In September and October 1977, the apartheid government stiffened its resolve to end the nationwide student unrest that broke out in Soweto in June 1976. Recognising that secondary schools and universities were key sites where the student protests were rife, the government clamped down on political activity, seriously curtailing any political mobilisation. Soweto, the epicentre of the June 1976 uprising, was singled out for special attention. This feature examines the impact of the apartheid government’s backlash on students’ revolt and the impact of the backlash on the capacity of students to mobilise and sustain resistance after October 1977.

On 1 September 1977, the apartheid government announced that all Soweto secondary and high schools were to become state schools. A week later, on 12 September, Steve Biko was murdered. In October all Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) aligned political, cultural and student formations, along with the South African Students Organisation (SASO) and the South African Students’ Movement (SASM), were banned. Scores of political activists and journalists were detained.

Earlier in the year, nine SASO members were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to five years for their involvement in political activities during the first half of the 1970s. In April the entire executive committee of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC), including its president, Sechaba Montsitsi, and leading members of the National Union South African Students (NUSAS) were arrested in a house in Soweto. This left the student movement in Soweto in disarray. Nevertheless Trofomo Sono became SSRC president and called for a boycott of classes that ensured the continuation of student resistance.  

Between September and December 1977, all secondary schools in Soweto were closed and year-end examinations were cancelled. Police harassment intensified, forcing hundreds of students to cross into Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland as exiles. Others went to live with relatives in rural areas, in the hope that they could return when schools reopened in Soweto – which happened only in 1978. Still others sought part-time employment hoping to return to school when the situation returned to normal.

Yet another campaign students undertook at the end of 1977 was the consumer boycott. In 1976 the boycott received overwhelming support as township residents refrained from the usual frenetic Christmas shopping. Festivities in 1976 were noticeably lukewarm, even though the boycott was not rigorously enforced. In 1977 the boycott got less support, but was observed nevertheless. This was an indication of a level of indifference creeping in on students, and also a lack of appetite for confrontations with authorities. Lower levels of resistance also served as testimony that many of the leaders of the students’ movement were either in detention or had fled the country.        

When schools reopened in 1978, the apartheid government passed measures that kept thousands of students away. The Department of Bantu Education ruled that all students wishing to return to school had to submit applications to the district office in Booysens, Johannesburg where they would be allocated to schools. This meant that the government had taken over the responsibility of admitting students. The reaction from thousands of students was predictable. Many suspected that the government intended identifying those that took part in the uprising of 1976 who escaped imprisonment. Instead, thousands opted to register with adult education centres as part-time students.

The second hindrance to thousands wishing to return to school was that high schools at the forefront of the Soweto uprising were restricted to registering students for Standard 6 (Grade 8) and Standard 9 (Grade 11) only. The rest of the students in Standards 7, 8 and 10 (grades 9, 10 and 12) were to be placed by the District office. At the beginning of 1978, Morris Isaacson, Orlando High School, Madibane High School and Naledi High School, all very prominent in the uprising, were permitted to register students in Standard 6 and 9 only. The rule excluded thousands of students from schools they attended until the uprising broke out in 1976.   

It is not only the character of students and their propensity, or lack thereof, for inspiring and provoking renewed unrest in Soweto schools that had changed early in 1978. The character and composition of teachers and headmasters had also changed dramatically. When Soweto high schools were proclaimed state schools in September 1977, a significant number of teachers and headmasters resigned in protest. The Department of Education assumed the responsibility of appointing teachers and placing them in schools, a function previously performed by school committees in consultation with school boards. Under the new system, a teacher of Abram Tiro’s calibre – with his political commitment – was unlikely to be appointed and have access to students.  

Early in 1978, teachers who resigned in protest, formed a pressure group: the Teachers Action Committee (TAC). Lekgau Mathabathe, headmaster at Morris Isaacson in 1976 and a critic of the apartheid government, was one of the founding members of TAC. He too had resigned in protest. The late Prof TW Khambule, a well known mathematician, also resigned as headmaster of Orlando High School to help set up a number of private initiatives devoted to teaching outside mainstream and government controlled schools. 

These developments undermined the capacity for political mobilisation at secondary schools in Soweto and had a significant impact on student politics in the 1980s. Attempts to mobilise students in Soweto early in 1978 proved fruitless. The first of these was the formation of the Soweto Students League (SSL) in March 1978, an attempt to revive the SSRC and mobilise students against new measures that the Department of Bantu Education had adopted. The SSL was short-lived and barely made an impact. Within a few months of its formation, its leadership was forced into hiding. SSL President Oupa Mlangeni and Secretary Teboho Moremi fled to Bloemfontein in August 1978, where they remained in hiding for several weeks.    

In Bloemfontein Mlangeni and Moremi inspired the formation of the Bloemfontein Students League (BSL). This was followed in September by a major student uprising in Bloemfontein that lasted several weeks. By the end of September black townships in Bloemfontein were in a state of unrest as scores of people were killed and more injured during clashes between police and rioting students. As police repression intensified, Mlangeni and Moremi, along with scores of students from Bloemfontein, fled to Lesotho where they joined the South African Youth Revolutionary Council (SAYRCO). The Bloemfontein student uprising was the last major student upheaval of the 1970s.

The second attempt to mobilise students in Soweto was the formation of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) in 1979. In the first few years of its existence COSAS struggled to grow its membership among students in Soweto. However, they did get involved in conflicts between the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) and its president, Curtis Nkondo. COSAS supported Curtis Nkondo against the leadership of AZAPO over the issue of alliances with white political formations and pressure groups. No major campaign involving students was undertaken by COSAS in Soweto until the middle of the 1980s, when popular violence had spread across South Africa.

The third attempt at mobilising students in Soweto was undertaken by the exiled SAYRCO. In March 1981, SAYRCO president Khotso Seatlholo re-entered South Africa on a mission to establish an internal student structure. Seatlholo was arrested within days of his arrival. He was later charged with sedition and jailed for 15 years. Seatlholo’s imprisonment marked the end of SAYRCO as an exiled student movement without affiliations to and distinct from the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Finally, armed attacks by Umkhonto we Sizwe’s (MK) June 16 Detachment between 1976 and 1981 are deemed to have helped mobilise communities to mount popular uprisings. In the majority of these attacks targets were selected in Johannesburg and Soweto. The Silverton Siege in January 1980 was carried out by MK cadres who came from Diepkloof in Soweto. The rocket attacks on Booysens police station and the ambush on Moroka Police Station attracted intense media attention. Yet, both incidents, and others carried out by members of the June Detachment, failed to provoke widespread unrest in Soweto. In the period from 1978 to 1983, when townships on the East Rand and other parts of the country had risen against Piet Koornhof’s empty promises, Soweto remained relatively quiescent. 

The Matric class of 1982 in Soweto was the first since 1975 to have experienced five years of uninterrupted high school education. Beginning their high school studies in 1978, they matriculated in 1982 without having missed out a single year of study. At the outbreak of popular violence in the Vaal townships in September 1984, Soweto experienced sporadic incidents of unrest that ultimately proved ephemeral. It was only in 1986, when unrest had spread to nearly all urban centres that Soweto erupted.

During the same period, 1978 to 1983, black universities also experienced a political lull and quiescence. The imprisonment of SASO’s leading members in 1976 and its banning the following year created a leadership vacuum at black campuses that proved difficult to fill. The University of the North (or Turfloop) management banned SASO for sparking unrest on campus, which later spread it to all black campuses. When lectures resumed in 1978, the university’s management was vigilant in screening students considered for readmission.

Between 1978 and 1985, Turfloop experienced no major upheaval that could have disrupted the academic programme. Readmitted students seemed determined to complete their degrees rather than indulge in political protest of one form or another. It is reasonable to assume that in 1978 there would have been very few students from Soweto beginning their university education at any of the universities. In 1977 Matriculation examinations in Soweto high schools were cancelled. New student intakes at Turfloop and other black campuses may have been drawn from boarding schools located in the Bantustans.

The universities of Fort Hare and Zululand were equally hostile to student political activism when they reopened in 1978. At the University of Zululand management suspended the Student Representative Council (SRC) for fear that it would resume political mobilisation and organisation of students. Until 1983, the University of Zululand experienced relative calm with little or no disruptions to academic programmes. In successive years graduation ceremonies came and went without any significant disruptions. Some students deliberately absented themselves from graduation ceremonies in protest against Gatsha Buthelezi’s presence. For its part, the university held graduation ceremonies during student recess in June of each year. This was to make sure that when Buthelezi came for graduations, the entire student body (except for those graduating) would be absent from campus.

The hegemony of the apartheid government appeared unassailable during this period, and university routines were testimony to this reality. It is perhaps in response to this repressive environment that some students decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and establish a student organisation to replace SASO. This led to the formation of the Azanian Students’ Organisation (AZASO) in November 1979. From its inception, AZASO declared itself committed to principles of non-racialism – as opposed to AZAPO’s insistence on racially exclusive organisations consistent with policies espoused by SASO. It would take until the mid-1980s before AZASO could establish itself as a student movement with a significant following at universities.      

The first outbreak of popular violence at black universities occurred at Ngoye in September 1983. During the Ngoye massacre, six students were brutally murdered by armed men believed to have been supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

In 1982 university management at Ngoye attempted to revive the defunct Student Representative Council (SRC), which had been disbanded in 1977 at the height of the unrest. When signs appeared that unrest was looming in 1982, management at Ngoye decided to re-establish an SRC. Students were instructed to elect class representatives for each of the courses they registered for. These representatives would then elect an executive committee that would become an SRC. The students rejected the process, fearing that such an SRC would be management’s puppet.      

The establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 proved to be inspirational to students at universities across South Africa. This was followed by the establishment of civic associations, labour/trade union formations and student organisations. Sensing that support for the UDF would result in the formation of a branch at Ngoye, university management started to promote the IFP as a movement of choice. Efforts at establishing a management-controlled SRC were aimed at undermining support for the UDF on campus, leading to tensions between students and management.

The tensions came to a head when Buthelezi visited the campus ahead of the commemoration of King Shaka day on 24 September 1983. Buthelezi was accompanied by machete-wielding Zulu warriors who indiscriminately attacked students, killing six and leaving scores wounded, some maimed for life. It is believed that the attack was intended as a warning to students that support for the UDF would not be tolerated on campus. Ngoye remained closed for the remainder of 1983. When the academic year resumed in 1984, hundreds of students did not return. Some were admitted at Wits University.

Prior to 1984, black students wishing to enrol at any ‘white university’ required ministerial approval. Black students would only be admitted if they intended registering for courses not offered at black universities. In 1984 Wits registered a number of black students without permission from the Minister of Education. In 1985 the number of black students registered at Wits grew into a flood. By the end of the decade black students at Wits and other white universities began to outnumber white students.

As the number of black students at Wits and other white universities increased, a need for a student body representing them arose. This led to the establishment of the Black Students Society (BSS) with branches at other white universities. With popular violence in the townships having spread to other parts of the country, linkages were formed between BSS branches and COSAS. Between 1985 and 1989, many campaigns undertaken by COSAS in the townships were supported by BSS branches at white universities.  

As the number of black students admitted to white universities increased from the mid-1980s, the need for establishing AZASO branches at various campuses arose. By 1986 AZASO had established branches at Wits University, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of Natal. Furthermore, as AZASO grew in stature, BSS became redundant. In 1989 BSS was dissolved and AZASO (now renamed South African National Students Organisation) took over all its functions.

Two other developments changed the Higher Education landscape in the aftermath of the Soweto Revolt. The first was the establishment of teacher training colleges in the country’s main urban centres. The Soweto College of Education (SCE) was established in 1978. Similar colleges were established on the East Rand, the Vaal region and in Pretoria. By 1980 the first group of graduates from SCE was teaching at schools in Soweto. SCE, too, was rather quiescent until the mid-1980s, when student teachers became involved in education-related campaigns. The National Education Union of South Africa (NEUSA), a forerunner of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), was an initiative which started at the SCE.  

The other significant development was the establishment of Vista University campuses in the country’s main urban centres in 1982. Soweto’s Vista campus remained quiet until Soweto was drawn into popular resistance that was spreading across South Africa in 1986. All other Vista University campuses were also drawn into popular resistance at the same time. The extremely repressive environment at all campuses showed just how paranoid the apartheid government was about the resurgence of student uprisings at secondary schools and black campuses. This probably explains why after being in existence for five years, AZASO and COSAS found it difficult to mobilise students around the myriad grievances students may have had during that time.


This feature attempts to explain the impact of the SASO banning on student politics in the 1980s. It suggests that the apartheid government, determined to avoid a repeat of the events of June 1976, created an extremely repressive environment in secondary schools and black campuses to ensure that student resistance was suppressed.    


Mzamane, M., Maaba, B and Biko, N., The Black Consciousness Movement, in Magubane, B (ed) The Road to Democracy|

Pohlandt-McCormick, H., “I Saw a Nightmare…” Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976 [online] Available at:|

PACE Magazine, April 1979

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