South African Students Movement (SASM)


The South African Students Movement (SASM) an organisation of mainly high school students was formed to represent students, articulate grievances and foster contact between students at various schools regionally and nationally. The body first emerged as the African Student Movement, and was enlarged and renamed, in 1972, as SASM. It came to national prominence when its members organised the boycotts against Bantu Education, and especially against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, which resulted in the June 1976 uprising.

The significance of the June 16 Uprising is that it led to the most sustained period of resistance to apartheid since the period before the banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 – a series of struggles that ultimately toppled the apartheid regime in the early 1990s.

This historical significance has led to claims by various formations that they had played significant roles in mentoring and guiding the students, most notably by two strands: those aligned to the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), and those aligned with the ANC.

The role of SASM and its relation to the BCM, especially the first Black Consciousness organisation, the South African Students Organisation (SASO), has thus become the subject of a simmering controversy: since SASM was the body that organised the 16 June demonstration, questions have arisen about the role of Black Consciousness in the student revolt. BCM adherents insist that the students were thoroughly influenced by their philosophy, and also that SASM was itself a BC organisation, while adherents of the Congress tradition claim that the ANC had forged contacts with key figures in the student movement, who were guided by the exiled liberation organisation.

Whatever the case, the role of SASM in launching the student revolt of June 1976 is accepted by all. Even Baruch Hirson, a harsh critic of Black Consciousness, acknowledges that SASM played a major role in the student uprising of June 1976. In his book Year of Fire, Year of Ash, he writes: 'When finally the school students rose in protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in three school subjects, it was SASM which provided much of the leadership, SASM that called the crucial demonstration for 16 June 1976, and SASM which created the Soweto Students' Representative Council (SSRC) from which the leaders of the Revolt were drawn.'

The Origins of SASM: the African Student Movement

SASM was formed after the reorganisation of an earlier grouping, the African Students Movement (ASM), the origins of which are given different dates by various writers. According to Hirson, the ASM was formed in 1970 when senior students from three schools in Soweto – Orlando West High, Orlando High and Diepkloof High  – held a meeting to launch a student organisation.

But subsequent research by Nozipho J. Diseko, published in 1992 in a paper entitled ‘The Origins and Development of the South African Student's Movement (SASM): 1968-1976’, dates the founding of the organisation to some time in the year 1968, which Diseko emphasises was before the SASO or any BCM organisations came into existence. Diseko, who conducted several interviews with members of ASM and SASM, writes, quoting B. Lenkwe, a founder member and the first General Secretary of the organisation: ‘According to one of its founder members, it was the first of its kind to come into existence with the objective of meeting the needs of the urban-based school-going youth. As a result the organisation had no precedents to follow, and thus it was inevitable, or perhaps understandable that although it had clearly defined aims and objectives, it lacked a clear ideological framework through which it could articulate its beliefs.’

Another quote, from an interview with M. Diseko, Secretary-General of the organisation from 1970 to 1973,reinforces this impression: ‘Our political development started from our immediate environment. Unlike SASO [South African Students' Organiisation] which came out of frustrations encountered in working with white students in the University Christian Movement (UCM) and the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) we had nothing to react against and therefore no reason to be Black Consciousness when we came into existence. We moved from a different position altogether, simply having to develop our political ideas – from what was given by the situation and [we] toyed around with all sorts of ideas.’

Despite the impression of an unaligned ASM, NJ Diseko writes that the students did have some contact with the UCM, which provided the students with reading material, with some in the UCM acting as mentors, particularly Thomas Manthata. NJ Diseko also says that the students were drawn especially to notions of Pan Africanism, although this did not translate into links with the PAC. He presents a quote from his interview with P Lenkwe, the first Organising Secretary of SASM: ‘We were grappling and experimenting with Africanism and did this on our own, without reference to the PAC. We did not seek any contact with the PAC nor try to get hold of its documents. We were just trying for ourselves in South Africa to work out what it meant to be African.’

Authoritarian Schools

Diseko argues that the ASM emerged as a response to the authoritarian nature of African schools in the period after the introduction of Bantu Education, and the need for pupils to be able to represent themselves. He paints a dire picture of schools run like prisons, presided over by a demoralised body of teachers. The state cracked down on any form of political activity, and after 1955 teachers were targeted if they expressed views against the state’s education policies. Many qualified teachers left the profession in the face of these conditions, leaving many under-qualified teachers to face an ever-growing pupil-to-teacher ratio – in Soweto the ratio in 1970 was one teacher for 60 pupils.

Teachers ‘increasingly resorted to excessive corporal punishment as the main mechanism for controlling pupils’. Pupils ‘not having the required books, stationery or uniform; and the failure to learn by rote and regurgitate everything taught by the teachers’, and those who were late or had not paid their school fees were singled out for punishment.

Principals would flog students at school assemblies. Police often invaded the school premises if the Native Affairs Department felt that principals were failing to keep discipline or if students showed the slightest signs of protest. Prefects were nominated to keep an eye on the student population, acting as informers for the authorities.

Diseko quotes a former Madibane student: ‘Basically the attitude of the school authorities was that students have to be put in their place. There was no representation at all. They hardly knew how we felt and what we thought about things. All they thought was that we were a bunch of difficult brats who were not grateful to have the opportunity to learn. We could not talk back to teachers, we could not argue about anything. We were always on the receiving end.’

ASM’s Campaigns

The ASM focussed on three particular issues: they wanted schools to allow for Students Representative Councils (SRCs) so they could represent their interests and present their grievances; they wanted summer and winter schools to help students prepare for matric exams; and they wanted to limit compulsory student involvement in annual inter-school music competitions,which took time away from preparations for exams.

Principals were opposed to the formation of SRCs, as were football groups and gangs (tsotsis) in townships, who resorted to violence against members of ASM. Some principals expelled members of ASM – at Orlando West High this was the fate of Mathe Diseko and Kgothi Molotsane, who then went to Orlando High, where Curtis Nkondo was sympathetic to students’ grievances. At Naledi High Thomas Manthatha was also responsive to the students, giving them advice when asked.

The ASM faced resistance to all its demands, and the SRCs were rarely allowed to become established; the call for extra schooling was only allowed at some schools that had teachers who were sympathetic (Orlando High hosted winter schools in 1970 and 1971). The third campaign saw the ASM pitted against the Transvaal United African Teachers Association, which organised the inter-school music competitions every year. These teachers continued to take up the majority of students’ time to prepare for these competitions rather than allow the students to prepare for exams. Many schools, especially in Soweto, also failed to issue exam timetables, with students missing exams and having to repeat them a year later – a phenomenon that lends itself to a conspiracy theory, in which the state encouraged teachers to keep the number of successful matriculants to a minimum.

Despite the fact that these campaigns bore little or no fruit, the students became organised and began to confer with students at other schools, sometimes in other provinces, leading to the idea of a national student organisation. The organisation grew, and imprinted itself on the youth. By 1970, their executive had a member from Sharpeville, Nkutseou Matsau. One student, according to Diseko, recalls that when he ‘arrived at Orlando High in 1970, he found a hive of activities which he joined’.

Members of the ASM were targeted by the police, and a number of them were arrested. One member, Sidney Mokoa, was detained in 1972 and so severely tortured that he never recovered his sanity.

Members of the ASM were persecuted by school authorities, with a number of principals banning the organisation at their schools. According to P Lenkwe, the first Organising Secretary of ASM: ‘At Madibane it took one protest to have us expelled. The principal used dirty methods. Those of us involved in this were isolated as a group and the rest of the students intimidated into divulging information about our activities. So I was isolated as a ring-leader, brutally assaulted by the principal and the teachers, and told to dig a trench alone around a massive sports-field, and subsequently suspended. After this I was never able to return to school.’

The BCM, school-based bodies and the formation of SASM

The BCM began when Steve Biko, Barney Pityana and other students launched SASO in 1969, mobilising Black students at tertiary institutions. They developed the philosophy of Black Consciousness, and they or their adherents launched several allied organisations, including the Black People’s Convention (BCP) and Black Community Programmes (BCP). The BC activists also turned their attention to school-going students, and in September 1972 launched the Transvaal Youth Organisation (TRYO).  In July 1973 they launched the National Youth Organisation (NAYO).

At the graduation ceremony of the University of the North, Turfloop, in April 1972, SASO member Onkgopotse Tiro delivered a blistering attack on Bantu Education, which saw the university expel him a few days later. SASO adopted the Alice Declaration two weeks later, pledging to close down all Black tertiary institutions in support of Tiro, and called on students to support the boycott. Students at many Black universities and tertiary institutions began a boycott of classes. Tiro moved to Johannesburg and began to teach at the Morris Isaacson School in Soweto, where he mentored some of the students who would take part in the organisation of the June 16 uprising, notably Tsietsi Mashinini.

The leaders of ASM held meetings with BCM leaders such as Strini Moodley, Harry Nengwekhulu and Biko, and were advised to change their name, substituting ‘South African’ for ‘African’, so that the body would not be perceived as an exclusive African organisation but would draw in Coloured and Indian pupils, in line with the BCM’s definition of ‘Black’.

In the meanwhile, the ASM had begun to reach out to school-student organisations in other parts of the country, especially the Eastern Cape and Eastern Transvaal. In March 1972, the ASM held a meeting with students from the various formations, and they renamed the organisation the South African Students Movement.

SASM embarked on various campaigns, many targeted against the South African Bureau of Racial Affairs (SABRA), which attempted to legitimise the apartheid and Bantustan policies of the state. Some of SABRA’s activities included organising meetings of teachers who belonged to the same ethnic group, dividing teachers into Zulus, Xhosas, Tswanas and Sothos. SASM’s members would storm these meetings and disrupt the proceedings.

SASM’s members also disrupted meetings held by the Dutch Reformed Church, whose ministers would come to Soweto schools to deliver talks on Bantu education. In one instance, a Dominee Fritz was chased off the school premises.

SASM and TRYO members also tried to establish cordial relations with migrant workers based at hostels in Soweto, an experiment that failed to yield the desired result, but impressed itself on the students and expanded their political consciousness.

By 1973 the state cracked down on SASO and the BCM, and Biko, Pityana and others were banned. While the BC activists were held in high regard by SASM’s members, some within SASM as well as BCM organisations began to develop critiques of BC policy. According to Diseko: ‘Around the same period (1973), SASM and National Youth Organisation members were becoming critical of the Black Consciousness Movement and its philosophy. A similar process was also taking place in the major formations of the Black Consciousness Movement, particularly within the South African Students' Organisation. For security reasons, however, most of the discussions on the subject were not public. In the debates that took place, four aspects of Black Consciousness were subjected to major criticism: its economic policy; the role of White people in the struggle; its programme of action; and the question of armed struggle’.

While many continued to espouse the philosophy of Black Consciousness, some SASM members, according to Tebello Motapanyane, were recruited by the ANC in 1974. These cells, says Motapanyane, 'were formed by the ANC. We in SASM did not actually think of forming such things. We were operating legally and tried to keep SASM as a broad legal organisation. But some of us listened to our elders from the ANC when they said we needed more than just mass legal organisation. Hence we formed these underground cells.’

Joe Gqabi, who had been released from Robben Island in the early 1970s and was living in Soweto, had some hand in forging links between the ANC and BC and SASM activists. According to Diseko, ‘Working with young people like Mosima Sexwale, a former member of SASM, and Naledi Tsiki, the ANC was able through key SASM members to establish units in Soweto to which other young people were drawn. This was to change the organisational form of SASM, particularly in Soweto, leading to a many-layered structure.’

A further inspiration for the students to take action was the SASO/BPC trial late in 1975, in which nine BC leaders were accused of terrorism after organising rallies in 1974 to celebrate the impending independence of Mozambique and Angola. At the trial, the accused appeared in court singing, clenching their fists in Black Power salutes, and turning the proceedings into political theatre, sending the courtroom crowds into a frenzy.

When Biko was called to the stand, he testified over a week, turning the courtroom, according to some accounts, into a ‘seminar on Black Consciousness’. His testimony received national coverage in the newspapers, and excited millions who had never seen their plight and the justification for their resistance so eloquently presented.

NAYO's leaders were detained in August and September 1975. At the trial of the NAYO Seven, which began in March 1976, the accused appeared in court wearing African shirts, harking back to the trial of the SASO leaders, who wore black and raised their fists in the Black Power salute. Demonstrations were staged outside the court throughout the early stages of the trial. On 18 March the police tried to disperse the crowd, setting dogs on the people, who began stoning the police. The incident developed into a riot, and  prompted the State to move the trial from Johannesburg to Pretoria. The trial continued into May, when two of the accused were convicted of 'inciting' people to undergo military training, and sentenced to five years in prison. The witnesses, many of whom did not cooperate, were charged with perjury, and one accused was released and immediately redetained. The trial weakened NAYO as well as SASM, since many in NAYO were also members or office bearers of SASM. Despite these setbacks, SASM was especially active before June 16.

All these events were evidence of a growing politicisation of the Black population, and particularly of students at secondary and tertiary institutions.

The ‘many-layered structure’ of SASM made it possible for the organisation to continue its operations. According to Diseko: ‘It was primarily this many-layered structure which was later to cushion the SASM from the impact of the swoop on its members in late 1975 by the security police and the flight into exile of many who were implicated in the 1976 National Youth Organisation treason trial. In the latter, seven National Youth Organisation members were charged under the Terrorism Act for recruiting people for military training. Organisationally the SASM survived the arrest and flight into exile of many of its members well, and through this structure was able not only to organise the march which was to launch Soweto and the rest of the country into more than two decades of mass activities but also to play a crucial role in sustaining the uprising from the 16 June 1976 well into 1977.

Events leading up to June 1976

When government decreed in 1975 that Afrikaans would be the language of instruction in half of all subjects taught in Standards five and six, there was widespread opposition from teachers, parents and students. In the first months of 1976, demonstrations took place at various schools. Probably the first example of student opposition took place when pupils clashed with the principal of Thomas Mofolo Secondary School, the first school to impose the new language of instruction, on 24 February 1976.

By March the principal at Thomas Mofolo called in the police. Motapanyane, a student at Naledi, went with fellow SASM students to talk to students at Thomas Mofolo and schools in Meadowlands, and students began boycotting classes. The Naledi SASM students went to Orlando West Junior Secondary School, and students there began destroying their textbooks and boycotting classes in protest. According to Motapanyane, whose SASM branch visited many other schools throughout Soweto, protests were widespread by May 1976. By 17 May 1600 students were boycotting at Orlando West and 500 at Phefeni Junior Secondary School.

On 27 May an Afrikaans teacher was stabbed, and when police were called in, they were stoned. On 8 June police descended on a school to arrest a SASM local secretary, and they were stoned and their car was burnt.

On 13 June the Naledi branch of SASM called a meeting, which was attended by about 400 students who voted to hold a mass demonstration. SASM established an Action Committee, which had two representatives from each school, and was later renamed the Soweto Students Representative Committee (SSRC). The council was recognised as the leadership of the student movement. Tsietsi Mashinini was elected president of the SSRC, and his fellow pupil from Morris Isaacson, Murphy Morobe, was also on the committee.

Branches of SASM in other parts of the country engaged in protests in their own regions, and many students nation-wide were primed to take action without being goaded.

Baruch Hirson acknowledges that SASM played a major role in the student uprising of June 1976. In his book Year of Fire, Year of Ash, he writes: 'When finally the school students rose in protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in three school subjects, it was SASM which provided much of the leadership, SASM that called the crucial demonstration for 16 June 1976, and SASM which created the Soweto Students' Representative Council (SSRC) from which the leaders of the Revolt were drawn.'

June 16, the SSRC and the turning point

The students marched on June 16, 1976, and were met by a brutal police reaction. It is estimated that 20,000 students took part in the march. More than 500 students were killed on that day, Hector Pieterson being the first casualty.

The members of the SSRC were desperately sought by the police, and Mashinini eventually fled the country in August 1976, with Khotso Seatlholo taking his place as president of the SSRC.

The SSRC became a major force in the aftermath of the uprising, calling for stay-aways, boycotts and various forms of political action. The revolt was no longer a student revolt, and workers joined in political resistance, bringing business and industry to a halt during several general strikes.

Thousands of students fled the country to swell the ranks of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC. International reaction to the massacre was swift, with former allies of the apartheid regime condemning the shootings and the policy of apartheid. Many of the students continued to take part in organisations that emerged to oppose apartheid, such as AZAPO,COSAS, and the UDF, among others.

On 12 September 1977, Steve Biko died in detention after being brutally assaulted by security police. Widespread revolts took place in reaction to his death, and a week later the state cracked down on BC organisations, banning 17, including SASO, BPC, BCP, as well as SASM.

Some Members of SASM

B Lankwe, first Secretry General

M Diseko, Secretary General from 1970 to 1973

Tebello Motapanyane, Secretary General 1976

P Lenkwe, first Organising Secretary 1970

Zweli Sizani, Organising Secretary 1976

M. Saasa, treasurer of the organization (period unknown)

Billy Masethla, member

• Nozipho J. Diseko, The Origins and Development of the South African Student's Movement (SASM): 1968-1976, Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 18
•  No. 1, Special Issue: Social History of Resistance in South Africa (Mar., 1992), pp. 40-62
• Gail Gerhart, Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology, 1979, University of California Press.
•  Baruch Hirson, Year of Fire, Year of Ash: The Soweto Revolt: Roots of a Revolution? (London, 1979), Zed Press
•  Thomas Karis and Gail Gerhart, From Protest to Challenge, Volume Five: Nadir and Resurgence, 1964-1979, 1997, UNISA Press