Youth and the National Liberation Struggle

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Struggles of the youth against segregation and injustice 1920s-1976

The rise of youth to political leadership came as a result of education. Many young people received an education, while their parents may have belonged to a generation in which education was not considered a key to a good life. It is therefore significant that many of the prominent leaders of the ANC, the African People’s Organisation (APO), and the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses were in their twenties and thirties when they assumed leadership positions in their organisations.

In the 1920s the South African Labour Party had a youth wing, called the South African Labour League of Youth. Its members included activists who were later to join the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). One of these was Hilda Bernstein, who joined the CPSA in 1940 

It is also in the 1920s that the first of a series of school protests against government policies was reported in the media. It was reported that “presumably, not all students of the earlier generation ‘worshipped the school authorities’! The first recorded stoppages of lessons,[always called strikes in the South African newspapers] and the first riots at African schools occurred in 1920.” Also, “in February, students at the Kilnerton training centre went on a hunger strike ‘for more food’.”

During the 1930s there are fewer reports of unrest at the schools.  Little is reported about schools in the period between the wars. However, “short items in the African press did mention strikes in the late twenties, and there were reports of many more in the pre-war years. It would have been strange if pupils in the schools, starved of resources during the 1930s, had not expressed their anger by striking and burning the premises”.

During and after World War II, the number of young people in urban areas rose dramatically. And “in a township like Soweto, the unavailability of schools became a serious problem as a result of the increasing urbanisation of African youth. An increasing number of protests in schools forced the government to appoint two commissions of inquiry – the first was in 1940 and the second in 1946.”

However, the government was not concerned about the causes of 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 such as the Dutch Reformed Church.

Equally disconcerting to the government during the 1940s was the growing number of youth in the townships not absorbed by the inadequate schooling system. This gave rise to urban youth cultures that posed a challenge to forms of authority. One of the responses of the state to this problem in Witwatersrand Townships was to create facilities such as the Diepkloof Reformatory, started by arch-liberal writer and activist Alan Paton. Other responses came from Black communities themselves, such as the establishment of vigilante groups to deal with rising levels of crime in the townships.

In 1948 the National Party won the general elections and set up an agenda to transform the education system for Black people. The following year the government appointed a commission of inquiry, headed by Dr WWM 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 set up Black Local Authorities to take responsibility for the education of Black people. In rural areas traditional authorities would be given the responsibility for the education of Black children.

The intention was to free Whites of the financial responsibility of educating Black people. The government’s proposal was that Black people should bear the financial responsibility of Black education. In 1953 government passed the Bantu Education Act, which transferred Black education to the Department of Native Affairs and fixed the government’s financial contribution at the sum of R13-million. Anything amount above this figure would have to come from Black people. The following year Dr Verwoerd, then Minister of Native Affairs, said:

“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 be determined to build a White supremacist society. Many considered the African National Congress’s (ANC) response to have been too weak and inadequate to mount any serious challenge to government policies. The ANC organised a nation-wide boycott that was easily crushed by government threats to expel all students who failed to attend school or who could be linked to the boycott. But the Bantu Education Campaign was linked to other national campaigns that were equally critical at this stage. The campaign to save Sophiatown and the anti-pass campaigns were considered national priorities by the ANC and the Bantu Education campaign was linked to these. It is significant that members of the African National Congress Youth League(ANCYL) were particularly prominent in these campaigns.

In the 1950s there was no distinct youth resistance to developments in education. The struggle against Bantu Education became part of a broader struggle in which adults were at the forefront. However, attempts were already being made to mobiles the youth as the ANC was widening its mass base, having started a decade earlier with the formation of the ANCYL and the ANC’s Women’s League. The involvement of youth in politics in the 1960s, whether or not in response to developments in education, reflected the apathy that had set in following the Sharpeville massacre. And during the next decade and a half, the Apartheid government continued to tighten legislation as part of its assault on the quality of Black education.

From the 1970s onwards school riots began to take shape once more. In the rural areas of 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 saw ongoing protests. In June various schools joined forces in demonstrations that culminated in the June 16 uprising.


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Last updated : 28-May-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 28-May-2013