From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai

University students on black campuses were politically active in the 1970s. We have included two documents that illustrate the overall objectives and changing tactics of students. The spokesman in both cases is Abba Omar, president in 1982 of the student body of the University of Durban-Westville. In the first document Omar responds to questions put by SASPU[South African Students Press Union] Nationalon developments at the University of Durban-Westville. The second is an address he gave as national secretary of the Azanian Students' Organisation at an AZASO conference, 2-4 July 1982. Sources: (a) SASPU NATIONAL, February-March 1982; (b) copy supplied by Abba Omar.

(a) QUESTION: 1980 was the first year an elected SRC operated at U.D.W. Why was an SRC not formed before then?

ANSWER: In the past, university authorities had consistently tried to keep student organisations under the control of Admin. This was done mainly through attempts to force students to form clubs and societies.

Then in 1971 an interim SRC was elected and spearheaded moves to form an SRC acceptable to students. A constitution was drawn up and presented to Admin in 1972. This constitution was turned down without the University Council having been through it, and students were presented with a constitution that gave the rector immense power over student affairs.

Students boycotted in protest against Admin's actions and resolved that there would be no organised, activity on campus until certain conditions were met. This became known as the '72 Resolution and it demanded that an SRC have the right to make press statements, produce publications and invite guest speakers without the rector's permission. Another condition was that the SRC have control over student recreation monies.

The 1980 elections were really the culmination of a move which began in 1979.

At that stage a problem had developed. A large number of students, because of years of opposing the formation of an SRC, saw such opposition as being based on an immutable principle.

This in fact went against the grain of the '72 resolution, which saw the conditions on campus as being dynamic and allowed for the possibility of achieving an acceptable constitution.

At a meeting held in 1979 a constitutional committee was elected. Constitutional arrangements were completed by early 1980 and Admin had agreed to the demands of the '72 resolution, but elections had to be postponed until September 1980 because of the education boycott. A poll of 42 per cent was returned.

QUESTION: You've mentioned the 1980 boycott. I understand that the situation at U.D.W. was always volatile. What is your assessment of the 1980 boycott in terms of organisational gains at U.D.W.?

ANSWER: The boycott had a tremendous impact on all those who were touched by it - whether they were school students confronting the police or parents who provided them with unqualified support. It had an immense politicising effect on students at U.D.W. - it was almost like an internal 'great leap'.

However, after the boycotts many of these gains were lost because of poor follow-up. This was mainly because structures to incorporate these students and to extend their organisational abilities had not been set up.

Also, the question of having an SRC was once again taken up. Admin had apparently flouted the constitutional provisions by not allowing a guest speaker to enter the university premises, and this caused some students to embark on a campaign to halt the formation of an SRC. After much campaigning and pamphleteering from both sides, it was finally decided to continue with the SRC's formation.

QUESTION: What were the reasons students forwarded against forming an SRC?

ANSWER: Their main argument was that an SRC would give credibility to an institution of apartheid (the university); that there was a danger of it being taken over by reactionary elements; that the university authorities could easily suspend an SRC when they thought it necessary; and that it would misdirect the energies of the students.

QUESTION: In 1980 there was a poll of 42 per cent in the SRC elections whereas in 1981 only 11 per cent of the students voted. What led to this sharp decline?

ANSWER: Once again, I would like to give a brief background before focusing on the election itself. The first SRC took office, as I explained, in an atmosphere of heightened political consciousness. It embarked on a programme of active support for community issues and focused on days of political importance such as September 12 and October 11. But a growing disenchantment with the SRC because it was 'too political' resulted in a new approach ”” the SRC began catering for the interests of all students.

However the momentum that was being created and the progress achieved was cut short by the 1981 boycott of examinations. The reasons for the boycott are probably well known. Students boycotted over three issues:

they had to write exams on June 16, a day of commemoration for most South Africans;

the University Administration refused to investigate grievances of physiology students who were being taught human physiology by a zoologist;

in support of 600 school students in Natal who were expelled for anti-Republic Day activities.

The effects of the boycott are, however, less well known. Students were not united over the boycott. During the boycott the university authorities managed to fragment students into semester and non-semester students; hostel and oppidan students; and into 'agitators' and passive supporters. This was perhaps the greatest loss we suffered ”” the loss of unity. It was a divided student body which finally decided to return to class. The SRC also came under attack. For example, many people saw the SRC as being responsible for the boycott. Admin assisted in creating this impression by claiming that the SRC was spearheading the boycott. This is utter rubbish! Members of the SRC tried to oppose every move towards a boycott. The SRC was also criticised as a poor instrument of negotiation during the boycott.

Therefore, the 1981 elections occurred in an atmosphere of confusion, disappointment and division, and we expected a low poll.

QUESTION: You say the SRC was against the June boycott last year. What were the reasons for this?

ANSWER: Firstly, theSRC opposed a boycott because students were not united about it. We had repeatedly said that our strength lies in our numbers. If we are united in our action and thus able to mobilise the majority of our people, our chances of success are improved. To carry out any action when our ranks are in disarray would certainly mean failure.

Secondly, the wider community would not support the boycott. Any action needs the backing and approval of the community to succeed. The 1980 boycotts had been successful because parents had supported students' actions. Also, in 1981 students had already boycotted twice: over anti-Republic Day and graduation ceremony issues. The SRC felt a third boycott would not get community support, and community members might see students as being irrational and irresponsible.

Thirdly, the boycott demanded too many sacrifices. It was obvious from the outset that Admin would take a hard-line attitude to the boycott and would not budge on the issues.

Finally, the SRC sees any battle as part of the overall struggle. The exams issue was a specific battle with Admin and we needed to structure our protest in a way that would bring as many gains as possible. A boycott in the particular situation seemed limited ”” the losses would outweigh the gains. The SRC felt students could make more gains by protesting in another way ”” perhaps by using symbolic protests. For example, students could show their opposition to the June exams by wearing black armbands.

When the students decided to boycott, the SRC was forced to play an administrative and negotiating role with Admin. As we had suspected, Admin would not budge on the demands, and played on the original student divisions over the boycott. The resulting loss of unity weakened organisation even further.

QUESTION: Despite students' disappointment in such a structure, do you still feel the necessity for an SRC? .

ANSWER: The conditions under which such an SRC has to operate include:

deep cleavages in the student body;

there are no satisfactory grievance channels which students could use;

our society is still ridden by the evils of apartheid;

students still feel dissatisfied with the academic standards;

Admin has not changed its oppressive outlook - security guards still swarm all over the university.

In answering the question I would like to ask:

Do we need to represent student demands to Admin?

Do we need to organise and unite students?

Do we need to engage students in the struggles of their community?

Do we need to intensify the demand for a relevant and equal education system?

Can SRC-initiated activities become an integral part of student life?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then I think there is reason enough to have an SRC.

I would also like to draw attention to the '76 experience. In 1976 students here boycotted to protest against the atrocities committed in Soweto and in common cause with the students. Admin and the state unleashed their forces in unison. Students streamed back to class.

It was four years before U.D.W. students began participating in any relevant activities in a united manner.

After the exam boycott last year, the SRC started to pick up the pieces, our main task being to rebuild unity ”” a united student body is a confident, active and energetic student body.

Large numbers of students have begun to attend SRC activities and many have been drawn into community struggles. For example, the strong student participation, largely an SRC initiative, in the anti-S.A.I.C. campaign emphasised that an SRC is an important organising structure, especially at this stage.

We believe that an SRC can play a constructive role ”” a confidence which stems from the realisation that the lessons of today are the weapons of tomorrow.

(b) The period 1981-2 has seen many advances in the organisation of our national student body AZASO. We have also been faced with immense problems, to which we will have to address ourselves to ensure that AZASO becomes a truly mass-based student organisation.

An important advance that AZASO and its affiliates have made is shattering the myth that the only form of student action is boycott and that students are in the vanguard of the struggle. Students have increasingly come to realise that we need disciplined mass-based organisations for us to become effective as a group. We have also learnt that for us to achieve a mass-based student organisation we need to take up issues that concretely affect students and are a result of the undemocratic nature of our society. When taking up such simple issues we must always relate them to the oppressive, exploitative regime we live in.

With this in mind, the General Students' Council, which was held at the University of Natal Medical School in Durban, saw affiliates [of AZASO] examining the education system of South Africa very closely. This was to reach an accurate understanding of the ways in which the system oppresses us, so that we can wage our struggles with greater efficiency and direction....

At the end [of the conference], the General Students' Council decided [to adopt] the theme 'Education Towards a Democratic Society'. It was also decided that AZASO would embark on a campaign to formulate an Education Charter. These two moves arose from the following considerations:

that we need to unite students nationally towards a, common programme of action;

that as students we come daily in contact with the oppression of our educational system and it becomes our task to challenge the educational system;

that by taking up educational issues we can win over the conservative and apathetic students because we will he taking up something that affects them directly.

In line with the theme and the campaign for an Education Charter, regional conferences were held in the Transvaal and Natal. ...

While consolidating its base amongst students, AZASO and its affiliates ensured that we still maintain our links with the community, labour and political structures. Last year AZASO was represented on the Anti-South African Indian Council campaign. Joe Phaahla [president of AZASO] addressed the Griffiths Mxenge funeral. Representatives have been sitting on the Detainees' Support Committee and the Albert Luthuli Commemorative Committee. AZASO has also been involved in organising a series of commemorative meetings in many centres.