Lessons from the student protests of the 1980s

Activist Mandy Sanger delivered the annual Ashley Kriel memorial lecture in Cape Town last night. Photo by Mathieu Dasnois, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Mandy Sanger

23 October 2015

Activist Mandy Sanger, who was part of student-led opposition to apartheid through the Committee of 81 in Cape Town, delivered the annual Ashley Kriel memorial lecture sponsored by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and the University of the Western Cape last night. Here is a brief extract from her speech.

I salute the young people of South Africa who are breaking the silence on the transformation of institutions that still only serve the needs of the elite, mainly white, privileged class in society. The real learning in the current student resistance sweeping universities will come from the student leaders’ ability to organise sessions to reflect on their current experience, the challenges they are facing in organising and their honest interrogation of the strategies they are engaging in to mobilise students as well as other layers in society around their cause.

There are going to be major problems of unity, a fair measure of opportunism and demagoguery fuelled by many moments for selfie-generated revolutionary rhetoric and incorrect or untimely strategies (there always are).

These can’t all be resolved by reaching back into our recent past for answers. The contexts, the people and the causes are different.

It helps however, for students to develop their historical consciousness as was of great benefit to us in the 1980 high school boycotts that grew against great odds. In our strategic planning sessions of the ‘Committee of 81’ that grew out of a movement for the right to have Student Representative Councils, sparked by the dismissal of two progressive teachers from a Hanover Park school, we constantly referred to the lessons to be learnt from the June 1976 protests and the 1973 Durban worker strikes that revived grassroots struggles against apartheid.

This led to a culture of struggle built on unity across various sectors in society where high school students volunteered in union advice offices, mobilised support for three significant strikes through the consumer boycotts of Fattis and Monis, Rowntree sweets and red meat. Community-based youth and civic organisations were created across working and middle class communities with high school and progressive university students forming strong critical alliances with many people driven by their circumstances into the struggle for human rights.

Community issues of rent, transport and a living wage were written about in the student social media of the time - illegal pamphlets, screen-printed posters and t-shirts, grassroots newsletters and, eventually in community newspapers like Grassroots that became powerful organising tools.

These socio-economic issues were campaigned for by door-to-door ‘huis besoek’ and in centralised or decentralised rallies. Apart from a unifying student manifesto, we produced awareness programmes of alternative education in school and communities inspired by methods of political education outlined in ‘Pedagogy of the oppressed’ by Paulo Freire as it had taken root in places like the Mozambique of Samora Machel, the Zimbabwe of a then sane Mugabe, the Cuba of Fidel Castro, the Chile of Allende and the Tanzania of Julius Nyerere.

Strong calls were made for ‘class suicide’ where more middle class elements were called on to ‘side with the oppressed’ egged on by the constant refrains in ‘Gumbas’ of Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Pink Floyd’s The Wall’ and in later years consolidated by the poetics of Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gil Scott Heron and the insurrectionary Fela Kuti.

In between we took time out to chill with George Benson, Earth Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin, The Jacksons, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, ABBA and — who can forget — Donna Summer while going on hikes and camping trips that ALL became politically charged moments for sharpening our tools of resistance. The inter-school sports events were moments for pamphleteering and political speeches (in stadiums of 8,000 students at a time almost every day of the week for many months). Train or bus journeys became opportunities to engage fellow commuters in guerrilla theatre that shed light on the burning issues of the day.

It is in this culture of activism that people like Ashley Kriel, an ANC guerrilla, performed his community leadership that resulted in a life cut short too soon and too brutally – a major loss to all who knew him and to the project of democracy.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.