For white South Africans the late 1960s was a time of political calm, rising living standards, prosperity and sharing in the sustained economic boom of that period. Some blacks shared in the bounty, those for whom the opportunities for the accumulation of wealth, power and privilege through the bantustan and separate development programme proved irresistible. For most blacks, however, it was, in the aftermath of the suppression of the ANC and PAC and the repression of all radical political activity, a period of intensified exploitation, extensive and vigorous social control, demoralisation, fear and enforced and sullen acquiescence. In these conditions it was difficult to see how any serious organised political challenge to white minority domination could be mounted and whence it could come. Any organisation faced the prospect not only of immediate repression, but also the unenviable task of breaking through the demoralisation and fear that were major impediments to organisation-building and mobilisation.
As is well-known, the South African Students' Organisation (SASO), formed in 1968, was able to escape immediate repression, to establish itself and develop a mass following on the black campuses, and was to play an important role in reviving black opposition to apartheid. However, it was surprising that the challenge came from where it did. The black racial and ethnic higher educational institutions were not designed to produce dissidents. They had been charged with the responsibility of intellectually and politically winning students to the separate development project and generating the administrative corps for the separate development bureaucracies. That, after all, was the purpose of the strict ideological control of the black institutions, their domination by Afrikaner nationalists and the repressive controls on students.
That the revival of mass political opposition to apartheid emerged from within, and spread outwards from, the black higher education institutions is, though, also understandable. For one, the institutions gathered together students who had survived the rigours and hurdles of black schooling but who, upon graduating from higher education, would still be condemned to a future of limited socio-economic opportunities and inequality. Second, what Beard wrote for an earlier period at Fort Hare, applied to the black institutions of the 1960s:
Most students had common experiences in White South Africa, and there were few who had not encountered directly the humiliation of White superiority attitudes, while all suffered in some degree the effects of legal discrimination. The very fact of their common positions of inferiority in South African society, unameliorated by contact with white students, created a bond which formed a basis for their political mobilisation (Beard, 1972: 158).
Thus the institutions provided an ideal environment for the development of shared grievances and aspirations. To the extent that a large number of students lived in residences, this further facilitated communication, mobilisation and organisation.
Finally, Wolpe suggests that:
The concentration of... increasing numbers of students in the recently established black universities provided a site, perhaps the only one in the repressive conditions of the time, in which a radical ideology (black consciousness) could develop. One reason for this was the relatively protected position of the educational institutions (1988: 72).
The question of institutional location in relation to the re-emergence of internal opposition to apartheid is an interesting one but is not a major concern of this investigation. I take the fact of the black institutions being the sites of the renewal of political resistance to apartheid as a given, and the issue of institutional location is only of interest in so far as it has a bearing on the principal concerns of this and the following chapter. These are the origins and growth of SASO in the late 1960s, its ideological and political orientations, its initiatives to mobilise and organise students and other constituencies, its relations with other organisations, and the form and content of its collective endeavours. The description and analysis of these issues will lay the basis for the assessment of SASO in Chapter 5.
Student Politics prior to SASO
SASO was not the first manifestation of student politics among black higher education students or at black higher education institutions. Hirson writes that:
[T]hroughout the second world war there were strikes at Fort Hare almost every year... The precipitating factors were always the atrocious food, unbending discipline, or even physical assaults, But the crucial factor was deeply embedded in the system (1979: 34), and was related to white supremacy and paternalism.
In 1948, a branch of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) was established at Fort Hare by African students and staff. At about the same time, a branch of the Society of Young Africa, part of the All African Convention which was affiliated to the Non-European Unity Movement, was also formed. These two bodies operated essentially as youth wings of their respective parent political organisations. They competed for membership, politicised students, provided them with a bridge-head to the national political movements and galvanised student support for the numerous political campaigns of the 1950s.
The Fort Hare branch of the ANCYL played an active role in the Eastern Cape protests against the introduction of Bantu education and after the mid-1950s was the premier organisation among Fort Hare students. The ANCYL as a whole was pivotal in rejuvenating the ANC and in prodding the ANC towards a more radical African nationalism and more militant and mass-based forms of political struggle against apartheid.
A Student Representative Council (SRC) also existed at Fort Hare, for much of the 1950s being under the sway of ANCYL members and in the forefront of student actions. The SRC affiliated to the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in 1945, partly on the notion that it was necessary and possible to push NUSAS in a more radical direction. NUSAS had been formed in 1924 as a union of students at the white universities. In 1952, however, the SRC disaffiliated from NUSAS because it was "realised that they had not been too successful in their attempts to radicalise NUSAS. There was also some sensitivity on the part of Fort Harians to alleged racial slights..." (Burchell, 1986: 157). A major obstacle to any radicalisation of NUSAS was that although the leadership was frequently liberal, and even radical, the mass base of NUSAS tended to be conservative and certainly not ready to support any project of black liberation.
Following the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960, the African Students Association (ASA) and the African Students Union of South Africa (ASUSA) were formed to continue among African students the political traditions of the ANC and PAC respectively. In the Cape and Natal, student organisations were also launched by supporters of the Non-European Unity Movement. According to a SASO publication,
[t]he Durban Students' Union and the Cape Peninsula Student's Union who later merged to form the Progressive National Students Organisation, were fanatically opposed to NUSAS... and adopted the emotional slogan of the Non-European Unity Movement - 'non-co-operation with the collaborators' (SASO, 1972a:1).
ASA was open to both secondary and higher education students, but was strongest at Fort Hare because of the predominant position the ANCYL had enjoyed at this institution. However, a combination of the intense state repression of this time, the small numbers of students enrolled at black secondary and higher education institutions and strong disciplinary controls on student activity meant that both ASA and ASUSA were to have little impact on students.
There is no documented information about the response of the students at the new ethnic and racial campuses to the political events of the early 1960s. Probably, some students would have been connected to ASA and ASUSA, but the small enrolments, the fact that most students were meeting for the first time, the controls and curbs on student activity and the generally repressive conditions could have made collective action difficult. Fort Hare was, of course, an exception. When the institution re-opened in 1960 as an ethnic university, the new administration refused to re-register some students and imposed restrictions on the autonomy of the SRC. As a result the "next day there was a near-revolt at the college, with protest meetings being held and demonstrations being staged in the dining halls. The students decided to dissolve the SRC..." (SAIRR, 1961:237).
Throughout the 1960s Fort Hare students refused to form an SRC, as an expression of the absence of academic freedom at the institution. They also boycotted graduation and various other official ceremonies. In 1968, on the occasion of the investure of a new rector, political slogans were sprayed on college walls. Seventeen students, identified as student leaders, were held responsible and interrogated by the security police. The student protests that followed led to students being tear-gassed and escorted to the railway station. Subsequently, 21 students, including B. N. Pityana, the first general secretary of SASO, were not re-admitted.
At the other black institutions, student discontent between 1960 and 1968 (when SASO was formed) was mainly expressed around issues relating to autonomous SRCs and affiliation to NUSAS. Students refused to form SRCs at UDW, and, until 1967, at UWC. Students at UWC and at the African universities were forbidden to send delegations to NUSAS conferences or to attend in their personal capacity. Students from these campuses continued, however, to attend NUSAS conferences and participate in its activities. The SRC at the exclusively black University of Natal Medical School (UNMS) was an affiliate of NUSAS, and black students at the white English language universities participated in NUSAS, some holding official positions in NUSAS and on SRCs. In 1967 NUSAS activity was banned on all black campuses.
However, well into 1968, the SRC at the University of the North (UNIN) continued to press the university authorities for permission to affiliate to NUSAS.
During the 1950s the Fort Hare SRC had discovered the difficulty of moving NUSAS to adopt more radical positions and to support black liberation and had disaffiliated from NUSAS. What, then, was the attraction of NUSAS and why did the SRCs at some of the black institutions insist that they be allowed to join NUSAS?
With the obliteration of the mass extra-parliamentary movements, and in the repressive context of the 1960s, NUSAS provided one of the few avenues for the expression of opposition to apartheid. Beyond this, during the mid-1960s NUSAS was under attack from the government and also right-wing students, being accused of being a 'communist' organisation and a front for the banned liberation movements. A number of NUSAS leaders were arrested, banned and deported. This, and the marches and activities sponsored by NUSAS to protest against state repression and interference in higher education, gave the organisation some credibility among black students. Membership of NUSAS also made possible the attempt to influence the organisation to adopt more radical policies and forms of action, something that was also being called for by white radicals in NUSAS. Furthermore, participation afforded black students from the different campuses the opportunity to meet and discuss campus and other developments.
Finally, Hirson suggests that:
[I]n seeking affiliation, the black students were demanding the right to associate with organisations of their own choice, and the more intransigent the government showed itself, the more determined the students seemed to become (1979: 68).
However, more was at play than the right of black students to freedom of association. In a context where the space for the expression of political dissent was extremely limited, the affiliation issue also provided black students the opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to state ideology and the policy of separate development without expressing open criticism of the state and becoming targets for repression.
To conclude this discussion of pre-SASO student politics:
While the ANCYL was, in strict terms, a national youth political organisation, in practice it functioned at Fort Hare as essentially a student political organisation. As such, it was an early indicator of what student politics at a black higher education institution in South Africa under apartheid could involve. The ANCYL at Fort Hare mobilised students around campus conditions, and contested elections to the SRC. It galvanised students to support the struggles of other social groups in the vicinity of Fort Hare, and participated in the education protests of the Eastern Cape. It mobilised students around national political issues and campaigns, and provided a stepping stone to student and post-student involvement in the broader ANCYL and the ANC.
Both the ANCYL and Fort Hare as an institution were also important incubators of black intellectual production and future black political leaders. For example, Robert Sobukwe, who was president of the SRC in 1949 and a member of the Fort Hare ANCYL became, shortly afterwards, national secretary of the ANCYL and, later, a founder of the PAC. Fort Hare, involvement in the SRC and ANCYL, and contact with the Society of Young Africa ideas of 'non-collaboration', provided Sobukwe with the space and environment to develop his own distinct ideas around African nationalism.
Thus, student politics, at least as practised by the ANCYL at Fort Hare, covered education-based and political issues; addressed local, regional and national problems; was characterised by linkages with campus-based and non-campus organisations, including an explicit linkage to a national political formation, and was also defined by the concern of the student activists with questions of political theory and strategy. In contrast to the ANCYL, ASA and ASUSA, on the other hand, were explicitly student organisations.
They were also national organisations and exclusively African in membership. To them must be accorded the status of being the first national student organisations among the oppressed population in South Africa. There are no details on their activities, but they did express an unambiguous political alignment with the banned ANC and PAC. Finally, ASA and ASUSA represented a break with multi-racial student organisations such as NUSAS. Thus, they constituted a bridge to exclusive national black student organisation, as exemplified by SASO in the late 1960s and 1970s (Brooks and Brickhill, 1980: 72). ASA and ASUSA, however, do not appear to have had any major impact on black students or on the political terrain in general. Not the same, as will be seen, can be said for SASO!
Origins of SASO
During the 1960s small numbers of black students continued to participate in NUSAS. However, by the late 1960s many black students increasingly began to feel the frustration and disillusionment similar to that which had led the Fort Hare SRC to disaffiliate from NUSAS in 1952. For some students at the University of Natal Medical School (UNMS) their involvement and experience in NUSAS increasingly suggested that the liberal politics of that union could not serve the immediate or long-term aspirations of black students. Also at issue was the fact that, despite its non-racial membership, NUSAS was essentially dominated and controlled by white students.
Legassick and Shingler have argued this point strongly:
Non-whites, as delegates and office holders, did play a role, but were for the most part overshadowed by their white counterparts, and in some instances were callously used and manipulated as symbols of NUSAS' integrated nonracialism (quoted in Fatton, 1986: 55).
It was this kind of situation that Biko had in mind when he expressed in his column, "I Write what I Like", in the SASO Newsletter, his objection to "the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is a sine qua non in this country and that whites are divinely appointed pace-setters in progress" (1987: 24). Wilson suggests that the superior education of whites and the conduct of meetings in English meant that black students were disadvantaged in participation. This had the potential to appear as if black students lacked intelligence, and to instil feelings of inferiority (Wilson, 1991: 23).
In 1967, the University Christian Movement (UCM) was formed as an inter-denominational organisation to explore what the church and individuals could do to bring about change in South Africa. More than half of the delegates at the inaugural conference of the UCM were black and the UCM showed a strong interest in the emerging "black theology". By 1968 the UCM claimed to have 25 branches and a membership of 3,000. Despite the name of the organisation, the UCM was not restricted to Christians alone, and students of all faiths, and no faith, were welcome to join (SAIRR, 1968: 13; 1969: 68).
The growing disaffection of some black student activists with NUSAS, and the composition as well as more radical orientation of the UCM gave the latter a greater appeal as a forum for inter-campus contact and discussion. However, black students with experience of NUSAS politics (including Steve Biko, a student at UNMS) who attended the UCM conference in July 1968 discovered that despite the UCM's political orientation and its majority black membership, leadership of the organisation was concentrated among white members. It is possible that this reinforced the determination of Biko and others, who were increasingly critical of multi-racial organisation, to push ahead with the formation of an exclusively black student formation.
The UCM conference provided those students committed to the idea of a black student organisation to convene a caucus of black students. Out of its deliberations came agreement on the need for a new black student organisation and a representative conference of black students. Duly convened at Marianhill, Natal, in December 1968, and "attended by about thirty members of black university Students' Representative Councils" (Gerhart, 1978: 261) the conference gave birth to an exclusively black higher education formation, the South African Students Organisation (SASO).
The establishment of SASO drew mixed responses. From the side of white liberals, charges of reverse racism were levelled at the new organisation. Biko's response was that:
[N]ot only was the move taken by the non-white students defensible but it was a long overdue step. It seems sometimes that it is a crime for the non-white students to think for themselves.... [W]hat SASO has done is simply to take stock of the present scene in the country and to realise that not unless the non-white students decide to lift themselves from the doldrums will they ever hope to get out of them. What we want is not black visibility but real black participation (1987: 4-5).
Apartheid government officials, on the other hand, appear to have gleefully, and mistakenly, hailed it as a vindication of their separate development programme.
Ideology and Politics
Much writing on SASO notes its launch, or its formal inauguration in July 1969 and the election of Biko as national president, and thereafter plunges into a consideration of the important SASO Policy Manifesto which articulates the central tenets of Black Consciousness philosophy. Given that the Policy Manifesto was only adopted by SASO two years later, at its 2nd General Students Council (GSC) in July 1971, the effect is to give the impression that the doctrine of Black Consciousness (BC) was already fully formed at the time of SASO's origin. As a result, the process by which SASO actually moved towards BC is obscured.
The Inaugural Conference of July 1969
The constitution adopted at the inaugural conference noted, in its preamble, that "it is ideal that any country should have ONE national student organisation, (and) that such an organisation should cater for all the students in the country" (quoted in Nettleton, 1972: 130). It observed however that "owing to circumstances beyond their control, students at some non-white centres are unable to participate in the national student organisation of this country', and that "contact amongst non-white students so affected is of paramount importance" (ibid.). The objects of SASO are described as:
(a) To promote contact and practical co-operation among students studying at affiliated centres;
(b) To represent the non-white students nationally;
(c) To bring about contact among South African students generally (ibid.).
A SASO communiqué released at the end of the inaugural conference reflected the tensions about an all black organisation. It granted that there was a danger of showing racial division among students; that the formation of a black organisation could be interpreted as the success of apartheid; that separate organisations could heighten division and that this should not be promoted; and that a black organisation could get special attention from the authorities and would perhaps not last long (Nettleton, 1972:128-29). However, the communiqué also stated:
[T]hat there is a need for more effective contact is unquestionable, especially in view of the ever-increasing enrolment at the non-white institutions of higher learning.... For all intent and purpose, these students have remained isolated, not only physically but also intellectually (quoted in Buthelezi, 1991: 112).
It went on to add that universities sought to breed conformists, a process that had to be stopped by "interfering with the programme of indoctrination and intimidation so effectively applied at all South African universities" (ibid.).
Given the criticism of NUSAS, reference to it as "the national student organisation of the country" can only be explained as a strategic move. The formation of SASO did not enjoy unanimous support among black students. Some interpreted it as a defeat for attempts at building a non-racial student culture, while others were suspicious of its aims and concerned that it could be interpreted as an endorsement of separate development. In this context, the priority had to be to win black students over to SASO and any formal and/or frontal attack on, or break with, NUSAS had to be deferred to a more opportune moment.
The stress in the constitution on building student contact may also have been governed by strategic considerations. Fatton interprets this as adopting a "limited student concern, a 'student-as-such' position", as a concern "essentially with their own academic environment and not the problems of the wider society" (1986: 67; 158). However, given the repressive educational and broader political environment the concern might have been to first establish an organisational infrastructure before taking on explicitly political issues.
Critique and the Elaboration of Black Consciousness
At the intellectual level, the two year period from the inaugural conference to the adoption of the SASO Policy Manifesto (SPM) in 1971 was characterised by the dual activities of critique, deconstruction and rejection, and formulation, construction and elaboration. In conference resolutions, policy papers, open letters, public forums, and articles in SASO publications; as an organisation, and through its leading intellectuals, SASO analysed and condemned multi-racial liberal platforms, liberal leadership and policies of assimilation and integration. Concomitantly, and gradually and unevenly, the "concept of Black Consciousness" was formulated and elaborated.
Although the critique of SASO members was largely based on the lived experiences of black intellectuals in apartheid South Africa, it was sharpened by the insights offered by Fanon, Nkrumah, Nyerere and various black American ‘Black Power' activists (Gerhart, 1978: 275-76). While the latter were formative influences, on balance, the lived experiences were pivotal in the construction and elaboration of an alternative ideology and strategy of liberation in South Africa.
In analysing South African society, SASO viewed 'race' as the primary line of cleavage. Class divisions were not seen as important and there was little recognition of gender issues. There was no grappling with the simultaneity of racial and class divisions and the articulation of 'race' and class oppression, let alone with the inter-relationship of 'race', class, and gender factors in the shaping of South Africa's social structure. In fact, it could be argued that until the mid-1970s, 'race' and colour were seen as the only significant organising principle of South African society. The experience of racial oppression and the 'obviousness' of white domination led SASO to express the beliefs:
[T]hat the Whiteman must be made aware that one is either part of the solution or part of the problem, (and) that, in this context, because of the privileges accorded to them by legislation and because of their continual maintenance of an oppressive regime, Whites have defined themselves as part of the problem (SPM, Appendix 1).
Whites were collectively identified as the 'enemy'. Political divisions among whites were interpreted as differences over how best to maintain white privilege and political domination. A special target of SASO leaders were white liberals - in the words of Biko, "that curious bunch of non-conformists... that bunch of do-gooders" (1972: 192) who continued to hold out the possibility of integration. For Biko, "the myth of integration as propounded under the banner of liberal ideology must be cracked and killed because it made people believe that something is being done" (ibid.: 193). Instead, all that white liberal groups and institutions were seeking, ultimately, was merely to relax "certain oppressive legislation and to allow Blacks into a white-type society" (SPM, Appendix 1).
It was not just the goals of white liberals that were rejected. Their role in shaping political strategies, as well as the actual strategies that they advanced, was also called into question. Biko bluntly observed that while one sector of whites "kicked the black", another sector of whites (liberals) "managed to control the responses of the blacks to the provocation” and tutored blacks “how best to respond to the kick” (1987: 66). White liberals were accused of creating the... political dogma that all groups opposing the status quo must necessarily be non-racial in structure. They maintained that if you stood for a principle of non-racialism you could not in any way adopt what they described as racialist policies (Biko, 1972: 193; emphasis in original).
For Biko and SASO, it was the black person's "right and duty to respond to the kick in the way he sees fit " (Biko, 1987: 6; emphasis in original) and it was crucial that the hold of white liberals over black political thinking be broken. The mechanism for breaking their influence was to be the exclusion of whites from "all matters relating to the struggle" (SPM, Appendix 1). Consequently, contact with whites was discouraged, and multi-racial organisation per se was rejected.
SASO, however, was not anti-white. It accepted that "South Africa is a country in which both black and white live and shall continue to live together" (SPM, Appendix 1). Indeed, Biko's goal was a:
... completely non-racial society (without)... guarantees for minority rights, because guaranteeing minority rights implies the recognition of portions of the community on a race basis. We believe that in our country there shall be no minority; just the people. And those people will have the same status before the law and they will have the same political rights... (1987: 149).
What SASO did put at issue was liberal models of assimilation and integration and 'value systems' that sought to make a black person "a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic dignity" (SPM, Appendix 1). BC and exclusive black organisation was seen as a strategy:
It's a question of the oppressor and the oppressed, so we had to galvanise ourselves, and that's where we came with the concept of black solidarity: to bargain from a position of strength (Nefolovhodwe, quoted in Frederikse, 1990: 108).
This is underlined by the SASO Policy Manifesto which speaks of an "open society". Such an open society is viewed as depending, ultimately, on the efforts of blacks, and is seen as necessitating an initial withdrawal on their part in order to establish black solidarity and unity and black political goals.
The positive doctrine that SASO proclaimed itself to uphold was "the concept of Black Consciousness" which was defined as "an attitude of mind, a way of life" (SPM, Appendix. 1). The key themes of Black Consciousness (BC) as a doctrine of "self-discovery" and self-realisation are well summarised by Hirson. They included:
A liberation from psychological oppression, the building of a new awareness, the establishment of a new basic dignity, the framing of a new attitude of mind, a rediscovery of the history of the people, and a cultural revival (Hirson, 1979: 296).
SASO also stressed the need for blacks to develop their own value systems, and to define themselves, rather than be defined by others. The emphasis was on self-reliance:
On, as Biko put it, blacks doing "things for themselves and all by themselves" (1987: 15). Pityana, addressing a conference on student perspectives on South Africa was even more unequivocal:
Blacks only are qualified to determine the means for change.... The way to the future is not through a directionless and arrogant multi-racialism but through a purposeful and positive unilateral approach. Black man, you are on your own (1972: 189).
'Black man you are on your own' was to be adopted by SASO as its rallying cry. According to Hirson, "the slogan was an assertion of the right to independent organisation on the campuses and was also a political statement of more general application" (1979:69).
A generally receptive student body and organisational development contributed to a growth in confidence and assertiveness on the part of SASO. In mid-1970, at the 1st GSC, the previous preamble was amended. It now expressed the beliefs:
(I) that Black students in South Africa have unique problems and aspirations pertaining to them;
(II) that it is necessary for black students to consolidate their ranks if their aspirations are to be realised;
(III) that there is a crying need in South Africa for Black students to re-assert their pride and group identity; therefore adopt this constitution in the belief that unity and positive reawakening will result among the Black students of South Africa (quoted in Nettleton, 1972: 132).
The new preamble was a far cry from the defensive, and almost apologetic, preamble adopted at the inaugural conference and manifested the new mood of assertiveness within SASO.
At the same time, the previous negative definition of the self as 'non-white' gave way to positive identification as 'black'. An editorial in the SASO Newsletter of September 1970 stated the political and strategic rationale for the term 'black'. It was an attempt to "define one's enemy more clearly and broaden the base from which we are operating. It is a deliberate attempt to counteract the 'divide and rule' attitude of the evil-doers" (quoted in Gerhart, 278). A year later, blacks were to be defined as:
Those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards realisation of their aspirations (SPM, Appendix 1).
However, not all of the nationally oppressed and politically disenfranchised were defined as blacks. Since being black was related to an 'attitude of mind' rather than skin-colour, the term 'non-white' continued to be used in a derogatory sense to designate persons associated with the ethnic political institutions that were a component of the separate development programme. More positively, though not without opposition and considerable debate within SASO, the term 'black' became popularised as denoting Africans, Indians and Coloureds collectively.
Finally, the new assertiveness led SASO to now state that "in the principles and make-up of NUSAS the black students can never find expression for the aspirations foremost in their minds" (quoted in Nettleton, 1972: 133). Consequently, SASO withdrew its recognition of NUSAS as the only legitimate union of students. The break was still not absolute, for the SASO national executive was requested to "continue studying the relevance of the organisation to the black student community and to maintain such contact as is compatible with aims of SASO" (ibid.)
Earlier, I questioned Fatton's argument that SASO began with a 'student-as-such' orientation, and I suggested that this was in all likelihood a strategic move. The empirical evidence supports my view. Only months after SASO was inaugurated, Biko, addressing the SASO leadership at the organisation's 1st National Formation School, said the following:
We have a responsibility not only to ourselves but also to the society from which we spring. No one else will ever take the challenge up until we, of our own accord, accept the inevitable fact that ultimately the leadership of the non-white peoples in this country rests with us (1987: 7).
He also included among the aims of SASO the shaping the black political thinking. (Biko, 1987: 5). By 1971, the SASO constitution began to speak more broadly of the challenges facing blacks, rather than just black students, and committed SASO "to the realisation of the worth of the black man, the assertion of his human dignity and to promoting consciousness and self-reliance of the black community" (SASO Constitution).The aims of SASO now included getting students to "become involved in the political, economic and social development of the Black people" and "to become a platform for expression of Black opinion" (ibid.).
Politics, Strategy and Policies
There is little dispute that SASO's ultimate goal was a non-racial South Africa, although the precise content of the future society was not spelt out in any detail. In any event, SASO's priority was much more the rousing of blacks from a state of apathy, fear and feelings of inferiority to one of active agents of history. As Pityana put it:
We offer no blueprint for a future South Africa. What is required immediately is a complete overhaul of the system. This is necessary for a clearer vision of the future. Only liberated minds are able to shape their future society (1972: 189).
The immediate tasks of SASO were defined by the Policy Manifesto as being the liberation of the Black man, first from psychological oppression by themselves through inferiority complex, and secondly from the physical one accruing out of living in a White racist society (Appendix 1).
Liberation appears to have been conceived as involving two stages - an initial stage of "psychological" liberation followed by political liberation. Gerhart suggests that such an approach was shaped by the organisational mistakes of the PAC, the latter's "reckless rush to confrontation at a time when circumstances did not favour a black victory" (1978: 284-85). The lesson drawn was that "laying a firm psychological foundation for a time of yet unforeseen circumstances was more important than trying artificially to create a situation of immediate confrontation" (ibid.). A SASO leadership training seminar in 1971 defined the practical application of BC in terms of ‘Directive politics, Infiltrative politics, Orientation projects and Self-reliance projects'.
The first meant direct political criticism of the regime and its agents and policies. Infiltrative politics...meant entering existing organisations and taking them over or converting them... 'Orientation projects' would 're-examine educational, cultural, religious and economic facilities, needs and aspirations' of Blacks... Community self-help projects in which Blacks did things for themselves were the fourth leg (Nolutshungu, 1982: 171).
The different kinds of 'politics' and projects were considered to be vital instruments in the psychological liberation of blacks and in providing the platform for activities around physical liberation.
The avoidance by SASO of detailed engagement around issues of political vision and goals and the strong emphasis on black student solidarity seems to also have been shaped by a particular reading of earlier student politics. A SASO publication suggests that a cause of the lack of student unity and co-ordination on black campuses during the early and mid-1960s was the political rivalry between ASA and ASUSA (SASO, 1972a). Thus, a skirting of political questions, of which most students would have had little awareness, but which were likely to give rise to party political and organisational squabbles made good sense. On the other hand, all attempts to promote BC and black solidarity were to be used. Thus, meetings and newsletters; posters, pamphlets, diaries, and T-shirts, the formation of new organisations and community projects, all became vehicles of political mobilisation and the fostering of BC. Even press statements and letters, which were signed off with slogans such as 'Power and Solidarity', 'Your Black brother', and 'Breaking the chains', were roped into developing an identity for SASO and for creating a culture of black unity and a concomitant anti-apartheid oppositional culture.
As noted, SASO sought to establish close links with the non-student black population and influence black political thinking. In this regard, the role of black students was to:
... Take over the responsibility of the people's destiny and devote themselves to the task of eradicating all evils, resolving all problems and generally transforming the spirit of the people. This is the leadership role black students are destined to play towards the development of their people (SASO, 1972a:2).
This clearly established for black higher education students a vanguard role in black political life. However, that SASO's leadership was to be largely at the level of ideas and directed primarily at eliminating 'psychological oppression' is well-revealed by the statement that, with SASO has come the idealism of the black revolution:
A revolution of ideas, of values and standards... Community development is the direction black students must take if they are to transform their idealism into stark realism (SASO, 1972a: 2-3).
The "ideas" and "values" - embodied in the doctrine of BC - that SASO sought to promote have already been noted. The matter of "community development" and what this entailed in practice will be dealt with in the next chapter. For the moment it is with the "ideas", the pronouncements, of SASO on more immediate political issues and around education that I wish to confine myself.
SASO's views were publicly disseminated through its various publications, its community projects and cultural initiatives, the commercial media, publications of the Black Community Programmes (BCP) and public meetings. On every issue, the position of SASO was diametrically opposed to that of the apartheid government. To take a few examples. With respect to foreign investments, SASO rejected these, seeing them as bolstering the apartheid government. Recognising that sometimes higher wages were paid by foreign multinationals, SASO repudiated this as "conscience-salving". The initiatives of African governments at dialogue with the apartheid government was seen as futile and having no effects on black subordination in South Africa.. SASO also expressed support for the struggles of the people of Namibia and criticised the "unwarranted occupation" of Namibia by South Africa (SASO, 1972a: 5).
However, it was for separate development, and especially the bantustans to which SASO was implacably opposed, that the organisation reserved its most bitter attacks. SASO rejected the entire separate development and bantustan policy as divisive, oppressive and designed to retard black political freedom. Separate development political institutions were labelled as 'dummy platforms' and 'phoney telephones'. SASO also scorned and criticised the notion of utilising state created political institutions to challenge and undermine apartheid, a position that was to lead to inevitable conflict with black leaders and members of bantustan governments and political parties involved in the Coloured Representative Council and the South African Indian Council.
While condemning separate development political institutions, SASO did initially have a working relationship with some of the more ‘progressive' black politicians such as Gatsha Buthelezi who claimed to be opposed to the bantustans and committed to black political rights in a unitary South Africa. Three developments, however, led in 1972 to a hardening of SASO's position around the issue of working within separate development political structures. First, was the growing popularity of Buthelezi who was seen as having the potential to seriously confuse blacks about separate development. Second, the Black Peoples Convention (BPC), which SASO had initiated, was about to be formed and there was a need to settle the question of legitimate political platforms. Third, Temba Sono, the third president of SASO (1971-72) had in his presidential speech to the 1972 GSC called for a more practical approach to the liberation struggle, including co-operation with bantustan leaders and the use of separate development platforms.
Sono's call was to result in his immediate expulsion from SASO. It also triggered a resolution at the GSC that rejected bantustan leaders, and called on them withdraw from 'the system'. SASO appealed to them to refrain from being the "ambassadors for black oppression", while the SRCs at UNMS and UNIZUL appealed to them to stop "selling out the black cause".
SASO on Education
Until 1972 SASO's engagement with educational issues was extremely limited. At a policy level, separate universities were rejected as an attempt to control the education of blacks. An article in a SASO publication argued that universities were extensions of the apartheid system and had the "effect of creating a black elitist, middle class that is far removed from the true aspirations of the people". The black universities were criticised for being dominated by white staff, for having differential salary and service conditions for white and black staff, and for a curriculum that was "oriented towards white, exploitative norms and values" (SASO, 1971: 24).
In its "Declaration of Student Rights" adopted in July 1971, SASO expressed the belief that "institutions of learning and all therein serve in the noble pursuit and unprejudiced acquisition of knowledge" (SASO, 1971: 13). Elsewhere, it was stated that the university needed to be recognised as a community in common search for the "truth" - defined in terms of the "needs, goals and aspirations of a people". It was furthermore argued that "the meaning of a university projects the idea of a community", and the challenge for the university was to "bring forth a new humanity with a higher conscience" (SASO, 1972a: 2-3). The Declaration of Student Rights also asserted "the right of every person to have free access to education"; and the rights of students to "free academic pursuit", to "dissent with the instructor" and to "attend the university of his choice" (SASO, 1971: 13).
In 1971 an "Education Commission" comprising SASO members, black educationists and "lay men" was established to "explore means of making education relevant to the aspirations of blacks" (SASO, 1971: 25). In July 1972, the Education Commission tabled the "Black Student Manifesto" (BSM), for adoption by SASO's 3rd GSC. Through the BSM, SASO members proclaimed that "we are an integral part of the oppressed community before we are Students". They also voiced their rejection of the "whole sphere of racist education", and asserted that "education in South Africa is unashamedly political and therefore... Black Education is tied to the liberation of the Black people of the world".
SASO committed itself to "break away from the traditional order of subordination to whites in education" and to "ensure that our education will further the preservation and promotion of what is treasured in our culture and our historical experience" (SASO, 1972b: 24).
In December 1972, a SASO National Formation School on the theme "Towards Black Education" produced a "Charter for a Black University". The Charter was seen as "the foundation of education for liberation, self-reliance and development aimed at a communalistic and egalitarian society". Education was conceived of as being for the benefit of individuals and society, and defined as "a process of inculcating a way of life, of transmitting a cultural heritage, of acquiring knowledge and ideals, and of developing the critical faculties of the individual" (SASO, 1973a: 7). The aims of "Black Education" were to foster social change, help realise an "egalitarian and communalistic society", to promote black unity and collective action, and to "inculcate into the Blackman a sense of initiative, enquiry, creativity and self-reliance" (ibid.).
The mission of the black university was to be five-fold. First, it was to "promote the interests and aspirations of the community". Second, it was to inculcate within blacks "pride and confidence in their Blackness, their traditions and their indigenous way of life". As part of this socialisation, the black university was to "discourage elitism and intellectual arrogance which promotes alienation, acquisitiveness and class structures" (SASO, 1973a: 8). Third, it was to modernise people, institutions and society to:
remove from the community the older epoch of backwardness, dependence and immobility; these must be replaced by one of economic orientations, industrialisation, greater national economy, class mobility and communal solidarity (ibid.).
Fourth, it was to contribute, through the production of knowledge and trained personnel, to economic and social development. Finally, the black university was to contribute to social cohesion and integration; it was to:
incorporate the entire community more effectively into the structure, values and functions of society; [and also] find foundations for a spiritual awareness, a religious redirection (SASO, 1973a: 7-8). According to the Charter, academic disciplines had to begeared at dynamising the basic perspectives on reality which have usually been of profound pessimism and fatalism, by enabling the student to gain awareness of his capacity to shape his environment, and tools to harness it for his survival (ibid.).
Moreover, the black university had to be especially concerned with "Black Studies" - with Africa, and African thought, history, culture, language and literature, and the "Black experience" (SASO, 1973a: 8).
It is evident that prior to 1972 there was no serious and detailed consideration of key education issues such as the goals, structure, organisation and financing of education and curriculum and pedagogy. The criticism of education was in purely political terms and the conception of the university that was posited was thoroughly idealist. During 1972 greater attention began to be devoted to education. However, the BSM too offered little in the way of a substantive critique of South African education and, apart from asserting that 'Black education' was linked to liberation, provided no details of the form and content of such an education. Moreover, there was no indication as to how black values, identity and culture were to be promoted through education.
While the "Charter for a Black University" did represent an advance on previous utterances regarding education and the university, it also reflected important silences and contradictory thinking. The SASO activists were well aware of the role of apartheid education in reproducing racial and cultural domination. Influenced by Freire's and Nyerere's notions of education for liberation and education for self-reliance respectively, they conceived of a different role for education - to socialise blacks into new values and conduct, to transfer knowledge of relevance to liberation and to produce critical thinkers.
In short, education was to be an important agent in the transformation of blacks and the social order. However, beyond notions of a need to mobilise black teachers and to encourage parents to relate folk-lore and indigenous stories to children, the Charter offered little in the way of strategy and tactics for contesting apartheid education within the black schools and replacing it with 'black education'.
In contrast with the earlier monastic, knowledge for its own sake, conception of the university, in the Charter the university was now seen as being involved in 'community' service, in conscientisation and identity formation and in the production of trained and skilled personnel and in the fields of economic and social development. However, in defining the role of the 'black university' in these fields, the Charter failed to address a number of important issues. First, because of the tendency to treat blacks as a homogeneous group, there was no recognition that, apart from certain common interests and aspirations, very different interests could also be expressed by different sections of the black 'community'. However, no answer was provided as to how the 'black university' would mediate between differing interests and make choices and trade-offs.
Second, as part of SASOs general embrace of "communalism", the 'black university' was called on to socialise students so as to counter "acquisitiveness and class structures". However, there was also a call for the 'black university' to promote "class mobility". In short, while the university was, at the economic level, called on to promote capitalism and class mobility, at the ideological level it was required to help undo its economic contribution. Finally, while SASO wanted the 'black university' to foster black values, identity and culture, it also required the university to be a force of modernisation. Here, it was oblivious to the possibility that modernisation could be accompanied by 'Western' values, Eurocentrism, individualism, and the destruction of indigenous culture, the very things that were abhorred by SASO.
It is interesting that following the adoption of the BSM at the 1972 GSC, another resolution rescinded the Declaration of Student Rights. The Declaration was said to "grossly misrepresent the aspirations of the Black Student", and described as "an amorphous instrument paying homage to a utopian situation which bears little relevance to our Black experience" (SASO, 1972b: 34). It was also said to be "obsessed with liberal notions of what constitutes the essence of studenthood and the rights accruing thereto" (ibid.). Certainly, the Declaration conceived of the university in universalist and monastic terms, and as a neutral institution that stood above social interests. It was also true that students at black higher education institutions enjoyed few rights and studied under authoritarian conditions.
However, the rejection of the assertion of basic student rights as 'liberal notions' is curious. It could be that SASO was disdainful of the notion of struggle around specific rights, seeing this as a characteristic of liberal organisations. Rights, then, were either subsumed under, or counterpoised to, 'liberation'.
Ideological and Political Shifts: The Question of Class
Between 1969 and 1975 SASO was characterised by a large degree of ideological and political homogeneity. The conception of the South African 'problem' in terms of racism and racial domination, and the concomitant emphasis on black unity, provided sufficient ideological cement to hold SASO together. After the mid-1970s however, this cement began to crack and there began to be a more open and public espousal of an analysis that incorporated class and class exploitation as salient features of the South African social order.
How extensive the shift towards a race-class analysis of the South African social order and struggle was within SASO is not clear. That there was a shift is definite. Moreover, the fact that the SASO president Diliza Mji was not censured by the 8th GSC of SASO in July 1976 for his presidential address which critiqued the limits of a purely race-based analysis and advocated a race-class approach to the South African struggle, suggests that there may have been significant support for the new line of thinking. It is pertinent to recall that Sono's call for a major change in policy and strategy, at the 1972 GSC, had led to his ousting. As will become clear, Mji's speech was a radical departure from SASO's doctrine and policy.
The reference to class and capitalism was not entirely new. Whereas the saliency of class and capitalism had been either rejected or was given little currency by Biko, Pityana and the early SASO leaders, resolutions at the 5th GSC in 1974 had begun to refer to the "white racist capitalist regime", and to "black skinned agents of white racism and capitalism" (SASO, 1974a). An article in a SASO Newsletter of late 1975, using the vocabulary of dependency and underdevelopment theory, stated that "there will be no end to exploitation and underdevelopment within the framework of the imperialist's system" (5 (3), 1975: 5). Another article in a 1976 SASO Newsletter, after linking the bantustans to white political domination, now also tied them to capitalist exploitation:
They are there to maintain the capitalist system of this country by keeping the black man starving and ignorant so that he can continue being a tool in the white man's farm, mine or industry for the production of wealth for the exclusive benefit of the white imperialist; (quoted in Fatton, 1986: 93).
There was also an attempt to understand black collaboration with the separate development project of the apartheid government in class terms. It is the elitist class that is sowing the seeds of confusion and division amongst our people. It is the elitist class, created by the very oppressor that has joined hands with the oppressor in suppressing the legitimate aspirations of the masses... (ibid.).
However, the most categorical and significant expression of the ideological and political shift that was taking place within SASO was represented by Mji's address to the 8th GSC in July 1976. Mji argued that the state was promoting the development of a black middle class that would have a vested interest in maintaining the apartheid social order, and that this class was already revealing its eagerness to join the system of capitalist exploitation. Moreover, according to Mji, the black middle class aligned "itself with imperialism, the highest form of capitalism". There was a need:
... therefore to look at our struggle not only in terms of colour interests but also in terms of class interests... Apartheid as an exploitative system is part of a bigger whole, capitalism. There are a lot of institutions and practices even amongst ourselves that are part of the general strategy of oppression.
(SASO Bulletin, 1,1, 1977).
Mji warned that students could "be the oppressors of the people if not armed with a clear analysis and strategy, and an accurate perception of who the enemy is and in what forms he is capable of presenting himself" (ibid.). The survival of BC and its ability "to articulate the aspirations of the masses of the people", depended on "interpreting our situation from an economic and class point of view" (ibid.) This would help reveal that the South African struggle was:
...part of a bigger struggle of the third world that wants to shake off the yoke of imperialism and replace it with socialistic governments in which power is wielded not by a few wealthy families but by the people (ibid.).
With respect to strategy, Mji emphasised developing strong relations with workers and the need "to be more organised than before" (ibid.).
It is clear that Mji's analysis and interpretation of the South African social order and struggle was a radical departure from the prevailing SASO and BC approach. The latter viewed 'race' and racism as the essential fault line of the South African social order, saw little use in Marxism and in giving consideration to questions of class and capitalism. Against white racism was posited black solidarity and a radical black nationalism which was considered to be unaffected by class interests within the black oppressed, and which implicitly assumed a leading role for black intellectuals and students. In contrast, Mji's presidential address to the SASO GSC, as Nolutshungu puts it:
... strongly reflected the trend towards Marxism.... (was) a sharp attack against capitalism, imperialism [in the Marxist sense] and bourgeois nationalism,... reject(ed) the middle class accommodation the regime might envisage, (and) called on students to align themselves with the working people (1982:164, footnote 15).
The difference between Mji's perspectives and the prevailing SASO-BC approach is also commented upon by Marx who writes that Mji "directly contradicted BC's basic assumption of unity among all black victims of oppression" (1992: 77). He suggests, moreover, that the issue of class was also introduced for strategic and practical reasons - "in order to reduce the preoccupation with shaping racial identity and to encourage active mass organisation" (ibid.).
Various factors appear to have contributed to the shift in analysis and thinking. For one, the attempt to use a BC framework to pose questions about black agents of oppression and repression yielded unsatisfactory answers. Second, individual members of SASO were beginning to come into contact with the ANC via its underground literature, its Radio Freedom and underground membership, and also through official contact, during 1973, with the ANC in exile. Indeed, elements within the SASO leadership were won over to the ANC's race-class analysis and policies, and recruited into the ANC. Ex-SASO activists have written that:
The 1976 General Student Council saw a sizeable shift in BC ranks to the ANC. This was particularly strong among [UNMS] students, some of whom had recently visited Swaziland where contact was made with the ANC (Mokoape et al, 1991: 140).
Third, the Natal worker's strikes of 1973 had begun to suggest the potential power of workers and that students, while they were an important part of the anti-apartheid struggle, were not necessarily the most important constituency. Finally, the new ideas within SASO were attributed to developments in Southern Africa. According to Mji, developments in Mozambique and Angola also had an effect on SASO with resolutions passed supporting the MPLA and FRELIMO.... Slowly people started learning what these movements were all about and learning from their theories and practices.... The ideas of liberation movements like FRELIMO fighting the system of capitalist exploitation and not Portuguese people, as such, and ideas of class struggle filtered through and were giving us light in understanding why Blacks like Matanzima were selling out (quoted in AZASO National Newsletter, November 1983).
He argues that the 8th GSC of SASO brought them ultimately into facing the question of the theory of our struggle squarely and the inadequacy of our approach was realised by many people. For the first time papers dealing with the question of class struggle and the role of imperialism in our struggle were discussed (ibid.).
These new ideas were not accepted by all, and "did not go unchallenged" (ibid.). There were allegations that SASO 'was turning red', and tensions developed between those beginning to subscribe to a class or race-class analysis and gravitate towards socialism and others in SASO and the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) who were comfortable with the emphasis on race and a new social order of 'Black communalism' (ibid.).
The "Black Communalism" formulation had emerged out of a BPC organised conference and was meant to represent a third way between "capitalism and communism". According to the BPC president, "Black Consciousness abhors and detests both capitalism and communism with equal contempt", favouring instead "Black communalism", a "modified version of the traditional African economic life-style... geared to meet the demands of a highly industrialised and modern economy" (quoted in Hirson, 1979: 300-301). Despite its close working relationship with BPC (which had been formed, at the initiative of SASO, as an umbrella body of various black organisations), SASO was not consulted about the "Black Communalism" formulation, and raised objections to it.
It is clear that by the mid-1970s a new strand of thinking was beginning to emerge within SASO. The new line of thinking was important for two reasons. First, an important feature of black opposition politics after the Soweto uprising of 1976-77 would be a contestation between this new line of thinking and more traditional BC ideas. Second, it pre-figured in many ways what was to become the dominant ideological and political ideas of the 1980s, and many of the proponents of this line of thinking would become important cadres of the mass movements that would be the carriers of these ideas.
See Pogrund (1990), and especially Burchell (1986) and Beard (1972) for descriptions of student and SRC activities at Fort Hare. Biko's "objection to NUSAS was fourfold: it was doing nothing, it repeated the same old liberal dogma, within NUSAS itself black and white formed separate opposed camps" (Nolutshungu, 1982: 167), and the nature of NUSAS placed limitations on the mobilisation and organisation of black students.
According to Pityana, the idea of a black organisation began to take shape within Biko after the latter attended the NUSAS conference in mid 1968. Immediately after the NUSAS conference he had visited Pityana and shared with him the idea of an exclusive black student organisation. Thereafter, Biko and Pityana both attended UCM meeting (Wilson, 1991: 23-4).
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