Personal and other accounts of the march

Dene Smuts and Shauna Westcott's book, 'The Purple Shall Govern: A South African A-Z of Non-Violent Action', deals with the Purple Shall Govern march in substantial detail. Here, the authors give a sense of what the defiance campaigns achieved, as well as offering a personal account of the march.

Description of defiance

"The most famous example in SA history of this mass method of civil disobedience is the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign of 1952. It may, however, yield pride of place to the defiance campaign of 1989. A remarkable aspect of the 1989 campaign was that many of the organisations and people taking part 'unbanned' themselves in order to do so. And not only did the 19889 campaign, unlike that of 952, take place against the background of the state of emergency - it effectively ended it."

- Personal account, Alison Ozinsky, Upfront, November 1989


Purple reign

"You might be forgiven for thinking that the Cape Town's police force has a wry sense of humour. Friday's Weekly Mail classifieds carried the advert: 'You know who you are. You are beautiful and delicious. Meet me in Greenmarket Square at 11am on Saturday.' Saturday morning you can hardly move amongst the flea market stalls for the men and women in blue.

"Every corner holds a crowd of policemen struggling for pavement space. Suspicious security branch types sporting anoraks slouch against the windows of the coffee shops and mutter into walkie-talkies.

"MDM marshals face the unenviable task of identifying potential marchers milling on Greenmarket Square and ushering them into a nearby church hall from where the march will begin.

"Inside I can hardly believe that a church hall can be so full and small and tense. People are sitting three to a chair and overflowing onto the floor. We are asked to be patient as our 'head marshall' waits for a message from St George's cathedral where another march waits to begin. Marches are due to leave from different venues aiming to divide the energies of the people.

"The theme of the march is 'The people shall govern'. We intend to march to Parliament in arm-linked rows of eight, behind our chosen dignitaries and representatives. If the police order us to disperse we will sit down or kneel in the road. Kneel on the road? Nothing on earth will persuade me to kneel on the road in front of a serious mean-looking police force. My stomach contracts with fear and doubt. I look around and see my own expression on other faces and I am temporarily reassured

"Walking out of the church into Burg Street is like the moment before jumping from a high place. All of us know exactly what is outside. I hope that all the others are braver than me. There's still time to pull out. The rows are forming and my elbow forms a link. Figuratively we close our eyes and take deep breaths and launch ourselves forward. The crowd of Saturday morning spectators is huge. The pavements are spilling over with curious shoppers. At the end of the road the police are six deep and waiting. I see no quirts or batons. I wonder what they have in store for us. Will we just be led right through the phalanx of policemen? Predictably, our march grinds to a halt as we are given 10 minutes to disperse.

"The whole march sits down in the road and the tension mounts as our leaders negotiate with the police to continue to Parliament. The crowd of supporters is clapping slowly and cheering.

"Now we see what the 10 minutes was all about. The yellow pride of Caledon Square careens down the road flashing its lights. A soft noise of hydraulics and the infamous nozzle of the water cannon is aimed at the crowd. The marchers brace themselves. Somewhere a crucial button is pushed and a sharp burst of water bursts forth, changing in mid-stream to lurid purple.

"Some are hit head on, full in the face. Some are knocked off their knees. Scramble and panic and somebody is shouting, 'Sit down, sit down.' Some are pinned against the wall and are painted like paper dolls as the jet sweeps past. A small remaining huddle in the road are covering their heads under the purple spray. The supply of purple dye seems endless and the machine sprays on and on. The gutters run with oily foam. The crowd is stunned into strange silence. All we can do is watch this weird purple blast sweep backwards and forwards... Then it stops. A lone protester has climbed on top of the truck and is diverting the nozzle away from the people. He is struggling with it, fighting with it and the purple jet streaks wildly across the buildings. The crowd stares for a moment in disbelief - then goes wild, cheering, shouting, and leaping in the air with delight for this brave young man.

"It is an indescribable moment. Even the police can simply stare seeming to have momentarily lost their grip on the situation.

"Not for long. They retaliate as teargas billows into the square. Marchers and policemen alike are stumbling and choking and fighting for breath. Spectators have become participants, willingly or not.

"... Some collapse in the road. Eyes streaming, nose and mouth and lungs burning, we run up streets, into building, it's like a war.

"It is a war, and it feels like the city is on our side. A friend of mine runs into a hairdressing salon and is washed clean of his purple stains. Another is rescued by taxi and is whisked off down the back streets. A department store is used as a hideout and a comrade emerges with a clean pair of trousers.

"We hear that all purple people are being rounded up and arrested. Jackets and jerseys are being turned inside out and incriminating stains are quickly concealed.

"All the roads are being cordoned off and we walk up the middle of Adderley Street in a daze. The silence is heavy and ominous. Five hundred people have been arrested and taken to Caledon Square, we hear. Three special courts have been convened to process them...

"There are still tedious hours of waiting outside the court... it's like the aftermath of an earthquake or a wedding. Now there's only cleaning up and counting bruises and suddenly discovering that you're hungry.

"If it was a war, then peaceful protest was the victor. Not a stone was thrown. The feeling of unity and friendship in the city was real and very tangible.

"By Monday morning an efficient graffiti artist had said it for all of us: 'The purple shall govern'. I can believe it.

"Cape Town's watershed march has notched an unprecedented victory for the Mass Democratic Movement and put peaceful protest firmly back on South Africa's political agenda.

"Within hours of Wednesday's triumphant procession plans were being laid in Grahamstown and Johannesburg for similar actions, part of a groundswell of political confidence.

"As Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Allan Boesak addressed the jubilant crowd from the city hall balcony festooned with the ANC colours and the UDF flag, an old man commented: 'The National Party will never be able to stop the march to freedom now.'

"After three years under a state of emergency, more than 35 000 people had come to register their protest.

"A significant political concession had been extracted from the state: the march had been sanctioned by acting State President FW de Klerk."

"Addressing the exuberant crowd, Dr Boesak said: 'By saying we can march in defiance of his own law we've got de Klerk to defy also.'

"The march made nonsense of the state of emergency," he added.

"Cape Town's newly installed mayor, Gordon Oliver, whose participation made civic history, was greeted with resounding applause and cries of 'long live the mayor' when he rose and said: "Today Cape Town has won, today we all have the freedom of city."

"As people started to sing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika before dispersing, a lawyer said: 'We have broken the back of the emergency. How will they ever be able to justify the police ever again breaking up a peaceful protest?'"

- Smuts, D. and Westcott, S. (eds.), The Purple Shall Govern: A South African A-Z of Non-Violent Action, Oxford University Press and the Center for Intergroup Studies, Cape Town, 1991, pp. 45-50

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.

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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