congress and continued incarceration of Nelson Mandela, to name a few of the grievances of the time.
As one of the persons caught up in the resulting 14 day melee, I went from being a law student to a political activist overnight. The entire campus was involved, classes were shut down. There were sit-ins, and teach-ins. Helicopters circled overhead. Teargas covered the plaza and Jameson steps. A South African breweries truck was torched. Traffic snarled up De Waal drive for miles. A pregnant woman was whipped by a sjambok wielding policeman in the library. Rubber bullets were also used.
The event signalled a turning point in the history of the otherwise liberal establishment. Students were radicalized. I went from being an idealist, to an ideologue, caught up with the political discourse of an era which had more resonance with similar student uprisings in the Paris Sorbonne of 1968 than Cape Town of today, needless to say, much of what happened was undocumented, underground and under siege.
Wikipedia editors (protected by anonymity of the internet) chose instead to perpetuate the suppression of the event, merging one citation, taken from the article, with the UCT campus main page, thus deleting the piece in full, and prolonging a reign of censorship. Nothing was done by the academic institution to mark the twentieth anniversary of the student uprising last year, and even the SRC has forgotten that it had once been the site of barricades. As the originator of the piece dismissed as a “poorly-referenced rant, written mostly in first-person or as a memoir, of student unrest” one has to admit criticism that there is currently little or no access to online references that can affirm the existence of government-sponsored censorship during the state of emergency.
For example, a news clipping taken from the Cape Times (and available from the South African library) begins: “Large parts of the University of Cape Town campus were at times uninhabitable yesterday afternoon and some lectures were disrupted as a result of actions by certain people which may not be reported in terms of state-of-emergency press censorship,” is not available online.
While the foreign press referred to cross-border raids by the SADF as the cause, local newspapers told another story: “An hour confrontation between the people who may not be identified and about 150 – 200 students followed a lunch time meeting attended by about 700 students, called to protest at the deaths and firing of SA Railway’s and Harbour’s Workers Union (SARHWU) on Wednesday.”
Most news references from the period have yet to be digitized and made available to the public.
The existence of secondary source material apparently taken from the foreign press such as the Boston Globe is problematic since access to what one could call primary sources are restricted by a subscription fee. The mainly republican-lead US press, following the lead of the Cape Times and other liberal newspapers played down the event which lead to the announcement of the unbanning of political parties and the release of Nelson Mandela. A period which ushered in the transition to democracy.
Just how out of kilter with popular opinion the press were can be seen by a report in the The Los Angeles Times which refers to the University as a “white school“. College is also frequently used to describe the ivy-league institution, reducing the world class university in stature somewhat. Attempts to diminish the impact of the event have largely been successful. Personal testimonials have yet to be collected. Those who can say they were there, are now approaching middle age or in their mid-forties. Most have have either immigrated, died from neglect, or been quietly forgotten.
The initial head-count of 500 students engaged in revolt which quicky expanded to at least 1500 over the ensuing weeks has been reduced by the logic of redneck journalists such as John Battersby (the New York Times’ correspondent who in a masterful manipulation of the facts, reported about the event second-hand) to “about 350”, and this figure is now officially estimated at no more than 15 persons engaged in illegal activities.
Hopefully history will prove Wikipedia wrong. As more black students gain access to the internet, questions will be asked. What happened to the 5000-plus students who were affected by the 1987 UCT uprising? How did this impact on their academic careers? Were the instigators ever re-integrated into society or simply marginalized? Were the victims of the resulting unrest compensated by civil society for the wrongs perpetrated by callous policemen who chose to see every student as a communist, a “kaffir-lover” or a MK sympathizer?
Were the government spies and apartheid agents ever brought to book? Were the detainees released? How many people actually died defending an unjust system, and how many causalities were there in the conflict? Did anybody bother to mention those still locked up in psychiatric wards for refusing the draft, or the innocent bystanders still without limbs, simply because politicians sent an entire country to war?
NOTE: This is not the first time my work has been the subject of rightwing revisionism. A year ago an entire posting on this blog was deleted without permission by my hosts at the time, Amagama/ Blogmark, an online site associated with the Mail and Guardian but operated by Media24. It concerned a review of a book on the Border War. I have yet to receive compensation for the material, licenced under the creative commons which has not been returned, despite promises by senior management.