Home > Uncategorized > My Father Prof. Maurice Pope’s Farewell to Apartheid South Africa

My Father Prof. Maurice Pope’s Farewell to Apartheid South Africa

Fifty-two years ago, my family left South Africa by ship from Cape Town harbour. My British father and mother, Maurice & Johanna Pope, had lived and worked there for 20 and 15 years respectively, and had no doubt that they were doing the right thing in taking their leave. They felt they couldn’t stay after my father resigned his much-loved post at as a Professor of Classics at the University of Cape Town. He was protesting the fact that his university had, under pressure from the then apartheid government, withdrawn the offer of a senior lectureship in African studies it had made to to a Black South African, Dr. Archie Mafeje.

I was nine years old and understood little of what was happening. Still, I was pretty sure that I was being uprooted from what for me was a paradise. I remember just two things clearly from that day. Firstly, being deeply upset as the ship readied to leave and going to my cabin, and – a warming memory on this Father’s Day – that my father came down to sit beside me and did his best to console me. Second is an indelible image of slow departure as the tugs pushed our ocean liner away from the dock. All of us passengers had thrown streamers to their friends on the quay, each side holding an end of the thin strips of light paper until, one by one, the web of physical inter-connections tore apart.

Over the preceding weeks my brother Thomas and I had sat on the arch above the gate to our house, watching the traffic of people and reporters who came discuss the drama with our parents. If we thought we wouldn’t be seen in the shade of the oak trees around us, we’d vent our resentment by lobbing one of our collection of acorns at them. A few weeks ago my mother, tidying up my father’s library after my father’s death in August 2019, has found the clippings of one of those farewell interviews. I’d read in his memoir about his considered reasons for their decision. But here, more clearly than ever, I can hear my father’s voice explain why he felt that he, and we, had to go. It made me really appreciate how journalism can preserve an authentic snapshot of time.


From The Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 9 March 1969

Last year the Council of the University of Cape Town agreed to the appointment of an African, Mr. Archie Mafeje, as senior lecturer in social anthropology, but changed its mind when the Minister of National Education, Senator De Klerk, said the Government would not countenance the appointment. As a result of this decision by the university’s governing body, Professor Maurice Pope, Professor of Classics, resigned.

Professor Pope, who was born in England and attended Cambridge University (Magdalene College), came to South Africa in 1948, and joined the staff of U.C.T. as a lecturer, becoming Professor of Classics in 1957. He has served also as Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He is a specialist in Aegean writing systems and in Greek medicine. His last contribution before leaving U.C.T. was to give a series of lectures on Greek tragedy at the summer school.

Professor Pope, who will live in England for the time being (although he does not have a new post to go to yet) left South Africa on Friday with his wife Janna [Johanna], and his three young sons. Before leaving he discussed his resignation with STANLEY UYS in this interview.

Uys: Professor Pope, you resigned six months ago. What do you feel like now that you are actually departing?

Prof. Pope: Very sad at leaving behind so many friends.

Do you regret having resigned?


Did you resign just because one man was prevented from taking up an appointment?

Yes, it meant that Cape Town had ceased to be an international university.

In what way?

The council said that in future it will appoint only White persons to academic posts.

Surely the council was forced into this position by the Government?

Perhaps by the Government, but not by any law.

Nevertheless, it took the decision reluctantly. The university has, after all, always stood for non-discrimination. Aren’t you therefore deserting the ship?

But the ship scuttled itself.

But no one else has resigned, not even your principal, Sir Richard Luyt, who is well known for his views on autonomy.

Sir Richard has taken on the job of running a university: my choice is whether I want to belong to it.

But is there any alternative institution to go to in the South African academic world?

No, that is why I am leaving the country.

Do you the think everybody should follow you?

Obviously not, especially if they are South Africans and want to go on living in South Africa.

Should one’s decision on what is right and wrong depend in what country one is born in?

It might do if you are a nationalist, but I am not. As I said at the beginning, it is because the university has lost its international character that I am leaving.

Obviously, you do not agree with the present Government that a university is a place where a “national character” should be moulded?

Not if means propagating a 17th or 19th century set of values. But, of course, not all universities can be photo-copies of each other. Every country is different in its history, economy, geography, etc., and its universities must reflect this.

So you concede that universities ought to have a national flavour?

Yes, I do, otherwise all we would need would be one vast television station from which experts would lay down the truth for the whole world.

But if it was the truth what would be wrong with that?

In the first place, the truth about the Arctic tundra might be irrelevant to Cape Town students and bore them stiff; in the second place, the truth is never known – universities exist to search for it.

What’s all this got to do with Mr. Mafeje?

A lot. The social sciences are accepted as a very important subject these days, and one is going to get a very distorted view of them if one always looks at them through white-tinted spectacles. What should give South African universities their “national flavour” is the country’s multi-racialness.

You believe a university in South Africa cannot be a true university if it is uniracial. is this how you see the future of South Africa – in multi-racialness?

Yes, in its diversity. South Africa’s national motto should not be “Ex Unitate Vires,” but “Ex Diversitate Vires”.

This is all very well in principle, but what real alternative was there for the university – after all, the Government pays more than half its running expenses, and it also has the power to legislate to see that it gets what it wants?

In that case it cannot want a university. At least it will not get one. A university does not exist to propagate existing standards and knowledge, but to explore new paths.

The Government could argue that White people are perfectly able to do this unassisted?

In the first place, you would not necessarily get the best experts in a subject if you insisted on them all being White; and also you introduce distortion, especially in the social and humanistic subjects but the most important of all at the present time you are likely to deter the best scholars and scientists. Their skills are international and they naturally prefer to work where they can find a free environment.

What you are saying suggests the idea of an academic boycott of South Africa. Do you think this is desirable?

I didn’t mean to suggest that. Boycotts are dictatorial and self-righteous things, and in any case they tend to have the opposite effect to the one desired.

If I may bring the discussion back to Mr. Mafaje: was it this incident, and this incident alone, that made you resign?

It was. I resigned immediately I heard of the council’s decision. But of course I cannot say how I might have reacted had the background been different.


Well, there has been a record of government interference with university staff – Professor Simons, Alan Bishop and Dr. Hoffenberg at Cape Town alone. The message is clear enough: if the Government dislikes a member of the university staff sufficiently, it will get rid of him.

You mean all university staff members are present with the tacit consent of the Government?

Yes, and that is not all. We have for some time not been allowed to admit freely non-White students and our student leaders are under constant threat. All this adds up to an atmosphere which is far from congenial for academic people, to say nothing of the censorship of books, which affects not only the university but the country as a whole.

In that case aren’t you letting down your students by depriving them of the opportunity of being taught by you?

I should be very arrogant if I believed that. In any case, it is the Government’s actions that have made it uncomfortable for people who think like I do to teach in a South African university.

You are not being very optimistic about the future of South African universities?

Institutions don’t change overnight, but as far as Cape Town University is concerned, the Mafeje case is a symbol of a major defeat.

Is there any way in which, in your opinion, the university can fight back?

Well, it obviously cannot fight the Government, but it cannot be forced to cooperate.

You mean it could close down altogether?

Yes, as some German universities did during the Hitler regime. This would of course be the most honourable course.

But suicides are useless. Is there no way in which the University of Cape Town could in honesty continue to serve the community it is intended to serve?

Well, if it believes, as it claims to do, that a university must be autonomous, and if it has lost its autonomy (as I believe it has), then the only honest thing it could do is to stop calling itself a university. It could renounce its title of the University of Cape Town until such time as it had regained its freedom, and go back to using its former name of the South Africa College.


For Archie Mafeje, the denial of his UCT appointment was one of the great disappointments of his life. He went instead to Cambridge University in the UK, earned PhD in Anthropology and went onto a noted international career including professorships in the Netherlands, Egypt, Tanzania and Namibia, only moving back to South Africa in 2000. He died in 2007.

My father went on to teach and write in Oxford and to write several books, summed up in a memoir available electronically or in paperback from hughpopebooks@gmail.com. His other published work after leaving Cape Town ranged from academic publications about his speciality in the ancient Cretan Linear A script, an acclaimed history of decipherment, a book on everyday life in ancient Greece and a pithy essay of political philosophy which is still being prepared for publication. In this posthumous work he reflects on the lessons ancient Greece, Venice and Florence have to teach about how to improve democracy through introducing the random selection of decision-makers.

As for me, I loved the 10-day sea journey to Venice aboard the Lloyd Triestino ship Asia, and the subsequent drive through Europe, including the novelty of mountains covered in snow. But if I thought I was really English, boarding school with other pale-faced boys who had rarely left their country taught me that this was not the case. I made some good English friends, but I sought out schoolmates from an international background. I chose to study exotic-sounding Persian and Arabic at university. Within a month of getting my degree, I booked a one-way flight to Damascus, and never went back to England.

After more than three decades in Turkey and the Middle East, and now living in the international melting pot of Brussels, I am almost at peace with the idea that I will never feel fully at home anywhere. Even a four-month journalistic assignment to post-apartheid South Africa failed to convince me that I belonged back there. I am not made of the clear-cut moral fibre of my father. But reading his in-the-moment description of the trade-offs between university ideals and state power, I feel a new sense of clarity about the tough choices everybody makes who has experienced life under authoritarian rule.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. parks73@yahoo.com
    June 27, 2021 at 1:27 am

        Thanks you Hugh for sharing your father’s fascinating life journeys.  And I can comprehend why you never feel completely at home anywhere, but see you’ve experienced life within many world views.     Life is a search for home, perhaps.🏔🛖🏠🕍🕌⛪️🏕🏜🏝🕍🛕🏛🏡      Cheers, Virginia in Madison

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    • Hugh Pope
      June 28, 2021 at 3:29 pm

      Dear Virginia, thank you for your message and glad you enjoyed the story. God luck with your own search too! Best wishes, Hugh

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