I woke up on the morning to the news that the World had been banned
This might seem a little crazy to you, but let me explain.
It was October 19th, 1977. At the time I was a student at Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa. The country was in upheaval. The year before, an estimated 176 people - mostly school kids - had been killed in the Soweto uprising. The apartheid government clamped down hard, imprisoning many political activists without trial and placing repressive restrictions on organisations and individuals. The latter were referred to as "banning orders".
See the footnotes for information on "banning orders"
By October 1977 the government had become increasingly upset by the press (which was still fairly free), particularly newpaper revelations that the security police had killed Steve Biko in September. "Black" newspapers were particularly outspoken in their condemnation. The largest of these was The World - an newspaper edited by the fearless Percy Qoboza. So in the early hours of that morning 39 years ago, The World was banned and closed down. Qoboza and a number of his reporters were detained by the security police for lengthy periods. Another 18 organisations and many individuals were banned. Among then was Donald Woods, editor of The Daily Dispatch. The story of his escape was dramatized in Richard Attenborough's 1987 movie, Cry Freedom.
I walked to campus that morning to attend a pre-exam tutorial. I lived off-campus, about a 25 minute walk. The atmosphere on campus was electric with staff and students milling around in outrage at the bannings. A mass meeting was called and attended by thousands of students. It was decided that we would send a protest telegram to the Minister of Police, one Jimmy Kruger - a nasty little man who famously said that the death of Steve Biko "leaves me cold".
Police minister Jimmy Kruger Photo credit
We students then marched in a long phalanx from the campus to the Post Office - a distance of about two kilometers. It was lunchtime so the office workers came out in droves to see the spectacle. The streets were crammed with people. The mood was quite upbeat - I suppose because we were actually doing something in our outrage, even though it was something as trivial as sending a telegram. Since it was a spontaneous march there were no banners or chants - it was just a peaceful walk. I was happy to be part of it, particularly since the march was in the direction of my flat and I could get back to some much-needed study-time.
But when we turned the corner to the post office, an enormous line of police were waiting for us, blocking the road. And they were heavily armed with automatic rifles - something we as "white" students had never encountered before. The leaders continued leading the march to within a few meters from the post office, when the police rushed at us. I was about 100 meters from the front so I crossed the road and tried to blend in with the onlookers on the pavement. But a cop spotted me (and my long hair) and forced his way through the crowd and grabbed me. He was then joined by another cop who held onto my other arm while grabbing another student. We were bundled into the back of police van, and it was soon full with about 15 of us. A very radical-looking student sat next to me and he seemed highly agitated. He told me the police knew him and he was carrying material in his bag that would get him into big trouble. He wanted me to take it from him! He even tried to push it into my bag. Obviously I declined and resisted. He tried that with few others in the van but no one took him up on his offer.
We were taken to the Hillbrow police station and all put into a large room and made to sit on the floor against the wall. There must have been about 100 of us. We sat there talking - and joking - for a few hours. Then some cops came into the room and started screaming at us. At one point, the radical-looking student from the van lunged at a cop screaming political slogans. While the cops wrestled him to the floor he was screaming for help from us. At that point a large group of policemen stormed into the room pointing their automatic weapons at us. They were completely hyped and aggressive. They fanned out and pointed their guns at our faces as they passed one-by-one. There was a lot of shouting. For the first time I actually felt in fear of my life. I had never come across something this menacing before.
After about 10 minutes of this, the cops left the room. They came back about 30 minutes later without their rifles. Then I noticed that the radical student, who they had dragged away kicking and screaming, was actually a cop. He had obviously been planted to incite some sort of incident.
We spent about another hour being processed, with fingerprints and photos taken. We were then put in large police trucks and taken to John Vorster Square. This was the dreaded headquarters of BOSS (Bureau of State Security) - the security police. This didn't look good. I personally knew people who had been detained there for months without trial. It was notorious for its torture of political detainees, and the death of many of them. After all, the security police had tortured Steve Biko to death just a month before.
We were herded into two large cells - one for men and the other for women. Oddly the cells were open - through the bars - to a courtyard on one side. Only a wall of bars separated the two cells. As night fell it rained and it got very cold. Like most of my cell-mates I was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. They just left us there - for hours, miserably cold and hungry. None of us had any idea what would happen to us. There didn't seem to be the sort of aggression we had faced at Hillbrow. However some of the more radical students started goading passing policemen - jeering at them and chanting. I wasn't convinced that this was a good tactic.
At about 2.30 in the morning a senior policeman called us to the front of the cells and told us that our bail had been paid by the University. After about and 90 minutes we had been formally charged and finished the bail paperwork and were released. A kind soul gave me a lift back to my flat.
The university organised for each of us to have a consultation with a lawyer. I consulted with senior advocate and human rights lawyer Raymond Tucker. He explained the charges (under the Riotous Assemblies Act) and how it could potentially be very serious but in his opinion I would get off lightly.
When it came to the day of the trial, the magistrate was a typical apartheid functionary who, without any evidence being led to that effect, found that we had caused widespread "despondency and despair" and that we were tools of communist forces - or something to that effect. It looked bad.
Then, to my relief, they read out the names of all those whose charges were withdrawn - and I was one of them. However it was painful to see the eight or nine student leaders who remained charged, being led off to the police cells. Some of them ended up getting lengthy prison sentences. To the best of my knowledge, one or two were detained and tortured for years afterwards and eventually went into exile.
I wrote a song about this experience shortly afterwards which I play to myself on this day every year, as I have done today. Perhaps one day I'll record it for posterity.
Some notes on "banning orders"
When publications and organisations were "banned", it usually meant they were outlawed and suppressed from carrying out their activities. This applied particularly to political organisations, the press and anti-apartheid activist groups and churches. When individuals were "banned", it usually meant severe curtailment of their activities, such as house arrest - occasionally banished to far off rural villages. It also usually meant that others were banned from making any contact with them. For non-South Africans, banning usually also meant deportation - some after living in the country for many years, having brought up families and with deep roots in the community.
These bannings were done purely by decree and there was no recourse to the courts. As you can imagine it imposed enormous hardships on banned individuals, their families and stakeholders in banned organisations. The orders were usually issued for a period of between two and five years. However these were most often simply renewed at the end of the term. The security police would keep banned individuals under constant surveillance, including tapping their phone lines and intercepting their mail. Violations of banning orders could result in the offender being jailed with or without trial and having even harsher terms imposed.