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Student Politics in South Africa. An Overview of Key Developments

La transformation des forces politiques étudiantes en Afrique du Sud : vue d’ensemble et moments clés
Gabriel Cele et Charlton Koen
p. 201-223


Cet article explore la structure raciale de l’éducation supérieure en Afrique du Sud et montre son développement depuis le premier dispositif post-secondaire de 1829. Il retrace également les principales mutations organisationnelles caractérisant l’évolution des structures étudiantes noires, nationales et politiques, et en expose les principales revendications identitaires. Enfin, cet article décrit les principales transformations des années quatre-vingt-dix permettant ainsi de comprendre ce que doivent affronter les élus étudiants. Essentiellement, il est suggéré que les structures des élus étudiants, comme les organisations politiques nationales, traditionnellement structurées par une contestation politique, se consacrent aujourd’hui davantage aux problèmes économiques.

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1There are several reasons why it is necessary to document the evolution of student politics in South Africa since the 1960s. First, besides the absence of any current overview, the structure of higher education changed dramatically after racially stereotyped black universities were established in 1959. Indeed, racially segregated institutions have deracialised while black and foreign students have gone on to become Student Representative Council (SRC) leaders at historically white universities. Second, whereas students at some institutions opposed the formation of SRC’s that were viewed as government stooges during the 1960s, several illegally established SRC’s at black universities in the 1970s and 1980s strongly opposed government, but are now again described as ‘toothless’. Third, the largest student political organization has lost considerable support in SRC elections over the last few years and argues that students are now more interested in social, than political, issues. Fourth, whereas the trajectory of organizational development has shifted from single race organizations to open membership non-racial organizations, the current membership of non-racial national political student organizations is almost exclusively African. Fifth, whereas student opposition to institutional politics historically targeted the state and university managers and heralded a period of student insurrection at HBU’s in the 1970s and 1980s, the late 1990s saw students participating in governance structures and refraining from mobilization activities.

2These and other changes require both description, because they have not been properly documented, and explanation as they demonstrate clear period changes. To describe and explain these changes, this paper is structured as follows. First, we discuss the structure of South Africa’s racially divided higher education sector and briefly trace its development from the establishment of the first post-secondary institution in 1829. Second, we trace the key organizational changes that characterize the development of national political black student structures and discuss student identity concerns. Third, we describe important changes during the 1990s that provide insight into the current challenges student leader’s face. Principally, this suggests that SRC’s and national student political organizations have changed from protest oriented structures to structures focusing on economic, rather than political issues.

The Shape of the Higher Education Sector in South Africa

3The main distinguishing feature of the South African higher education still remains its tortured legacy of racial division. Overall, South Africa has 36 public higher education institutions: 21 universities and 15 technikons. 33 are residential institutions, and 3 (2 universities and 1 technikon) mainly function as open distance learning centers. These institutions are largely subdivided in terms of their racial origins and are either described as historically white universities (HWU) and historically white technikons (HWT) or as historically black universities (HBUs) and historically black technikons (HBTs). Among the universities, 11 are historically white institutions and 10 historically black institutions. Among the technikons, 8 are historically white institutions and 7 are historically black institutions.

4Among the white institutions, language provides a further key historic marker as some were established as English medium institutions while others mainly used Afrikaans as a first language. On the other hand, black institutions have generally been subdivided in terms of racial classification and regional location with a Coloured university and technikon being established in the South, an Indian university and two technikons in the East, and institutions populated by other African groups throughout the country – broadly reflecting the general racial/ethnic demographic profile for that region.

5The origins of the universities can be traced to the establishment of the South African College in 1829 as a “proprietary” institution that provided matriculation and post-secondary qualifications and minimized the reliance on traveling to Europe for further study. The College opened with a cohort of 115 students and a staff that included a professor of English and Classical Literature, a professor of Dutch-Classic Literature and of Modern Languages, a professor of Physical Sciences, and a professor of Mathematics. Independence was however short-lived as the provincial government at the Cape first provided a “grant in aid” toward salaries in 1834, nominated two of 17 Council of Director members from 1837 onwards and by 1878 nominated all 20 members who constituted the Board of Directors.

6Subsequently, government control over higher education became a lasting theme in South Africa. Steps in its evolution involved passage of the University Incorporation Act in 1873. Together with the Royal Charter provisions of 1877 this lead to the establishment of the University of the Cape of Good Hope as the first university that set its own examinations. Later, the need to establish a residential teaching university saw the first national government wresting control over higher education from provincial governments when the Union of South Africa was established in 1910. This enabled national government to determine the future shape and size of higher education institutions and was followed by legislative attempts to demarcate the boundaries between university education and other education levels.

7One further consequence of the formal development of higher education was the entrenchment of racial segregation. From 1920 to 1950 this involved limiting the enrolment of black South Africans at historically white universities, and their enrolment in particular courses, while allowing blacks to pursue social mobility aspirations through private education and at the multiracial South African Native College, formed in 1915. Following recommendations from a government appointed Commission of Inquiry on Native Education in the early 1950s, racial segregation in higher education shifted to centralizing control over “Bantu” and Coloured education with future enrolment at universities being linked to government determined ethnic group affiliation. In 1959 this lead to the passage of the Universities Extension Act in terms of which the University Colleges of the North (for Sotho, Venda and Tsonga speakers), Fort Hare (for Nguni speakers), Zululand (for Zulu and Swazi speakers), Western Cape (for Coloureds) and Durban (for Indians) was established. Later, a further 3 residential black universities were established in ethnically segregated “homelands” during the 1970s and 1980s and 1 distance education university for black students.

8Previously, the first batch of white English and Afrikaans universities were established in 1916 when Parliament granted statutory recognition to the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch which earlier started out as Colleges in the 1870s. Besides language differences, these institutions historically differed sharply by dint of their missions. First, English universities were dedicated to the intellectual pursuit of truth, justice, academic freedom and autonomy, while Afrikaans universities were required to promote social order, facilitate the advancement of Afrikaans speakers and serve the community in which it functioned. Second, in contrast to the Afrikaans universities, which did not admit any black students until the 1980s, the open English universities admitted small numbers of black students from the 1920s onwards, but maintained segregation practices until the early 1970s by either excluding or admitting blacks to separate residences. Beyond this, other restrictive practices involved providing for separate recreational and sporting activities and establishing separate student organizations. However, many of these formal restrictive practices later disappeared as black students challenged the contradiction inherent in admitting students as intellectual equals, but continuing to separate them for social and political reasons.

9In contrast to the long history of universities, technikons, the other tier of South Africa’s binary higher education system, only received formal recognition from 1955 onwards. In this year, technikons were included in the definition of higher education institutions with the passage of the Vocation Act, No. 70 (s34) and the recognition of advanced technical education. Twelve years later, Colleges of Advanced Technical Education was established with the passage of the Advanced Technical Education Act, No 0 of 1967. These institutions were renamed technikons in 1979, but continued to exist as ethnically segregated institutions in which political activity was strictly controlled for many years. Indeed, student activism is largely associated with universities in South Africa as technikons play an important vocational role, but historically has experienced few institutional disruptions that do not relate to economic issues.

Student Organization (1960 – 1990)

Key Historic Issues

10Key features of student organisation in South Africa from 1960 to 1990 centre around the effects of establishing separate universities and of limiting black enrolment at white universities and battles at black institutions to establish SRC’s during the 1960s and 1970s. From the late 1970s, early 1980s this was followed by an increasing swing to the politics of Left oriented organisations as students increasingly linked with community and other organisations to build unity among the oppressed.

11In real terms, prejudice mainly accounts for the establishment of ethnically segregated universities and technikons. In turn, anti-race sentiments explain a significant aspect of student protest. Thus, while segregated institutions for government from the 1900s onwards was rooted in the idea that blacks were inferior to whites and should be treated differently from whites, white students at several institutions actively campaigned against university acts that undermined the notion that all students should be treated equally. Practically, this involved campaigning against the maintenance of separate classes on which condition black students were initially admitted to English HWUs such as Natal University in 1936. For example, at Witwatersrand University “significant” protest occurred among student radicals associated with the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and liberal student bodies from the Second World War onwards (Murray, 1990, 1993). Such protest targeted policies that resulted in students living in separate residences, eating in separate halls, not mixing easily at social events (black males and white females), restricting black enrolment, and having restricted access to second year courses in fields such as medicine.

12Underlying this expression of discontent was clearly a view among some students, and academics, that “race” should not be accorded any significance and that “open admission” to English HWUs should be accompanied by equal participation. Heterogeneous protest groups, lead by the white National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) which was established in 1924, also frequently lead student marches and placard demonstrations to express sympathy for the idea that all people are equal, but seldom resorted to direct action or violence to vent their frustration. Instead, historical writings on South African students show that protest in the pre-1960 period by white and black students largely targeted living conditions in residences, food security and the quality of food and the general adequacy of institutional resources. For most of this period, students were further pre-occupied at HWUs with gaining formal recognition for SRC’s, contesting ideologically the type of issues student leaders should take up with management and addressing universalistic concerns as a result of their exposure to higher education.

13In keeping with historical depictions of the reasons for student struggles, political awareness flowing from exposure to higher education has been cited as a key reason for establishing separate universities and technikons. In this view, whereas black students at English HWUs were increasingly participating in student protests due to their exposure to universal concerns, separate black institutions held the added advantage of enabling government to more strictly control black higher education. This increased participation of black students had three key sources. First, the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, established a Youth League in the 1940s and actively recruited students from Fort Hare (formerly the SA Native College) and other institutions as several leaders of the ANC previously graduated from their.

14Second, participation of youth contributed to increasing militancy of Black Nationalist organisations in the 1950s and to their taking direct action to promote their claim to a greater stake in South Africa society. In the 1950s these actions included a Defiance Campaign, rent and bus boycotts, increased trade union activity, drawing up a Freedom Charter and a Living Wage campaign. Third, the National Party government elected to power in 1948 systematically enacted a broad range of discriminatory legislation that prohibited mixed marriages, strengthened social separation, limited black presence in urban areas and created black advisory bodies to provide some political leadership. Along with this, its systematic repression of black opposition and use of force and repressive measures to coerce compliance provided fertile ground for student discontent.

Development of Black Student Organisations (1960-1969)

15Practically, the proclamation of separate black institutions achieved several control aims. The government largely appointed the leadership (Council members), Afrikaners with university education mainly acquired teaching positions, exams were externally controlled, SRC bodies were appointed by state appointed vice-chancellors, ethnic-based enrolment was controlled and ethnic black universities were denied academic freedom and autonomy. Students also received an inferior education. Several black universities opened with little research capacity, makeshift libraries, inadequate classroom buildings, mainly public sector courses and degrees and had their standards set externally (Bhana, 1977).

16Coming at a time of heightened repression associated with the Sharpeville massacre that lead to the outlawing of the ANC, CPSA and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the new black ethnic universities also started out with politically weak SRC structures as student leaders feared imprisonment and police harassment. At some of these institutions, SRC’s were appointed from among senior students and expected to represent students at social functions. Several operated in a context where behaviour was strictly controlled and political activity considered prohibited. For example, the first recorded example of student protest at the University of the Western Cape in 1963 involved male students refusing to wear ties to a social function. Beyond this, political activity was controlled. Thus, when SRC’s at two black universities tried to affiliate to NUSAS, their university Councils turned down the requests (Gwala, 1988).

17More broadly, student leaders, at this time, were viewed as giving legitimacy to government institutions, as fearing expulsion and as refraining from political activity. Indeed, the period from 1960 to 1967 is broadly described as marking a lull in South African oppositional politics due to the effects of bans imposed on black political organisations and the arrest and imprisonment of senior members of the ANC, PAC and CPSA. Thus, although the ANC and PAC each established its own student organisation in 1960, these organisations largely operated in a climate of fear and repression. To deal with the effects of suppression and control, students at some institutions decided not to have SRC’s, for different reasons. For example, Fort Hare decided not to have an SRC in the 1960s as SRC’s were depicted as government stooges (Welsh and Savage, 1977), while the Indian constituted University of Durban Westville refrained from establishing an SRC, as this would embody acceptance of the separate institutions (Bhana, 1977).

18The emergence in 1968 of the South African Student Organization (SASO) as a black consciousness (BC) organization that maintained an exclusive black membership comprising African, Coloured and Indian people who rejected apartheid, however, decidedly changed the future of South Africa. While university leaders and government first saw SASO as an ethnic organisation that vindicated its policies, SASO members challenged student leaders at English HWUs to protest against the social colour bar, argued that blacks in liberal student organizations at English HWUs should form their own organizations, drew attention to the limited role blacks played in their own universities, emphasized black dignity and pride and from 1970 onwards became involved in protest actions at several black universities. These actions included boycotts against state appointed university leaders, protests against the expulsion of student leaders and support for black people establishing a broad range of youth, women, community, and medical civil society organizations to build black solidarity.

Community-wide protests (1970-1979)

19Within universities, SASO’s rejection of Apartheid and its antigovernment stance overlapped with increased student rejection of the limited powers SRC’s enjoyed and the increasing signs of white political dominance and economic privilege and its corollary of black subordination. This rejection also spilled over into other areas as disturbances at the Universities of the North, Western Cape, Fort Hare and Durban Westville in the early 1970s were linked to calls for more representative governing structures, a greater role for black staff and academic freedom. This call to mobilize, at several institutions, contributed to students electing representatives outside the legal framework and effectively establishing ad-hoc bodies (Maseko, 1994). Thus, while at one level, a no-SRC stance was widely articulated, several ad-hoc bodies also took the opportunity to articulate institutional grievances and to link university disturbances to community participation and broader societal rejection of Apartheid.

20Crucially, community-wide protests such as the 1973 Durban strikes and the 1976 Soweto uprisings inaugurated a new phase of political protest in South Africa, following the lull that set in after 1960 when Black Nationalist organisations were banned along with the CPSA. Following on the 1976 Soweto student rebellion, heightened repression culminated in the banning of SASO, along with 16 other BC organisations. In the search for new alternatives, the Azanian Student Organisation (AZASO) was formed in 1978 as an offshoot of the BC aligned Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). Similar to AZAPO, which inherited the black consciousness mantle, AZASO soon committed itself to working more closely with the working class and to building black working class solidarity. Practically, this meant that a broad group of black South African students increasingly identified more closely with a socialist future, and indeed proceeded to support workers and other groups around “bread and butter issues” through participation in consumer boycotts from 1979 onwards. Typical of this is student involvement in the Red Meat and Fatti’s and Moni strikes and in the 1980 Western Cape Schools boycott.

Political party and civic engagement (1980-1990)

21Later, as the political situation worsened, these actions extended to promoting an Education Charter that drew on the Freedom Charter and tried to provide an alternative vision of a future South African educational system. Implicitly, this signalled that student protest was changing from mere protest actions to political party and civic engagement. The nonviolent 1983 Education Charter Campaign indeed marked a crucial phase in South Africa’s political turmoil of the 1980s as it still focused on alerting government and society to the broader crisis in education and society and involved a signature petition campaign. More broadly, it heralded the break-up of AZASO as the campaign carried the imprint of the nationalist ANC. This split represents a seminal event in student politics as the Azanian Student Movement (AZASM) emerged as the future BC student wing, while AZASO changed its identity to the South African National Student Congress (SANSCO) in 1986. Henceforth, political activity at many HBUs became polarized between these two groups with the dominant SANSCO often denying AZASM access to university and organizational resources through its control of SRC’s in order to limit the growth of BC.

22As in other subsequent disputes between BC and ANC supporters, motivations for the break-up involved different interpretations of the character of South Africa’s past and future. Whereas AZASM (now Azanian Student Convention – AZASCO) forthwith subscribed to anti-collaboration with ruling class elements, anti-racist and anti-sexist practices and committed itself to a socialist future, AZASO and SANSCO committed itself to a non-racial and non-sexist future based on the vision inscribed in the Freedom Charter. For SANSCO, this meant building an alliance with the liberal and predominantly white NUSAS that operated at English HWUs and breaking the cycle in terms of which the increasing number of black students at HBUs and HWUs established black specific organisations. At English HWUs this involved establishing structures such as the Black Student Society (BSS) and Black Student Organisation (BSO) in the 1980s as a vehicle to organise black students, despite the existence and operation of the non-racial NUSAS and despite its by then close alignment to the broader Congress Movement. Later, in 1992 it involved a merger between SANSCO and NUSAS, due to their common association with the ANC, and dominance of student structures by black students at white universities.

Activities of other student bodies

23What then of other student bodies? Besides black national political student movements, several other organizations responded to political and social forces and focused on national political and economic issues. Among these organizations, NUSAS played the most prominent political role by first articulating broad inclusive values and facilitating political socialization and nation building at English HWUs. In the 1960s this involved recruiting black students, but clearly was not extensive enough as the formation of SASO followed on a black consciousness breakaway from NUSAS. From then onwards, NUSAS, more actively campaigned around national political issues, supported the call for an academic boycott of South African universities, campaigned against rebel sports tours that the Apartheid government used to promote its policies and helped fracture the perception that white rule in South Africa was based on a unified view.

24To the right of NUSAS, student bodies linked to political parties existed at Afrikaans HWUs. Comprising mainly cultural bodies that strengthened social ties among Afrikaners, these bodies in the 1980s included the Afrikaner Student Bond (ASB), Nasionale Studente Front (NSF), Youth for South Africa (YSA) and the Afrikaanse Studente Front (ASF). Overall, the existence of these bodies were largely tied to conservative strands in right wing South African society that supported strict social and political segregation and mobilized to ensure that this was maintained. As several SRC’s at HWUs, on the other hand, tended to tacitly support the actions of the ruling government, internal battles about whether these more right wing bodies should be allowed to operate became common.

25Beyond this, religious bodies such as the Student Christian Movement (SCM) provided a crucial value-based alternative to Apartheid and an outlet for radical political activity. Accordingly, such bodies were often used at black universities to facilitate political socialization and to build a broader university unity among students. Underpinning these activities were four key elements. First, religious bodies were somewhat insulated against political repression and offered protection to political activists. Indeed, during the repressive 1960s the SCM constituted one of the few alternative organizations that students could join. Second, religious movements had access to church resources that could be used to facilitate political activity. Third, liberation philosophy drew on religious symbolism in order to build an anti-government hegemony. Fourth, religious enjoyed strong links with international organizations and provided a more global platform from which to organize protest action against the Apartheid government.

26In addition, international student bodies also played a key role. One effect of the limited opportunities provided to black South Africans and of the repressive political conditions, involved a constant increase in the number of South African students studying abroad. Several joined South Africa specific organizations like the South African Azanian Student Movement (SAASM) in the United States and in the United Kingdom and campaigned for South Africa’s international isolation. Collectively, this played a crucial role in undermining international support for Apartheid and in sowing unease about the “constructive engagement policy” followed by the United States.

Student Campaigns (1960 -1985)

27To begin to understand student activism in South Africa and organizational development it is necessary to briefly identify the key issues they focus on. Internationally, significant differences exist in terms of student activities with either campus issues or national political and ideological issues being identified as the key variable that influences the nature of student activism. In South Africa, historically political and ideological features dominated as black students were denied access to power and treated as inferiors. This turned the focus of university politics to national issues and opposition to government policies in order to attain basic human rights.

28In line with this focus, studies of episodic protests at universities that did not tie in with national political issues have largely been neglected. Instead, descriptions of student activism has largely been situated in terms of wider political dynamics and historic junctures like the 1960 banning of political organizations, the 1976 Soweto rebellion and the nation-wide protests that started in 1984. However, not all inspiration for student activism was local. The universalist demands of the ANC Youth League in the 1940s and 1950s owed much to the United Nations “African Claims” document of 1941. The BC movement was somewhat modeled on the black civil rights movement in the United States and partly owes its origins to Black Power demonstrations in the 1960s. The shift to class based demands in the 1970s drew on the left turn to Western European student protest in the late 1960s and contributed to many student leaders joining trade unions.

29Nationally, student resistance took several forms. In the 1970s this centered on expressing dissatisfaction with celebrations such as graduation ceremonies as these glorified the achievements of Apartheid universities, protesting against urban forced removals of Africans, political resistance against the formation of ethnically segregated homelands for Africans, protests against bans on organizations and individuals and broader political mobilization. Discontent also surrounded the ideological content of courses, the inferior status assigned to qualifications from black institutions, the composition of university Councils, the quality of residential life and of general university resources, relatively high tuition fees, institutional access policies and the practice of academic exclusions.

30This discontent was expressed in many different ways. In the 1980s, black universities became seedbeds of protest. At many, placard demonstrations, marches, political socialization meetings, violent classroom disruptions, hostage taking of staff, stone throwing and vandalism, class boycotts and anti-government protests became common. Some students also joined underground military wings of banned organizations and became involved in bombings, shootouts with police and “guerilla warfare”. Externally, students showed support for banned political movements, supported the academic boycott that tried to isolate South African academics and institutions and actively campaigned for economic and political sanctions to be imposed against government policies.

31Linked to national events, the scale of these protests was astounding as students overwhelmingly participated in protest actions. However, some events pitted students against one another. For example, at the University of the Western Cape, “disruption squads” famously operated at the command of political organizations to coerce mass support for protests and to gain support for classroom boycotts. In cases, ethnic conflict also occurred as Muslim and Jewish students clashed at English HWUs while Indian and African students clashed at the Indian University of Durban Westville. Mostly, violent clashes involved police or Defense Force members who were stationed opposite universities to monitor protest. In some cases, such monitoring involved controlling access to institutions, patrolling grounds and ensuring that no protests took place.

32Activism also involved building links with other youth, other community, academic and educational bodies to address what they saw as the crisis in education and society. All along, however, the social composition of students changed dramatically with more working class students enrolling at HBUs from the 1980s onwards. Indeed, rapid growth occurred from the 1980s onwards with most universities doubling their student totals. Reflecting the pent up demand for higher education among blacks, such increases henceforth saw students facing more intense economic and accommodation pressures. Concomitantly, an enduring, but often underemphasized link emerged from the 1980s in the form of student pressure. Principally, this involved student leaders linking local university issues to national issues and using the local issue to spur action around the national. For example, a shortage of residential facilities and students being forced to squat became a catalyst for supporting antihousing eviction campaigns in several communities.

Key Trends in Student Politics since the late 1980s

33Given this history, what then is the current state of student organizations? Among the key changes between the current period and earlier ones, many organizations with strong historical linkages no longer operate. In particular NUSAS and SANSCO merged in 1992 to establish the South African Student Congress (SASCO). Effects of this merger are numerous. Key among these effects has been significant membership changes. Thus, while the merger cemented linkages between organizations that subscribed to non-racialism and non-sexism and brought together black and white students who supported the ANC’s broad policies, SASCO, today, mainly draws its membership from African students. One effect of this change involves an increasing search among white students for alternative organizations to SASCO through which they can express their interests. Of late, this has led to the emergence of independent (from political parties) student coalitions at individual institutions that address general student concerns around SRC election time. Much of this activity has been ascribed to unease with SASCO’s dominance of SRC’s, their subordination of student interest to ANC policies, and unhappiness with the organizational activities of SRC’s at several institutions. However, whereas SASCO still exists as a national body and maintains a national influence, the independent student coalitions still mainly operate as single institution organizations and only present a marginal alternative.

34A second organizational change marks the formation of the Pan Africanist Movement (PASMA) in 1998. Throughout its history in exile, the PAC consistently struggled to re-establish itself inside South Africa. This failure was particularly evident in the fact that PAC-aligned students generally attached themselves to BC student organizations in the 1980s. However, the emergence of PAC aligned trade unions in the late 1980s foreshadowed efforts to re-establish a student wing. Initially this led to the establishment of the Pan-Africanist Student Organization (PASO): which in 1998 followed the lead of AZASM in splitting its student support base into a higher education (PASMA) and secondary education (PASO) segment. Since then PASMA has managed to establish an effective organizational structure and to successfully challenge SASCO for control over SRC’s at several technikons.

35In addition, some white specific organizations remain at mainly Afrikaans HWU’s. While mainly political organizations, their principle concerns are cultural and relate to the protection of Afrikaans medium instruction at HWU’s and maintaining the integrity of longstanding residence practices. At heart, the existence of these organizations relate to different institutional policies that allows political parties to operate at some institutions but not at others. Among other, this has provided scope for the ANC to establish branches of its Youth League at HWU’s and for other national political parties to recruit future membership from the ranks of students. By contrast, the ANC Youth League maintains a co-operation agreement with SASCO at HBU’s and at HBT’s and generally supports SASCO organized activities at these institutions.

36Beyond these organizational changes, several developmental changes clearly exist between the turbulent demonstrations in the 1980s and activities in the 1990s. To highlight this, we briefly touch on four issues: a change in the form of protest, increasing concern about a clear decline in the association between student leaders and national political organizations, the dissipation of a common vision that binds student activities and shifts in favour of co-operative governance at all institutions. This has changed the nature of student struggle from anti-government and antiuniversity Council activities to participation in elected forums and representing students around institutional issues. More broadly, it signals a shift from focusing on national issues to narrowly addressing institutional concerns.

From Events to Incidents

37In general terms, the key developments that distinguishes the current phase of student politics from earlier periods is the obvious decline in the scale and scope of mass student demonstrations and the lack of interest students seem to display in political activities. An example of this is a recent march of 200 students at one university who demanded that arrangements should be made to allow them to register for academic studies. Asked to comment on public radio, a university spokesperson, remarked that the students had failed to secure financial aid the previous year. As such, the march represented the actions of a small band that were responsible for their own situation and in no way indicated unhappiness with core academic activities. Further, while the student’s case merited empathy, it did not imply that student representatives were organizing political support on their behalf or that the institution would be affected by student activism. Instead, the incident was regrettable.

38This characterization of student activism stands in sharp contrast to previous descriptions of events that highlighted collective actions. For example, at several black universities, where protests consumed much energy during the 1980s and 1990s, events were depicted as representing the will of the majority and as being in alignment with the national consciousness of oppressed groups. Organizationally a key issue that emerges from this distinction concerns the manner in which campaigns are now taken up. Historically, the social demand for higher education among working class communities resulted in student debt and financial aid emerging as key concerns. However, whereas campaigns around debt and redress issues earlier involved class boycotts, mobilizing broad student support, violent mass protests, hostage taking, and looting, current efforts around debt, redress funding and governance projects are being taken up through negotiations at universities and with the Education Ministry, and not in opposition to the Ministry.

The Absence of a Hegemonic Project

39In short, whereas SRC’s (especially at HBU’s) were viewed as creations of political formations in the 1980s and as subordinate to political student organization, SRC’s are increasingly being seen as administrative bodies that take up and defend student interests. Ironically, this role largely conforms to the activities the apartheid government envisaged that SRC’s should engage with. To this end, their tasks and functions are being defined as engaging with faculty boards, senates and university councils, facilitating the disbursement of monies to clubs and societies, procuring resources and organizing functions.

40These expectations have challenged national student bodies to redefine their tactics and forced SASCO to combine political and social programs to maintain student interest. Typically, their commemoration services these days involve a short political program that is linked to a social event. This social event often acts as the attraction point to improve attendance. On the other hand, AZASCO and PASMA argue that it calls for the development of a politically informed student leadership that shows commitment and dedication to student causes and wins battles on their behalf.

41Related to these differing perceptions of challenges facing student movements is the absence of a core set of values and of a culture-defining moment that binds students to political actions. This contrasts with the past when clear-rallying points against the Apartheid government existed. Also missing are critical theories of change, general political debates and a theoretical analysis of state policy and its relation to economic and other factors affecting students. Thus, whereas ANC-aligned student organizations previously articulated the colonialism of a special type (CST) thesis, student organizations currently address issue specific concerns and refrain from criticizing the state and/ or its policies.

42Instead, organizations appear isolated and while some of their battles are not-without-wider-applications many students and other groups remain indifferent to campaigns. Thus, while SASCO and PASMA have identified HIV/Aids campaigns as key current concerns, student participation in awareness programs around health and education issues remain low. The same is true of anti-racist campaigns that largely pass as low-key support for student claims that racism explains high failure rates in particular courses at universities and technikons. Nonetheless, student organizations have continued to identify system wide issues as important. The South African Technikon Student Union (SATSU), in particular, has identified anti-privatization and anti-racist campaigns as key strategic areas in which students can contribute to institutional and system-wide change. However, practically organizational anti-racist and anti-privatization strategies are minimal.

43Boudon (1979) has described this trajectory from a period of student turmoil to the pursuit of narrow interests that affect specific groups as signaling a transformation from societal-universalistic cultural orientations to a corporate-particularistic-materialistic orientation. Boudon describes this shift as marking a change from a conception of student organizations as upholders of general interests to a view that student organizations should defend and promote distinct claims. Primarily this trend is a consequence of the absence of a set of dominant historical occurrences that bind students as actors and anchors their role and purpose in society. In this sense, Apartheid provided the glue that held together political movements in support or opposition to exclusionary policies and practices. However, while students in those halcyon days fought gallantly to force institutional changes, following the overthrow of the previous government the cement dissipated and students tended to focus more on sectional interests.

44Illustrative of this, is the current pre-occupation with democratization and institutional issues. Historically the development of SRC’s at black universities and technikons from structures appointed by university and technikon vice chancellor’s and councils to structures elected by students, for example, marked fierce struggles over the nature and form of democratic practices. However, in 1997, silence around the role SRC’s play in institutional governance and the Department of Education’s (DOE) concern about the lack of capacity among SRC members contributed to the Education White Paper 3 (adopted in 1997) recognizing democratization as one of its central tenets by noting that:

« The governance of the system of higher education and of individual institutions should be democratic, representative and participatory and characterized by mutual respect, tolerance and the maintenance of a well-ordered and peaceful community life. Structures and procedures should ensure those affected by decisions have a say in making them, either directly or through elected representatives. It requires that decision-making processes at the systemic, institutional and departmental levels are transparent, and that those taking and implementing decisions are accountable for the manner in which they perform their duties and use resources » (12, para.1.19).

45Amongst other, the 1997 White Paper on Higher Education confronted the issue of how South African higher education institutions are responding to the challenges of institutional transformation. To deepen democracy and strengthen institutional management the White Paper highlights the value of co-operative governance and calls on higher education managers to involve student leaders in decisions affecting the daily activities of institutions. Flowing from this, students are expected to follow democratic practices in electing their representatives and in representing student perspectives at Institutional Forums, Senate’s and Council’s and at other university structures.

46Following, SRC’s now play a greater formal role in institutional policy affairs through their participation in academic and institutional forums. Premised on the notion of stakeholder participation, these governance structures give SRC’s an institutional voice and make them coresponsible for some decisions affecting their constituency and for transforming institutions.

47Thus, institutions are now far more peaceful today as concerted efforts are being made to re-assert the primacy of the academic enterprise over the political. For especially HBU’s this means increasing efforts to promote postgraduate studies, pass rates, institutional research and to steer student enrolment away from the Humanities toward more neutral disciplines such as economics, medicine and natural science. In return, student associations are being drawn into efforts to democratize academic structures and to direct their energies into student academic issues and job rewarding activities. In this sense, the absence of a common target has been accompanied by the disintegration of the Left, the disappearance of fringe political groups, a search for different values around which to organize, efforts to promote inclusive policies and institutional reforms that have narrowed the sphere of influence of SRC’s.

Efforts to Re-Align Student Unions and to Strengthen Policy Initiatives

48Ironically, the fragmentation alluded to above is occurring in the context of attempts since the early 1990s to establish a national SRC Student Federation that links SRC’s at colleges, universities and technikons and lobbies the Education Ministry and national government around issues that affect students. This initiative first bore fruit when cocoordinating structures were formed at colleges (South African Colleges Students Association – SACSA), universities (South African Universities SRC – SAUSRC) and technikons (South African Technikon Students Union – SATSU) in 1996. Founding documents indicate that student leaders link this development to shifting « focus from being vehicles of defiance to becoming catalysts in the transformation of the education system by contributing to policy formulation, monitoring the implementation of new legislation and promoting education transformation » (South African Students Federation – Steering Committee, 2000).

49A further development involves a greater use of consultative forums such as a Student Parliament or Student Summit or Consultative Forum to bring together groups. Collectively these cases indicate a desire to bring together groups, to consult and share information and to develop common approaches and policy positions. The practices also show sensitivity to past arguments that resolutions at many institutions were not constitutional, as mass meetings became decision-making forums. Conversely, the developments signal a stronger interest in formal policy processes and in debating policies and events of national importance that impact on the education arena. Here SASCO has done most to influence policy processes.

50It has been explained that student opposition to Apartheid strengthened the actions of other social groups in formulating opposing policies. An early example and one consequence of this involved the forerunner to SASCO, the Azanian Student Organization (AZASO) launching an alternative Education Charter Campaign in 1983. Following, SASCO remains the only student organization to make submissions to the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE), to make inputs on the 1997 White Paper on Education and Transformation and the 1998 Higher Education Act and to submit a response to the 2000 CHE Size and Shape proposals. SASCO is also the only student organization to meet regularly with the Education Ministry on matters that affect students. To strengthen their arm in such exchanges, SASCO developed a Policy and Research Secretariat.


51Few of the preceding points will surprise observers of student struggles. The changes we covered are similar to period changes in many developing countries following times of student turmoil. Collectively, it shows a significant change in the character of student activism from mass protests to activities that stabilize the higher education sector. However, along with this verdict, it could still be argued that student movements remain left in orientation and nationalist in direction as race issues continue to dominate political actions. Thus, African students largely control non-racial student organizations and dominate the general membership with few Coloured, Indian and white students participating. Further, student debt and issues such as financial and academic exclusions largely face African students. In this sense, while national political protest has declined, African students still face problems that require national solutions. In the short-to long term, this could lead to renewed mass protests as many student leaders currently express open dissatisfaction with the limited role they currently play in addressing political, as opposed to economic, concerns.

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Gabriel Cele et Charlton Koen, « Student Politics in South Africa. An Overview of Key Developments »Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs, 2 | 2003, 201-223.

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Gabriel Cele et Charlton Koen, « Student Politics in South Africa. An Overview of Key Developments »Cahiers de la recherche sur l’éducation et les savoirs [En ligne], 2 | 2003, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2012, consulté le 14 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gabriel Cele

Western Cape University.

Charlton Koen

Western Cape University.

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