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  • Rebels with a cause of their own:a personal reflection on my student years at Rhodes University, 1961-19651
  • Edward Webster (bio)

I arrived at Rhodes University in February 1961 to register for a BA degree. I had developed a deep interest in the study of history, partly because I had recently returned from a year hitch-hiking and working as a waiter, then rapidly promoted to barman at Battersea Park Funfair in London, and later a farm-hand in Europe. I had been deeply impressed by the visible depth of Europe's history as seen through its ancient monuments. I had continued home via North and East Africa. These travels had aroused my curiosity in the process of decolonisation that had begun in Africa reaching a climax in 1960 when 12 states were to become independent. The 'winds of change', Harold Macmillan dramatically announced in Cape Town in 1960, had reached the southern tip of Africa.

Macmillan's speech made the future seem like a simple act of decolonisation - you pull down the Union Jack and you return 'home'. But this was not to be - and that is what made the journey I was about to embark on so much more difficult, more painful and, in the end, more challenging. Indeed, for me, it was the start of a long voyage, 'full of adventures, full of things to learn'.

Because of the existence of a relatively large and cohesive settler population in Southern Africa, events were to prove a lot more complex, violent and bloody than Macmillan's gentle metaphor of a 'wind' evoked. Instead of a steady march to national liberation in Southern Africa, 1960 was the start of what the veteran scholar/activist John Saul has described as a 'thirty-year war', a ruthless counter-revolution that began in South Africa with the banning of the key political institutions of the national liberation movement and only ended in 1990 when Mandela was released. [End Page 98]

But this moment of freedom in 1990 had been preceded by large scale sacrifices as the movements of national liberation in South Africa, Rhodesia, Portuguese East Africa and South West Africa embraced armed struggle and the settler communities of South and Southern Africa dug in their heels in defence of 'white civilisation'.

Growing up in the Eastern Cape, and the Transkei in particular, and being a descendant of the first British settlers of 1820, meant that bloody conflict between coloniser and colonised was not unfamiliar to me. 'Kaffir wars', 'Frontier Wars', 'wars of colonial dispossession'; the words changed but the contested nature of our presence in Africa was part of my memory of growing up in 'settler country'. This was brought home to me sharply in my second year at Rhodes when a white family in my home village in the Transkei were brutally hacked to death by Poqo, the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Terror spread throughout the village as the small white community armed itself in anticipation of another 'kaffir war'!

This is the context - and my memory of it - in my early years at Rhodes. Rhodes University was the logical place to be for someone from my social background. My parents were schoolteachers drawing modest salaries from the Cape Education Department and there were four children in the family; I was going to have to find my own way through university on bursaries and scholarships. I had matriculated from Selborne College in East London and, besides, Cecil John Rhodes conjured up the exploits of my 'heroic' ancestors.

Today a 'gap year' is quite common; at that time it was considered unwise and I was warned that I would be bitten by wanderlust and not want to study. Quite the opposite was the case. I took to Rhodes like a duck to water. For the first time in my life I had a room of my own and time on my hands to read. I was fascinated by the insights that I gained from an outstanding generation of lecturers led by the indomitable Winnie Maxwell. Opinionated and demanding, she inspired me to read widely, encouraging me to go on to do an honours degree in...


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