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Understanding the history of Sasco is a celebration of memory over forgetting

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Eddy Maloka is the CEO of the African Peer Review Mechanism.

The formation of Sasco was not the beginning of an era, but rather the culmination and an end of two decades of student politics dating back to the days of Saso in the 1970s and its successors, Azaso and Sansco, in the 1980s. Sasco owes its existence to the complexity of race in our society and how this found expression in our struggle against apartheid.

The South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) has just celebrated its 29th birthday, marking another milestone in its existence since it was launched in 1991. This is an organisation that has given our country great patriots and competent cadres, many of whom carry heavy responsibilities in state institutions and our business sector. This is an organisation that continues to ensure that to this day, despite the political freedom we achieved in 1994, the transformation of the higher education sector does not disappear under the carpet or get buried with the debris of a fallen Cecil Rhodes statue.   

Education can be an opium of the masses, a laundry machine to clear our brains of our identity and faith in ourselves. But it can also be a weapon of struggle as it was during the early colonial days when white missionaries were caught short when the African products of their education system, whom they thought they had captured, turned against them and joined the anti-colonial movement. The generation of Pixley ka Seme, the founders of the ANC, took this tradition of militant student activism to another level. A few decades later, the University of Fort Hare would be a political birthplace for struggle giants like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.

But as the saying goes, “Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” Saleem Badat observed some two decades ago in his   “Black Student Politics, Higher Education and Apartheid: From Saso to Sansco, 1968-1999”, that “each successive generation of student activists in South Africa appears to be ever more poorly informed about the history of student struggles and activism and the history, role and contribution of its own and other student organisations”.

Wikipedia avoided this pitfall of selective historical memory identified by Badat with this fair summary: “The Azanian Students’ Organisation (Azaso) was a student movement in South Africa founded in 1979 as a replacement for the banned South African Student Organisation (Saso). It would become the South African National Students Congress (Sansco) in 1986, after adopting the Educational Charter and aligning itself officially with the Freedom Charter. This was to be merged in 1991 with the National Union of South African Students [Nusas] to form the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco).”

The formation of Sasco was not the beginning of an era, but rather the culmination and an end of two decades of student politics dating back to the days of Saso in the 1970s and its successors, Azaso and Sansco, in the 1980s. Sasco owes its existence to the complexity of race in our society and how this found expression in our struggle against apartheid.  

This story begins with Nusas, a student organisation established in the 1920s exclusively for whites, and how its internal contradictions exploded once it started opening its doors to black students from the 1940s. Its next chapter is about how Saso came into being in 1968 when a group of black students broke away from Nusas because of its inability to liberate itself from its white origin and the trappings of its liberal, paternalistic orientation. A young student called Steve Biko entered the centre stage of the South African political scene as a leader of this breakaway group. That’s how the ideology of black consciousness (BC) would see the light of day as a reaction to white liberalism, with Biko as the brain behind it and its chief proponent.

Liberating as it was, BC was also politically constraining for student activists who carried the banner of Saso forward by forming Azaso as the successor in 1979. Not long thereafter, thanks to the influence of the ANC’s underground, in 1981 Azaso formally abandoned the BC ideology in favour of the Freedom Charter’s non-racialism.

Sasco was born under different circumstances and a changing political context brought about by the unbanning of the ANC a year earlier. Unlike Azaso and Sansco, the new baby, Sasco, was born into a South Africa that was in transition and preparing itself for the freedom we realised in 1994.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, within the student movement, race united those who thought their skin colour brought them together, but it also divided those who did not share a common understanding of the who is who in the racial zoo and who is foe or friend in the racial divide that defined our apartheid reality. The BC group refused to embrace whites, while the ANC’s non-racialism of Azaso and Sansco welcomed them as partners and fellow comrades in the struggle against apartheid.

Therefore, it made no sense for Azaso/Sansco to remain exclusively black, the BC-way, while cooperating with Nusas in line with ANC orientation. Hence, the leadership of Azaso and Sansco was always under tremendous pressure from the ANC and the United Democratic Front (UDF) to merge with Nusas to create a new, non-racial student body. For those of us who were in the student movement during this period, this was a tough call. Merging with Nusas was not an attractive idea at all. Any thought of it sounded Biko’s alarm bells in our minds. 

True, the Nusas of our time was contested, but it was also still in need of exorcism from its liberal heritage. When the ANC was unbanned, there was no longer a need for a racially divided student movement on our campuses. Pressure mounted and mounted. Some of us who still had our own misgivings walked away en masse from the path leading to Rhodes University where Sasco was founded.

To be fair, thinking back, the decision to merge with Nusas was a correct one, and inevitable. It’s us who were backward. Moreover, even though we were in our twenties when this occurred, our service to the student movement had reached its expiry date.  It was time to move on with the transition towards the new South Africa.

Still, the warning raised by Badat in his Black Student Politics remains pertinent: our historical memory of the path that led to the birthplace of Sasco should not be selective, picky and choosy, and erase the parents of this child from its DNA. The written story of hunting should give due recognition to the lion as the great and the real king of the jungle.

Without Azaso/Sansco, our birthday-child would not have been born. Without the bruising battles fought by students on our campuses in the 1970s and 1980s, Sasco would be without a soul. Without the foresight and legacy of the generation of Tom Nkoana, Joe Phaahla, Tiego Moseneke, Billy Ramokgopa, Bongane More and Mike Koyana, Sasco would not have found its path. Thanks to the entrenched culture of political education and training, and no-holds-barred ideological engagements within Azaso/Sasco, the child Sasco would be born with a calibre of leaders that we speak highly of today. Without the history that started with Nusas and Saso, our Sasco would have no history at all.

Therefore, as we celebrate the 29th anniversary of Sasco, let’s remember the many students who gave their lives for our freedom – at Turfloop, Fort Hare, Ngoye and other campuses across our country. Let’s not forget the flame of resistance that our campuses turned into when students there responded to Tambo’s call to render South Africa ungovernable and apartheid unworkable. Our thoughts should also go to many, many of our fellow comrades who were never able to fulfil the dream that led them to seek tertiary education because they were expelled from campus and never allowed to complete their studies. We should also pay homage to our friends who left campus to join the ANC in exile, some of whom were never seen again to this day.

We should also admit that the birth of Sasco was also the death of Nusas.

It could be true that “when glory comes, memory departs”. But we must prove this proverb wrong. DM

Professor Eddy Maloka was a student activist in the 1980s at the universities of Fort Hare, Rhodes and Cape Town (UCT). He’s a historian by training and currently serves as an international diplomat.

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