Black High School Students And The Overthrow of Apartheid

This post is part of our forum on “The End of South African Apartheid Anniversary.” 

Soweto welcome sign outside of Johannesburg, South Africa (Shutterstock/Kelly Ermis)

Black students at universities and schools were pivotal actors in the anti-apartheid movement and, at crucial moments, changed the course and character of the liberation struggle in South Africa. Their spirit of dissent and refusal to be beaten into submission by continuous and violent state repression were instrumental in dismantling  white minority rule. From the mid-1970s, they repeatedly embarked on various forms of protest and built their own organizations to challenge apartheid education. The Soweto uprising of 1976 was undoubtedly the high point of Black student’s rebellion, but it was preceded by smaller experiments of creating student movements and inspired future generations of students to commit to the struggle for freedom.

The promulgation in the 1950s of apartheid education laws (Bantu Education Action and the Extension of Universities Act) were early triggers of student action and organization. Bantu Education was a cornerstone of apartheid and was undergirded by the racist belief, articulated by Hendrik Verwoerd (known as ‘the architect of apartheid’), that “[t]here is no place for him [the “Bantu”] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.” Not surprisingly, this piece of legislation quickly became a primary target of Black protest. In the mid-1950s, the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies organized boycotts against Bantu Education, which gave birth to the Western Areas Student Association, based in the Black locations on the western edges of Johannesburg. The Cape Peninsula Students’ Union and the Natal Students’ Union (both associated with the Unity Movement) mobilized against the entrenchment of racial segregation in education and were notably spaces for the coalescence of a generation of radical intellectuals. Although these were short-lived initiatives, which did not survive the state’s repression following the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, they were precursors of the student movements that would emerge in the 1970s.

Two processes unfolded from the late 1960s that completely transformed the position of Black high school students in South Africa: the rapid increase in the enrollment of Africans in schools and the birth of Black Consciousness. African school students grew from approximately one million to 2.5 million between 1955 and 1969, with only 4.5% of high school enrollments in 1970. Under pressure from communities and industry (desirous of more Black semi-skilled labor), the state erected an unprecedented number of high schools in townships. As a result, African high school enrollments increased from 66,906 in 1965 to 318,568 in 1975. In 1976, there were 3.7 million African school students, with 389,000 in high schools. The growth in the coloured and Indian high school populations also contributed to Black (African, coloured, and Indian) school students developing into a formidable social and political force.

The emergence of Black Consciousness in the late 1960s profoundly impacted young black people. Its trenchant critique of white domination and powerful assertion of Black dignity, autonomy, and agency completely unsettled the status quo. The iconic slogan, Black Power!, became the rallying cry of a generation of young Black people ready to cast off the shackles of white minority rule. Launched under the leadership of Steve Biko in 1969, the university-based South African Student Organization (SASO) pioneered Black Consciousness. Around the same time, the African Students’ Movement was created and developed a presence in parts of Soweto. Building on these initial successes, SASO and ASM established a national student organization, the South African Students’ Movement (SASM), in March 1972. Henceforth, Black high school students would occupy a more prominent position in the unfolding liberation struggle.

The Soweto uprising of 1976 initially aimed to reject the state’s imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. When the police shot and killed protesters on June 16, what commenced as a peaceful march quickly transformed into an open rebellion against Bantu Education and the apartheid system as a whole. By August, tens of thousands of students nationally had joined the protest, which involved marches, strikes, and almost daily confrontations with the police. Student Representative Councils (SRCs) were created and, although unevenly developed, were important expressions of alternative, liberatory practices. This rebellion marked a turning point: it rocked apartheid to its foundations, townships became epicenters of protests, and, crucially, students declared their willingness to die for liberation.

The state responded by unleashing a wave of terror against Black students: thousands were arrested and hundreds killed. In 1977, it banned SASM and other Black Consciousness organizations, striking a serious blow against the political movements that had emerged in the 1970s. Unlike the repression that followed the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, however, the state failed to crush the mood of dissent that had taken root, especially among young Black people.

In fact, students (and young people in general) continued to organize. Influenced by liberation theology, several Christian organizations (Student Christian Movement, Young Christian Students, and Young Christian Workers) emerged as important spaces of activism and radicalization. In some areas, student activists attempted to replace the banned organizations with local structures, such as the Soweto Students’ League and the Alexandra Students’ League. Numerous informal networks of activists also emerged, some of which began connecting with the exiled political organizations, especially the African National Congress.

It was from the ranks of these activists that an initiative emerged in early 1979 to create a new national student organization. In May that year, between 80 and 100 activists gathered west of Johannesburg to launch the Congress of South African Students (COSAS). In the first three years, the new organization barely survived as it immediately became a target of state repression. Nonetheless, it began to set down roots in a few areas across the country and was able to engender a sense of belonging to a national organization with an orientation to the ANC among its members.

The birth of COSAS also coincided with the general revival of grassroots movements in the country. Black trade unions experienced growth and merged into the Federation of South African Trade Union (FOSATU) and the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA), while new civic organizations were launched in numerous townships. Deteriorating school conditions triggered a wave of school boycotts in 1980 in the Western Cape and Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha), as students rejected “gutter education” and established democratically elected SRCs. These struggles injected new energy into the anti-apartheid movement and contributed to the steady growth of COSAS.

By 1982, COSAS was able to convene a successful national conference under the theme, ‘Student and Worker Alliance,’ reflecting a growing awareness of the strategic importance of uniting Black workers and students. In fact, since the late 1970s, students have organized solidarity with striking workers by boycotting products of anti-union companies. They were also active in building civic associations and other community organizations. The aforementioned conference also decided to establish Youth Congresses (for non-school youth) and to consolidate its organizational structures. As the tempo of anti-apartheid struggles quickened, COSAS in 1983-84 experienced rapid growth as tens of thousands of students mobilized behind its banner. The organization’s campaigns for the recognition of SRCs and against corporal punishment and sexual harassment were hugely popular, including among female students. School boycotts were a primary weapon of struggle for students and in the general strategy to render townships ungovernable. The state responded with more violence: the police and army flooded townships, thousands were detained (often without trial), and many were subjected to bodily harm and death. Students remained resolute and mobilized mass action, such as marches, protest rallies, and consumer boycotts. Some also resorted to direct violence, including torching the houses of policemen and representatives of government structures.

The township rebellion reached a crescendo in late 1984, triggered by mass protests in early September in the Vaal townships (located about 50 km south of Johannesburg). Within two months, most townships around Johannesburg (Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vaal region) had erupted in mass protests. On November 5 and 6, COSAS and FOSATU organized a regional general strike involving hundreds of thousands of workers in support of students’ demands. It was an unprecedented expression of the power of Black workers and students, which brought the country’s industrial heartland to a virtual standstill.  More than any other single protest, it signaled that white minority rule was in its death throes. As the rebellion scaled new heights, the state lashed out at what it perceived to be its primary foe, Black students, and in August 1985, banned COSAS. It was too late. Students and their organizations had contributed immensely to smashing the white rule, although it would take a few more years for it to be formally announced.

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Noor Nieftagodien

Noor Nieftagodien is the NRF South African Research Chair in Local Histories, Present Realities and is the Head of the History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he also lectures in the Department of History. He is the co-author, with Phil Bonner, of books on the history of Alexandra, Ekurhuleni and Kathorus, and has also published books on the history of Orlando West and the Soweto uprising, and co-edited a book on the history of the ANC. Noor has published articles and book chapters on aspects of popular insurgent struggles, public history, youth politics and local history.

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