Youth and the National Liberation Struggle

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The launch of the BPC at St Peter's Seminary, Hammanskraal, 8 February 1973. Source: Photograph by Mike Mzileni © BAHA

Youth Politics in South Africa in the 1970s

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 becoming increasingly radical and openly hostile to apartheid and white supremacist rule in general. SASO took 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 Black subjugation.

In 1972 the Black People's Convention (BPC) was formed to organise Black people and promote the Black Consciousness philosophy, complementing SASO which was student-oriented. Townships across the country were experiencing an increase in the number of scholars and schools. This meant the youth in townships were increasingly being concentrated at schools and youth networks were beginning to have a wider reach.

In 1974 the South African Students Movement (SASM) was formed. SASM is widely considered an initiative of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), but it has been acknowledged that some of the leaders were already being influenced by ANC underground operatives.  Murphy Morobe, Billy Masetlha and several other high profile student leaders were initiated into the Congress tradition by Joe Gqabi.The 1976 uprising raised the political awareness of students and introduced a renewed sense of independence and initiative among the youth, inspiring them to change their surroundings, with schools as their first focus. However, the initiative was limited to Soweto, without any serious attempt at forming a national body.

The state’s response to the students’ uprising in 1976 was brutal, forcing thousands of youth into exile, mainly in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. These swelled the ranks of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Pan Africanist Congress’s Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA). Many who joined MK were sent into training camps in Angola and Mozambique, and later to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They returned in the later 1970s as trained cadres of MK’s June 16 Detachment. The increased number of bombings in the country following the Soweto uprising in the later 1970s and 1980s were carried out mainly by members of the June 16 Detachment.

Others students opted to remain within Black Consciousness formations which were struggling to establish themselves in exile. The majority joined the South African Youth Revolutionary Council (SAYRCO), launched in Lusaka during the Easter Weekend of 1979, modelling the organisation on the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) in exile. This initiative collapsed when Khotso Seatlholo was arrested in Soweto in 1981 while attempting to establish underground networks inside South Africa. 

The banning of SASO and the SSRC 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 appalling conditions in the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Zululand. The result was the expulsion of some SRC members and 200 other students. Students also began protesting in support of wider community issues. Students at the University of the North organised a march to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre and protest against the forced removal of the Makgatho community. Students at the University of Western Cape pledged their support for striking union workers of food manufacturer Fattis and Monis.

The formation of the South African National Students' Congress(SANSCO) introduced a new phase in school protests and student activity. Though 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 Azanian People's Organisation’s (AZAPO) conference of September 1979. During the conference, AZAPO students 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 an independent political position by recognising AZAPO one of a range of 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) was formed in May 1979 and from its inception 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 SANSCO and COSAS 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 it was Mozambique and Angola, and now Zimbabwe is free, tomorrow it will be Namibia and South Africa.”

COSAS went on and issued another press release pointing out that it hoped the “revolution” in Zimbabwe would fuel the liberation of South Africa. Zimbabwe’s proximity inspired the imagination of South African youth organisations. 


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Last updated : 24-Oct-2016

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