For more than a decade before the formation of the United Democratic Front, since 1976, student activists had played a central role in organising resistance to the apartheid government. When the UDF was formed, the largest student group, the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) became a key force within its structures. Students organised school boycotts, mobilised for campaigns, and provided support for regional and local campaigns.
The government banned Cosas in the State of Emergency of 1985.
Dr Coleman of the Detainees' Parents Support Committee described the State attempts to crush Cosas at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:
"... I would like to mention the vendetta against Cosas. Cosas, the Congress of South African Students, had a membership of over a million students and became absolutely a focal point in the struggle.
And inevitably they became a target of a bitter vendetta by the apartheid state. And Security Police made a determined bid to detain its leadership and within one month of the declaration of the State of Emergency, on the 21st of July (1985), over 500 of its members were already detained.
And of course those who were detained were being tortured to reveal the names and whereabouts of their colleagues. This was a frequent pattern.
And then very shortly thereafter, on the 26th of August, Cosas was declared an illegal organisation and membership of it was an offence."
Throughout the violence following 1984, student organisations campaigned for the Education Charter - a blueprint for the development of democratic education to replace the hated Bantu Education system. Progressive teacher organisations, such as the National Education Union of South Africa, (Neusa) joined them. By September 1985, within the State of Emergency, Soweto parents formed the Soweto Parents' Crisis Committee. Together, these organisations launched the National Education Crisis Committee in December 1985, as a parent-teacher-student alliance to build education.
Building People's Education
Over Easter weekend, 1986, the National Education Crisis Committee held a conference in Durban.
Before the conference, an Inkatha "impi" (an armed crowd) arrived in buses to disrupt the meeting. Two Inkatha members were killed during the fighting. Despite this, the education conference continued. The conference adopted the slogan "People's Education for People's Power."
The role of the UDF was revealed in the April 1986 edition of Speak Magazine:
"The 1200 delegates from grassroots organisations around the country urged all communities and democratic organisations to launch regional and national action campaigns by considering rent, consumer, and other boycotts.
"Students have decided to return to school. They will regroup and rebuild student organisations. The education struggle will be taken forward on this basis.
"Delegates said community and education struggles could not be separated. A resolution said "increasing hardships were experienced by our people with respect to rents and the costs of other necessities."
The UDF announced its support for People's Education.
"The UDF's support for the development and introduction of people's education in our schools is based upon a number of factors. People's education must:
• destroy the backwardness of the present system
• be mass based
• reach out to all the people of this country, be they young or old, in farms, towns or cities
• not serve the interests of the rich
• be based on the actual experiences of our people
• uncover the cultural heritage of our people
• unify the nation and
• pave the way for people's power.
We do not have to wait for liberation day, we must begin to introduce some of these ideas under the present regime."
Source: "Focus on the National Education Conference," Speak Magazine, April, 1986, p. 4.
Celebrate June 16
By the mid-1980s, the Soweto Uprising, which had taken place on June 16, 1976, had become an important commemorative date for the UDF. UDF Publicity Officer Murphy Morobe was quoted in The Financial Mail in June 1986 as saying:
"June 16 marks a period of resistance, when our people had to pay the ultimate price to try and bring about change in this country to make South Africa a home for everybody. It is a day we recognise as one around which we rededicate ourselves to the struggle for freedom and the establishment of peace.
"We have made a joint call, with the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the National Education Crisis Committee, for a one-day stay-away on June 16. We think we are entitled to that as June 16 is a matter that affects our people deeply. But the situation now is that [Minister of Law and Order Louis] le Grange has banned all meetings to commemorate June 16. That measure is going to increase the possibility of confrontation even more. The government could have saved the situation by letting us hold our meetings peacefully.
"I fail to see how people can see themselves as being bound by these bans."
Source: Morobe, M. "Inside 'the struggle' in South Africa," Financial Mail, June 12, 1986, p. 54.
The launch of Sayco
A year later, the youth launched a new organisation, the South African Youth Congress (Sayco), in Cape Town. The group was up-front and open about its political position. The following extract highlights this stance:
"Sayco has done little to avoid immediate and harsh state reaction. The symbols chosen as its public face include the slogan, ‘Freedom or death - victory is certain'; organisation colours of black, green, gold, and red; and a fist holding a red flag as its logo."
Source: Niddrie, D. "Emergency Forces' New Forms of Organisation," Work in Progress, No. 47, p. 4.
The new organisation had to be structured to deal with living under the Emergency:
"We learnt some hard lessons in the first emergency," said General Secretary Rapu Molekane some weeks before the [Sayco] national launch. "Many of us were hit in the first wave of detentions. But by the time 12 June [the second Emergency] came, we had adjusted.
"The major thrust of local youth congress activity switched from high-profile, mass recruitment rallies to a system comparable to street committees. Living permanently underground, organisers established communication channels sufficiently strong, despite the emergency crackdown, to hold regional structures together."
Source: Niddrie, D. Emergency Forces' New Forms of Organisation," Work in Progress, No. 47, p. 4.
With its launch, Sayco replaced Cosas as the UDF's largest single affiliate, with some 600 000 members.