WUS Germany’s support for a democratic South Africa

“Is WUS also active against Apartheid?“ This question I asked a fellow student at the International Desk of the student council at the University of Mainz.

I had just returned from a six-month stay in Zimbabwe and in April 1986 commenced my studies at the Institute for African Studies, University of Mainz, Germany. South Africa and issues concerning Africa in general were close to my heart, since I had spent my childhood – from the age six to twelve – in South Africa. To me South Africa is home, but in a very special and also tragic way.

Growing up in South Africa

From 1966 to 1971 my father worked as missionary on the remote Shiloh mission-station of the Moravian Church of South Africa in the Eastern Cape. It was a troubled area. Whereas the mission-station had a very poorly equipped ‘outdoor’ school for black pupils with a single blackboard for 100 pupils under a tree and a very basic school-building for the so-called Coloured pupils, my sister and I, being white, were bussed to a white-only farm school. In the area the best land belonged to white farmers, a black person was excluded from owning land, from education and jobs reserved for whites only.

The boards on buildings, shops, benches, beaches, restaurants etc. with “Whites Only – Slegs Blankes” were part of our daily lives. Any statement against Apartheid was harshly punished with banning orders, torture and imprisonment. Irrespective of this harsh reality, people resisted and spent years in prison, some as far away as Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and others were imprisoned for life.

The ‘Forced Removals’ in the late 1960s, part of the South African Government’s attempt to create ethnically separated “Homelands” for its black population, brought even more hardship and suffering. On a very cold winter day hundreds of black people were dumped nearby in a fenced area with tin shacks named Sada.

In 1970, the involvement of my parents against injustice and discrimination led to a situation where our family was no longer welcome in South Africa. With us leaving in 1971, we took with us our commitment that we would raise our voice and support the struggle against apartheid. Back in Germany, my father, then pastor in Bönnigheim (Baden-Württenberg), founded in 1973 the “Aktionsgruppe Freiheit für Nelson Mandela” and in 1974 he took me (then aged 15) along to Otfresen (in Lower-Saxony), where the German Anti-Apartheid-Movement was founded.

After schooling and having finished my nurse training, I looked forward to go to Botswana and Zimbabwe, working as a volunteer in a workcamp organised by SCI (Service Civil international) in Mochudi, Botswana. For a few months I also worked at the rural Murabinda mission hospital in Zimbabwe and joined National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe as a volunteer at an archeological excavation.

Act Against Apartheid

In 1986, the year I got to know WUS Germany, I soon was assured that I had found an organisation where other people shared my aspiration to “Act Against Apartheid” and support the democratic movements in South Africa and in exile.

WUS was one of those organisations with a clear commitment against colonialism and apartheid, campaigning for human rights and education for all.

Programs, supporting refugees from South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe in Africa as well as in exile in various European countries, the USA and Canada as well as providing funds for those opposing apartheid and colonialism from within, was one of the main focus areas of WUS International and WUS Germany during the 1970s and 1980s.

Active in South Africa

The WUS office in Wiesbaden supported school projects in South Africa offering alternatives to inferior ‘Bantu Education’ such as the Open School in Johannesburg. WUS provided disadvantaged students with scholarships through their co-operation with the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED). WUS assisted academic and student organisations as well as community development projects providing community services in health, literacy and education. WUS took a lead in making sure that programs addressed the plight of women and their marginalisation not only due to Apartheid but also as second-class citizens in a male dominated world.

1976 – Student Uprising in Soweto

The Soweto Uprising marked a critical turning point in South Africa’s history. Black pupils protesting in South Africa’s largest township Soweto on June 16th 1976 against the inferior ‘Bantu Education’ System were gunned down, leaving over 700 black youth dead and many more injured. This and the banning order on opposition organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa as well as increasing pressure on opposition in then South West Africa (now Namibia) and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) led to an exodus of especially young people fleeing into neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania. In co-operation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Protestant and Catholic Church agencies and the liberation movements SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation) and ANC (African National Congress), WUS supported young refugees with scholarships, counselling and access to academic institutions in southern African countries and abroad. With the independence of Zimbabwe and Namibia, WUS supported the repatriation of refugees and the training of government staff.

In exile

For exiled students from Southern Africa studying in Germany, the WUS office in Wiesbaden became an important address offering advice and help. Often black students were not welcome with open arms by Germans. We need to remember that during those days, Nelson Mandela and ANC supporters were declared “terrorists” and “communists” and the ANC a “terrorist organisation”. Additionally, for exiled students to cope with German bureaucracy, residence permits etc. was challenging and often a nightmare. Furthermore, students were divided into those studying in East Germany (DDR) and in West Germany (BRD). WUS organised seminars offering South African exiles a platform for networking and debate. In various cases, WUS staff could assist individual students in solving daily problems at their universities concerning administrative as well as personal matters. Students knew that at any time, dialing the WUS phone number would bring them in contact with a person providing help.

Part of the success story was that WUS could rely on Namibian and South African exiles who themselves became WUS activists. These were for example Henning Melber and Peter Katjavivi. Both played a prominent role upon returning ‘home’.

Do you want something to be done … Do it!

Offering scholarships and other services to those in need nearby and abroad was not the only activity which made WUS special – its USP (Unique-Selling- Proposition), as a student in management sciences once referred to. WUS encouraged individuals to transform ideas into action as long as they were in line with the statutes of WUS. As I myself experienced it, the mechanism was simple: you have an idea, you explain the objectives and needs, the “what” and “how”, and then you make it happen. It was only a year later, in 1987, that I rang the door-bell at the WUS office in Wiesbaden to ask for support in our campaign “Academic Boycott of South Africa” at the Mainz University campus.

1987- Campaign “Academic Boycott of South Africa”

In 1987, Daniel P. Kunene, Professor of Literature in the USA and exiled South African, was guest-lecturer at the Institute of African Studies. WUS was familiar to him since 1968, when he was elected member of the WUS Executive Committee.

My study time and the visit of Professor Daniel P. Kunene and his wife Selina Kunene in Mainz coincided with the decision of the Council of the international archaeological association IUPPS not to host its international congress in 1986 in Southampton (UK), but to move it to Mainz in Germany. The decision to change the venue and host the IUPPS-Congress a year later (1987) in Mainz was taken because the University and City council of Southampton had a clear stance against apartheid supporting the academic boycott called for by the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK. This meant that scholars representing South African institutions would be excluded from participation.

Once colleagues from the University of Southampton briefed me on the background concerning the move of the IUPPS-Congress from Southampton to Mainz the news spread rapidly. Together with Professor Kunene we drew up a resolution. He presented the statement to the Institute for African Studies and the University at meetings, providing them with arguments in favour of the academic boycott. Neither the professors at the Institute for African Studies nor the president of the University were willing to sign the resolution. While all agreed on opposing Apartheid, the general view was that boycotting South African academics was not appropriate. What the University agreed upon was that no government official was welcome at the Mainz Campus.

Pro Academic Freedom – Contra Apartheid

With the broad support – including the WUS network – and the media coverage for our anti-apartheid campaign, hosting a congress which was moved from the UK to Germany in order to allow South African participation, became a public issue. We did not stop the IUPPS-Congress from happening. For the registration and opening of the Congress at the Kurfürstliche Schloss on 31.8.87 all had to pass a group of protestors and received an information leaflet on the scandal – as we saw it.

The leaflet with news from the “Co-ordinating Committee for a Boycott of South Africa” was distributed to congress participants in five languages. It included our program with a list of events and panel sessions addressing the ‘South Africa issue’. We received support from a group of academics and the mayor of Southampton among them Professor Dr. Peter Ucko, Professor Dr. Thurstan Shaw, Dr. Peter Stone and Dr. Jane Hubert. For various public events we invited persons such as the Nambian-German Dr. Henning Melber and Professor Dr. Manfred Hinz from the University of Bremen, Conrad Steenkamp, a South African archaeologist and war-resister in exile, representatives from the liberation movements ANC and SWAPO, the German Teachers and Scientists Union (GEW), the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Protestant Church.

On 1st September 1987, Professor Gerhard Grohs, from the Institute for African Studies – my professor in sociology – was prepared to join the panel-discussion with Professors Peter Ucko and Thurstan Shaw, University Chancellor Professor Dr. Beyermann, the mayor of Mainz Mr. Weyel, a representative of the ANC and Dr. Weidemann, the host of the IUPPS-Congress. Late that evening we found out that the event was attended by an official of the South African Embassy, Dr. van Biljon. We immediately contacted our University Chancellor Professor Dr. Beyermann and reminded him of the decision to refuse attendance of South African government officials. On 3rd September a telegram left the IUPPS -Congress office demanding that the South African Embassy in Bonn make sure that no government official enters the Mainz University campus again.

My flat in downtown Mainz became the head-office for our campaign with about ten people staying overnight. After working in day and night shifts, with the end of the IUPPS-Congress, our campaign also ended. We developed a strong group bonding and friendships.

Moving on

In 1989, I reconnected with WUS staff in Harare during my year as occasional student at the University of Zimbabwe and in 1992 I visited the WUS office in Cape Town. At the office of WUS South Africa I met its director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka who became South Africa’s first female Deputy-President in the Mbeki Government.

In 1990 I joined WUS Germany as student member. Over the years I participated in various projects as volunteer or with a contract, for example:

  • Involved in seminars and projects supporting activities of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and liberation movements
  • In 2005 at the opening of the SAP-Arena in Mannheim where WUS raised funds for solar energy water-pumps in Eritrea
  • 2005 worked as project manager organising the conference on the UN-Decade “Education for Sustainable Development” for the provincial government of Thuringia
  • Various moderations of panels and workshop for example in co-operation with the Anna-Lindh Foundation and the two “weltwärts” conferences in Bonn in 2009
  • Represented WUS Germany at various conferences and events and became a board member in 2012
  • 2009/10 volunteered in making the WUS-Festschrift 60 years WUS Germany happen.
  • 2018 joined the organising team preparing the 100 year of WUS with a conference in Vienna, and joining the editorial board for the WUS 100 years publication and celebrations in 2021.
Author profile
Bettina Schmidt

Dr. Bettina Schmidt is a cultural anthropologist, project manager and lecturer for international programmes on development issues, human resource development and diversity management. She trained as a nurse, studied cultural anthropology and African Studies at the University of Mainz and Zimbabwe, holds a PhD from the University of Nijmegen, Netherlands, and holds a diploma in business management (Johannesburg). Her book, Creating order: culture as politics in 19th and 20th century South Africa was published 1996 by the University of Nijmegen. From 1991 to 1997 she was visiting research fellow at the University of Zimbabwe and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, was lecturer and researcher at the University of Mainz as well as consultant and project coordinator in adult education. Since 2012 she is a board-member of WUS Germany and volunteers in various of its activities. She is retired and works as external expert for the Africa section of the ethnological Lindenmuseum in Stuttgart focussing on colonialism and 357 List of Authors – A to Z – 100 years World University Service International restitution, and volunteers with WUS Germany. She published widely on the colonial and post-colonial period in Southern Africa.