Weird History

South African Cops Blasted Anti-Apartheid Protesters With A Purple Water Cannon To 'Mark Them' 

Noelle Talmon
Updated June 1, 2020 3.2k views 10 items

The Purple Rain protest took place in Cape Town, South Africa in 1989. It is one of the most famous anti-apartheid protests, thanks in large part to the images that came out of it: specifically, photographs of citizens and buildings covered in purple dye.

When thousands of activists marched in Cape Town several days before parliamentary elections in September of 1989, police responded by firing a water cannon filled with purple dye into the crowd. Their aim was to not only stop demonstrators in their tracks, but to dye the protestors as a way of marking them for later identification and arrest. Activist Philip Ivey wrestled the cannon from officers, and the dye gun used in anti-apartheid protests was turned on the office of the National Party spearheading of the crackdowns.

The Purple Rain Protest became an international symbol of civil disobedience. The purple dye apartheid protesters may not have realized it at the time, but their actions marked in a turning point in the history of South Africa. Everyone involved - protestors, police, black and white citizens - became the same color, blurring the line between race and power. 

Many Knelt Defiantly As The Water Cannon Sprayed Them
Many Knelt Defiantly As ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list South African Cops Blasted Anti-Apartheid Protesters With A Purple Water Cannon To 'Mark Them'
Photo: Metaweb/CC-BY

When police began spraying protestors on that fateful day in 1989, not everyone fled. Some knelt on the ground in defiance. Others were knocked off their feet from the power of the water cannon. Bystanders and shoppers who were not part of the protest ran for cover. Stores and businesses locked their doors, and Adderley Street, the main thoroughfare in Cape Town's business district, was shut down.

Riot Police Used Tear Gas & Other Weapons
Riot Police Used Tear Ga... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list South African Cops Blasted Anti-Apartheid Protesters With A Purple Water Cannon To 'Mark Them'
Photo:  stazon/YouTube

The dyed water cannon was the newest anti-protest weapon that riot police were using, but it wasn't the only one they used that day: cops also had clubs, whips, tear gas, and dogs.

The National Party's Headquarters Was Dyed Purple
The National Party's Hea... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list South African Cops Blasted Anti-Apartheid Protesters With A Purple Water Cannon To 'Mark Them'
Photo:  Die Suid Afrikaan/Fair Use

Anti-apartheid activist Philip Ivey managed to get ahold of the water cannon's nozzle and turned it away from protestors, focusing the stream on the South African National Party's Cape Town headquarters. The NP was a primary architect of and lobbyist for the apartheid system, which was deliberately designed to maintain the country's racial hierarchy.

The National Party Was A Perfect Target That Day
The National Party Was A... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list South African Cops Blasted Anti-Apartheid Protesters With A Purple Water Cannon To 'Mark Them'
Photo: EverydayFacts/Youtube

By the mid-'80s, long after other African nations were decolonized, South Africa remained one of the few countries in the continent ruled by whites. The pro-apartheid National Party was the dominant faction in South Africa's parliamentary government. In 1984, the NP drafted a new constitution that created a controversial Tricameral Parliament, which consisted of the House of Representatives, filled with black South Africans (called "coloureds"); the House of Delegates, filled with South Africans of Indian ancestry; and the House of Assembly, filled with white South Africans. Unsurprisingly, the whites had more representation than the Indians and black communities combined.