Filling the void left by SASO? The Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO): A summary
Following the banning of the South African Student Organisation (SASO) a new student’s structure was constituted to fill the void. The new structure called the Azanian Student Organisation (AZASO) was established in 1979 by students from five black universities and one college of education. AZASO, which was formed under Tom Nkoana, initially emerged as a continuation of the banned organization, SASO, but later manifested itself to be a different organisation that adopted ANC policies and the Freedom Charter over the Black Consciousness Doctrine. In addition AZASO advocated a non-racial policy towards working with other youth organisations, while SASO embraced the philosophy of Black Consciousness which called for a total break away from White student structures, they did not co-operate with them.
AZASO also secured political cooperation with other ANC-aligned formations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress of South African Students (COSAS). All these developments highlighted a drift by AZASO from the philosophy of Black Consciousness and its associated organisations like SASO and the Black People’s Convention (BPC).
The formation of AZASO
Black students at tertiary institutions across the country formed AZASO in November 1979. Students came from Fort Hare, Zululand, Natal, Turfloop (University of the North) and Durban-Westville universities as well as Mapumulo college. At its inaugural conference in Pietermaritzburg, a preamble was adopted endorsing the philosophy of Black Consciousness and an interim executive was elected to establish branches at the various campuses and to draft a constitution.
From the outset, its leaders were involved in an ideological debate, with their major concerns being the roles of whites in the national liberation struggle and the question of socialism in a future South Africa. At its annual General Council conference held at Wilgespruit in 1981, the issues of non-racialism and socialism dominated the discussions. The outcome was decisive in that the organization committed itself to the Freedom Charter, cooperation with COSAS and non-racial politics among the organized youth. Following its conference, AZASO bridged the distance that had existed between Black student organizations and the national Union of South African Students (NUSAS) by developing a working alliance on the Education Charter Campaign. As the number of Black students increased in the early 80s, these students constituted a social category that was distinct from the majority of black people, who were predominantly working class. Therefore, low wages, unemployment, inadequate housing and services were realities out of which they had emerged. It was thus a natural course of action for students to identify with and involve itself in a number of community campaigns and trade union support campaigns. They involved themselves in research, data collection, analysis and compilation of information that enabled workers to get a better understanding of their situation. This was similar to the role played by students prior to the 73 Strikes who brought to the workers? attention the issues of low wages and introduced them to the realities of the poverty datum line.
AZASO also focused on the Education Charter campaign, specifically the need for students to formulate a common set of educational demands. It saw the Education Charter campaign as a rallying point to mobilize students and make student structures more mass-based. It did so firstly by supporting the Freedom Charter and then later in 1986, by changing its name to the South African National Students Congress (SANSCO). Like COSAS, AZASO saw a direct relationship between the educational and other (socio-political) struggles. Its guiding principle was the struggle for the creation of a democratic South Africa free of racist oppression and exploitation. It also welcomed the formation of the UDF and had participated in meetings that preceded the formation of the Front. Its members played an important role popularizing the UDF, by promoting anti-election campaigns and collecting signatures during the 'Million Signature Campaign'.
In 1987 AZASO called for the transformation of tertiary institutions into 'Peoples' Campuses' and called for formation of committees of peoples' power at all levels, from the SRC through to hostel and floor committees, faculty councils, class committees, as well as sports and cultural committees. These structures that had their parallel in the street committees, people?s courts and the like, were seen as the foundations of people?s power and democratic control of campuses.
At the time of the launch of the UDF, AZASO was represented by at least 15 branches from institutions in the Transvaal, Western Cape, Natal and the Eastern Cape. Despite being banned at institutions in the Eastern Cape, Natal and having had been weakened by repressive state measures, by 1986 AZASO had had a presence in 67 colleges, campuses and technicons. Despite unequal facilities, racist white lecturers, conservative university administrations, police and army invasion of campuses, student struggles were largely shaped by events in schools and communities around them. These national and regional struggles were seen in AZASO?s role in the 1980s schools boycott, the protest against the introduction of the tri-cameral parliament and Black Local Authorities, the 1984 Vaal Triangle uprising and the 1985 school boycotts. This was interspersed with local student struggles that led to sustained boycotts over the expulsion of student leaders, racist lecturers, and dismal conditions at black tertiary institutions.
AZASO was able to ensure that the struggle at tertiary institutions presented a challenge to the apartheid system. This was embodied in their commitment to the Freedom Charter and the goal of national liberation as well as the links they identified between educational issues and other forms of national oppression.