A place where it was possible to dream
Professor Betty Govinden recently participated in ‘The World Upside Down – aview Fromthe South’.this is an edited version of her lecture on Indians at Salisbury Island in Durban, where she studied.
LOOKING back at Salisbury Island today, from the vantage point of a new South Africa, is a mixed experience. There have been times when we were keen to erase the memory of the island. The era of separate universities, of tribal colleges or bush colleges, was a blight on our educational landscape, and we all felt it keenly. We were forced to attend these institutions, and never failed to remind everyone that we did so under continual sufferance.
We were sometimes tempted to deny this part of our lives, especially when those who went to the prestigious white universities, such as the former University of Natal, or to Fort Hare, the elite university for black science students, often treated us as lesser beings.
The words, “inferior” and “second class”, were not infrequently used in relation to places such as Salisbury Island.
Yes, there was a certain desolation about Salisbury Island, where the sky was not limitless, and seemed to hover just above you. We never learnt to forget that Salisbury Island was a discarded military barracks, and we were its “discarded people”.
Even without the bush, we still called it a “bush college”.
It was far away from the centre of the universe. Sailing to the mainland on the ferry boats was no leisurely sea cruise. And if we returned via the long way round, we had to sit in the very last row of the Fynnland whites-only bus.
When I enrolled at Salisbury Island in 1963, the Rivonia Trial was under way and, in my second year, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island.
What does it mean to remember Salisbury Island – a place that was the very creation of apartheid, and its instrument? What does it mean to remember, some 50 years later? I take my cue from Jacob Dlamini who, in Native Nostalgia (2009), poses this question: “What does it mean for a black South African to remember life under apartheid with fondness?”
Writing of his growing up and life in Katlehong, Dlamini argues that the master narrative of apartheid blinds us to a richness, a complexity of life among black South Africans, that not even colonialism and apartheid at their worst could destroy.
Yes, even the intellectual desert that Salisbury Island was deliberately designed to be was not unrelieved gloom.
I remember learning so many things I had not known before. The foundations for my later thinking were certainly laid here, even if I were to gradually shake those very foundations, and the edifices I would so studiously construct.
The apartheid government failed to see the irony of an abandoned prison and naval base being transformed into a place for higher learning.the island had a strict dress code, for one, and this reflected the regimentation of the place, which seeped deep into the psyche of the institution. It was an unwritten fact that the institution was run by “Super-afrikaners”, and that it was part of the panoptic structures of surveillance that constituted the apartheid edifice. Much of the curriculum on the Island was narrow and doctrinaire.
However, as we moved from the island to the University of Durban-westville by the 1970s, we also had a “hidden” curriculum (literally and metaphorically), where copies of banned material slowly began to be circulated below the desktops. It was also at this time that Saths Cooper, challenging our timidity, would extol the virtues of Negritude, never mentioned in formal lectures on the Island, and produce plays such as Antigone, to prod us to question the immoral state.
Yes, in a bizarre way, the “winds of change” blowing across Africa reached the nooks and crannies of Salisbury Island. This is not to deny that there were also corners of complicity on the island.
Across the city and up on a hill in the distance was the former University of Natal, aloof and alien. We rarely met our counterparts there, except for the occasional generosity of some friends who made a point of visiting us poorer cousins on the island.
Salisbury Island produced a coterie of academics and intellectuals who constituted an important link in the development of tertiary education in South Africa for blacks in general. Its alumni continue to make an impact in the new South Africa and beyond in education, science, the arts and drama, the economy and politics.
In spite of the designs of the regime, Salisbury Island spawned many political and community activists who struggled actively for change. It established natural alliances with other bush or tribal colleges, which became “homes for the intellectual left” – an appellation that the University of the Western Cape first created, and deservedly laid claim to.
It was ironic that Salisbury Island, synonymous with the apartheid regime’s general penchant for ghettoising, and social and intellectual quarantine, refused, in varying degrees, its containment. When Salisbury Island was instituted, the revolutionary thinkers of the 1960s were also there, hovering in the background.
Isn’t it remarkable that in the same year in which the island came into being (1961), Franz Fanon, in another world, had published his Wretched of the Earth, where he was calling for anti-colonial education?
Although he died at the end of the first year of the inauguration of Salisbury Island, his impact pervaded South African student politics on several university campuses, influencing Steve Biko, the great South African Black Consciousness leader, who was killed by the apartheid regime in 1977, a year after the Soweto Riots of 1976.
And it was in the 1960s that Islanders such as Dennis Pather, Strini Moodley and Saths Cooper, who developed a robust Black Consciousness thrust on the Salisbury Island campus, sacrificed their own academic careers. They were not allowed to continue their studies on the island, and Moodley and Cooper were imprisoned, like Mandela, on Robben Island, in 1974 and 1976 respectively. Pather began work as a reporter, and continues to this day as a columnist, having had a distinguished career in journalism.
Salisbury Island personified, at an unsettling time in our history more than 50 years ago, the determined efforts of the apartheid regime to induce intellectual stunting and emaciation through its tribal colleges on the one hand, and the resistance in varying degrees and forms against such engineering on the other. We now have to take a hard look at ourselves living in the post-colony.
When more than 400 students from the former University College for Indians converged on the Sibaya Complex outside Durban on Saturday, June 25, 2011, for the Salisbury Island Reunion, many were meeting for the first time since they parted company some 40 years ago.
Since the first democratic elections, South Africans have been experiencing a prolonged “Time of Memory”,eager to script the past in their own way in a time of competing truths. Salisbury Island will remain a place in the geography of our imagination where it was still possible to dream. A place that vacillated between banality and epiphany…
I am what I am today because of, and in spite of, Salisbury Island. Learning and unlearning, I continue to this day, to build and break… on the yesterdays I travelled on the island… GOVINDEN IS SENIOR RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU-NATAL IN DURBAN.