The Lesser Known Student Rebellion of 75

ARCHITECTURAL FOLKLORE : Durban is the proud host city for the 2014 International Union of Architects Congress and General Assembly. It is a specially meaningful event for Durban architects. Forty years ago South Africa's membership of the organisation hung in the balance...

At 2:15pm, 13 May 1975, the president of the University of Natal's architecture students association (AA) walked into a Faculty staff meeting and announced that the students had shut down the School.

She added that a full student boycott was in effect as of 2pm and would remain in effect until all student demands were met. Central to the students' demands was the immediate end to the implementation of the apartheid Multi-Disciplinary Education (MDE) system for architects.

Within 24 hours the School's Administration had capitulated . Within 48 hours the University's Administration agreed to the student demands. Six weeks later the School was officially under the control of a special Action Committee made up of three student representatives, three architects representing the Architectural Profession and one staff member representing the School's Staff.

The Special Student Staff Committee (SSS), as it was known, made a number of recommendations, including the rejection of Multi-Disciplinary Education in Architecture. Every recommendation, without exception, was implemented.

In October of that same year the University Senex approved the SSS Committee's recommendations. MDE in Natal had been stopped dead on its tracks.

Multi-Disciplinary Education for Architects was an historical aberration; it was a system concocted by arrogant, complexed individuals who believed they could impose State control over a strategic profession.

The system was being embraced and developed by the Afrikaans Schools of Architecture in Bloemfontein and Pretoria. The three English Schools, known as the "Liberal Schools", rejected Apartheid overtly, with the Wits and Cape Town Schools being the most vociferous and pro-active. The Natal School was then generally considered to be the most passive and it was probably for this reason that the government chose it as the point of entry for the introduction of MDE into the liberal Schools.

The MDE system had three objectives which found no favour with intelligent individuals outside the National Party:

1. The total ban of Black Africans from the Profession and the Building Industry - including the Building Trades! (Indians and "Coloureds" could apply for special consent from the government.)

2. The effective dilution and disembowelment of the Profession by integrating it with Quantity Surveying, Engineering and Building Science and structuring its interdependencies along quasi-military lines. The idea was clearly to develop an army of building professionals with exceedingly high technical skills serving under a handful of selected government officials. (As all White males were conscripted into the military straight after school it was easy to conceive of the idea of a university education becoming an extension of military training as the students would arrive with a predisposition for strict discipline, a loss of personal identity and the ingrained ability to live and work in a collective environment laden with high political ideals.)

3. The development and evolution of termite architecture; buildings with four separate main entrances, barrages of toilets for different sexes of different races and even segregated passages and corridors: peculiarities like different permissible sill heights for different races and different quality requirements and standards applied. It was a completely unworkable system and it required the training and collaboration of architects prepared to engage in unworkable solutions.

The MDE system found no support amongst the Natal School's architecture students for numerous reasons, few of which were in any way political. There was a high number of expatriate foreign students from neighbouring countries at the time and few understood the political implications of the curriculum change. Most, certainly the vast majority, regarded MDE as a degraded and inferior system which directly compromised the quality of their education and hindered their ability to work outside Apartheid South Africa.

The average student at the time took anything between eight to fifteen years to complete the six year Bachelor of Architecture degree. There was a very high drop out and failure rate. It was accepted practice to only promote 1 in every 3 students at the end of each year so you can have first year classes with one hundred students and a thesis class with three, two of which were repeating - one for the second time. For this reason the students were unusually mature and some were already over thirty, married and with children.

A disgruntled mature student body is a dangerous student body.
There was also another very important reason why the Natal School was a bad entry point for MDE. The School had an unusual student; his name was Peter Malefane - and he was Black.

The story goes something like this; in the early seventies the President of the South African Institute of Architects is elected President of the International Union of Architects (UIA). The Union, known for its anti-apartheid stance, asks the President to meet with the South African government and convey the feeling that South African membership of the Union is at risk if the government does not relax its ban on the education of African architects.

Under severe pressure from the Profession the government agrees to allow ONE African architect to be trained with a single condition; he has to come from outside South Africa and he must return home on completion of the course.

That was the best deal Hans Hallen could get from the government, but it was enough. It opened the door and set a precedent. In time more Black students were admitted and other Schools soon followed. (When South Africans were liberated in 1994 the country had qualified, mature and experienced Black architects able to assume leadership roles - thanks to the UIA, the Durban architects and the University of Natal's School of Architecture.)

In 1973 Peter arrived at the Natal School from Lesotho to save the Profession's membership of the Union. No one thanked him; most pretended he was invisible.

Peter was an Apartheid technical impossibility. He wasn't supposed to exist, yet he did. As an African living and studying in a European environment he was illegal in every conceivable way - all of the time. Technically you could get listed or arrested for passing Peter an eraser in the studio. It took enormous courage and strength to be an apartheid technical impossibility: it took a huge amount of personal suffering and endurance.

It was Peter's inability to remain invisible to the local police that led to the formation of a connection between him and the student leaders of the AA, who were frequently called to police stations to explain that Peter had official permission to not exist. It was not always easy to get him out from behind bars.

The AA was led by two European students at the time; one from Zimbabwe and one from Mozambique; unlike their South African counterparts, they had grown up with Africans in their classrooms and sports fields. They formed a strong bond with Peter and through him connected with the group of architects that was behind his presence at Natal University. It was there, amongst the intellectuals of the Natal architectural profession, that the rebellion had its origins.

These former AA leaders will tell you today that had it not been for Peter Malefane the students would never had gathered enough motivation, courage or support to rebel against the system. He was the conduit between the student movement and the architectural profession and he was an every day reminder that Apartheid was a very ugly master.

Equally, were it not for the direction, support, resources and influence of the Durban architectural profession nothing would have happened. When student dissatisfaction merged with professional discontent a new force emerged which began to plot the take over of the School of Architecture and the demise of MDE. It took over a year of planning, informal gatherings, parties and secret meetings but by 1975 the students had formulated a plan, had the full backing of the profession's intellectuals and the resources of one of Durban's largest and most feared legal practices.

All that remained to be done was to "incite the masses" to rebel. To achieve this the AA raised substantial funding through film shows and threw large and elaborate parties for the students aimed at cross bonding the various studios and identifying leaders.

The cross bonding of studios worked particularly well and the student body rallied as one under a structured and respected representative structure.

Eventually a date was set, a student meeting was called and a one hundred percent vote in favour of a boycott obtained. (Today many will tell you that after so many parties they were either too drunk to understand what was going on or too stoned to care ... )

The plan, however, had an Achilles heel; the student body had only agreed to boycott classes for one single day, the 14th of May. The leadership wanted three days, which would give enough time for the university authorities to meet and formulate a reply. If the students came back to classes before the reply was formulated the impetus of the boycott would have been lost and there would have been no immediate reason for the authorities to comply with student demands.

It was imperative to the success of the plan to have the School administration believe that the boycott would remain in place until the student demands were met. This required the active collaboration of staff members that supported the student movement's demands. They were the "spies" who had been secretly feeding the students copies of minutes of faculty and staff meetings.

Their support was sought shortly after the boycott took effect and they were requested to sow the seeds of panic amongst the administration by waving the morning edition of the local newspaper where the student boycott was the main headline by previous arrangement.

The effect was instantaneous. After hours of deliberation and argument the School's Dean called the AA leaders and agreed to the student demands subject to their return to classes. He was told that the AA would have to meet and discuss the proposition and that he would be notified as soon as a reply was formulated.

No meeting took place. There was no need as the students were returning to classes the following day in any event. After spending the rest of the day on the beach the AA leaders called the Dean and informed him that the students agreed to return to classes but reserved the right to resume the boycott if the University administration did not comply with the demands within 48 hours.

The Dean was hugely relieved by the news.
The following day the University Administration agreed to set up a Commission of Enquiry and an Action Committee to review the system of education at the School of Architecture and to plot the way forward.

A month later the Special Student Staff Committee was running the School. Headed by Hans Hallen and Dannie Theron, with architect Maurice Dibb as Convenor, the SSS Committee began three months of work. The staff was represented by Professor Errol Harroff. The students, led by Lone Poulsen and Pedro Buccellato, were offered effective control of this committee in return for the unconditional return to classes. Hallen, Theron, Harroff and Dibb shaped a recovery plan for the School. They produced outstanding work and Lone Poulsen was left with the simple task of selling it to the student body - most of which had either lost interest or dropped out by then.

Under Hans Hallen's impeccable leadership and direction the SSS Committee reshaped the curriculum, ditched the MDE structures and reinstated a traditional Anglo-Saxon educational system with a previously denied option to focus on community based architecture and sustainable development in African rural areas and informal settlements. The School was "saved" and became the incubator for many future leaders in the field of sustainable development and community activism - such as Derek van Heerden and the late Shot Jones.

 The events at the Natal School in the 70's are a perfect example of how a Profession can deploy its "troops" when it needs to protect itself from State control and political interference. The students had been the conduit - not the spark; the heart of the revolution had been at the heart of the Profession; the Natal Chapter of the Institute of South African Architects.

Hans Hallen went on to form the Architects Against Apartheid (AAA) organization and was eventually forced to leave the country in the early eighties and relocated to Australia. Dannie Theron moved to Port Elizabeth were he successfully headed UPE's School of Architecture for two decades. Errol Harroff continued at the Natal School until the late eighties and then immigrated to Australia, where he lives today.

Many of the student leaders faced some form of hardship and victimization following the rebellion but most eventually qualified and practice architecture in South Africa and various parts of the world today. Lone Poulsen went on to study for a Masters in Town and Regional Planning and is currently a Professor of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. (Editor: Lone has subsequently retired from Wits and now practices architecture and runs the Architects Academy with  Pedro Buccellato in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.)

Peter Malefane died in 2005 after successfully practicing Architecture in Johannesburg for twenty five years. His contribution to Freedom and the Profession remains unacknowledged.

The Natal School of Architecture went on to attain great heights under Professor Errol Harroff and the memorable greats like Barrie Bierman, Alan Lipman, Dennis Claude, Brian Kearney, Wally Peters and Rodney Harber.

Reposting of article published on 13 May 2007 on Architect Africa Online. (Edited & Moderated, 2013)