16 November 2009

17 November is International Students Day

On the 17th of November 2009, attention is given to the legacy of student activism through the commemoration of International Students Day. SAHA recalls the proud tradition of student activism in South Africa - notable student movements have included the South African National Students Organisation, the National Union of South African Students, and, later, the South African Students' Congress. Black student organisation thus played a massive role in black unification and uprising against apartheid.

Following the 1976 Soweto Uprising, the liberation struggle in South Africa was effectively bolstered by student activists. The stories of these young resisters are found in a number of related collections housed in SAHA's collection. These include:

AL 2418: The Progressive Teachers' League Collection (1986-1990)
AL 2425: South Africa's Youth Congress (SAYCO) Collection
AL 2451: African National Congress Youth League Collection
AL 2457: Original SAHA Collection
AL 2467: N.S. Murvy Thandray Collection
AL 2491: Kgwana Cultural Project, Sekhukhuneland
AL 2595: The International Conference on Children, Repression and the Law in apartheid South Africa (1987)
AL 2607: Congress of South African Students, Mamelodi (1979)
AL 2608: Azanian Students Convention, AZASCO, Wits (1990)
AL 2609: South African Students Congress (1991)
AL 2956: Emilia Potenza Collection

The creation of an international day to honour student politics dates back to 1939, when security forces in Nazi-occupied Prague opened fire on a peaceful demonstration of student activists from the Medical Faculty of Charles University celebrating the twenty first anniversary of Czechoslovakia's independence. Two activists died as a result of these attacks, and over 1200 students were consequently imprisoned in concentration camps. Nine students and professors were executed without trial on the 17th of November.

International Students' Day is commemorated on this day in memory of these sacrifices. The date was officially declared two years later in London by the International Students' Council, an allied group that formed the basis of the latter International Union of Students. The day is now universally recognized to memorialize the proud tradition of student activism displayed during the war.

It is a curious happenstance that another significant student protest took place on International Students Day in 1973 in opposition to the Greek military junta. On this day, the blocked gate of the Athens Polytechnic was slammed by an AMX 30 tank to access the group of student activists who had barricaded themselves in since the 14th of November.

For many students, access to education and basic human rights remains an obstacle. Struggles related to access for information, democracy and education plague a host of war-torn countries. International Students Day thus serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of student activism as a powerful mechanism for the effective opposition of structural inequalities and human rights infringements.