Purple Rain protest

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Purple Rain protest
Cover of "Die Suid-Afrikaan", showing purple rain shower
Date2 September 1989 (1989-09-02)
33°55′20″S 18°25′14″E / 33.92222°S 18.42056°E / -33.92222; 18.42056Coordinates: 33°55′20″S 18°25′14″E / 33.92222°S 18.42056°E / -33.92222; 18.42056
Methodsanti-apartheid protest
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
  • Allan Boesak
  • Charles Villa-Vicencio
  • Essa Moosa
  • Pierre van den Heever

The Purple March was an anti-apartheid protest held in Cape Town on 2 September 1989, four days before South Africa's racially segregated parliament held its elections. A police water cannon with purple dye was turned on thousands of Mass Democratic Movement supporters who poured into the city in an attempt to march on South Africa's Parliament. White office blocks adjacent to Greenmarket Square were sprayed purple four stories high as a protester leapt onto the roof of the water cannon vehicle, seized the nozzle and attempted to turn the jet away from the crowds.[1]

One of the dyed buildings was the Cape Headquarters of the National Party. The historic Town House, a national monument (now known as a provincial heritage site), was sprayed purple and the force of the jet smashed windows in the Central Methodist Church.[2][3]

Tear gas was fired and the crowd that had knelt defiantly in the purple jet fled. Adderley Street was closed to traffic as scores of shops and businesses closed their doors. More than 500 people were arrested, including Dr Allan Boesak, UCT academic Dr Charles Villa-Vicencio, Western Cape Council of Churches official Rev. Pierre van den Heever, lawyer Essa Moosa, and 52 journalists.[4]


The police were using a new water cannon with purple dye whose purpose was to stain protesters for later identification and arrest.[5] Protesters were warned to disperse, but instead knelt in the street. When the cannon was turned on them, some protesters remained kneeling while others fled; some had their feet knocked out from under them by the force of the jet. In Adderley Street, shoppers ran for cover, their eyes streaming, and a young couple with a baby in a pram were hurriedly ushered into a shop which then locked its doors.

A lone protester, Philip Ivey,[6] redirected the water cannon toward the local headquarters of the ruling National Party.[7] The headquarters, along with the historic, white-painted Old Town House, overlooking Greenmarket Square, were doused with purple dye.[8]

A group of about 50 protesters streaming with purple dye, ran from Burg Street, down to the parade. They were followed by another group of clergymen and others who were stopped in Plein Street. Some were then arrested. On the Parade, a large contingent of policemen arrested everyone they could find who had purple dye on them. When they were booed by the crowd, police dispersed them. About 250 protesters marching under a banner stating "The People Shall Govern" dispersed at the intersection of Darling Street and Sir Lowry Road after being stopped by police.[1]


After the riot, somebody sprayed graffiti that would make it into the history books. The Cape Times told it this way:[This quote needs a citation]

Graffiti artists at the weekend sprayed several Cape Town suburban railway stations with slogans reading: Release our leaders, Free our leaders, unban the ANC and Forward to purple people's power, -- a reference to the police use of purple dye in the water cannon directed against demonstrators....

Another piece of anti-apartheid graffiti, "The purple shall govern", appeared on the old Townhouse in Greenmarket Square. The statement is play on words of the Freedom Charter's declaration that "The people shall govern".

The slogan was used as the title of a book, "The Purple shall govern: a South African A to Z of nonviolent action".[9]


"What about the purple people?" a reader asked the Cape Times' Teleletters. "Not only has the government messed up with the tricameral system, now their police have created another problem. They, the government, have made 'provision' for the so-called coloureds and Indians -- how are they going to accommodate the 'purple people? Perhaps the next time they use their water cannon, they would like to consult with their voters as to which colour is fashionable."[10]

"Who's going to pay for the city's day of purple spray?" asked Don Holliday of the Cape Argus. "As the controversy continues over who is to pay for the clean-up of buildings, streets, cars and clothing sprayed purple by police during Saturday's Mass Democratic Movement's attempted march to parliament, police announced that they would release details of the effects of the dye."[11]

"A spokesperson for the police directorate of public relations said they had approached their forensic science division to prepare a report on the effects of the dye -- including whether it would eventually wash off and possible solutions for washing."

A later statement reported that the dye was a "harmless substance" which was mixed with water and could be washed off clothing with soap and water. Walls sprayed with the dye could be cleaned using a mixture of one part hydrochloric acid to 100 parts water and then rinsed.

The Rev. Herbert Brand of the Dutch Reformed Church was inspired by the "purple drama" as well as the 50th anniversary of the start of WW2 to deliver a passionate sermon on "fascism in the city".[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Weekend Argus, "Purple Rain halts city demo", front page, Saturday, 2 September 1989
  2. ^ Rosenfeld, Everett (28 June 2011). "Top 10 Most Influential Protests - TIME". Time. ISSN 0040-781X.
  3. ^ Mirror.co.uk (11 August 2011). "Rioters could be sprayed with dye says David Cameron". mirror. Retrieved 22 February 2021.
  4. ^ "500 Arrested During Protest in Cape Town". Los Angeles Times. 3 September 1989. Retrieved 24 February 2021.
  5. ^ Leibenluft, Jacob (12 June 2008). "Purple Water Cannons: Why would the police spray protesters with colored water?". Slate.
  6. ^ "The Sunday Times Heritage Project". South African History Archive. Retrieved 28 December 2015.
  7. ^ "SAHA / Sunday Times Heritage Project - Memorials". sthp.saha.org.za. Retrieved 6 March 2016.
  8. ^ Michael Morris; John Linnegar (2004). Every Step of the Way: The Journey to Freedom in South Africa. South Africa: HSRC Press. p. 223. ISBN 0-7969-2061-3.
  9. ^ Dene Smuts; Shauna Westcott; Margaret Nash (1991). The Purple Shall Govern: a South African A to Z of Nonviolent Action. Oxford University Press, Centre for Intergroup Studies. ISBN 9780195706598.
  10. ^ New House for purple people?, Cape Times, 5 September 1989
  11. ^ The Cape Argus, font page, Tuesday 5 September 1989
  12. ^ Cape Times, Tuesday, 5 September 1989, pg9

External links[edit]