On June 15 this year the Azanian Students Organisation will celebrate its birth 25 years ago as a forerunner to the current leading student organisation SASCO. City Press looks at how the student movement contributed to the struggle against apartheid and what challenges it now faces after the first decade of democracy.
Two notable student political organizations under apartheid were the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) and the Azanian Students Organisation later called SA National Students Congress (SANSCO) in line with its ideological leaning towards the congress movement led by the ANC.
Scores of today's prominent political, civic, educational and business leaders, and intellectuals and professionals cut their political teeth in SASO and AZASO/SANSCO and are its outstanding graduates.
SASO, formed in 1968, gave birth to the Black Consciousness (BC) movement in South Africa. It was the key actor within the BC movement, revitalised black opposition politics and helped ignite the Soweto uprising before it was banned in 1977. AZASO, established in 1979, was an important component of the broad non-racial mass democratic movement of the 1980s.
SASO and AZASO/SANSCO were revolutionary, national, black higher education student organisations whose activities encompassed both education and politics. Their concerns were with student rights and the democratisation and transformation of educational institutions, as well as with human and political rights, and national liberation and social transformation in South Africa.
SASO, established by Steve Biko, Barney Pityana and other black student leaders of the time was born out of an impatience with multiracial liberal politics that marginalised blacks. SASO sought black self-reliance, and, blacks doing ‘things for themselves and all by themselves' as Biko, SASO's first president, put it.
SASO was determined to break the influence of white liberals on black political thinking. Biko observed that while one sector of whites ‘kicked the black', another sector of whites (liberals) ‘tutored blacks ‘how best to respond to the kick'. For Biko, it was the black person's ‘right and duty to respond to the kick in the way he sees fit'.
SASO was vital in developing BC, whose key themes were ‘a liberation from psychological oppression, the building of a new awareness, the establishment of a new basic dignity, the framing of a new attitude of mind, a rediscovery of the history of the people, and a cultural revival'.
Its important contributions were to reject the term ‘non-white' and to positively identify Africans, Indians and Coloureds as ‘black'; to draw attention to the common experience of racial oppression by blacks, and to forge solidarity between, and united action by, all oppressed groups.
SASO was not anti-white. It accepted that South Africa was ‘a country in which both black and white live and shall continue to live together'. Biko's goal was a ‘completely non-racial society'.
SASO provided black students with a political home and avenue for activity outside of the political parties involved in separate development institutions. Many got involved in radical politics through SASO. Masterpiece Gumede notes: ‘When we came to Ngoye we were immediately grabbed by SASO. I only got into politics through the student movement at university'. Terror Lekota recalls that SASO was an elementary school of politics.
According to Pityana, SASO provided ‘experience of leadership, planning, strategising and mobilising'. Mamphela Ramphele adds that there was ‘success in empowering activists in its ranks at all levels. Most of these individuals attained total psychological liberation and realised the meaning of being active agents in history'
SASO played a key role in launching the Black People's Convention, supported the Black Community Programmes and promoted Black Theology. It encouraged youth and cultural organisations and black cultural production, and provided platforms for art exhibitions, poetry reading, drama and music festivals, and exposure for emerging black artists. SASO publications carried articles on politics, culture and black poetry.
SASO activities spread ideas and a mood that aroused anger, hope and resistance among students. University student boycotts in 1972 and pro-FRELIMO rallies in 1974 led to political awakening and organisation among school students and youth. SASO was one of the catalysts of the Soweto uprising. The subsequent flow of students and youth into exile gave, says Mongane Wally Serote, ‘to the ANC oxygen and new life, which the movement desperately needed - youth of the South African people, tempered in defiance in action'.
Harassed and depleted through the detention, banning and imprisonment of its leaders, SASO was banned in the state clampdown on BC and other resistance organisations in October 1977.
Two years later in 1979 AZASO (later SANSCO) was formed with the support of the Azanian Peoples Organisation. The 1977 bannings led to intensified underground activity with the ANC making serious inroads amongst the youth and students. The underground cells recruited for MK but also mobilised students through existing mass organisations such as SRCs, cultural and sport unions on campuses and youth clubs. These underground networks were at the centre of the subsequent student uprisings which again gripped larger parts of the country in 1980.
In its founding constitution AZASO identified with the black consciousness philosophy quite prominently following in the footsteps of SASO. The symbiotic relationship with AZAPO did not last long as already by April 1980 cracks were showing up. This was thrown to the open when AZASO and COSAS joined hands and supported Curtis Nkondo the then President of AZAPO who was suspended by the organisation. AZASO was immediately kicked out of AZAPO offices and a quick journey towards total identification with the AWC was started. The battle for the soul of AZASO culminated in a highly contested ideologically explosive congress in 1981 where finally the congress movement wrested control of the organisation from AZAPO.
The new leadership decided however that it would be tactically wrong to change the name to a more ANC oriented one. The 1981 congress emerged with an AZASO which was black in constituency and non-racial in approach to struggle.
To realise their non-racial approach, the AZASO leadership formalised contacts with the National Union of SA Students which was an old organisation of white students which had been getting increasingly radical. To cement the relationship the President of AZASO Joe Phaahla addressed the 1981 NUSAS National Congress held in Cape Town in December 1981.
Throughout the eighties AZASO/SANSCO mobilised students together with COSAS and NUSAS to deal with a wide range of educational and political issues. Some of the campaigns were the 1981 anti-republic celebrations campaign, Release Mandela campaign, the “hands off Fort Hare” campaign of 1982, the education charter campaigns and also the formation of UDF in 1983. A major campaign of 1982-83 was to save the lives of six MK cadres who were sentenced to death. At the end three cadres were hanged while three were reduced to life sentences. Most AZASO/SANSCO campaigns provided impetus to broader political struggles eg. The campaign for the release of ANC leaders which was rallied around the release of Nelson Mandela. AZASO/SANSCO engaged the regime at various ideological and political battles for the hearts and minds of the black intellectuals.
The response of the regime was often harsh and a number of activists lost their lives in the process eg. Bathandwa Ndondo who was shot and killed at point blank range by Transkei security police. Repression of students at the University of Fort Hare was a daily experience. The epitomy of Bantustan repression and intolerance was the 1983 massacre of students by Inkatha impis at University of Zululand.
AZASO/SANSCO's vital contribution was to make education a site of struggle. It sought to ensure that higher education transformation became integral to political and social transformation – hence its campaigns around ‘education towards democracy' and ‘organising for people's education', and its adherence to the idea of ‘people's education for people's power'.
AZASO/SANSCO' promoted with COSAS an Education Charter to elaborate the Freedom Charter clause on opening the doors of learning to all. This campaign raised the question of a future education system, and the need to construct an education vision and programme as part of a vision of liberation. By insisting that students and other social groups should participate in formulating the principles and goals of a future education, it popularised the idea of democratic education policy-making processes.
Despite restrictions under State of emergency SANSCO continued to mobilise and organise and by late nineties when the 1 st political prisoners were released, SANSCO was operating in most campuses including colleges and technickons.
In 1989 questions about the justification for separate racially defined progressive student organisations intensified. As political prisoners were being released and negotiations with the regime began, more intense debates led ultimately to the merger of SANSCO with NUSAS to form SASCO.