South African Student Organisation (SASO)

The South African Student Organisation (SASO) was formed in 1968 after some members of the University of Natal’s Black Campus SRC (Student Representative Council) decided to break away from the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). NUSAS was a liberal organisation dominated by White students. When it was formed in 1924, it was an exclusively White student body that represented student interests. In the 1960s White members became sympathetic to the Black students cause. As a result, Black students membership began to increase. Many of these students, the majority of whom were based at the University of Natal, became increasingly dissatisfied with the inability of NUSAS to tackle deep racist structures and policies of both the government and universities.
One incident in particular, sparked the break away. In the period 1967-68 Steve Biko, a medical student at Natal University, was one of the students who began to analyze and criticise the unhealthy political situation in the country. At Wentworth, Natal University’s medical school for Blacks, Biko was elected to the Student’s Representative Council (SRC), and in 1967, attended a conference of students that was critical of the government. Primarily because NUSAS was dominated by whites, Rhodes University, the conference host, refused to allow mixed-race accommodation or eating facilities. Reacting angrily to the incident, Biko slated the incomplete integration of student politics under the existing system and dismissed talk of liberalism as an empty gesture by Whites who really wished to maintain the status quo and keep Blacks as second-rate citizens.
The formation of SASO was preceded and influenced by the formation of the University Christian Movement(UCM) in 1967. UCM was an inter-denominational religious movement that allowed students from different universities to meet on a regular basis. It was influenced by Black Theology that taught religion from an oppressed person’s perspective. Liberation theology sought to transform society into a just and fraternal society. The aim of black theology was to inspire Black people to realise equality with White people and that their Blackness and inferiority was not a punishment nor a condition created by God. The UCM accepted these teachings as relevant for Black South Africans and important for their liberation. Despite its orientation towards Black Theology, Steve Biko and his circle of associates were not content with the UCM. They observed that the UCM was reinforcing the inferior status of Black people by having a large number of White people in their leadership structures, even though the majority of its members were Black.
Subsequently, in 1968 during a UCM meeting, Black students formed a black caucus that resolved that there was a need to form an exclusively Black student organisation. The caucus then decided that a conference for Black students should be organised. The conference, which was attended by thirty members from various SRCs from Black universities, was held at Marianhill, Natal. The conference saw the birth of SASO. The following year in July 1969 SASO had its inaugural conference which was held at the University of the North near Pietersburg (now Polokwane). At this conference Steve Biko was elected its first President and students from the University of Natal played a pivotal role in the formation of this student structure. 
The decision to break away from NUSAS was also motivated largely by the emergence of Black Consciousness (BC) - founded by Steve Biko. BC was a new philosophy influenced by the development of “Black Theology” among the University of Natal Black students. The Black Consciousness Movement that Biko founded rejected the notion that whites could play a role in the liberation of Blacks. “The main thing was to get black people to articulate their own struggle and reject the white liberal establishment from prescribing to people,” said Barney Pityana (Biko’s friend).
Biko and his colleagues felt Blacks needed to learn to speak for themselves. In fact, as Pityana recalled, for white students, “NUSAS was a nice friendly club, another game you played while at university. Then you grew out of it,” but for Biko and other black students, NUSAS was not militant enough. Other liberal organisations like some churches were not open to blacks either. For Example, at a non-racial church conference, which Biko attended, white participants discouraged blacks from defying restrictions of the Group Areas Act, which limited Blacks to 72 hours in a white area. Being told how students should act annoyed Biko very much. It also underlined the extent to which Black South Africans were isolated even in the churches.
Accessed on South African History site http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/south-african-student-organisation-saso on 19 September 2014.

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