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23 August 2018
Hostel: Tales of Students Becoming Themselves At A Struggle University

(Published - 23 August 2018)

Apartheid social engineering tore South Africans apart economically, linguistically, culturally, socially and spatially - and educational institutions, too, were segregated. And yet students at the University of the Western Cape in the 1970s were steeped in contrarian ideas on apartheid thoughts and custom, and actively participated in the struggle to overcome a tradition of separatist thinking and apartheid practice.

Hostel: Autobiographical Narratives of the 1975-1980 University of the Western Cape Student Generation records the experiences of a group of people who came together as strangers (and often first generation students) at the UWC residences during the mid- to late-1970s - and formed enduring networks and friendships.

The contributors are in the main first generation university students, and their autobiographical narratives, told in Afrikaans and English, present us with varied portrayals of their histories, influences and experiences on the cusp of major social and political change in southern Africa.

The book is edited by Prof Hein Willemse, DLitt, South African academic, literary critic, activist and author, and Professor of Literature and Literary Theory in the Department of Afrikaans at the University of Pretoria - himself a UWC alum and one of those seventies res students.

Here’s what Prof Willemse had to say about working on this book, and reflecting on the way UWC’s past shaped both the University’s future, and the lives of so many young students.

How did Hostel come about?

Decades ago, a generation of students mostly from relatively impoverished working class backgrounds from all over South Africa and Namibia came together as strangers at the residences of the University of the Western Cape - and emerged as friends.

Over the intervening years, many of us drifted apart, but some stayed in touch - and eventually a number of us formed a WhatsApp chat group, almost forty years after we had entered university.

As often happens, we exchanged reminiscences about our lives, made contact with many we’d lost track of - and the idea of the book flowed from that.

Why student narratives? Why not write a more straightforward history?

I am a firm believer in self-help. If you want your story to be told, you’ve got to do it yourself.

Nobody is going to tell your story for you - and you are responsible for telling it as well as you can. The story might be biased, it might be incomplete, it might even appear to be insignificant, but you’ve got to tell your story, make your imprint. Nobody else can do that.

Why residence students specifically?

A student’s life in residence is quite full. In comparison, the life of a day student can be relatively limited (I know, I started out as a day student).

At res, one lives cheek by jowl with people from across the spectrum, from vastly different backgrounds. You dine with your peers, yes, but also with older (and younger) students, and you all share your experiences.

When we met one another in the relaxed atmosphere of the residences, we helped one another with the academic stuff, but also in other pursuits, personal and public.

What made you decide to come to UWC in the first place?

Way back then, most of us could only attend UWC - especially those who refused to participate in the permit system that allowed students of colour to attend the so-called liberal universities. At the same time, we were also ambivalent about attending a university spawned by apartheid. So as students we often lived with a double consciousness of resentment and struggle, and commitment to a place like UWC. Quite a number of the narratives in the book recount similar insights and experiences.

What are some of your own strongest memories from your student days at UWC?

It must be the experience of social and political awakening.

Several of us were undergraduate students during the 1973 walk-off, the 1976 uprising and during the peak of Black Consciousness - and those experiences impacted our lives in ways that we only realised later on.

Contestation and the development of a healthy sense of scepticism is crucial to cultivating a critical mind, and I think many of us found our intellectual wings in this kind of environment.

What was it like, going through all those tales of the past?

Editing these narratives was truly an eye-opener.

I got to know some of my friends and colleagues better than I had before. I came to understand their motivations, their anxieties and their sources of strength - and how they picked themselves up by their bootstraps and became hard-working, decent people who.

Quite simply, I admire them for the life choices they have made.

What was the process like of putting the book together?

We wanted to make an interesting book. It became a large book, almost 350 pages with about 130 photographs. After the initial chase for contributions, the hardest part was knocking the whole book project into shape: the hours of editing, getting writers to revisit their initial essays, the chase for good photographs, matching pictures to individuals. William Murray, my co-editor who curated the photographs, had a trying but ultimately enriching time.

And for me, it was all worth it in the end.

What's the most important thing you think people should know about UWC in the seventies?

I think the periods of contestation for this university in the seventies were foundational for its narrative as a place of struggle, a place of contrarian ideas. The tie-burning incident in 1970, the famous campus-wide walk-off of 1973 and the country-wide student uprising of 1976 - these shaped the character of the University going forward.

And we should never forget the remarkable role Prof Richard van der Ross, the then-rector, played in fostering an environment of academic freedom. He, more than anyone else, I think, played a role in establishing an environment conducive to the free exchange of ideas on campus.

Where to from here?

If I have to take one learning from this project it is that UWC must make haste to record, to catalogue and write up its institutional history. There needs to be a driven project to archive the history of UWC. It cannot be haphazard - and it cannot only be a history of buildings and management.

There needs to be a history of those who make a university what it is: its people, from staff to students and beyond. Many of the first generation of students are approaching their eighties, and we need to get their photographs and artefacts - and above all their stories - collected before it is too late.

Hopefully, Hostel contributes to sharing the flesh-and-blood experiences of those who made this university.

Want to know more about UWC in the seventies? Read this excerpt from Hostel (or this one)...and if you’d like to order a copy, just click here.