Extract from Black Man You are On Your Own

Taken from Black Man You Are On Your Own
By Dr. Saleem Badat
Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University

In both scholarly and popular literature, black students in South Africa have tended to be treated in two ways: simply as victims of apartheid in appalling educations conditions, or as catalysts of educational and political struggle through their campaigns. Yet their role as activists has seldom been analysed. Indeed, few scholars have researched the remarkable continuity of student activism and militancy under apartheid, or considered the historical development, ideological and political character, and role, contribution and significance of the movements and organisations to which black students belonged.
This book attempts to rectify the relative silence by examining the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), formed in 1968 and popularly associated with the person of Steve Biko. Black students were not just victims of apartheid but were also thinkers, conscious actors and historical agents. In the face of an authoritarian political order and intense repression, they displayed an indomitable spirit of courage and defiance, they activated and intensified opposition to apartheid, and they contributed immensely to the struggle for national liberation and educational transformation in South Africa. In particular, SASO gave birth to the Black Consciousness movement, was the leading formation within it, and did much to revitalise black opposition politics during the 1970s before the organisation was banned by the apartheid government in 1977.

The Role of SASO

In the political conditions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, launching SASO was an important and progressive step, and the organisation performed a number of historically specific and valuable functions.
SASO was instrumental in rekindling a new era of black political activism and mass popular resistance. Its formation ruptured the silence and despair that characterised the early to mid-1960s. It activated ‘sentiments and ideas’ that responded ‘cognitively and operationally, in militant ways towards certain objects – in this case the state, its functionaries and the doctrines and structures of its legitimation.’ By seceding from, deconstructing, and challenging multiracial and liberal politics, SASO played a vital role in recreating black politics and political action. Once again, national and racial oppression were made the focus of struggle, the apartheid programme was challenged, and a forum created for organised opposition to apartheid. Through the doctrine of Black Consciousness, SASO tried ‘to rebuild and recondition the mind of the oppressed in such a way that eventually they would be ready forcefully to demand what was rightfully theirs.’ Its essential focus was ‘consciousness’, and through its activities it sought to develop the self-esteem, pride, confidence and solidarity of black students and the black oppressed and contribute to their
‘psychological liberation’. This approach was shaped by how you had to mesh with others in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period when the apartheid regime seemed so firmly entrenched as to be immovable and black responses were typically fear, apathy, resignation, sullen acquiescence and accommodation to separate development. In concentrating on ‘psychological liberation’, SASO saw its role as complementing that of the ANC and PAC, whom it regarded as the authentic voices of the people, and had no notion of competing with the exiled liberation movements. Other aspects of liberation, for example the ‘physical liberation’ that was spoken about and which implied armed struggle, it sought to leave to the liberation movements even though most SASO leaders were not opposed to the armed struggle; there was some contact with the liberation movements on this point.
SASO also had no notion of incorporating non-students and becoming a political organisation itself with a bias towards one or other liberation movement. It tried to avoid being paralysed by ideological divisions of the kind that had awakened the black student body during the time of ASA and ASUSA and aimed to forge a broad unity of all the oppressed. To this end, outside the educational sphere, it played a key role in launching other anti-apartheid players such as the Black People’s Convention, encouraged the formation of youth and cultural organisations, and lent support to the Black Community Programmes. Here too, it promoted black unity and solidarity as the basis for effective struggle against white power. SASO’s role within the overall BC movement that it helped to create is well captured by Nolutshungu: ‘At the centre of the movement, giving leadership, was SASO.’ But there were limits to how far SASO was prepared to submerge political differences in the quest for black unity. When some black organisations and individuals participating in separate development structures began linking up with some of the ostensibly more progressive bantustan leaders, SASO condemned them, since there was a concern that fear and passivity could lead to black accommodation with separate development.
SASO provided black higher education students a political home and an avenue for political activity outside the black political parties involved in separate development institutions. Many, like Masterpiece Gumede, were inducted into progressive politics through SASO. As Gumede says: ‘When we came to Ngoye we were immediately grabbed by SASO ... I only got into politics through the student movement at university.’ By being an exclusively black organisation, SASO made it possible for black students no longer to stand ‘at the touchlines’; instead they could ‘do things for themselves and all by themselves.’ It helped to engender a culture of black pride and assertiveness. It provided political education and organisational training and the ‘experience of leadership, planning, strategising and mobilising’. On its community development initiatives, Ramphele adds that there was ‘success in empowering activists in its ranks at all levels. Most of these individuals attained total psychological liberation and realised the meaning of being active agents in history. The impact of this success had a multiplier effect on the wider black community.’ SASO members would thus take into post-Soweto popular organisations considerable political and organisational expertise. In a context where politics was generally regarded as the preserve of adults, SASO also introduced students as an independent political and organisational force. From here on, whether adults and political organisations liked it or not, organised students became a standard feature of South African politics and a vital part of the national liberation struggle. Through its various projects and initiatives, meetings, statements and publications, SASO diffused ideas and a mood that aroused both anger and hope plus a spirit of resistance among students. The spread of ideas and mood gained impetus with the student boycotts of 1972 and aided political awakening and organisation among school students and other youth. Even the court trial of 1975–76 was used to restate the nationalist viewpoint, and [the accused] took every opportunity to symbolise their defiance of the state by singing freedom songs and raising clenched fists in the courtroom. Thus, instead of contributing to the suppression of Black Consciousness ideology, the trial, by giving the accused a continuous public platform through the press, merely disseminated that ideology even more widely, and held up to the youth once again a model of ‘rebel’ courage.
Through its contribution to the Soweto uprising and the subsequent flow of students and youth into exile, SASO also gave ‘to the ANC oxygen and new life, which the movement desperately needed – youth of the South African people, tempered in defiance in action.’ Thus, in various ways, SASO mobilised opposition to white minority rule and contributed to interrupting the previously untrammelled reproduction of apartheid power and domination.

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