A moment of madness

In 1989, Philip Ivey was the treasurer of the Western Cape branch of the banned End Conscription Campaign. Following his initial period of two years military service, he had chosen to become a conscientious objector and refused to do a series of short-term military camps. He was sentenced to three years community service. He tells Sue Valentine about the events that led up to the march on September 2, 1989.

Philip Ivey: The End Conscription Campaign had been a banned organisation for almost a year already. Organisations such as the UDF [United Democratic Front] had been banned at probably the same time as the End Conscription Campaign...

At the last AGM of the End Conscription Campaign, which must have happened in October the year before, we had agreed that we would operate just a treasurer, a chairperson and a secretary, and we would continue to file our books and report as a banned organisation...

There was the build up to another election that was coming up and the organisations said we were going to resist our banning orders. And obviously, there were a lot of meetings between various parties and the ANC in exile - those were getting quite a lot of press. Also the meetings between National Party leaders and ANC prisoners had started to take place, and there was a sense that apartheid was in its last days. There had been the liberation of Namibia and there was also a lot of End Conscription work, a lot of conscientious objectors were starting to consider breaking the terms of their punishment and things like that, so there were lots of activities that culminated in this.

The planning of the event was that various organisations would meet at different starting points. The University of Cape Town, Nusas was one of the organisations, the university branch of the End Conscription Campaign - the university [crowd] was starting from District Six. I can't remember the other starting points, I wasn't directly involved in that, but our starting point was the Methodist church hall.

Why are they taking over our city? This is our city

We came into the city, down Strand Street at about eight, nine o'clock in the morning. I think there was a sense we needed to get there before we were closed out of the city. Driving past the Grand Parade, it was like a parade ground for military vehicles, I suppose that is what it was set out for originally, but obviously this time it was police vehicles, lined up.

Casspirs, patrol vans, even the flying squad was there, all in that bright yellow livery of theirs. It's quite an oppressive colour because it is so bright, and it was just a real kind of, "Why are they taking over our city? This is our city."

I can remember that being the overriding sense... The other imagery I have of it, the type of imagery people must have felt in the Second World War with the Nazis occupying towns, the SS vehicles coming in to parade grounds and areas outside of town halls and that sense of oppression. Even though effectively I wasn't an oppressed individual under the law - I was oppressed, because I was doing community service, which was a form of oppression for anyone who was objecting to doing military service.

Sue Valentine: Had you needed to apply for permission - or did they just get wind of the plans to have this march? Why were they there in such force in the city?

PI: I think there would have been attempts to apply for permission. I wasn't involved in that level of planning. I came in quite late in the process because I'd been out of the country for a while and I came back quite late into the planning of it, so I wasn't involved. Having thought about it, I would imagine that somebody might have applied for permission and it was refused and we said, "Well, we're going ahead anyway." The police were fairly adamant that we were not going to proceed beyond. We'd literally filed out of the door [of the Methodist church hall] and started getting into rows and we were stopped, and all the other marches were stopped as effectively. So I think the police knew of the plans, whether they knew of them through legal or through spying means, I don't know.

Sue Valentine: Given that it was Nusas, ECC and the UDF, there was a large white presence in all of this, perhaps more so than in the past. What about the state's response to the fact that so many white South Africans were prepared to get out there?

PI: I think the movement in terms of white protest to conscription had grown quite dramatically. You'll remember, the seven, the 48, the 148, people who were saying "no" to military service - that had happened probably quite a bit in advance of the march. I think the reason the march was quite "white" was that the police were stopping anybody coming from Mitchell's Plain, Gugulethu, Langa, Nyanga; from being allowed out of the townships. And it's quite easy to cut those townships off - there are not huge numbers of exits. The marchers obviously were intended to be multi-racial, but as a result of apartheid and apartheid policing it meant that the people in the city were majority white. You'll probably find that many of those people hadn't been on marches before... I think it wasn't like a university march, but even University of Cape Town marches were quite often fairly white, but UWC marches, which I'd been on, and UWC gatherings were obviously very much more racially mixed.

I don't think it was the design of the march to be a white march; it was obviously the design of the police to keep big numbers of protesters from the city. So there weren't big contingents from the Methodist church hall who were from the UDF, it was mostly ECC people, and people from that contingent.

SV: The water-cannon was only used in that Burg Street area?

PI: I think the police at Burg Street were going to use the water cannon and they came around the corner with the water cannon... and I imagine it was the first time it had been used that day. I think a lot of people were arrested at other marches who might not have been sprayed purple, but all the people from Burg Street would have been sprayed purple. And I don't think it was used subsequent to my attempts to disable it.

I think that's probably why the event was a celebration of freedom. I don't know if the "purple shall govern" would have come about if we had all gone home damp and purple, or been arrested damp and purple without some element of victory or some element of defiance which happened like it did.

It probably could have been termed a moment of madness - it resulted in something which made people feel that this all-powerful, bright yellow machinery was not going to be used to continue to repress us.

I think people in the townships have endured far, far worse things. They'd be shot at with live bullets and caned and rubber bullets... I think the police obviously didn't want that to happen in the middle of Cape Town and from that point of view, we were quite fortunate.
If I had been black and had been in Nyanga, I probably wouldn't be here

If I had been black and had been in Nyanga, I probably wouldn't be here... And the "purple shall govern" wouldn't have happened, because there wouldn't have been any cause to celebrate another death of an individual. But circumstances meant that it came about differently.

I think the graffiti is more inspired than the actions, but I definitely don't think the graffiti would have come out if there had been a whole lot of arrested people. Because, there wasn't... the sense from before, to the sense after... there was, if you look at the photographs... there was this real sense of dampness and despair; here we are getting hammered again by the police, to this sudden liberation, and, ja, very exciting to be part of that.

I'm very grateful I wasn't arrested and there must have been a guardian angel or similar protecting me, because if I'd been arrested I think I would have been dealt with fairly severely. From what I understand, the people who had been arrested and who knew who I was - they started creating all sorts of rumours as to who the person was who had done the event - within the cells.

SV:They fictionalised it deliberately?

PI: I don't know if they fictionalised it deliberately, but they were cognisant to keep quiet about it. I would love it to have gone to a court case because the state had a list of about 27 witnesses and I would love to have seen who was prepared to testify against me, and whether they were going to bring witnesses who we might have regarded as colleagues, friends, comrades, or whether they just had enough police evidence and that was what was going to be used as evidence against me, but I don't know. Ja, we didn't ever get to find out what that was...

... This event had been so under-photographed, because all the journalists and photographic journalists had been locked away [in Newspaper House].

I actually went to Newspaper House to see what photographs they had of the event... Just for my own purposes I put together a photo collage and I was very fortunate that some of the cartoonists of the day did some cartoons and things like that, which I've got. And subsequent to the event there's been quite a lot of personal support from people who've helped.

I think it was an event that changed things a lot for me, but it wasn't as if I had gone out there to do it. It was just my nature to want to protect in that situation.

back to the The Purple Shall Govern memorial page

"Why are they taking over our city? This is our city."
The Purple Shall Govern
The Purple March
Picture: © Obed Zilwa, Trace Images


In this lesson plan, learners will be able to compare personal accounts with a more detached report of the same incident.

Lesson plan (1.96MB)
You′ll need the Adobe Acrobat PDF reader to view these lesson plans. Download it here.
The Purple March - September 2, 1989
Very few photographs of the Purple March survived the police crackdown on the media at the demonstration.
The Purple Shall Govern - A highlight in a low time
A selection of images of the Heritage Project’s memorial to the Purple Shall Govern march.
Audio of The Purple March by people who were there.
Listen to accounts of the Purple March by people who were there, including Philip Ivey, the young protester who turned the jet of purple dye on the police.
360° virtual tour of the memorial at the corner of Burg and Church Streets, Cape Town.
The day The Purple governed Cape Town
In September 1989, during a protest march in Cape Town, police turned a water-cannon filled with purple dye on the demonstrators in an attempt to make it easier to arrest them. But one brave man, Philip Ivey, hijacked one of the cannons and turned the lur