White Man's Justice: South African Political Trials in the Black Consciousness Era

By Michael Lobban | Go to book overview

4
White Students on Trial

It was not just the ideas of black radicals that the state wanted to police and prosecute in the 1970s. White radicals could also pose a threat to the ideological status quo. It was in this context, and at the same time that the black student leaders of SASO were being tried, that the white student leaders of NUSAS were put on trial for their ideas and acts.1 If there were similarities in the two trials, there were also significant differences. NUSAS presented an altogether different problem from SASO. Where black consciousness was a cohesive oppositional ideology followed both by black organizations and their members, there was no 'white' counter-ideology which constituted a threat to the state. Most Englishspeaking university students may have been liberal, but they were not radical, and their humanitarian ideas could hardly be branded as intrinsically revolutionary. The threat lay less in the ideas that the students had than in the danger that some of them might be induced, as a result of the ideas, to seek common cause with the state's enemies, in particular the SACP and ANC. When it came to prosecuting the leaders of NUSAS, then, the state needed to be more precise than in attacking SASO and BPC, focusing on the existence of a clique which sought to hijack student politics for the left. As will be seen in this chapter, when the state was forced to articulate the threat against it more precisely--in terms of actual threats rather than vague fears--it encountered far more problems in securing a conviction.

The decision to prosecute the NUSAS leaders was not merely a cynical ploy to discredit the white left by association. The authorities in the 1970s were in fact increasingly alarmed by the number of young white intellectuals who were veering towards the ANC. The years 1975 and 1976 saw a growing number of whites involved in ANC activities coming before the courts. The most famous, Breyten Breytenbach, was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment in 1975 after pleading guilty to Terrorism Act charges after he had come on a secret mission to South Africa to recruit for

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1
The defendants (with their 1973-4 positions in NUSAS) were Glenn Moss, Wits. SRC President; Charles Nupen, NUSAS President; Eddie Webster, a sociology lecturer at Natal University in Durban and a member of NUSAS' advisory panel; Cedric de Beer, Secretary of the Wits. SRC; and Karel Tip, Secretary General of NUSAS. S. v. Moss and Others, Case 41/ 5474/758 in Johannesburg magistrates' court. A copy of the record is in the Wits. Archive, AD 1718 Mfm.

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