SAYCO was regarded as the most significant youth organization to emerge during the 1980s. Initiated by COSAS, it focused on organizing the non-student youth, unemployed youth and young workers who shared the interests and aspirations of COSAS but could not belong to it. In 1982, a COSAS Commission was established to investigate the formation of a national youth organization. It was decide that individual townships and regions establish their own youth congresses that would work in close cooperation with COSAS and AZASO, and by 1983, 20 new youth organizations were launched. By the end of 1986, there were some 600 youth congresses across the country, which was remarkable in its own right as the youth congresses were established and operating during the time of the first state of emergency. 28 March 1987 saw SAYCO launched amidst great secrecy, with representatives from nine regional structures being elected to the national executive. It adopted the Freedom Charter, pledged itself to work closely with COSATU and the NECC, and was affiliated to the UDF.
Its principle objectives were:
- Unifying and politicizing all progressive youth irrespective of race
- Encouraging the youth to join trade unions
- Ensuring that women participated fully in the activities of the youth movement
Resolutions passed at its inaugural conference included:
- Demands for the lifting of the state of emergency
- The withdrawal of troops from townships
- The unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners
- The unbanning of the ANC and other organizations
Clearly SAYCO, like other organizations, represented a challenge to apartheid particularly with regard to its call for the release of political prisoners, and the unbanning of the ANC, as these were calls for the leadership of the ANC in a democratic South Africa. Inherently socialist, SAYCO strove toward an alliance with COSATU, and saw the vanguard role as belonging to the working parents whom they saw as being the decisive force in the liberation struggle. At the local level its general aims were to:
- Normalize the relationship between youth and parents
- To create a spirit of trust, responsibility and understanding amongst the youth
- To directly involve the youth in community projects
- To instill a spirit of health and determination in disillusioned young people
- To encourage the youth to strive for a better system of education and complete their education full time or part time.
Launched 9 months into the 1986 state of emergency, during a period of severe restrictions, SAYCO streamlined its activities to adapt to underground operation. At the outset SAYCO focused on the organization of all youth in order to tackle their problems through united and collective action and to develop a role for young people in their communities and in the broader democratic struggle.
The first youth congress was formed in the Western Cape in 1983, known as the Western Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO), it brought together 35 youth groups. CAYCO was largely responsible for the growth in popular support for the ANC in this region, which was not a stronghold of the ANC. In the Eastern Cape, opposition to the new Black Local Authorities and proposed rent increases resulted in the revival of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization (PEBCO) and resulted in the formation of the Port Elizabeth Youth Congress (PEYCO) and the Uitenhage Youth Congress (UYCO) at the end of 1984. Both PEYCO and UYCO rapidly established networks of organizations with their primary constituents being unemployed school leavers. By the end of 1985, both organizations each claimed signed up membership of 1000 youths.
PEYCO organized youth around political issues as opposed to civic or factory-based issues and increasingly engaged in physical confrontation with security forces. However, it also played an active role in organizing workshops, where it taught young people about the Freedom Charter, the meaning of the national liberation struggle, the causes of oppression and class exploitation and methods of organization. Playing a key role in coordinating township struggles and was a prominent member of structures in the area. It often played the role of the local UDF area committee and acted as a reinforcing mechanism in local UDF structures, as well as assisting other organization in the townships, particularly women, the local UDF and defence committees.
The Soweto Youth Congress (SOYCO) was the third youth congress to be formed and was launched in July 1983. Initiated by former COSAS members, the group recruited young people from church groups, dance groups and soccer clubs. It transformed the nature of Black resistance politics in Soweto by playing a significant role in marches, consumer boycotts, stay-aways and defiance campaigns.
The launch of the Alexandra Youth Congress (AYCO), on the 25 September 1983, was attended by almost 300 people. Membership to AYCO was open to anyone who fell within the definition of youth which was held to be for people between the ages of 12 and 36 years. The ages of founding members ranged between 16 and 24 years and by 1986 the ages of members ranged from early teens to the mid thirties. The majority of Ayco members parents were working class and a number came from single-parent households. The first AYCO General Council meeting was attended by approximately 50 people. A year later, the organization had 100 paid-up and active members, however in the wake of the Six Day War in Alex township in 1986, its membership swelled to several hundred, whilst youth involved in resistance activities numbered in the thousands. Like other Youth Congresses, AYCO was involved in a number of organizational activities such as seminars, debates and workshops on political issues, sport events and symposiums with other youth congresses and other contacts with like-minded organizations and activists. By making a concerted effort to organize and educate its youth constituency, and emphasizing the responsibility of youth activists in conscientizing parents, AYCO had become a significant political and social actor in Alexandra.
In the Northern Transvaal, the UDF regional committee included 16 youth congress affiliates. These congresses had the most extensive and elaborate networks of all the regions affiliates. The Steelpoort Youth Congress (STEYCO), claimed to have five branches located in the mining and cotton-farming communities on the eastern border of Sekhukhuneland. STEYCO played a key role, in organizing mine and farm-workers in the areas as well as, in the Lebowa revolt of 1986.
To summarize, SAYCO had brought together members of trade unions, students, community and political organizations. Since 1976, most young workers had experienced more than a decade of unprecedented military resistance and having come from the ranks of COSAS, they identified with the activities of the youth congresses as an extension of their political activities. The high failure and drop-out rates at schools, age-limit regulations at schools, and political turmoil as well as economic recession, had resulted in high number of unemployed youth, who found a home and a consciousness in the youth congresses of the 80s.