Students and the Uprisings of the 1980s – From Soweto to Freedom
The banning of student organisations – SASO and SASM – in 1977 did not succeed in destroying the spirit of resistance among students for long. Already in 1979 a new student organisation, the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), was formed. Unlike its predecessor SASM, the COSAS supported the Freedom Charter. But, like its predecessor, it organised students on a national scale. The COSAS, however, only started to have a national influence in 1984. It was a key actor in the 1980 boycotts but it was to become an important player in the struggles of the mid-1980s. In the same year, the Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO) was formed and it organised students at tertiary institutions. By 1983 a split occurred in AZASO along ideological lines, and students aligned with the black consciousness tradition formed the Azanian Students Movement (AZASM).
In April 1980 a region-wide schools boycott started in the Western Cape. As with the 1976 uprisings, there were school-based issues that led to the boycott. Working class schools were poorly equipped and were in a bad state of repair; there were shortages of qualified teachers and teachers who were politically conscious were dismissed from schools. Students protested against the use of corporal punishment and the presence of the police in schools. Students also demanded SRCs.
As with 1976, the student boycott happened in the context of an economic crisis. There was a steadily increase in inflation and unemployment. Black unemployment rose from 11.8% in 1970 to 21.1% in 1981.
By the 1980s students had learnt the lessons of 1976. They saw the need for coordination and organisation. They also made attempts to ensure that their demands included the wider working class society.
The boycott of 1980 was inspired by a different political understanding to that of June 1976. Whereas June 16 1976 showed the influence of the BC tradition, the 1980 student manifestos and slogans talked more about capitalist exploitation under apartheid. The students also talked about how schooling prepared students for a subordinate role in apartheid-capitalist society.
The organisation of the boycott of 1980
During the boycott of 1980 committees that were tasked with the coordination of struggles were formed in most centres. Mass meetings were a regular feature of the boycott. For example, in Cape Town, the boycott was coordinated by the Committee of 81, which had representatives of Student Representative Committees (SRCs), from schools in the Western Cape. After meetings, committee members would report back to their respective schools. The Committee of 81 arranged meetings in which the mass of students was addressed by workers from the bus and meat strikes taking place at the time. While the committee of 81 made some gains, there were however some weaknesses.
Reflecting on the boycott in the Western Cape in 1980, and the fact that structures that were formed collapsed, Oupa Lehulere, an activist in Cape Town at the time, argued that “[A]s [an] organ expressing student power and democracy the Committee of 81 rose and fell with the ebb of the boycott itself. And [it] never generated structures [that] would transcend that movement as such. In that respect 1980 is the same as 1976. In ‘76 for various historical reasons in the Western Cape and probably other areas, those visible concrete organisational forms were never thrown up as such.…[In] ‘76 there was no question of structures rising beyond the boycott movement. But in 1980 they were strong enough,… but again they collapsed with the collapse of the boycott movement. COSAS was on the periphery in the 1980 boycott especially in the Western Cape. In other areas like Port Elizabeth you had a committee of 61 which was not really a COSAS committee. COSAS was formed in 1979 and so was quite new in the 1980s school boycotts and the COSAS leadership did not have a vibrant leadership in 1980. The leadership was quite confused as to what to do.”
A COSAS activist from the Eastern Cape, Monde Tabata, emphasised the fact that in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth students built democratic structures during the 1980 boycott. At the same time students saw a need for community support as an essential element of their struggle.
According to Tabata, “The boycotts of 1980 became very important and may have been a turning point in the students’ struggles, in that the students in 1980 in Cape Town had a formation such as the Committee of 81 in Cape Town, Committee of 61 in PE, where students realised that they would never be able to fight their struggle by themselves, without the support of the communities. And they were drawing their parents to their struggles [in order] to actually show them that the struggle for students is also a struggle for them [i.e.parents].”
Despite the weaknesses of organisation in 1980, students made some gains such as more textbooks were provided and schools were repaired. There were also important organisational gains and lessons learnt from the experiences of 1976. Reflecting on the lessons of 1976, Nyanisile Jack, an activist in the Eastern Cape, has this to say,“[I]in terms of organisation, the … [approach] of 1980 was indicative of the fact that the lessons of 1976 had been learnt because students were emphasising the point that we must occupy the schools, we must use the schools as the centre of organisation and besides that, we must always be organised –if we retreat, we must retreat in an organized way, united, not retreating in a situation where we get scattered and so on, and then the enemy finds our forces disorganised and in disarray. So we had to advance in an organised way, which I think meant that 1980 was quite superior in terms of that to 1976.”
Many students went back to school in 1981. Another wave of student resistance was to continue in the period 1984 to 1986.
Students Resistance in 1984 – 1986
In the early 1980’s, there was a uneasy calm in schools. COSAS continued to build itself as a national organisation but its activities had a low profile. COSAS mobilised students around issues such democratically elected SRCs, bad matric results and age restriction. The Azanian Students Movement (AZASM) which had links with the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), was formed in 1983. The youth congresses (affiliated to the ANC tradition) were formed in various parts of the country and organised young people who were not in schools.
What led tothe wave of mobilisation of 1984 – 1986?
There were old issues that were also taken up in the waves of 1976 and 1980. These included overcrowding in schools, shortage of textbooks and teachers, poor facilities, high matric failure rate, corruption and so on. COSAS and AZASM became platforms for articulating the demands and aspirations of students on a national scale.
Like in 1976 and 1980, the economic context was steadily deteriorating. The working class was experiencing the rise in unemployment and high inflation rate. School leavers were not getting absorbed into the labour market. The deteriorating economic situation was worsened by an increase in transport costs and costs of other basic needs.
Many people were angered by constitutional arrangements which entrenched apartheid by creating a racially segregated Tricameral Parliament. At the time of the Tricameral elections in 1984, there was a generalised boycott and protest across the country.
During the period 1984 to 1986, there were highly developed national structures such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the National Forum (NF), both formed in 1983. The trade union movement had formed strong shopfloor and national structures, such as the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) and the Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA).
The students’ boycotts and protests started in two regions: in Cradock and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, and in Saulsville and Atteridgeville in Pretoria. However, over the next few months the protest spread across different parts of the country, into rural areas and homelands as well as urban areas.
The protests started with the poor marking of the 1983 matric examination papers. COSAS also campaigned for democratically elected SRCs. Students also protested against corporal punishment, age restriction and sexual harassment of female students by male teachers. The Department of Education attempted to introduce undemocratic SRCs but students rejected that proposal.The Department of Education then closed a number of schools in Cradock, Pretoria and on the Rand.
In 1984, in Grahamstown, COSAS began to play a leading role. After the opening of the schools in September 1984, COSAS took over the boycott, and now this time they demanded the recognition of SRCs and submitted these demands to some principals, who in turn took that to the Department of Education.
In this midst of this ongoing crisis, COSAS, NUSAS and AZASO launched the Education Charter Campaign in February 1984. The charter, among other things, demanded equal and free education for all.
Unlike in 1973 and 1976, there was an explicit and concrete convergence of students’, workers’ and broader political struggles in 1984. This convergence could be seen in a flyer issued by COSAS in the Transvaal in 1984 (see flyer in this edition). This flyer which was issued during the community struggles in the Vaal Triangle, and calls for an alliance between workers and students. Unlike in 1976, workers were seen as social agents that are capable of bringing about change in society. The flyer argues, “ Workers, you are fathers and mothers, you are our brothers and sisters. Our struggle in the schools is your struggle in the factories. We fight the same bosses’ government, we fight the same enemy”.
In August 1984, elections were held for the ‘Indian’ and ‘Coloured’ Tricameral Parliament. The United Democratic Front (UDF) and the National Forum (NF) organized national boycotts against the elections. The COSAS and other youth formations called for school boycotts as part of the campaign against the Tricameral elections. Large numbers of students supported the boycott.
The uprising in the Vaal Triangle
However, it was events in the Vaal region that transformed student protests and made them part of a major political struggle. In August 1984, rent and service costs were increased in the townships around Pretoria, the East and West Rand, the Eastern Cape and the Vaal Triangle. The Vaal exploded. Rent and education boycotts converged in a wave of anti-apartheid capitalist state action. A stay-away in the Vaal was supported by more than 20 000 students and residents. The state retaliated by sending the South African Defence Force into the townships. The protests spread to other parts of the country. Students and the youth became militant. School issues were linked to the broader political struggle against apartheid and capitalism. Students waged militant battles against the police, the army, collaborators and vigilantes. The street committees, or “organs of working class power” and people’s courts were built, and in these courts those who were suspected of being collaborators were “necklaced”, that is burnt using a tyre filled with flammable liquid. The slogan of the youth became: “Liberation Now, Education Later”.
Students built alliances with workers. A joint stay-away between workers and students was organised in Southern Transvaal on 5 and 6 November 1984. Organisations involved include FOSATU, CUSA; student organisations such as COSAS, AZASO and YCS; and also civic and community groups. Over half a million people participated in the stay-away.
In the Eastern Cape in Uitenhage there was also a successful stay-away organised by students, workers and community groups in March 1984. Although the unity between students, workers and communities showed a high degree of unity, this was not always the case. For example, in Port Elizabeth, students, youth and workers could not reach an agreement on a stay-away in the early part of 1985.
The struggles of 1984 –1986 led to the growth and strengthening of democratic organisations. Street committees, youth and student formation became strong in unprecedented ways. The trade union movement grew stronger and this led to the formation of COSATU in 1985. Many of the community structures were able to withstand repression by the apartheid regime and its surrogates.
But there were also problems with youth militancy. In some cases the youth was unable to persuade workers and the community to join the boycott. Short cuts such as intimidatory methods and violence were used against fellow working class members of communities. There were people who also felt that students were turning a boycott tactic into a principle. The state responded by arresting a number of young people and that crippled organisations.
The formation of the National Education Crisis Committee
In 1985 the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee (SPCC), called a national conference to discuss the education crisis and formulate alternatives. Before the conference, the SPCC met the ANC in exile and came back with a slogan called “People’s Education for People’s Power”. The conference resolved that students would return to school on condition that COSAS was unbanned, the state of emergency lifted, political prisoners released and the unbanning of the liberation movement’s.
At this conference the slogan “Liberation Now, Education Later” was replaced by the one that said, “People’s Education for People’s Power”. The principles of “People’s Education” encompassed nonracialism, participation of parents, students and teachers in the running of education. Some speakers at the conference called upon students to return to school to transform the education system from within the school. In other words, students needed to return to school, to use the schools as another site of the struggle against apartheid. Despite the conference resolutions, the situation at the beginning of 1986 was confused. In some places there were conference report back meetings, and in others not. The Department of Education and Training (DET), argued that it had met the conditions set up by students excluding the unbanning of the COSAS. The students did not agree.
The follow up conference was held in March 1986 where the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC) was launched. Among other things, the conference reinforced the call for students to return to school and a People’s Education Commission was formed. Its task was to develop an alternative curriculum based on principles of “people’ education”. The National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), committed itself to working with progressive teachers in schools. There were debates about the term “people”. Others argued that the term concealed class differences in society. Other argued that the term was inclusive of all those who were against apartheid i.e. the working class and the middle class. Despite the calls for the return to school, students in some areas continued to boycott schools. Some schools were closed down by the DET. The NECC tried to negotiate with the DET over the school’s conditions, but these efforts failed. In 1986 the state of emergency was declared and some leaders of the NECC were arrested.
In 1987, however, the NECC called upon students to return to school and many students heeded the call. But there were many restrictions imposed on students. In 1990 during the context of political changes and the unbanning of the liberation movement, the NECC held a workshop that looked at the future role of the NECC and the meaning of “People’s Education” under the future ANC government. The ANC was already unbanned and there were discussions about ensuring that the Freedom Charter’s call for “Opening the doors of learning and culture for all South Africans” was realised. In the 1990s a lot of time was spent in developing education policies that were to be implemented by the ANC government. The policies included free and quality education, availability of equipment and laboratories and the general improvement of learning conditions.