Class of 1976 remembers through launch of the late Dr Enrico G Pedro's memoir

Attendees were made up of UWC alumni. Photo: Harriet Box

Attendees were made up of UWC alumni. Photo: Harriet Box

Published Jun 22, 2024


by Harriet Box

It was a well-attended and celebratory unofficial class reunion at UWC at the book launch of the late Dr Enrico G Pedro's now-completed memoir of the pivotal 1976 uprising.

Hosted by the UWC Afrikaans Department, the book, Act and Advance! An Unfinished Memoir of the 1976 Student Protests at the University of the Western Cape, brought together alumni from around the province. Some haven't seen one another in over 45 years.

The book launch was an opportunity to inspire and reflect on a period of youth activism which ignited memories of youth mobilisation and, in some cases, distrust among students.

Dr. Allan Boesak and Yvonne Muthien inspect a teargas cannister .jpeg

“Who was your impimpi?” was a common question when students started suspecting one another during tense moments. Informants inevitably led to many student activists being incarcerated.

The memoirs were edited by Emeritus Professor Hein Willemse, an alumnus from the same period, a former UWC lecturer, and now affiliated with the University of Pretoria. He said the book captures the spirit of change that shaped an entire generation.

Pedro, a well-known UWC alumnus, died in George on January 28, 2021 at the age of 63 due to Covid-19 complications. Before his retirement to the Garden Route town of Wilderness,

the former regional manager of the Department of Higher Education and Training was stationed in Mahikeng in the Northwest Province, where he was responsible for technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVET colleges).

Described as a friendly, exceptional educationist, and effective leader, Pedro majored in history and philosophy at UWC and later earned a Master's degree in history there.

In 1993, he received a scholarship from the Education Opportunities Council to pursue studies in the USA. He completed his doctorate at the University

of Virginia at Charlottesville and received the Faculty of Education's award as best doctoral student in 1997.

Following his university studies, Pedro taught for four years at Pacaltsdorp High School. Later, he taught at Excelsior High School in Belhar and at Bellville College of Education.

At the book launch, Dr Alice Pedro, the author's widow and a former chief education specialist in the Northwest Department of Education, said that before his death he undertook several projects, including research for this book. He spent hours analysing and transcribing interviews on the anti-apartheid resistance history of the Western Cape in the 1970s and 1980s.

She donated a copy of the book, for the university's library, to UWC Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius.

In his keynote address, Pretorius said the 1976 protests at UWC directly resulted from the Soweto uprising on June 16.

“In his book, Pedro tells us how unaware many students were initially of the dire situation in South Africa as a whole,”he said. “Today, we know that the protests against Afrikaans as the compulsory language of instruction was but one of the many factors that led to further uprising.

“Pedro writes that the dynamics at UWC differed from those in other parts of the country. He also points out that ‘Afrikaans was the mother tongue of most of the students at [UWC]'. He says further that: ‘Many may have been proud, emotional, and sentimental about their mother tongue; many were not sensitised to the politics of resistance, and therefore fickle, influenceable, and naive'.”

When the 1976 cohort arrived at UWC, the institution had only existed for 16 years. From the outset, the establishment of the university was met with alarm in the community because it was regarded as a project that facilitated the National Party's apartheid vision.

“It is, therefore, no surprise that in those early years, protests and political tensions were associated with the university. For these reasons, the generation of the mid-1970s arrived on the back of a history of heightened tension,” said Pretorius.

Willemse said the 1976 protests fundamentally shaped his generation's political and social orientation.

“It changed those of us who were part of that cohort. I edited the book for publication and tried to preserve it in its original form. There were parts of the book that Pedro never got around to finishing. It meant I had to reach conclusions on some aspects, and, having shared his lived experience, I did my best to think about the conclusions he would have come up with.”

The launch took the form of a panel discussion led by Gasant Abarder, UWC media and marketing manager. Panellists included Reverend Leonardo Appies, the SRC chairman in 1976, and Dr Reverend Llewellyn MacMaster, SRC chairman from 1984 to 1986, and Ms Olwyn Wessels, a student who witnessed a fire in the Women’s residence in 1976 and had to testify in court.

Well-known alumni and director of the Artscape Theatre, Ms Marlene le Roux, said: “Brown-skinned people also fought for this country, and this needs to be acknowledged.

“This event just highlights the importance of our story. Our story is not done. UWC has such an important role in history in South Africa, and the University should claim its space, and histories should be told.”

Other attendees shared their views on language, emphasising that Afrikaans is “our” language and that these histories should be told while the University takes its rightful place.

The book is published by Abrile Doman Publishers and is available via email order at [email protected].