The South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) was founded in December of 1968 at the University of Natal — Black Section. Its birth was the result of dissatisfaction among some black students about the ability of the existing national student organisation, the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), to represent the interests of a black constituency.
A tipping point came during a 1968 Nusas Conference in Grahamstown, when black delegates objected to being asked to risk arrest by sleeping in the whites-only campus residences.
Harry Nengwekhulu, an early Saso leader, recalled: “It became a major issue, because why should we have the risk of being arrested by going to sleep in a white area, and you [white delegates] are not willing to? If you are fighting the system, you must come and sleep with us.”
Contention over this and similar issues finally led to the formation of Saso. Writings of its founders and early leaders — most prominent among them being Steve Biko — detail the key aims of the organisation, which focused on the needs, aspirations, identity and morale of black students on South Africa’s campuses.
Saso’s inaugural conference was held at the University of the North (Turfloop) in July of 1969, where Biko was elected the organisation’s first president. Under the leadership of Nengwekhulu and Petrus Machaka, the Turfloop student representative council (SRC) elected to use its own funds to support the conference, which brought it into conflict with the university registrar who was concerned about Saso’s ability to repay the money.
But the SRC was entitled to spend its student dues as it saw fit and stood by the decision. From the outset, it made a commitment to support Saso not just politically but financially as well. Yet no sooner had Saso rooted itself at Turfloop than it began to encounter resistance from the university administration.
Students at Turfloop had been disallowed from affiliating with Nusas in 1968 after a protracted battle between university officials and the SRC. In fact, two former rectors at the time were “encouraging students to ‘shake off the yoke of Nusas’ and to establish their own … organisation”. According to Nengwekhulu, Professor Engelbrecht, who was a professor of philosophy and the acting rector in early 1969, cautioned his students: “Don’t allow yourself to be used by Nusas; you are not instruments.”
Gessler Muxe Nkondo, a young lecturer on campus at the time, also recalled the administration’s initial support for Saso’s apparent racial separatism. Saso’s on-campus leaders used this to their advantage. They garnered the tacit permission of Engelbrecht and the university administration to operate on campus by arguing that by forming their own organisation they would not be “used” by Nusas. The administration was especially sympathetic to Saso’s antipathy to white liberal Nusas, because there was deep-seated mistrust between white liberals and the National Party government.
The formation of Saso, then, presented a conflict for the university administration: on the one hand, the formation of an all-black student organisation, to supplant the older nonracial national union, aligned neatly with the ideals of separate development, which underlaid the founding of the university itself. It also marked a point of intersection — surprisingly, perhaps — between the politics of Saso and the majority of white university staff in its anti-white-liberal (and by extension, anti-Nusas) stance.
Until this point the administration of the university had taken a cautiously permissive approach to student political activism: When students were dissatisfied with the prefect system of representation the administration permitted the establishment of an SRC.
The University Christian Movement (UCM )was allowed to operate on campus for nearly a year after officials expressed overt suspicion towards it and, in fact, Turfloop was the last of the black universities to ban the UCM on its campus.
Though university authorities would clamp down on politics when deemed necessary (as eventually happened to UCM), in early 1969 they had demonstrated a “wait-and-see” philosophy to student groups on campus.
During this period of relative laxity on the part of the university administration, Saso built a strong presence on campus at Turfloop and at other black campuses throughout South Africa.
They did so by a process of holding frequent and regular branch meetings, local formation schools, executive meetings and annual General Students Councils. Branch meetings, on the smallest and most local scale, built up Saso’s organisational capacity on individual campuses.
Though, in its own words, Saso’s reception after its launch in 1969 was “mixed” nationally, Turfloop was one of its most prominent vocal and financial bases of support.
This is an edited excerpt from Limpopo’s Legacy: Student Politics and Democracy in South Africa by Anne Heffernan (Wits University Press)