South Africa’s Legacy of Student Protest

A reflection on South African Student Movements, from 1906 to 2015.

By Micha Cerf (Deputy Editor-in-Chief)

Youth Day is a commemoration of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, but South Africa’s legacy of student movements stretches back as far as the early 20th century. South Africa’s youth movement and, more specifically, its student movement began almost as soon as students became a formal concept on South African soil.

The Early 20th Century 

During this period, South African students studying in Britain played an integral role in the struggle against colonial power. They did this through learning English law. 

Writing petitions and articles, they pointed out fallacies in its application and tried to prove that criminal convictions of the Bambatha warriors of 1906 and colonial laws including the 1913 Native’s Land Act were contradictory to the British constitution. Meaning they could not be applied to subjects of the British colony of South Africa.

However,  the work done by students at the University of Fort Hare is also significant in South African’ student movement legacy. The institution was established in 1916, as an educational institution for the native population. Throughout the 20th century, it grew to be a hub of resistance and anti-imperialist thought. It is also known for producing monoliths in the South African Freedom movement such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Thambo, Steve Biko, and Robert Sobukwe. 

The Freedom Struggle

The struggle for freedom among South Africans was amplified when the National Party won the 1948 elections. This marked the beginning of Apartheid, but also acted as a catalyst for the student movement across several educational institutions. 

The University of Fort Hare led the fight against oppression. Their students participated in the 1952 Defiance campaign and marched against the Extension of University Education Bill, which would further segregate tertiary institutions in South Africa. Mass graduation boycotts and academic stay-aways formed common features up until democracy. 

Other universities were equally vocal against Apartheid. The University of the Western Cape (UWC), a burgeoning hub for Cape Town’s Coloured academics, saw a student boycott of Apartheid pioneer Henrick Verwoerd’s memorial in 1966. Four years later, UWC students protested the tie requirement in the institution’s dress code, reasoning that the code infantilised the Coloured students.

At the University of Cape Town, in 1968, the institution infamously failed to stand up to the Apartheid government’s demands to rescind the senior lecturer position of Black UCT Masters graduate, Alfred Mafeje. In response, the figurehead for UCT’s student protests, Sarah Baartman Hall (then called Jameson Hall), flooded with almost a thousand students protesting this buckling of university admin to governmental pressure. 

1968 further saw the founding of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) in Durban, with Steve Biko from the University of Natal as its first president. In 1971, SASO’s manifesto produced one of the most important intellectual movements in South Africa’s history—the Black Consciousness doctrine. Throughout the 1970s, the SASO participated in activism against the Apartheid government and more broadly against Western imperialism in African countries, resulting in student leaders being tried and sent to Robben Island in 1976 due to their support of the Mozambican liberation movement. 

Most famous is the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which was held not by university students, but by primary and secondary school learners protesting the Apartheid government’s Bantu Education Act of 1953. This act resulted in a 1974 law which made English and Afrikaans, non-native languages for many of South Africa’s Black students, the official languages of instruction. This law would further degrade the already low-quality education offered to Black students.

Initially, this protest was intended to be a peaceful demonstration of dissatisfaction with the intentional erosion of Black academic potential by the Apartheid government. Instead of allowing the peaceful demonstration to continue, the Apartheid police met thousands of school children in the streets with tear gas and live ammunition. This act, and the images of a young Hector Pietersen’s body fallen victim to this violence, led to international outcry which truly marked the beginning of the end of the Apartheid Regime. 

Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall

1994 and the birth of a democratic South Africa did not mark the end of the student movement. While the country settled into its new status as a democracy, South Africa’s students continued the fight against the oppressive legacy left by the Apartheid Regime. 

A series of nation-wide protests began at the University of Cape Town in March of 2015 against the University’s lack of action towards racial transformation and decolonisation—figure-headed by the removal of the University’s statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the premises.

Soon, other universities followed, and a protest initially about a statue grew into a protest against educational inequality and the high cost of South African tertiary institutions—Fees Must Fall—which drew international recognition, with student leaders incarcerated and still facing charges to this day. 

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