Youth and the National Liberation Struggle

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Students from the University of Witwatersrand are joined by workers in protest. June 1976 © Rand Daily Mail

The Youth Struggle

From the early years of colonial rule, South African youth had participated in various forms against the racist character of colonialism, oppression, and segregation policies that subjected Black people young and old to indignity and inferior status. From the early twentieth century, schools became prominent arenas where young people became aware of the problems faced by Black people and were organised to lead protests against segregation and degrading of their status. These early protests were sparse and not connected to other school protests taking place in the country. Before the formation of the African National Congress Youth League in 1945, Youth politics took place without a national body to reconcile different geographic areas from Rural to Urban areas or a forum that would bring different schools together. At first glance, the school riots appeared to be concerned only with short-term gains, parochial, and apolitical issues like good food, codes of conduct, and assault by teachers. This was however not the case. Students in boarding schools were given very poor quality food because of White people's inaccurate and racist assumptions about what a Black person was accustomed to. These racist assumptions determined the relationship between student and school authorities and reinforced notions of White superiority and Black inferiority. A letter by a student in these early years indicates that students were aware of the racist politics of South Africa and attempts by the government to reproduce these racist politics in schools.

Towards the 1920s and onwards, school protests became more frequent and prominent on the national agenda and media. In February 1920 the first riot at a school was reported by the media. The end of the First World War and the great depression of 1930 made matters worse. There was no sign that school conditions for African students were improving. The major bulk of education during this period was carried out by churches, which were partially funded by government.

In a township like Soweto, the unavailability of schools became a serious problem as a result of the increasing urbanisation of African youth. Increasing school riots forced the government to appoint two commissions of inquiry, the first was in 1940 and the second was in 1946. However, the government was not concerned about the causes or solutions to the school crisis. It did not publish the two reports or follow up on them. On the other hand, the government was concerned that the current education system was too liberal and producing “Black radicals”. From a theological perspective, the government was also distrustful of Christian ethics that were taught by churches other than the Afrikaner denominations, for example the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1948 the Afrikaner National Party won the general elections and set forth with its agenda to transform the South African education system for Black people. The following year February 1949, government appointed a commission of inquiry headed by Dr W. W. M. Eiselen , to investigate ways in which Black education could be altered to suit their needs as an independent race. The commission proposed that the government should set up Black Local Authorities to be responsible for the education of Black people. In rural areas, where there were chiefs, traditional authorities would be given the responsibility of education. The intention was to avoid the education of Black people at the “cost” of White people. The government proposal was that Black people should shoulder the financial responsibility of Black education. In 1953 government passed the Bantu Education Act that transferred Black education to the Department of Native Affairs and fixed the government's financial contribution to the sum of R13-000-000. Anything beyond this figure would have to come from Black people. The following year Dr Verwoerd , then Minister of Native Affairs, said that:

“When I have control of Native Education I will transform it so that the Native will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them ... people who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for them ”¦ when my Department controls education it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge ”¦ What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd.”

It was now obvious that it was a matter of principle that education for Black people would be inferior and government would drive it attempts to build a White supremacist society. Added to this, the African National Congress (ANC) appeared too weak to mount any serious challenge to government policies. It organised a nation wide boycott that was easily crushed by government threats to expel all students who failed to attend school or could be linked to the boycott.

From the 1970s onwards school riots began to take shape once more. In the rural areas of Lebowa , Northern Transvaal, Transkei and Ciskei , school riots turned violent when students damaged school property. There were student arrests and court sentences of fines or corporal punishment. Moroka High School in Thaba Nchu became a scene of violence. In all these protests, students were displeased with the gradual loss of their freedom in schools and increasing government control of the school programme. Towards the end of 1975, government issued an instruction to the Department of Education to teach half of all subjects in standard five in Afrikaans. Parents and schools immediately opposed this instruction. From the beginning of 1976, Soweto schools were in protest. In June different schools joined forces in demonstrations that culminated in the infamous June 16 uprising .

1976 - June 16 and Youth Politics in South Africa

The 1970s period was a watershed for youth politics in South Africa. The South African Student Organisation (SASO) was gathering support from campus to campus. Their activities were increasingly becoming radical and openly hostile to apartheid and white supremacist rule in general. It was also during this period that SASO felt confident enough to carry its political message to High Schools. However, it was still a cautious approach with the limited objective of preparing young scholars for leadership in the Black community. Still, the climate was politically charged with opposition to measures and policies that sought to reinforce a Black inferiority complex. In 1972 theBlack People's Convention (BPC) was also formed to organise Black people and spearhead the process of Black consciousness. Townships across the country were experiencing an increase in the number of scholars and number of schools. This meant that the youth in townships were now increasingly being concentrated in schools. Youth networks were increasing and becoming much wider.

Youth politics adopted an openly confrontational stance against the Apartheid regime. However, the early Manifestos of the Congress of South African Student s were focused mainly on raising student matters such as school fees, the use of corporal punishment and lack of representation in school governing bodies. At the time, these were not petty matters because the educational system in South Africa was based on a strict disciplinary code and conformist policies.

The 1976 uprising raised the political awareness of students and introduced a renewed expression of youth independence and initiative to change their surroundings, starting with schools. From the early 1970s, the South African Student Organisation became an umbrella body for a number of school organisations leading up to the June 16 uprising. However, the initiative was limited to Soweto without any serious attempt at forming a national body.

The banning of SASO in October 1977 left students without a national body, but protest against university and school governing authorities continued on different campuses countrywide. In 1978, students protested against the appalling conditions in the Faculty of Sciences at the university of Zululand. The results were the expulsion of some Student Representative Council members and 200 other students. The other significant change was that students protested increasingly in support of wider community issues. Students at the University of the North organised a commemoration march for Sharpville Massacre and a march against the removal of the Makgatho community. Students at the University of Western Cape pledged their support for the striking union workers of the spaghetti and pasta manufacturers.

The formation of SANSCO introduced a new phase in school protests and activity. Thought the organisation was politically and organisationally weak, it had a deep interest in community and township issues. The formation of SANSCO did not come from university campuses and student concerns as was the case with the formation of SASO. It came directly from the political organisationAzanian People's Organisation (AZAPO) conference of September 1979. During the conference, student members of AZAPO elected an Interim Committee (IC) to prepare for the launch of SANSCO. The new national body was first called the Azanian Student Organisation, but renamed SANSCO in 1986. Though SANSCO was formed at the initiative and with financial support of AZAPO, it carved out its independent political position by refusing to recognise AZAPO as the only legitimate Black political organisation in the country.

Another significant development in the aftermath of the June 16 uprising was the formation of a national high school education student organisation the Congress of South African Students (COSAS). Cosas was formed in May 1979 and from its formation it was closely aligned to the banned ANC. The organisation developed a close working relationship with the leadership of AZAPO and SANSCO and supported SANSCO's open political position. The formation of Cosas attracted the attention and recognition of other national liberation movements and trade unions. The national liberation of Southern Rhodesia from its own version of apartheid rule brought the SANSCO and Cosas organisations closer. The two organised a joint rally in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe. The situation in Zimbabwe indicated to the youth of South Africa that the liberation of South Africa was imminent. Cosas and SANSCO issued a statement declaring that:

“Yesterday was Mozambique and Angola and now that Zimbabwe was free, tomorrow it would be Namibia and South Africa.”

Cosas went on and issued another press release pointing out that it is the hope of Cosas that the “revolution” in Zimbabwe would fuel the liberation of South Africa. The proximity of Zimbabwe inspired the imagination of South African youth organisations. The 1980s was also a period of serious student protests and riots. Cosas moved increasingly closer to other liberation movements aligned to the ANC. The foundation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) to organise resistance against South Africa's constitutional reforms gave Cosas a much wider role in politics. The proposed Tricameral Parliament would increase student participation in national politics.

President P.W. Botha instituted a parliamentary select committee to look into the reforms proposed by the Theron Commission . On 8 May 1980, the select committee tabled its report, suggesting the creation of a Tricameral Parliament (with three houses) to include limited representation for Coloured and Indian people, but excluding African people. These proposed reforms were opposed from all political fronts. The Afrikaner nationalist Conservative Party opposed the reforms believing they were dangerous to the regime because they would undermine apartheid. The Progressive Federal Party (PFP) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) also opposed the suggested constitutional reforms because they were convinced that the reforms would worsen tensions with the majority of South Africans (the Africans) who would still be excluded. The PFP also wanted the inclusion of a Bill of Rights to protect individual freedom against state abuse. Student bodies rejected the reforms because of their racist character and for keeping real political power in the hands of the White minority.

Student politics at the time was accompanied by a militant approach that target any symbols of authority and subordination. During the Cosas conference of 1982, students placed themselves in a leadership position of their communities.

The Anti-Republic Day Campaign, which was organised by the UDF, attracted the participation of Township youths on a greater scale than before. The UDF learned from the experiences of June 16 that the youth could be mobilised as full time activists, training grounds for new recruits, and for the easy spread of information. In 1982, Cosas and SANSCO and other UDF affiliates, joined hands for anEducation Charter campaign. The aim of the campaign was to collect the demands of South Africans concerning education and draw up an Education Charter that would inform students, workers, and parents bodies of the current educational crisis and possible solutions. In 1982, Van Heerden, a Youth Leader, made it clear to the youth organisations at a conference that the students needed to make demands that would go beyond the achievement of reforms to the actual dismantling of apartheid. As a result, the two organisations avoided a charter that would merely call for reform in South Africa. They advocated the transformation of South Africa into a democratic society as a precondition for the eventual implementation of the charter.

The charter was completed in 1984 and enhanced the national profile of student politics. By the mid 1980s government had labelled Cosas and other youth organisations to be the main instigators of revolts against apartheid.

The revival of Black Local Authorities by the government brought students and youth organisations and UDF politics together once more. These organisations were once again called upon to take an active role in the campaigns against the Black Local Authorities. These authorities were substitutes for the representation of Black people in parliament. School boycotts became a central strategy for youth organisations. As a result, by the end of 1984 there were about 220 000 children absent from school in various parts of the country.

Parents became increasingly concerned with intimidating tactics used by youth organisations. The Soweto Parent's Crisis Committee formed in 1986, tried to solve the problem by calling on students to return to their classrooms and resume their studies. The UDF leadership, and in particular Popo Molefe , was against the continuation of the school boycott, and felt discussions should be started with the state on this issue. Cosas opposed the move as counter productive and collaboration with government.

UDF alliance was not limited to Cosas and SANSCO youth organisations in major urban areas. In rural areas where it had not successfully entrenched itself as a mass based social movement, it had to rely on grassroots organisations.

Notable among them was the Sekhukhune Youth Organisation (SEYO)which was established in 1986. Van Kessel (2000:76) argues that the backbone of the UDF in the Northern Transvaal area was SEYO, a youth organisation that had proliferated in the region around the 1980s. Furthermore, these youth organisations maintained a flirting relationship with the UDF and maintained their own independence from UDF politics and issues. As a result, many of the protests organised by the youth were the result of their own initiatives. Cosas, instrumental in the formation of SEYO as introduced to rural schools in the early 1980s, waned after the formation of SEYO. SEYO attracted much greater participation from many rural youths who held it in high esteem for being the legitimate and indigenous community body. It became a powerful organisation and succeeded in forcing some of the schools in the area to introduce Student Representative Councils.

Their commitment to make the country ungovernable caused serious tension between parents and youths. Initially, SEYO was against traditional leadership and circumcision schools. It believed that traditional leaders had outlived their usefulness and were undemocratic. Moreover, the association of traditional leaders with government Bantustan authorities increased the rift between them and SEYO. This position suited the UDF, which wanted to “entrench people's organs” in rural areas. Rural youths, faced with harsh conditions, lack of employment, poor school conditions, and inspired by the militancy of Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), became very radical and militant against any person associated with the apartheid regime or suspected of weakening community resistance against apartheid. Prominent on the list was suspected spies and witches revealing to the authorities community weaknesses. The killing of suspected witches became prominent in the Northern Transvaal political landscape.

Witchcraft accusation came after a revolt against the Lebowakgomo Bantustan authorities. The students embarked on a march against detention of students by the local traditional leader, Chief Mphasha, who had close ties with the government. The march began from the Sekhukhune College of Education and attracted a huge crowd that started destroying government property and burning vehicles belonging to the homeland government. The following day after a funeral of one of the marchers, who was shot and killed by the authorities, lightning struck one of the youths at the march. The youth believed that it was an act of witchcraft caused by one the parents in the community to punish students. The parent was hunted down and burned to death in an act that defied all authorities. The youth believed that as defenders of the community and respondents to the call to take up arms against the state, they were justified in taking violent action against anyone acting against them or the community at large.

Last updated : 08-Jun-2015

This article was produced for South African History Online on 08-Jun-2015