Twenty-five years ago, on 19 April 1980, high school and tertiary students in the African, Coloured and Indian areas of the Western Cape embarked on a class boycott. This became a precursor to a massive popular revolt in the province. The Committee of 81 led and co-ordinated the student protest and came to enjoy a status and popular command unparalleled among students. Nicky Van Driel the Bridgetown High representative, who proposed the formation of the Committee, reflects on this period.
The year 1980 saw the biggest, most organised and decisive student protest in the history of the Western Cape. At its zenith the boycott of classes involved every educational institution in the province, in both rural and urban areas, and included students from African, Coloured, and Indian schools. Parents and entire communities were soon drawn into the debate around the students' demands.
What had initially commenced as a small protest against, among other things, drunken teachers, a lack of stationery, a shortage of textbooks and poor conditions in schools, became a struggle by students for control of their schools, and their rejection of an educational system that prepared them to become cheap black labour.
The students' anti-teacher and anti-establishment sentiment became clear as Pink Floyd's song, Another Brick in the Wall , became an instant hit. So much so, that the Apartheid government banned the song from the airwaves hoping to dampen the flames of the rebellion. The words of the song continued to resonate at every opportune moment:
"We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall."
Not all teachers slotted into the system though. Some teachers actively assisted students with awareness programmes about Apartheid South Africa. However, many more teachers expressed ambivalence and ambiguity with regard to the student protest, albeit for different reasons.
On the right was the Cape Teachers Professional Association (CTPA), who paid lip service by issuing a statement of support on the class boycott. The Committee regarded the CTPA as reactionary and some scathingly referred to them as 'lackeys', 'collaborators' or 'quislings'.
On the left was the Teachers League of South Africa (TLSA), a remnant affiliate group of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), who referred to the students protest as 'adventurism'.
As the protest gained momentum students allied themselves with the struggle of black workers. No oppressed community remained untouched by the red meat boycott, the bus boycott of Tramways or the economic protest at the Golden Acre in the Cape Town City centre.
Lots more detail and analysis of this period is available in Frank Molteno's, 1980 STUDENTS STRUGGLE FOR THEIR SCHOOLS. Molteno's study is comprehensive. What he alludes to, but does not definitively answer, is the question: What influenced the spirit of defiance and daring which members of the Committee of 81 displayed in the face of Apartheid repression?
The Committee of 81 was not a monolithic group: its representatives came from varied backgrounds the majority being youth from Coloured working class and middle class families. Its members had different points of view, and uneven understandings of the political situation in the country. There were clueless members of the Committee, there were anarchists who rejected the establishment, there were those seeking adventure, and then there were those who were influenced by the ideas of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the philosophy of the NEUM; these were the articulate, smart students who formed the leadership of the Committee.
The impact of the BCM cannot be overestimated in a society that defined students according to physical traits, culture, religion, language and gender. The concept that 'black is beautiful' was mind-blowing, as was the idea of uniting all oppressed people under one umbrella of being 'black'. This was an important rallying point. The BCM organisation that began to emerge in the Western Cape then, was the Azanian People's Organisation (AZAPO), although it did not have an established presence in the schools, unlike the NEUM.
The TLSA taught students that the concept of race had no scientific basis or validity. That the concept of race had historically justified the economic exploitation of people outside of European, and had its origins in the Atlantic Slave Trade and Colonialism, and therefore racist ideology and class exploitation were inextricably linked. This was the most liberating idea the TLSA imparted to students, and by providing this framework, allowed Coloured students to think outside the confines of Coloured education.
It was most probably this factor that gave the leadership of the Committee of 81 the necessary spirit, self-confidence and courage to defy the Apartheid government. So, the TLSA whose motto was, 'Let us live for our children', could not understand the actions of their children, or that their influence had contributed to their children's rebellion.
This non-antagonistic contradiction is most aptly summarised by a poem of Khalil Gibran when he said:
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you, You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, Not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living Arrows are sent forth...
The sad fact is that the TLSA failed to recognise that in many ways their teachings at high schools, over a period of time had paved the foundation for the student protests.
By August 1980, a number of Committee of 81 members were detained, whilst the remaining few went into hiding, and continued with the student protest. After many debates the boycott eventually ended at Coloured and Indian schools but continued at African schools.
After the spate of detentions in 1980, the Committee never again met as a group, nor did their energies ever again find a collective organisational expression.
However, the Committee had influenced a generation of students. For some of us 1980 was a baptism of fire, there was no going back. So today, members of the Committee of 81 can look back on the student protest they led 25 years ago amidst tremendous social tumult. We can reflect critically on the successes and failures of that period. As the Committee of 81, with all our differences, we can definitely claim to have challenged the might of the Apartheid government. We never accepted their racist ideology. Instead we believed in our common humanity and destiny as South African students. We can say that for a brief moment in time, through our words and our actions, we truly lived in the house of tomorrow.