You got your education, and you got out

20 April 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Tasneem Essop (Photo by Abigail Calata).
Tasneem Essop (Photo by Abigail Calata).

In 1981, Tasneem Essop, a former Western Cape minister for environmental affairs, needed a permit to study at UCT.

"Black and coloured students could not attend the (former) white institutions without a permit. In order to get a permit, you had to prove that a subject you wanted to take was not offered at the 'bush colleges'. So I ended up doing the cultural history of Western Europe. I had no interest in the subject, but took it because it was a 'permit' subject.?

Essop completed a BA degree with psychology and history majors, as well as a higher diploma in education. Born in District Six and schooled at Harold Cressy High, she subscribed to the ideology of the New Unity Movement. Her aim at UCT was therefore to get an education, and then get out. "A key in this ideological position was that when you go to institutions like UCT – the so-called white campuses – you must go there and not collaborate with the system. Great emphasis was placed on getting your education and coming back and contributing to the community. You were not to have a normal life on campus, so you didn't join societies or sports clubs."

Outside of campus, she was involved in politics; and in her final year (1984), she relented and joined the Azanian Students' Organisation (AZASO), an affiliate of the UDF. Her memories from that time are of a student sit-in at Bremner, to highlight the plight of black students and the difficulty they had finding accommodation near the university.

"We were a large group of students, and the university had instituted disciplinary action against us. We arrived at our hearing, raised our fists, sang Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika and walked out on the proceedings," she recalls.

She also remembers shacks being erected on Jammie Plaza to raise awareness of the living conditions of shack dwellers. Tasneem is particularly proud of the student protest that led to Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi not speaking at the university, even though he was invited to do so.

For Tasneem and her peers, it was important that the students stood in solidarity and were active in the broader struggle against apartheid and injustice. "At that time, real emphasis was placed on solidarity with the broader struggle. Each person was not just fighting his or her own battle. It was really the struggle against the system of apartheid, and for freedom. You connected your struggle on campus to the struggles outside of campus – not just in, but also outside of South Africa."

It saddens her that this solidarity is lacking in student activism today. "The students of today don't understand real struggle. Do riot police come onto campus to beat up students mercilessly? Students have the opportunities we did not have in those days. Many of us risked our lives to do what was necessary to bring freedom to this country."

She describes the struggle period as "an amazing time. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. It is through that hard struggle and solidarity with others that you grow as a human being, and as an activist."

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