Julia Martin, An Open Space


         Julia Martin

The first buildings were structures of discipline and containment, the straight lines, grey concrete and face-brick walls of an architectural modernism adapted to the service of apartheid. Within a few years of the parliamentary decision to establish separate universities, the University College of the Western Cape appeared in Bellville South, replacing a farm and a  diverse environment of coastal bush with a tidy design of lawns and garden beds that linked a Science block, an Arts block, an Education block, an Admin block with sports facilities and a library into a single concept.

The entity that this campus was designed to house and educate was what they called the Coloured (so that he could uplift his community, so that he could lead his own, this gesture from the white hands of the conquerors, for the guardian must provide for his ward). In documents from the mid 60’s that define and celebrate the institution (its special task, its magnificent project), the foundation of it all is a plan to secure in this location the unquestionable idea of race.

Young men of that time (and they were nearly all men) were required to wear ties and jackets. Young women (such as there were – by 1966 only 12.5% of the total) were dressed in cotton frocks and court shoes. Promotional photographs show students gazing into microscopes, making their own beds, and viewing the indigenous plants that had been set to grow beside the concrete paths.

That the plants the planners chose for the new landscape were indigenous was, it seems, no accident. For indigeneity too was part of the rhetoric: their own place, their own people, their own local plants. The badge devised for the Coloured college set the columns of a Greek temple, that icon of culture and learning in the West, below three king Proteas. For not only was the Protea the national flower of the Republic and a plant that grew wild in the Western Cape. It was also (or so the rector explained at the time) a flower which our Coloured people cherish, thus typifying, he said, the appreciation which they have for their own.

By the late 1960’s, the built environment of the campus was well established, the labs were stocked with instruments and apparatuses, and there were ambitious plans for more and more development.  They had thought of almost everything, it seemed.

Yet for all their zeal, what the ideological architects crucially failed to imagine was how things grow.  Seeds must travel. Roots inhabit the soil. Trees, however neatly set in lines, will take their own shape. And human feet transgress the concrete walkways, treading their own paths into the world. In all their proud assertions the authorities had somehow not anticipated that, in building an institution of education, they were creating the conditions in which people could actually become educated.

The other thing the planners did not foresee was that assembling a number of the oppressed together in one place would enable them to organize. In 1970 the disciplined students burnt their university ties.



During the 1970’s, student activism became more overtly political and (with the appointment of Richard van der Ross as Rector in 1975), management structures began to change. But the decisive break with the founding idea of the Coloured came in 1982 with the University’s formal rejection of  ‘the political-ideological grounds on which it was established.’ The heroic, mythic decade that followed was an exceptional time in which the physical space of the campus became a site that was repeatedly (and in very literal and lively terms) being claimed, contested, reclaimed, renamed and reconstructed.

There were many days when, instead of sitting receptively indoors, students would gather on the lawns, or toyi-toyi singing and carrying posters along the roads and paths, or run together (‘Hek toe! Hek toe!’ they cried at the end of a meeting) to stand at the threshold on Modderdam Rd for the passing world to witness their protest.

Often, when the grim vehicles of the state drove into the territory, there were teargas and rubber bullets, and many people running. I remember one such violation in particular. After an encounter of some kind with the police outside the B Block, they chased everyone indoors with their batons, and we all ran. I kept running with several others all the way to my office in the Arts Block (a room built under the old regime with a grey Formica floor and numbered cupboards on the walls instead of bookshelves). Arrived at the door, I fumbled with the keys, but managed at last to let the frightened tide of twenty or more students rush in before locking it again. Outside in the corridor of the English Department they thundered past for what seemed a long time, shouting and firing teargas. The stuff came in under the door and we were all gasping, crammed in there together, opening the windows, talking a bit, waiting for the invaders to leave.

In a more formal register, members of the UWC community inhabited this place with marches and assemblies. Perhaps most memorably, in October 1987 (it was Spring, and the campus was alive with myriads of yellow daisies), a great mass of professors, deans, students, cleaners, administrators, gardeners, lab technicians and members of Council took part in the First General Assembly of the University. It had been called to protest the Government’s attempt to restrict academic autonomy by imposing conditions for the granting of subsidies. Some people were dressed in academic regalia, others were in jeans, and everyone walked together in a great throng around the campus to claim this place of learning, all of us, as our own.

This particular action was accompanied by a detailed critique of the proposed measures that led to a Supreme Court decision that upheld the collective objection. For alongside all the physical marching, things were of course also happening in words and argument: letters, lectures, seminars, and conferences to debate and redefine the intellectual priorities of the institutional territory, what the new rector Jakes Gerwel had influentially named an intellectual home of the democratic Left.

Whatever else this metaphor of place came to evoke, the reconstruction of UWC’s social and intellectual identity took place amid a great deal of building. Among other ambitious projects in the late 1980’s, the University Centre was completed, the Great Hall complex was renovated and extended, and the cramped old library was replaced by a fourteen level structure in which a person might walk from one disciplinary region to another in a wide spiral around a central circular space. Together the new buildings created a bold and eclectic environment (some said too opulent for a Third World campus, while others disagreed) that combined a postmodern variety of architectural elements with lots of glass, and space in which to walk and sit.

As for plants and trees, the quiet work of landscaping and gardening continued to cultivate the campus through all the tumult of those years: planting, watering, tending, indigenous still. Beyond the fence the plants grew wild in a sandy region of shrubs, reeds, wetland and Spring annuals belonging to the University that some prescient decision-makers had saved from development in the early years: slanghout, besembos, skilpadbessie, katstertriet (their names full of stories), a little community of hares, tortoises, mice and mongoose, frogs, cobras, sometimes a grysbok, and over 82 species of birds. In 1988 the tiny remnants of West Coast Strandveld and Coastal Fynbos preserved in the Cape Flats Nature Reserve (small memory of the ecologies that used to be everywhere here), became a centre for environmental education, a location for Outreach, as it was called. 

In all this period of redefinition, if there was ever a focal point for the kind of action with which the University had become identified, it was in the midst of the original layout of the campus, an area between the A Block and the B Block where people tended to gather, and which police cameras tended to observe. They called it Freedom Square, a brave and certain name, as befitted the time.



Fifty years now after the first teachers and students were brought together here, the trees outside my office window have all grown tall, and the branches are full of chattering white-eyes. Sometimes a cinnamon dove visits the sill, or a cat leaves her prints on the desk. The policeman in the corridor have gone, the walls are lined with novels, and these days the students who come to sit on sofa, floor or carpet, their bags full of books, bring poetry and stories, sometimes even a guitar. Their parents’ struggle seems distant history.

These days they want to talk about love and Palestine and the corporate branding of their clothes. About music, imagination and the politics of food. About poverty, displacement, desire and education. About the internet, the spiritual quest and the globalization of the mind. They want to discuss the contemporary song lyrics of disaffected youth, and William Blake’s two hundred year-old vision of oppression and liberation, his story of the bearded old tyrant he named Urizen and the fiery young man called Orc who rises to overthrow him, this figure of energy who too in time becomes rigid with power and age, another total system that calls again for resistance and renewal.

For all their techno-cool, the present generation of students seem more tender than their predecessors were, less confident of victory.



Once the construction of the wide spiral library, the Great Hall with its crest and classical columns, the noisy junk-food Caf and the refurbished managerial enclave of the Admin Block was all complete, an open space remained in the midst.

Somewhere around the time that the heart of things seemed to shift from Freedom Square, this space or square (which was not a square, though built of grids and lines) was paved with bricks and began to be planted with indigenous shrubs and trees. Here a red umsintsi, her bright lucky beans scattered for anyone to collect. There evergreen Ficus, big roots bulging. And somewhere near the edge, a slow fountain rippling over a dome into a bowl of water at the centre of a star-shaped garden of flowers (Felicia, Agapanthus, Plumbago, visited by bees), in every season a different shade of blue.

Two men in suits cross the square together, talking hard. Six cleaners pass through, carrying bags of toilet rolls and bottles of pink cleaning fluid. The students saunter, stride and sit, sometimes even dance, talking in many languages. A young man in a grey top covered with peace signs walks alone, wrapped in the iPod sound, plugged in. Others talk on cell-phones, send messages, chat. Two friends sit bent over a laptop. It’s winter and almost all of them, men and women, are wearing jackets or hoodies, zips and polar fleece, perhaps a scarf. From the entrance beyond the bronze sculpture, a young man shouts out wildly, ‘I love you Jasmina!’ She turns, a vivid yellow bag over her shoulder, and waves, laughing.

I would like to imagine this inside/outside open space, the most inclusive architectural construct on campus, as a meeting for many disciplines and freedoms.

But first, I can’t help wondering who was here before these last brief fifty years of occupation, what multitudes of hoof and paw and human foot tracked paths across this piece of earth, and how they were displaced.

Then, regarding the present moment and the brave inheritance of our recent history, I want to know how the life we now lead on this campus can enable us to awaken the vigilance and courage we all still need to act against tyranny and oblivion.

And as for future generations, here is a story. One morning (having left the high window of my office open as I often do), I noticed some little handprints on the wall around the glass above the door. They must have been the hands of a small child who was trying to climb through. Months later, the marks are still there, a kind of witness that asks to be remembered.



Whatever else, high above our heads clouds wander easily through the blue. Pigeons and starlings fly. Across the square a cat with one torn ear moves quietly. Leaves flicker in the wind. During the day people are always moving through and talking, each gait particular, each voice distinct, crossing and recrossing, this mesh of all our paths.

Between the neat brick grids beneath our feet the green moss grows in tiny stars: bright as hope (I like to think), irrepressible as this human mind, ancient as green moss growing in this place.

– Julia Martin (1)


(1) I would like to thank Stan Ridge, Julian Elliot, Ivy Kinnear, and Michael Cope for some useful conversations.

Please note that ‘An Open Space’ first appeared as follows:

2011. ‘An Open Space’. Eds P. Lalu & N. Murray. Becoming UWC: Reflections, Pathways, and Unmaking Apartheid’s Legacy. Bellville: University of the Western Cape, 26-35.

See Julia Martin’s profile in our Writers’ Gallery