Public Art: The Purple Shall Govern

At the corner of Burg and Church in central Cape Town sits a rather unassuming piece of public art. Rows of faces, all painted in the same shade of purple.  But understand the history behind the purple faces, and the piece becomes incredibly important.

The Purple Shall Govern

On the 2nd of September 1989, four days before South Africa’s racially segregated parliament were to hold elections, an anti-apartheid march was staged in Cape Town. Members of the Mass Democratic Movement gathered in the city with the aim of marching to parliament. This was in the dying days of Apartheid, and the police had become increasingly desperate (and violent). As demonstrations like these were illegal, the protesters were doused with purple dye so that they could easily be identified and arrested. Initially, many protesters knelt in the streets in front of the police casspirs, but were forced to flee when they police fired teargas.

However, the police’s tactics backfired when a protester made it onto the roof of the water cannon vehicle and directed the nozzle at the National Party headquarter building.  Hundreds of people were arrested following the “purple rain protest”, including Dr Allan Boesak and Rev Pierre van den Heever. Shortly after the protest, anti-apartheid graffiti started appearing across the city. The most famous of these read “the purple shall govern” (a play on words of the Freedom Charter’s declaration that “the people shall govern”). Times magazine said: In addition to galvanizing resistance at home, the image of protesters standing in front of a purple torrent became a defining symbol of civil disobedience worldwide.

The piece on the corner of Burg and Church pays tribute to the many men and women that risked so much in the fight against apartheid on this important day in history.

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