Having a bursary represented so much more than just a monetary award for my studies at UWC. It gave me a new sense of dignity.
Living on campus, I knew I would have something to eat every day. I would have a comfortable bed to sleep in, a room of my own for the first time, and ablution facilities.
During the 1980s, as student leadership, we gave these residences new historical names – such as Hector Pieterson, Cecil Esau, Chris Hani and Ruth First – because we were so proud of the individuals who inspired them, and we wanted their names to define the future of the institution.
UWC was the university in transition under the leadership of Professor Jakes Gerwel, who defined UWC as the “Intellectual home of the left”.
In the classroom we were eager to learn, but there was an overwhelming sense of tension because of the hostile political environment. There was also pressure to succeed academically and in our careers.
In addition to being a lecture room, L20 was where law students met to discuss, among other things, whether or not we should become defence lawyers for those involved in the Struggle. We often agreed that we did not want to be absorbed into the draconian justice system – we wanted to fight; we wanted change.
I was the chairperson of the student organisation, and at some stage, when some students were arrested, I also acted as president of the SRC. I was the manager of a soccer team named Vietnam, because I was always on the left, politically speaking. Other teams were called Cuba and Nicaragua. Soccer games were an opportunity to reach out, network and influence the discourse for the future.
This university had close relationships with unions during the apartheid era. We supported the workers from nearby Spekenam, who went on strike. We had to raise funds as we knew it would be a long, laborious strike, and they would be left without an income. We got our food in the dining hall and split it with the workers.
Sometimes the police would invade our residences, shooting at students with tear gas. We had to run and at times abandon our rooms, as you never knew when the police would abduct you at night. We were allowed to squat in one room to stay safe.
Leadership at the university was open and engaging. A joint programme, for example, explored how to fight the De Klerk bills. FW De Klerk, as Minister of Education, introduced bills that entrenched segregation in higher education and we had to come together to oppose them.
My political activism was a major distraction from my studies. Sometimes I missed classes, but I established good relationships with my lecturers, who were considerate, and I could visit them to catch up on lessons.
Denzil Potgieter, a progressive senior counsel, was one of those lecturers. He had heard from Dullah Omar that I was a student leader. Potgieter ensured that I did not lose out academically, but he never made any concessions.
Omar was a compassionate leader who went to great lengths to look after others. He was a successful advocate, well respected, and my role model. He encouraged me to study law and gave me a bursary.
I had been a student at Fort Hare in 1986 but didn’t have a bursary. I had to leave the university as I could not pay my fees. Coming to UWC and having a bursary really motivated me. First, if I didn’t do well I would lose that bursary. Second, I would know that the bursary could’ve benefited someone else. If I messed up, I would have disappointed the people who arranged that bursary, and my grandmother who raised me and taught me to be resilient.
I achieved a number of distinctions, but one year was difficult at UWC because I was significantly involved in the Struggle, on campus and externally. It was then that a young MK soldier from Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats was assassinated, and we had to bury him. I also had friends at UWC who were blown up by bombs. Coline Williams was one of the victims of a bomb blast and we named one of the residences after her.
I understand the stress that goes with battling to pay fees. Therefore, I understand the #FeesMustFall campaign.
I understand the kind of demands to make education free because I know it isn’t cheap. Having a bursary is a restoration of faith in terms of education and a catalyst for future security and success. It helps you to start a life focused on building a career instead of being bogged down with debt.
In addition, when you start working, like I did, you have to take care of your whole family, not just yourself – black tax, as it is commonly known.
There is a saying: “A child, particularly a black child, is not brought up by an individual family but is brought up by a village.” You owe the village and ensure the difference you want to make is going to benefit everyone.
Gerwel sacrificed a portion of his salary for bursaries. So did Brian O’Connell, his successor. Saleem Badat, the former rector of Rhodes University, did the same.
While many academics and lecturers make these sacrifices, many of us – particularly in corporate environments – forget about the trials and tribulations of students. Therefore, I am appealing to my colleagues out there – please make a donation. It is an investment in the future of South Africa.
To learn more about UWC’s Access to Success campaign and help a deserving student access tertiary education with a bursary, see visit https://www.uwc.ac.za/News/Pages/WATCH–Access-to-Success-2019—A-brighter-future-for-more-students.aspx.