South African Students Congress (SASCO)


SASCO logo

Background to the history of student organisations.

The history of student organisation at tertiary education institutions and high school in South Africa could be traced back to 1917 when Afrikaanse Studentebond (ASB) was formed. In 1919, elsewhere in the world, the Confederation International des Students (CIE) was found in Strasbourg, France to represent the interest of students internationally. The move inspired the formation of a national union of students of that magnitude in Britain in 1920. This in turn influenced students in Commonwealth countries to follow suit and South Africa was no exception. Leo Marquard, who was fortunate enough to have attended CIE congresses in Europe, was instrumental in the formation of National Union of South African Student (NUSAS) in 1924 at the Grey Collage in Bloemfontein.

NUSAS members protesting against the ban of its President Ian Robertson.

In 1933 Afrikaner students broke away from NUSAS and formed a more political Afrikaner body called Afrikaanse Nationale Studentebond (ANSB). After the formation of ANSB students from Universities of Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom and Pretoria withdrew from NUSAS. Stellenbosch was not convinced of the decision taken so it continued with its membership in NUSAS. Two years later the University of Fort Hare posed a serious challenge to the hierarchy of NUSAS’s claim that it was inclusive to all races by  requesting to join the organisation. Since the University of Fort Hare was a dominantly Black institution, their request for admission was rejected. It was then the University of Stellenbosch came to a realization that without University of Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Potchesfroom the ‘objectives’ of NUSAS could not be attained. The University of Stellenbosch duly cut its ties from NUSAS and this completed the split between Afrikaans and English speaking universities. In 1945 University of Fort Hare became a member of NUSAS.

In 1969, leaders like Steve Biko, Saths Cooper, Barney Pityana, Aubrey Mokoena, Patrick Lekota, and countless others who become exponents of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) led a breakaway from NUSAS and formed the South African Students Organization (SASO). SASO was banned in 1977 as part of a national crackdown in the aftermath of the June 1976 uprising. NUSAS was less affected by the 1977 crackdown and it was still felt that black students had to organise separately to cater for their own specific conditions.

The Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO) was launched in 1979 to fill the vacuum left by the banning of SASO. It brought together the SRC's of various campuses in Black tertiary education institutions. There was a strong alliance between AZASO and the Azanian Peoples' Organisation (AZAPO), a political organisation formed by members of the BCM in April 1978. However, AZASO moved towards the non-racial outlook of the Freedom Charter which set it on a collision course with AZAPO whose ideology differed with that of the Freedom Charter.  AZASO become increasingly aloof from its Black Consciousness origins and sought to reflect the jettisoning of this baggage by changing its name to the more representative South African National Students Congress (SANSCO) to also reflect its complete adherence to the Freedom Charter and the congress movement lead by the banned African National Congress. SANSCO identified closely with community organizations and became an active affiliate of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

The formation South African Students Congress (SASCO)

The South African Students Congress (SASCO) was launched on 6 September, 1991 at Rhodes University, Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. SASCO’s formation followed a weeklong (1-6 September) meeting where an estimated 600 black and white students from 129 tertiary education institutions converged to deliberate the formation of a non racial student body. Two major student bodies in the country, the South African National Students Congress (SANSCO) Black student organisation, and NUSAS together and merged to form SASCO. Thus, the establishment of SASCO answered questions about whether it was possible to establish a single non-racial progressive student organization in education tertiary institutions.

Amongst those who played a significant role in the formation of the organisation was Robinson Ramaite who became the first President of SASCO, Kgomotso Masebelanga who became the first Secretary of the organisation, David Makhura, Mfundo Nkuhlu and many others.

Robinson Ramaite the first President of SASCO, 1991.

The formation of SASCO came at a time when the political environment was changing in South Africa. Negotiations between the ANC and the National Party led government were already underway with some milestone having been achieved. On 2 February, 1990, the South African President, FW de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela and unbanning of the ANC, Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and other proscribed organisations.

It was this changing political climate in the country that led to SANSCO and NUSAS engaging in talks about the formation of one non-racial student organization. Gathered under the banner: "Towards a single non-racial student organization", delegates from SANSCO and NUSAS spent long and tough hours of heated theoretical exchanges culminating in the launch, on 6th September of a student organization that spearheaded the struggle for the fundamental change of tertiary education. Naledi Pandor notes that the primary mission for SASCO was “to locate the struggle against apartheid on South African campuses, in student residences, in lecture halls, and in teaching programmes.” The organisation also understood challenges that confronted the country, students, higher education and the Mass Democratic Movement.

After a breakthrough in the negotiations and a move towards the first democratic elections, SASCO campaigned for the ANC. Subsequently, many of the organisation leaders like Ramaite and Makhura became active in the local and national structures of the ANC.  However, SASCO’s role remained working towards a democratic system of education in a democratic South Africa.

SASCO has continued its commitment to working towards a democratic system of education in a democratic South Africa by campaigning against financial exclusions from tertiary education institutions.  

• South African Students Congress, ‘A brief history of SASCO and the student movement: An ABC of the organisation’, [online], available at 22 March 2013)
• ADDRESS BY NALEDI PANDOR, MP, MINISTER OF EDUCATION, AT SOUTH AFRICAN STUDENTS CONGRESS'S (SASCO) NATIONAL POLICY CONFERENCE, "CELEBRATING A DECADE OF DEMOCRACY-BACK TO BASICS",Vaal Triangle University of Technology, from The South African Government Information, 8 July, [online], Available at[Accessed 09 April 2013]
• South African History Online, ‘F.W. de Klerk announces the release of Nelson Mandela and unbans political organisations’, [online], available at 22 March 2013)
• South African History Online, ‘National Union of South African Students (NUSAS)’, [online], available at 22 March 2013)
• South African History Online, ‘Student Politics: SASO till SANSCO’, [online], available at 22 March 2013)

Last updated : 03-Jul-2013

This article was produced by South African History Online on 11-Apr-2013

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