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Student politics in South Africa underwent seismic shifts between 1976 and 1980. In early 1976 the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) remained a major force on black campuses, while its graduates and proponents preached Black Consciousness ideology in schools in some of the country's biggest urban townships. As I argued in Chapter 2, this period marked the height of Black Consciousness’ prominence, especially among its student constituency. But, though its impact on South African youth was critical, the student movement was still not considered a central force in liberation politics either by government or by the more established liberation organizations; it represented one element of the resistance against apartheid, alongside the armed struggle, liberation organizations in exile, and trade union movements.
After June 1976 that changed irrevocably. School students in Soweto had shown their country and the world the importance and power of student organization and politics. Protesting against the use of Afrikaans as a classroom medium, they took to the streets of Soweto in tens of thousands. Confronted with armed police, they continued to march until they were fired upon and brutally repressed. The Soweto uprising and its aftermath – when students across the country made their schools and campuses ungovernable – changed the public perception of students in South Africa. It also changed the dynamics of resistance politics in the country. No single liberation organization had been prepared for the scope and scale of the uprising, and the way organizations like SASO and the African National Congress (ANC) dealt with the aftermath would have an important effect on the future shape of student and liberation politics.
Another critical factor impacting this future was government repression, which increased significantly on the organizations that existed under the umbrella of Black Consciousness in the late 1970s. By late 1977 the killing of Steve Biko in a Pretoria jail and mass bannings diminished the capacity of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) to influence student politics at the level it had achieved just a year or two earlier. Into the breach, and influenced by all these factors, the multi-racial Charterist politics of the ANC began a resurgence in new student political movements, bringing with it a new wave of student activism for the 1980s.
1968 was a pivotal year for student protest around the world. As discussed in the previous chapter, from Paris to Mexico City, students embarked on protests that took them into direct and violent conflict with the state. That same year in South Africa, however, student politics took a surprising – and, to some, reactionary – turn. In apparent accordance with the apartheid ideology of the South African government, black South African university students broke ranks with their liberal white counterparts and formed their own racially exclusive student organization. The racialized split between the predominantly white National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and the black South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), is one of the key issues discussed in this chapter, as I explore the local context and causes of the break at the University of the North. It came nearly a decade after the official segregation of South Africa's universities, and the founding of ethnically exclusive ‘University Colleges’ for black, Indian, and coloured students.
On the cusp of the founding of SASO, the University College of the North, or Turfloop, in the rural Northern Transvaal, became an important centre for politically active black students. The university was less than a decade old, and had been situated on a farm miles from the nearest town. It incubated the new organization and contributed to the development of what would become SASO's core ideology, Black Consciousness, and to the related idea of Black Theology. Like SASO itself, these ideologies focused on an affirmation of what it was to be black in South Africa, and aimed to promote a positive reclamation of black identity. In the case of Black Theology, the scope of this was explicitly religious. At Turfloop and elsewhere, SASO worked through on-campus Christian groups to achieve deeper ideological diffusion and mobilization. Its strongest links were to the ecumenical and multi-racial University Christian Movement (UCM); the movements enjoyed a period of close collaboration until the 1972 dissolution of the UCM. This also marked an important moment in which SASO and its allies abandoned attempts to employ multiracialism as a strategy for political change.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Turfloop became a site for integrating many levels of protest.
The violent confrontations between students and police during the Viva- Frelimo rally attracted national attention to Turfloop in the middle of the 1970s. They also caused a great deal of concern within the government about the future of Bantustan universities. Increasingly even the Department of Bantu Education was confronted with the fact that Turfloop was far from the paragon of Bantustan civilization it had been founded to become. In response to student unrest, the government commissioned two inquiries – one, the Jackson Commission, was commissioned in the wake of Tiro's speech and the subsequent protests, but its report was initially withheld and eventually tabled in parliament at the same time as the second, more substantial, Snyman Commission report. Justice Snyman was tasked with reporting on the factors at Turfloop that had led to the political showdown with police in September 1974. The reports of both the Snyman and Jackson Commissions, and the collective submission to the Snyman Commission by Turfloop's Black Academic Staff Association (BASA), act as both source and subject for this chapter. The reports and their reception, both at Turfloop and more broadly, and the later controversy over the publication and distribution of BASA's submission, illuminate the disagreements about running the university that arose between the university administration, the staff, the students, and the government. Previous scholarship on black student activism has suggested that Turfloop's significance waned after the Viva- Frelimo rally of 1974. But I argue that contestation at the university contained the seeds of changes that were significant both on campus and more widely during and beyond the mid-1970s.
It was certainly at the forefront of Africanization – the move to put Africans in positions of authority, in this case, at universities. As a result of pressure from both the Jackson and Snyman Commission Reports, Africanization at its highest level was achieved at Turfloop in 1977, when Professor William Kgware was installed as the first black rector of any university in South Africa. However, the appointment of Kgware did not result in the political shifts that some students and activists had envisioned. These unmet expectations, and the frequent conflicts with both students and staff that dogged Kgware's administration, are a primary focus of this chapter.
The news broke first on Twitter: Just before six o'clock in the morning, on 28 September 2016, the University of Limpopo announced it was closing its gates in the face of student protests. All students were required to vacate their residences and to leave campus by five o'clock that afternoon, giving them just eleven hours to make plans for transport home – for some, in other provinces and even neighbouring countries – or to make alternative arrangements. By the afternoon a handful of journalists were snapping pictures of students lugging duffel bags and dragging suitcases down the roads of Mankweng township, making their way to taxi ranks that would take them on towards destinations as far afield in South Africa as the Eastern Cape, or across the northern border shared with Zimbabwe and Botswana. For many who could not afford the unexpected cost of the trip home the only shelter to be found was in the churches of Mankweng, which opened their doors to the students who had been displaced.
The university administration made the decision to indefinitely suspend all academic activities on the campus – colloquially known as Turfloop – to protect ‘the safety and security of our students, staff, and University property’. They did so in the context of national university protests during the second wave of FeesMustFall.
Slightly more than a week before Turfloop sent all of its students packing, an announcement about the future of funding universities in the country was met with an outpouring of protest across campuses. The plan, announced by the Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande, was, in fact, a direct response to weeks of protest and a national shutdown of South African universities in late 2015. In October of that year, students at the University of the Witwatersrand shut down their campus in protest at the rising cost of university fees; quickly the movement gained a hashtag: #FeesMustFall, and a national following. It also evolved beyond the issue of reducing fees to include calls for decolonizing South Africa's universities, and, eventually, a movement for free education. In a matter of days the students had pushed the issue beyond their individual universities, to the heart of government itself. On 23 October 2015 then President Jacob Zuma announced a 0% increase in fees for the 2016 academic year, effectively freezing fees at the 2015 rate.
By the early 1970s the University of the North at Turfloop was growing increasingly prominent as a centre of student resistance against the apartheid state, or ‘the system’ as student activists called it. This was due in large part to a number of high-profile student activists who had cut their political teeth with campus groups like the South African Students’ Organization, the Students’ Christian Movement, and the earlier University Christian Movement, as discussed in the previous chapter. For these individuals, and for the majority of the student body of Turfloop, Christianity and political resistance to the system went hand in hand. These activists also served an important role in representing Turfloop, and the radical politics that had developed on campus, to the rest of South Africa and to other student and political activists in the antiapartheid cause.
These developments occurred against a backdrop of changes in the way that protest politics were being enacted throughout South Africa. In his recent book The Road to Soweto, Julian Brown explores these changes and argues that the decade preceding the 1976 Soweto Uprising was marked by increasingly confrontational forms of politics. He contends that the shift towards confrontational protest originated on white university campuses in 1966 and 1968; he points to the aftermath of Tiro's expulsion in 1972 as the first move towards such confrontation on black campuses, and the Viva-FRELIMO rallies of 1974, one of which was held at Turfloop, as the culmination of this trend at black universities. Building on Brown, who is primarily concerned with the form of these protests and linking them to national trends, this chapter situates them in the context of life and campus politics at Turfloop. It seeks to understand the ways in which student protests on campus came to incorporate broader political concerns around national liberation, and argues for their impact on developing ideas of nationalism and African solidarity that influenced political developments far beyond Turfloop itself.
This chapter considers Turfloop's increasingly prominent place as a centre of student activism, SASO's growing organizational capacity and public profile, and how these two phenomena interacted with one another. It centres on the stories of prominent activists, the roles they played both at and outside of Turfloop, and their importance in South African student politics in the middle of the 1970s – perhaps the most important period of student activism in the country's history.
The Northern Transvaal, now Limpopo Province, has not typically been renowned for famous daughters and sons, or for its contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle. Some activists from the area have been overshadowed by peers from other areas, written out of struggle history, or have come to prominence after migrating to the urban centres on the Rand, disassociating their legacies from their roots in the north. Many of these activists have been discussed in the preceding chapters, in an attempt to highlight their contributions, and the contribution of Limpopo, to the history of student and youth politics in South Africa. It is instructive to consider their omissions from regional struggle history – the way in which prominent national figures like Cyril Ramaphosa and Frank Chikane are now mostly divorced from their political roots at Turfloop in popular memory – but it is equally important to consider who is remembered in association with their regional roots.
Two men have been intimately linked with the politics of youth in Limpopo Province, as well as on a national scale in post-apartheid South Africa, and it is instructive to consider them both here. One, Peter Mokaba, founder of SAYCO and the first president of the 1991 Youth League, has already been discussed in some detail. The other, Julius Malema, who eventually succeeded Mokaba as the head of the Youth League, has not yet been mentioned. These two youth activists, separated by a generation, bear a good deal of comparison. Both came from poor townships near Pietersburg, were politicized relatively young through school structures, and rose to national prominence through immense populist appeal among their youth constituency. Both occupied a rhetorically radical space within the ANC, eliciting rebukes and censure from the main party, while exciting their base. The production of such leaders, and what they share with earlier activists from the province, has important implications for understanding youth politics in Limpopo, and its impact on youth politics nationally.
When we left Peter Mokaba in the previous chapter, he was a firebrand, immensely popular with his constituents, but notoriously difficult for party structures – both those of the UDF and of the ANC – to control. It is a measure of his political weight among a vast constituency of young South Africans that he weathered and survived not just charges of insubordination, but of disloyalty.
The introduction to this book opened in the present, on the scenes of student protests at Turfloop in 2016 when the campus joined nationwide student strikes as part of the FeesMustFall Movement that had been sparked on other campuses. But the body of the text has argued that Turfloop – and Limpopo as a whole – has a much deeper history of student protest, and youth-driven change. In fact, even FeesMustFall had earlier precedents at Turfloop and its fellow former ‘bush’ colleges; students on these campuses led calls for the institution and improvement of aid schemes like the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) in the 1990s and early 2000s. As one protesting student told researcher Musawenkosi Malabela,
There were countless protests, countless shut downs and countless efforts but were not given the same space like what you call #FeesMustFall movement, which is given attention by the media. You can't dissociate the fact that there used to be TEFSA [Tertiary Education Fund for South Africa] now there is NSFAS and now you even have the NSFAS saying that final [year] students who have passed their entire course, their loan must be changed into a bursary. These are victories of relentless struggles and violent protests that have been waged by students and generations of student leaders at Turloop and other black universities.
Turfloop, then, has remained an important site of ideological and political formation, even as it has faded from the front pages of South Africa's papers. But as in the 1960s and 1970s, students on this perirural campus are raising some of the key political issues of their time, often before their national counterparts do so. I have tried to argue here for its crucial place – and for the place of Limpopo as a whole – in the historiography of South African struggle.
Who is remembered? Associational legacies in Limpopo
This book has chronicled three major periods in the history of student and youth activism in the Northern Transvaal over the latter decades of the twentieth century: from the relatively elite-led, university-oriented ideological protest of the Black Consciousness movement, to the locally rooted regional expansion of protest politics under COSAS and youth congresses, to the congregation of those once-disparate groups under the banner of the unbanned ANC Youth League.
In 1987 activists still languished under the state of emergency that had facilitated nationwide crackdowns the previous year, including the one that halted the Sekhukhuneland youth revolt. The UDF and its allies found themselves in a ‘holding operation’, trying to weather the detention of thousands of local and national activists, while maintaining a public profile. Its chief success in this regard came in the formation of a new organization: the South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) was created to unite all the Charterist youth groups under a single banner. It aimed to bring together the disparate local congresses discussed in Chapter 5. Though many of these had been allied through their mutual affiliation to the UDF, SAYCO provided the first opportunity for them to organize around the common identity of youth.
Meanwhile, on university campuses like Turfloop, Charterism was quickly becoming the dominant political ideology among student activists. The Azanian Students’ Organisation (AZASO) was consolidating its position against its Africanist and Black Consciousness-adherent competitors, most notably the Azanian Students’ Movement (AZASM). As Saleem Badat and Shaun Johnson have each argued, by 1986 AZASO was characterized by high levels of ‘organizational confidence’ and a renewed impulse towards ideological purity. By late 1986 AZASO leaders took the decision to change their organization's name to the South African National Students’ Congress (SANSCO) in order to bring it more firmly into the Charterist fold by including congress in the name, and to jettison the last nominal tie to their Black Consciousness roots: the use of ‘Azania’ rather than ‘South Africa’. As we have seen in the debates around the naming of COSAS, naming was an important aspect for any youth organization, and it was the first and most public declaration of a group's political affiliations. In the case of AZASO, the renaming to SANSCO sought to do just that, but it did not signify any changes in policy. These had already been consolidated after its break with AZAPO in 1980. In fact, the change was explicitly in name only. AZASO had been a firmly Charterist organization since its break with AZAPO; now its name finally reflected those affiliations.
The 1983 launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in a community hall in Mitchell's Plain on the Cape Flats has come to symbolize the rise of deeply local politics in the anti-apartheid struggle. The UDF was dominated by civics, trade unions, student groups, and women's organizations. Eventually it came to envelop hundreds of these types of local and regional organizations across the country, all under the banner of nonracialism. In a shift from the dominant political ideology among students of the previous decade, when Black Consciousness had advocated racial separation as a necessary precondition for psychological and political freedom, the UDF reclaimed the earlier tradition of the ANC and other Charterist organizations that based their nonracialism on the ethos of the Freedom Charter.
But the birth of the UDF in 1983 was only the latest and most public move to locally root anti-apartheid politics. In this chapter I argue that increasing regionalization in the realm of student politics predates the UDF by several years, and that those early political entities had a profound effect on, and in many cases became, later UDF affiliates. To do so, I will focus particularly on the Congress of South African Students and student and youth congresses of the Northern Transvaal, and the tensions that existed between these local organizations and the national structures to which they affiliated.
The 1979 founding of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) predated the UDF by four years and marked the first reemergence of Charterism in national politics. It also effectively expanded the student struggle well beyond the crucible of universities, a major centre of 1970s activism, and beyond the schools of Soweto, which had catapulted student protest to international attention in 1976. Tshepo Moloi's study on the Free State town of Kroonstad has suggested that though political activity was slow to start in the area, the activism of school students ‘helped shift Maokeng's politics from quiescence to confrontation’. In the Northern Transvaal, Sekibakiba Lekgoathi has pointed to the expansion of Western-style education in rural areas during the 1970s as a key influence on the growth of student organization in the region.
Argues that the historical primacy of youth politics in Limpopo, South Africa has influenced the production of generations of nationally prominent youth and student activists - among them Julius Malema, Onkgopotse Tiro, Cyril Ramaphosa, Frank Chikane, and Peter Mokaba.