The 1980s was also a period of serious student protests and unrest. Congress of South African Students (COSAS) moved increasingly closer to liberation movements aligned to the ANC. The foundation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) to organise resistance against South Africa's constitutional reforms gave COSAS a much wider role in politics. The proposed Tricameral Parliament saw increased student participation in national politics.
President P.W. Botha instituted a parliamentary select committee to look into the reforms proposed by the Theron Commission. On 8 May 1980, the select committee tabled its report, proposing the creation of a Tricameral Parliament (with three houses) to include limited representation for Coloured and Indian people, but excluding African people. These proposed reforms were opposed from all political fronts. The Afrikaner nationalist Conservative Party opposed the reforms, believing they were dangerous for the regime and would undermine apartheid. The Progressive Federal Party (PFP) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) also opposed the suggested constitutional reforms because they were convinced that the reforms would worsen tensions with the majority of South Africans (the Africans) who would still be excluded. The PFP called for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights to protect individual freedoms against state abuse. Student bodies rejected the reforms because of their racist character and for keeping real political power in the hands of the White minority.
Student activists adopted a militant approach targeted against any symbols of authority. During the COSAS conference of 1982, students placed themselves in leadership positions within their communities.
The Anti-Republic Day Campaign, which was organised by the UDF, attracted the participation of Township youths on a greater scale than before. The UDF learned from the experiences of June 16 that the youth could be mobilised as full-time activists, ready to spread information. In 1982 COSAS and South African National Students Congress (SANSCO) and other UDF affiliates joined hands for an Education Charter campaign, the aim of which was to organise educational demands of and draw up an Education Charter that would inform students, workers, and parents’ bodies. In 1982, Auret van Heerden, a youth leader, made it clear to the youth organisations at a conference that the students needed to make demands that would go beyond the achievement of reforms to the actual dismantling of apartheid. As a result, the two organisations decided against a charter that would merely call for reform in South Africa. They advocated the transformation of South Africa into a democratic society as a precondition for the eventual implementation of an education charter.
The charter was completed in 1984 and enhanced the national profile of student politics. By the mid-1980s government saw COSAS and other youth organisations as the main instigators of revolts against apartheid.
The revival of Black Local Authorities by the government brought students and youth organisations and UDF politics together once more. These organisations were once again called upon to take an active role in campaigns against the Black Local Authorities Act of 1984. These authorities were substitutes for the representation of Black people in parliament. School boycotts became a central strategy for youth organisations. As a result, by the end of 1984 there were about 220 000 children absent from school in various parts of the country.
Parents became increasingly concerned with intimidation tactics used by youth organisations. The Soweto Parents Crisis Committee, formed in 1986, tried to solve the problem by calling on students to return to their classrooms and resume studies. The UDF leadership, and in particular Popo Molefe, was against the continuation of the school boycott, and felt discussions with the state were the way forward. COSAS opposed the move as counter-productive and saw it as collaboration with government.
The UDF’s alliance was not limited to COSAS and SANSCO in major urban areas. In rural areas, where it had not successfully entrenched itself as a mass-based social movement, it had to rely on grassroots organisations.
Notable among them was the Sekhukhune Youth Organisation (SEYO) which was established in 1986. Van Kessel (2000:76) argues that the backbone of the UDF in the Northern Transvaal area was SEYO, a youth organisation that had proliferated in the region in the 1980s. Furthermore, these youth organisations had a relationship with the UDF and maintained their own independence from its politics and issues. As a result, many of the protests organised by the youth were the result of their own initiatives. COSAS, instrumental in the formation of SEYO in the early 1980s, waned thereafter. SEYO became a powerful organisation and succeeded in forcing some of the schools in the area to introduce Student Representative Councils.
SEYO’s commitment to make the country ungovernable caused serious tensions between parents and youths. Initially, SEYO opposed traditional leadership and circumcision schools. It believed that traditional leaders had outlived their usefulness and were undemocratic. Moreover, the traditional leaders’ links with government Bantustan authorities widened the rift with SEYO. This position suited the UDF, which wanted to “entrench people’s organs” in rural areas. Rural youths, faced with harsh conditions, lack of employment, poor school conditions, and inspired by the militancy of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), became intensely hostile to anyone associated with the apartheid regime or suspected of weakening community resistance against apartheid. Prominent on the list were suspected spies and witches. The killing of suspected witches became a pronounced feature in the Northern Transvaal political landscape.
Witchcraft accusations were rife following a revolt against the Lebowakgomo Bantustan authorities. The students embarked on a march against the detention of students by the local traditional leader, Chief Mphasha, who had close ties with the government. The march began at Sekhukhune College of Education and attracted a huge crowd that began destroying government property and burning vehicles belonging to the homeland officials. The day after the funeral of one of the marchers, who had been shot and killed by the authorities, lightning struck one of the youths at the march. The youth believed it was an act of witchcraft concocted by one of the parents in the community to punish students. The parent was hunted down and burned to death in an act that defied all authorities. The youth believed that as defenders of the community and respondents to the call to take up arms against the state, they were justified in taking violent action against anyone acting against them or the community at large.
The UDF was formed in 1983. This followed the walkout in the AZAPO National Convention of 1982.