Object Parents

    Natural resources that “parent” objects:
  • charcoal
  • steel

Gas Canister

(not yet accessioned)

The object may not be accessed without permission from UCT Special Collections' Principal Archivist for Primary Collections, Michal Singer. Photographs of the object may only be taken after a confidential agreement has been signed.

Object Domicile

The gas canister has not yet been given a shelf number, and has been classified as a single collection item. It was found on UCT Middle Campus in 1989, picked up and kept by a Professor Spargo, and finally donated to the UCT Special Collections in December 2018.

Object Origin

The exact origin of this object is unknown. Historically, the general origin is France, and these canisters are estimated to have appeared in the year 1919. Exact dates and production times thereafter are unknown.

Tear gas was originally used in France and Germany, during wars, as a means of crowd dispersal and riot control.

A tear gas canister stood on a light blue box: its presence large and looming, the wall as its support. It was just a projection of a tear gas canister, a fuzzy shadow on the black wall of our lecture hall, and yet the impact of its metal body on the ground still vibrated up my spine. A sudden recall of memories in a protest struggle left a bitter pepper taste in my mouth – tear gas. A familiar, unwelcome, sense of discomfort filled the air: a feeling that, in the nature of protest, gives rise to a pluck of courage, a faint flicker of hope that dances in ones stomach, arms and feet. The flicker soon catches onto the fiery roars of the crowd, and one becomes many – one body moving in the direction of equality.

­­­Tear Gas Canister: A shell, a ghost, a body – the liminal space

My arm raised at the speed of spirited fists to the air : the voice of many was my motivation. This moment of interest was interrupted by a classmate of mine   – a black man, whose body has also existed as a site of struggle and social prejudice – who subsequently shared this interest. He hadn’t raised his arm; he called out an entitled interest in the object, with a confident but low register. Once noticing my arm, he turned to me and with a disgruntled whisper told me to just compromise. Suddenly, many become one, and the fire was stamped out – leaving only the presence of smoke, and the residue of power disturbed.

In both an internal and external socio-political context, black bodies are often homogenised as holding a shared experience of oppression. However it is the complex oppressive dynamic between the black man and the black womxn, that is often ignored or assimilated within the general politics around gender dynamics. This is particularly noticeable when one looks closely at the dynamic structures of protests, and the ‘behind the scenes’ that is often not presented in the media – it is through a personal experience that this lens is engaged. Having used this as a point of debate with my classmate, there was a reluctant offering of the tear gas canister for me to use as my object study.

Through this, a subconscious familiarity formed between myself, a black womxn, and the tear gas canister, now a shell left behind. The canister is seen as inherently violent and creates a loud presence both literally and figuratively, this echoes the negative socio-political assumptions placed onto my body – the angry black womxn; loud and undesirable. As this realisation grew and unfolded, the need to reveal an over-looked truth heated up in my palms. The canister is not inherently violent, and when it appears so, it is because its entire history has been centred on war and protests. There is a need to look beyond the object, and look at the hands that pulled its trigger and decided its path.

 “While the exact details of this first tear-gas launch are fuzzy, historians mark the Battle of the Frontiers, as World War I’s first clashes between France and Germany came to be known, as the birth day of what would become modern tear gas.”

 Anna Feigenbaum, a Senior Professor at Bournemouth University, writes about protests and community rights. Bringing attention to the protection needed for people and their rights to protest – and through this, creates a space critically to look at how these spaces silently affect women and children. She speaks about the timeline of wars and protests where tear gas has been used. There is information  heavily highlighted in her texts, that tear gas is dangerous and was banned from warfare. Its original chemical composition used high concentrations of CS gas, formally known as 2-Chlorobenzalmalononitrile. A chemical compound known to cause irritation to the skin and eyes, and blocks air passages (Lamb, 2011).

Tear gas, resurfaced back into society and is now labelled as a ‘non-lethal’ and ‘humane’ way to disperse crowds (Lamb,2011), constantly suggested as a method of self-defence by police forces, who are known to use the gas. This begins to raise the question around who is in defence and against who? Surely if there is a constitutional right for citizens to participate in protests, and most times these protests are peaceful in nature, then who is the opposition? This calls for speculation and begs the reader to, again, look beyond the object, and concentrate on the structure of violence and conflict. This discussions turns to look at protests closely, Looking specifically at South African protests in 1989 and 2015.

“Tear gas and rubber bullets are often claimed by police to be ‘safe methods of crowd control. However, the way in which they are being used by the South African Police makes them anything but safe” (South African History Online.1985)

An online article begins, Teargas causes more than tears, rubber bullets are no toys, the way in which this is phrased suggests a focus away from thinking of tear gas itself as unsafe, but rather the agency of the person or people using it as unsafe – in this case there is specific mention of the South African Police. South African protests were prolific in 1989, as the country was experiencing a charged political climate (Liberation history Timeline 1980-1989.2011). The University of Cape Town’s collections have an expansive archive on the history of protests on campus, specifically around the 1980s. The protests found themselves being centred on the need for racial equality, and a call for general acknowledgement of national agendas. In a newspaper clipping in the Weekend Argus, an article titled UCT urged to close for election, one can read about how workers and students at the university had called on the administration to close the university, as part of a nationwide call for action to align with the general election at the time. As a result the university felt strongly about shutting their institution down, feeling that there was a “clear national call for peaceful and non-violent action”  that was important for the university to take part in. There was a sense of unity amongst the students, staff and workers (UCT urged to close for election, 1989:3).

 However, the campus seemed to have various campaigns that resulted in protest action. The archive displays various protests by various groups of students advocating for equality and the right to freedom of speech. There were various protests where tear gas was dispatched, on a national scale, but it was this year 2019, on UCT Middle Campus, that a Professor P E Spargo  found the canister in question, starting its archival life, after its combustion. After thirty years of keeping this canister shell, he donated it to the UCT special collections. One could assume that there was a sub-conscious acknowledgement of the history of protest on UCT campus, especially since this canister was donated just three years after the Fees Must Fall campaign.

Fees Must Fall was an incredibly intense protest; I had personally participated throughout the entirety of the protest, which was from 2015 – 2016 . The protests addressed the reality of black students coming from poorer backgrounds not being able to achieve a higher level of education, as a result of exclusion through the extremely high fees. There was a call to make education free, as a means to bridge this gap, and as a means to acknowledge a post-apartheid realities (Davids,2016). Personally being involved with these protests, there was always a peaceful approach taken, however this time there was not wide unity between staff and students, mostly. South African Police forces were called in for ‘riot control’. Tear gas was widely dispatched at close range, injuring many students, whenever there an altercation between students and the police (Davids, 2016).

Still present today, the tear gas canister is mostly habituated in the context of riots and protests, and is known to be used by police forces as an initial ‘warning’. According to Feigenbaum, its purpose is now being recognised as a way  to interfere with ‘mob mentality’. Mob mentality, when researched, is described as the adoption of certain behaviours by people in large groups, and these behaviours are based largely on an emotional, rather than a rational, basis (Feigenbaum, 2019). Here  ‘mob mentality’ could be seen as a societal threat: based on its nature being made up groups of people with the potential to be violent ,for example, on a larger and more emotionally heightened scale. Furthermore, groups that are displaying signs of mob mentality are a huge threat to society, especially in relation to the police force – the mob diffusers, and ultimately the defence system. This places a lens of inherent justice on the defence force, whether it be police or war veterans. However one needs to look closely at the contradictions: police and army forces are made up of groups of people who adopt and share the same behavioural patterns, as their fellow members in the force – perhaps creating their own ‘mob mentality’.

Considering this, does this shift the historical title of ‘defence’ for these groups? Could it be possible that they could also be the ‘opposition’? Here the tear gas canister finds itself as an unusual mediator between the ‘defence’ and ‘opposition’ – it has been inherently decided as the tool to regulate and control mob mentality. It follows a series of shifts from the moment it is thrown, to when it lands and detonates, and finally once it has dispersed all the crowds. There is a point where the police become the opposition and where the crowds become the defence, and yet the canister is still considered to remain stagnant in its inherently violent assumption – surely the canister itself starts to shift as its environment shifts?

That the canister as an object is not violent until someone decides that it is when they decide to use it, much like the concept of mob mentality. From personal experience, it is also important to note that inherent violence, in the light of ‘mob mentality’, is generally placed on black bodies. It is here where the previous point suggested comes into play – the homogenised experience of struggle of black men and women. It seems appropriate to then resurface the idea that protest action and wars have been historically started and initiated by men. Therefore, it is important to understand this dynamic of violence between men against men, and then white men against black men, and then black men against their fellow men – all under the shifting concepts of ‘opposition’ and ‘defence’. Here the women, specifically, who support in numbers, are unseen and fall into the liminal space of being in between the ‘opposition’ and the ‘defence’. Where their presence is both to serve and care for the presence of safety for men, but also the preface on which their false sense of victory falls – either way, they are not acknowledged as having their own voice, presence and place.

Once the time arrived to visit this object, a sense of gentle accomplishment and nervous responsibility accompanied my stride –  as if I was meeting someone for the first time. The blue box came with two things: a white piece of paper with vague information and a tightly rolled up page – cylindrical in shape – with ‘gas canister’ written faintly in pencil. The canister had been donated to the UCT Special Collections in December of 2018. I unrolled the paper with gloved care and with an unidentifiable expectation: it barrelled gently into my palm with a soft impact – an inherent gut-tension surprisingly dissolved.

It was smaller than expected, and had a less prominent presence – it was empty. Three burnt holes near the top of its structure, still disfigured from the internal explosion, slightly revealed its internal organs. . This showed that it had been used, and suggested, to me, its violent life Black stains patterned its dull grey surface, and little blades of grass and debris appeared to be glued on. It didn’t have any other markings that could inform its registration or production – no numbers, no letters, not even a symbol discretely scratched on its flat base. The only signifier of a name, were the dark ringed lines that formed near the top surface – they looked like fingerprints. Coincidentally, this intimate observation found itself existing under the narration of Michal Singer, a Principal Archivist within the Special Collections Committee, who explained:

As the newest object to the special collections, the object has not been shelved and has proven hard to accession. As a result, it is considered to be and is classified as a single collection item – meaning, it does not have an accompanying context and subsequently can’t exist in other collections.

So here, this particular canister with no markings and no name, stands out against its historical counter-parts, while it subsequently carries the burden of the inherent violence placed on to its body. Its presence pre-negotiated and its imposed intension systematically feared. This specific canister becomes a silent archive, of a story that can only be assumed. With no particular mapping of its personal historical movements, it silently navigates in the quiet liminal spaces. Its smoke once creating a pause in time, where opposition and defence are interchangeable, where the accountability of violence is unclear. This resonates with the existence of the black womxn – the body as a site of struggle and archive of the inherent violence imposed onto it. Sitting silently, without a name or a voice, only obtaining value through the decisions of men. Somehow, this shell has found its way to me, a black womxn who has existed in these liminal spaces of violence and conflict. Who has been a voice for and against the plights of men and the need for conquest; my body ­­­triggered and thrown in directions decided for it.


Thank you to Michal Singer, Principal Archivist of the UCT Special Collections, for allowing me to work with the collections and the archives. Thank you to Karen Ijumba for facilitating the visits, general communication and for constant support. Thank you to Lyndall Cain, for the constant support. Thank you to Professor Pippa, course convenor, for the advice and guidance, and a final thanks to my classmates, whose critical engagement and willingness to help and support has been greatly appreciated. Contribute information to this page