In aftermath of the June 16 Uprising, the government cracked down on student activists and organisations alike. On 19 October 1977 the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and related organisations was banned. Amongst these were the South African Students' Organisation(SASO), Black People's Convention (BPC), Black Community Programmes (BCP), Black Women Federation, Border Youth Organisation, Black Parents Association (BPA) and the National Association of Youth Organisations (NAYO). In 1976 through to 1978 large numbers of young people left the country to join the liberation movements in exile while others were detained. Yet others remained in the country and set in motion plans to continue political activity underground.

From 1978, BCM political activists from these various BCM organisations in the country were released from detention, notably Lybon Mabasa and Ishmael Mkhabela. They were joined by Itumeleng Mosala, Nchaupe Mokoape, Mosibudi Mangena, Saths Cooper, Strini Moodley, Muntu Myeza and Pandelani Nefolovhodwe. They began working towards the formation of a new political organisation, the Azanian People's Organisation(AZAPO). Subsequent to their efforts, AZAPO was formed on 28 April, 1978 in Roodepoort, near Johannesburg where it held its inaugural conference.

Despite holding this conference, the party was launched owing to harassment by the government.  Several of the AZAPO’s leaders including the president and secretary were arrested shortly after the launch and even before a constitutional or launch conference could be held.  When they were released from detention six months later, they were both served with restrictive orders.  Consequently, AZAPO went on to reorganise itself and on 30 September 1979, the party was re-launched at a conference convened in Roodepoort, electing chairman of the Soweto Teachers' Action Committee Curtis Nkondo as its president. George Wauchope,former leader of the Black People's Convention was elected as publicity secretary.

The organisation adopted the Black Consciousness philosophy advocated by Steven Biko and continued to propagate it in it programs. Thus, AZAPO is regarded as heir to the Black Consciousness (BCM) tradition founded by Steve Biko. Membership was open to Blacks, Coloureds and Indians, and the organisation was, at best, ambivalent and at worst completely hostile towards white participation in the struggle. This was probably due to the spectre of Biko’s friendship with Donald Woods in the 1970s hanging ominously over the members’ heads. Popular perceptions at the time were that AZAPO was racist. While this approach seemed to have been widely accepted in the 1970s, calls for a rethink were being made at the end of the decade and throughout the 1980s. It was at this time that the Freedom Charter, advocating for a non racial South Africa, entered the political discourse.

Early in the 1980s, AZAPO was forced to consider “class theory” as opposed to “race” as an organising principle in its strategic approach to mass mobilisation. The reason for this was the increasing popularity of the Freedom Charter and a growing tendency to non racialism. It was also the presence in AZAPO of members of the Cape Town-based the Non European Unity Movement led by Neville Alexandra. Inspired by Marxist social theory Alexandra is reputed to have championed a shift in ideological orientation and the application of the ideas of Lenin and Marx to the South African context and opposed all institutions created by the government.

AZAPO saw the capitalist system rather than apartheid as the main oppressing force in South Africa and believed that class divisions had taken place along racial lines. AZAPO adopted the slogan - 'One Azania, one Nation’.  After its formation the AZAPO organised a formal event where it would formally launch its constitution.

AZAPO recognized the importance of student movements in the liberation struggle. It attempted to revive the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC), a student organization responsible for the Soweto uprising of 16 June, 1976 and banned in October 1977. AZAPO helped in the formation of the short-lived Soweto Students League (SSL), with Oupa Mlangeni as its President. SSL never had an opportunity to establish itself in Soweto as schools were in disarray and thousands of senior students at the time of the Soweto uprising were refused entry. Thousands left Soweto and enrolled in boarding schools in the homelands. This was in addition to tens of thousands who left the country during the period 1975 to 1978.

After initial attempts to mobilize students in Soweto in 1978, Mlangeni and a few activists attracted the attention of the security police. They fled Soweto as the hunt for them by the security police intensified. Three of them, Mlangei, Teboho Moremi, and one Mthuthuzeli Matshobane fled to Bloemfontein where they helped establish the Bloemfontein Students League (BSL). And taking advantage of existing student grievances, the BSL organized a march into the city centre at the end of 1978.

Police clamped down on the march and a manhunt for the “Soweto instigators” was launched. Matshobane was shot dead in the streets of Batho Location in Bloemfontein and Mlangeni and Moremi slipped into Lesotho, where they joined the South African Youth Revolutionary Council (SAYRCO).

 In South Africa AZAPO continued to forge links with students’ organizations, notably the Congress of South African Students(COSAS) and Azanian Students Organisation(AZASO).  After the formation of AZASO in November 1979 by students of Fort Hare, Natal, Turfloop, University of Zululand and Durban-Westville, AZAPO worked closely with the student body. Cooperation between the two organizations lasted until 1980 when the student organization severed ties with AZAPO citing the suspension of Curtis Nkondo, AZAPO's president as the reason. AZASO was disbanded in 1986 when it joined the South African National Students' Congress (SANSCO).

The ideological thrust of AZAPO was expressed at the 1981 AZAPO conference when a paper was read outlining that South Africa could be divided into classes that included Blacks and Whites. But it contrasted White lower middle class workers, who were the tools of capitalists, with Black lower middle class workers, who were subject to the 'vile rigours of racism' and had joined the struggle for Black liberation. (Khangale Makhado, 'Black Consciousness as a Driving Force', Ikwezi, No 16, March 1981). It maintained that a 10% minority capitalist class owned the means of production and had consolidated itself by means of its military power and a network of laws to keep the Black lower classes in social and economic bondage. It recognised that it would be in the interests of some upper middle class Black workers to collaborate with the authorities. (Letsatsi Mosala 'The challenge of labour in the 80s', 1981 AZAPO conference paper).

AZAPO directed its activities towards involving Black workers in politics as a class struggle. In this way, it hoped to bring about the transformation of South Africa into a socialist state with all means of production nationalised and centralised in the state. It aimed to abolish private ownership of farms and all rights of inheritance, except that of children over the house of their parents. AZAPO placed great value on the importance of trade unions to bring about an equal distribution of power and saw its work as mobilising workers into industrial armies to cope with the demands of agriculture and industry and other organs of the liberation movement. It advocated free education, sport and health services, maintaining that this would raise living standards and promote the well-being of its citizens.

In spite of its strategies, AZAPO did not succeed in mobilising all the Black workers, although it had some success with bus boycotts, rent protests and campaigning for strikes. In the early 1980s, though support for AZAPO appeared to be strongest in Johannesburg among the Black intelligentsia, and particularly among Black journalists, The Star's 1981 opinion poll rated the African National Congress(ANC) and Inkatha Freedom Party  (IFP) higher in popularity.

In the meantime, developments in exile saw the formal launch of two BCM-aligned formations. During the Easter Week-end of 1979, the South African Youth Revolutionary Council (SAYRCO) was established in the Zambian Capital of Lusaka. BCM members travelled from different parts of the world to attend the conference. Some activists based in London and New York attended the conference. Many delegates came from exiled communities in Botswana, Swaziland and other parts of the African continent.

In essence, SAYRCO was an attempt to revive the SSRC in exile. As expected, SAYRCO’s leadership was dominated by the erstwhile leadership of the SSRC, and Khotso Seatlholo became its first President. The first President of the SSRC, Tsietsi Mashinini had been expelled from the movement two years earlier for unauthorised interviews he gave to a South African- Magazine-PACE. Shortly after the interview, PACE was exposed as a publication of the South African government’s Department of Information led by Erschelle Rhoodie. It featured prominently in the Information Scandal that brought down B. J. Voster’s government in 1978. PACE was established to carry disinformation and propaganda about apartheid’s enemies, discrediting them.  

In an attempt to establish links with student formations inside the country, Seatlholo secretly entered South Africa in March 1981. He was arrested and charged with leaving the country illegally and his involvement in organising numerous student marches during 1976. He was the SSRC’s second president from September to December 1976, before fleeing to Swaziland. Seatlholo’s arrest virtually meant the end of SAYRCO in exile. SAYRCO in Lesotho and Botswana had forged a loose alliance with BC formations there before the launch of the Black Consciousness Movement.

Between 1981 and 1985 membership of AZAPO became rather fluid and uncertain. For sometime different political traditions coexisted inside AZAPO. Some members of AZAPO were adherents of the Freedom Charter before the formation of the UDF. And in engaging in political activity this duality would show. For instance, in the weeks leading to the formation of the Soweto Parents Committee in 1984, Frank Chikane and Vusi Khanyile were pivotal. Yet, the SPC was not a UDF structure, as there was a need to provide room for non Charterists.

AZAPO realized the importance of support from the trade union movement. As early as the 1970s a trade union aligned to the BCM was established by the Black Allied Workers Union (BAWU), but this union remained weak.  Hence, after its formation, AZAPO sought the support of Consultative Committee of Black Trade Unions (CCOBATU), by the 1980s a number of trade unions had withdrawn from CCOBATU leaving AZAPO without any significant support from trade unions. By 1983, AZAPO was playing a leading role in the National Forum and appeared to be consolidating the gulf between Black solidarity and 'Charterist' inclined movements. Lybon Mabasa was elected president and Saths Cooper and Muntu Myeza were elected vice-president and general secretary respectively, in February 1983. At this conference AZAPO leaders were contemptuous of negotiated reforms and they rejected the President's Council's constitutional proposals and supported resistance to them. In May 1984 unions that subscribed BCM philosophy launched the Azanian Confederation of Trade Union (AZACTU). Despite the latter’s denials to links with AZAPO, AZAPO formed a constituency of AZACTU.

The transformation and growth of political trade unionism appeared to have taken over the thrust of AZAPO's political challenge by 1986. Four years later, a rift had developed between AZAPO and its erstwhile partners, the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which led to AZAPO losing its status as a co-convener of the Patriotic Front conference. During the state of emergency in the late 1980s several AZAPO activists were restricted for instance in February 1988. Subsequent to this, the time the Azanian Coordination Committee was formed in February 1988. The committee carried on with AZAPO and AZAYO activities, but it did not replace the two organisations.

These restrictions were lifted in 1990 and allowed the party to continue with its political programs. With negotiations between the government and the ANC in motion AZAPO declared its opposition to negotiations with the apartheid government. When the party was invited to participate, it set preconditions such as the election of a constituent assembly, solving of the "land issue", the social liberation of blacks and the restructuring of the economy at its annual conference in December 1990. This led to the resignation of party’s two senior members Imraan Moosa and Monwabisi Vuza chairman and secretary of AZAPO in Durban.

After the conclusion of the negotiations and preparation for elections, AZAPO boycotted the democratic elections in 1994 elections. However, the party has participated in all subsequent elections and continues as one of the opposition parties in South Africa.


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