Strikes in the Schools

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 in African schools occurred in 1920. In February, students at the Kilnerton training centre went on a hunger strike 'for more food'. A few months later theological students at Lovedale rioted and set fire to the buildings 'in protest against bad bread'. The damage was estimated at between £3,000 and £5,000. A large number of students must have been involved, because 198 students were brought to trial and received sentences ranging from three months imprisonment plus a fine of £50, to strokes with a light cane.

There is little information about events in schools in the inter-war years.

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 1930's, had not expressed their anger by striking, rioting, and burning the premises. There is, however, a dearth of information on these The Black Schools, 1799-1954 events, as the government of the day wished to avoid the adverse publicity which would have followed disclosure of such events in the schools. The two official Commissions of Inquiry, set up in 1940 and 1946 to report on grievances and disturbances at African schools, were never published. The investigations by the Commissions did not lead to better conditions in the schools. In the period 1943-45 there were more than 20 strikes and serious riots in schools. Each strike led to expulsions (and often court appearances) - and to renewed disturbances the following academic year. The most serious confrontation occurred on 7 August 1946, and in the months that followed at least six more strikes occurred in schools and colleges. Parents were very disturbed at the seemingly endless closures of colleges, and organised a delegation to meet the school principals. The Heads of the Association of Native Institutions (as the college principals styled themselves), appointed four of their members to meet the delegation in October 1945, and they obviously meant to 'teach' them a lesson. The parents got little sympathy and were read a prepared statement which criticised them for not exercising sufficient control over their children. They were also informed that no flouting of school rules would be tolerated, and that continued disturbances ('exclusively confined to Native students in the Union of South Africa' the parents were told), would lead to stricter control of admission, and closer supervision at schools.

It was the Lovedale riot of August 1946 which attracted most attention -- partly because this was the premier black school in the country, and partly because the 'independent' Commission of Inquiry set up by the Lovedale Governing Council did issue a report. From this, it is apparent that the school had been in a state of unrest since 1945, that the students had their own unofficial organisation known as 'The Board' (borrowed, it appears, from The Board of Guardians' in Oliver Twist), and that there was a call for a student strike and the removal of the headmaster. The administration's response was to arrange for patrols of the school grounds by members of staff during the night and by a constable during the day. Those assumed to be ringleaders were pinpointed and threatened with exclusion if they failed the forthcoming examinations. None of the 17 so named were able to proceed to the University College of Fort Hare in 1946.

The school seemed to have been quiet during the first half of 1946 despite the introduction of new rules of conduct by the principal of the high school who had recently returned from military service. In the aftermath of the riots of 7 August, involving damage to school premises and attacks on prefects and white members of staff, the principal, Dr. R.H.W. Shepherd, wrote that the staff had no intimation of dissatisfaction - and this despite the events of the previous year!

One hundred and fifty two students were arrested and charged with public violence. Most were fined (with the alternative of imprisonment); all were excluded from schools in the future. There was an obvious unanimity amongst principals on the need for 'stern measures'.

Lovedale was closed for nine weeks, and on reopening more than 80 students, said to have been guilty of violence, were debarred from the school, and from every other college in the country. The college presumably returned to 'normal'. There were no further reports of student activity at Lovedale in the post-1946 period, and only a more intimate knowledge of conditions on the campus would provide information on the way that student body was now controlled, and how many individual students found continued schooling closed to them due to some transgression of the rules. The spate of student demonstrations was not over, and continued in 1946 and subsequently. After the Lovedale strike there were at least five others in the Cape and the Transvaal in 1946, and in December these were followed by a sitdown strike at the Bethesda Bantu Training College near Pietersburg." On through the late forties and the fifties students struck, boycotted and rioted. Each event had its own local causes, and in most cases students acted only after prolonged periods of discussion and representations to the responsible teachers. One columnist of the time summed up the mood when describing the situation:

At almost every African mission boarding school conditions for students are deplorable and this has been the root of all the minor revolts which have taken place from time to time at these institutions. Food and the Nazi-like control are usually the main causes for dissatisfaction. Last week the authorities were expecting some sort of explosion at Healdtown (Methodist) Missionary College . . . Police at five Eastern Cape towns were asked to stand by in case something should happen at the college.

Earlier, last week, 100 senior pupils were sent home after a passive resistance strike -- escorted off the premises by 20 (armed) police.

The University College of Fort Hare

The one university college for Blacks in the country prior to 1960 was situated in the Eastern Cape. Like so many other features of South Africa, the college reflects the superimposition of an advanced economy on a broken agricultural community. D. Gordon, a student at the college in 1949, described it as follows:

Fort Hare is situated on the East Bank of the Tyumie River, overlooking Lovedale Institution and the Victoria Hospital. The little town of Alice, a white man's paradise, serves both these institutions and is the centre of an area of African learning and native poverty. Of all the trading stores in the village not one is owned by an African though business would be impossible without their support. The Tyumie Valley is very fertile and it is startling to note how the European farmer has squeezed the African onto the barren and soil-eroded hillsides. It is amazing how these people manage to exist and propagate. In the midst of all the racial and agricultural disparity we have the only non-European University [College], Fort Hare.

Founded in 1916, and accepting Indians, Coloured and Africans, Fort Hare had given some 90 degrees in arts and science to its graduates by 1939. It also gave diplomas to students who had not completed secondary school but wanted their higher teacher's certificate. Nearly half the student intake was made up of those who took this diploma course. Most trained teachers came from one of the 26 colleges in South Africa which provided the necessary certificates or diplomas. At the outbreak of the Second World War there were 3,500 pupils enrolled for such courses. Some had only completed primary school, others had some secondary schooling. After one or two years at the colleges they were certified as fit to teach, Both the colleges of education and the University College of Fort Hare were segregated institutions (although a few Whites had been enrolled at Fort Hare). For many Africans, the University College presented the only opportunity for receiving a higher education in South Africa, although the universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town and Natal allowed a limited number of Blacks to enter their faculties.

The number of degree and diploma students at Fort Hare was always small. In 1959 (the year the university structure of South Africa was altered), the enrolment was 319 Africans, 70 Coloureds, and 100 Indians. In the same year 300 Africans, 541 Coloureds, and 815 Indians were enrolled in the 'white' universities.

The black students constituted a tiny minority in the 'white' universities. In Durban they attended segregated extra mural classes at the university, or were enrolled at the medical school which was exclusively for Blacks. In Cape Town and Johannesburg (the 'open' universities) there was no segregation at lectures, but Blacks faced a number of restrictions which they resented, but were powerless to alter. It was the more radical white students who protested against the quota system for Africans at the Medical school, and the exclusion of Blacks from the Dental school. There were even more protests against the complete social segregation and the prohibition placed on Blacks using the swimming bath and many sporting facilities. But the small black groups could play little part in such agitation -- and many of them found meaningful political activity only in the national liberation movements off the campus. Only a few played any prominent part in student politics. It was only in the period preceding the introduction of the 1959 Universities Bill that the black students joined their white peers in protesting against the closing of the open universities. Despite the many disabilities they encountered, the education offered at Cape Town and Johannesburg seemed worth fighting for. The position at Fort Hare was different. The University College was isolated from the main centres of political activity, and although some students joined one or other of the political movements prevailing during the 1940's, they were isolated from the mainstream of political events. Students recently out of school tended to be even more out of contact with events in the large cities. They had come to Fort Hare straight from rurally based schools and had lived in small, closed, missionary institutions for the preceding 12 or more years.

Throughout the Second World War there were strikes at Fort Hare almost every year. There was a strike in 1941 because a teacher was alleged to have brutally assaulted an African waitress in hall, another in 1942 when the boycotting of divine service led to the suspension of 59 students, and yet another strike in 1943.The precipitating factors were always the atrocious food, unbending discipline, or even physical assaults. But the crucial factor was deeply embedded in the system. Writing at the time a student stated:

The whole matter revolves round the principle of whether or not University students are going to allow themselves to be bullied like kindergarten children. It is the old matter of white South Africa regarding the non-European as nothing better than a grown-up baby.65

Politics Comes to the Campus

There was a new political mood amongst Africans during the war years, and a section of educated youth formed the Congress Youth League (CYL) in 1943 This was the junior section of the African National Congress (ANC) formed with some reluctance by the older body to stop a drift into other political movements in the Transvaal. The central core was mainly drawn from graduates of St. Peters, the Anglican secondary school in Johannesburg, and of Lovedale, Healdtown, or Adams College. There were also some who had been at Fort Hare and had graduated, or had been expelled after the strikes. The Youth League did not seek recruits in the schools, but did make contact with students at Fort Hare. It seems, however, that it was only towards the end of 1948 that a small branch of the CYL was formed on the campus." The Cape based Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) also established a branch in the late forties. It seemed to be the predominant political group during the early 1950's, but lost the initiative to the CYL during the Defiance Campaign in 1952. By the mid-fifties the NEUM was reduced to a small group.

There is an impressionistic account of events at Fort Hare, written by D. Gordon who arrived on the campus in 1949. In that year the Congress Youth League-sponsored Programme of Action became official ANC policy. This programme, more radical than previous ANC Conferences would have accepted, espoused 'Africanism' - a philosophy which called upon Africans to reject alliances with any other racial group. Gordon was a supporter of the NEUM and opposed to the CYL and its avowed Africanism. Nevertheless, he expressed admiration for their actions on the campus, while rejecting their nationalistic philosophy.

His comments on the students at the college in 1949 give some picture of events at the time: The African student is more politically conscious at Fort Hare than any non-European student at any South African university . . .

The outstanding political contributors were the students who came from the Native territories of the Union [of South Africa], the large towns and the Transkei...

For the African [as distinct from Coloured and Indian students], Fort Hare is a hive of political activity. He questions freely and openly every suggestion made by the European, whether lecturer or visitor ... So tense is the atmosphere that politics is brought into every College activity whether it be a hostel meeting, a church service, a sports gathering, a college lecture or a social gathering.

Gordon is scathing about both the coloured and Indian students at Fort Hare, and it does seem that unlike Coloureds and Indians at the 'open universities', those at Fort Hare mainly kept aloof from politics. The CYL was undoubtedly the major force at Fort Hare. Gordon continues:

I must express great admiration for the unity which existed in the African ranks and the Youth League. They had a feeling of one-ness and suspension and expulsion was not feared, while fighting the cause of the African. That is probably why they were reluctant to admit any other racial group into their organisation. The coloured and Indian students had no political programme . . .

At a Completer's Social three Youth Leaguers addressed the students in the presence of the principal and the staff and turned a social gathering into a violent attack on the political and social conditions prevailing in the land. The slogan for the evening was 'Africa for the Africans' . . .

One of the Youth Leaguers who spoke that evening was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, later leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress. The students faced increasing restrictions and a hardening of attitudes in the aftermath of the Nationalist Party success at the polls in 1948. This was, no doubt, the crucial factor which led the students to come out in full in support of the 14 days sit-down strike called by nurses at the Victoria Hospital in 1949. Despite the failure of the strike this event did more than any other to strengthen the CYL's hold on the student body.

The post-war years brought an increase in political activity and quickened the students' interest in events in other parts of the colonial world. They read all that could be found on Asia and Africa despite the unofficial censorship. Gordon continues his account: 'The book on Colonies by George Padmore [Africa: Britain's Third Empire] was extremely popular, but it disappeared from the shelves of the library.'

Despite this, only a minority of students were interested in politics and Gordon, near the end of his article, observes:

. . . there are those who feel that the African must build himself financially so that Africans can become an economic unit. Several of the students, especially those that had taught for many years, thought on these lines and they had very little sympathy for the Youth League or any other political organisation.

In adopting this attitude the students were displaying class aspirations which accorded with the status they already held as students of the University College. Many of their colleagues, radical while they were on the campus, would revert to the same attitude after they had graduated. Nevertheless, they created a tradition which would be drawn upon in the coming years when the colleges came into increasing conflict with the government.

• Baruch, H. (1979). Year of Fire, Year of Ash: The Soweto Revolt: Roots of A Revolution, London: Zed Press.

Support South African History Online

Donate and Make African History Matter

South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.

Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.