The origins of the Torch of Academic Freedom

23 September 2002
THE HOLDING of the 39th TB Davie Memorial Lecture, to be delivered this evening (September 23) by Professor Kader Asmal, is a suitable time to remember specifically the vital and challenging contribution that students have made and continue to make in maintaining UCT's vigour as an intellectual and cultural institution with a human face.

In an article first printed in Monday Paper (June 7, 1997), Associate Professor John Cartwright, a former UCT student and former Head of the English Department, explains the origins of the Torch of Academic Freedom:

"In 1957 the UCT SRC and the local committee of NUSAS were much involved in organising protests and demonstrations against the threatened legislation enforcing university apartheid – at this stage, these public protests were entirely a student initiative. In that year, the hypocritically named Extension of University Education Bill was due to come before Parliament for its second reading.

"As some people may not know, the second reading of a bill is the crucial one, the occasion on which time is provided for extended debate. We therefore decided that this was the crucial occasion to take our protest to Parliament itself, and we (I've no idea who exactly thought it up) decided to focus public attention on a torch of academic freedom, which would be extinguished on the occasion of the second reading (the third reading is a mere formality).

"The torch was made out of a wooden staff somewhat less than a metre long, with a shiny tin can nailed onto the top. In the can were rags soaked in paraffin. On the night before the Parliamentary reading, we set it up at the top of the Jammie steps, in the semi-shelter of the portico, lit it, and held an all night vigil, taking turns of a couple of hours each. It was cold and windy, with scattered rain.

"In the morning we quietly put it out and took it by car to the Hiddingh Hall campus, where we re-lit it. I – being a keen runner at the time – had been deputed to run down the Avenue with the flaming torch and into Parliament Street. I jogged down, keeping a careful eye on the flame, turned right at the bottom of the Avenue where the awful military statue of Smuts now stands, and right again up Parliament Street (which was not at that time closed off with gates) to the entrance of the House of Assembly.

"Despite the chilly weather, quite a crowd had gathered in the street. Waiting on the steps of the House of Assembly was Neville Rubin*, Chair of the SRC, wearing a leather glove on his hand. I went through the gate and stopped in front of him, and he extinguished the flame with his gloved hand. We then went in to the public gallery for the debate, and listened to Viljoen, the Minister of Education, spouting the usual Nat rubbish.

"The arrival and extinguishing of the torch was filmed by BBC television and shown on Richard Dimbleby's Panorama programme. I regret that I do not remember the names of the other students involved in planning and carrying out this demonstration.

"It was only in 1959, with the implementation of the new Act, that UCT as a body took to the streets in protest and took over the symbol of the extinguished torch."
*Neville Rubin is now an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Law.

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