31 May Africa’s 1968: Protests and Uprisings Across the Continent
By Heike Becker and David Seddon
Fifty years ago, in May 1968, what started as a localized student protest against proposed reforms in higher education at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris became a major upsurge of popular protest that, at its height, mobilised millions of students and intellectuals, workers and trade unionists, as well as Communist and Socialist Party members, in revolt against the Gaullist state overseen by Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and President Charles de Gaulle. It rocked France for two months during May and June 1968, and had an impact across Europe and North America, and beyond.
In a piece on ‘why 1968 still matters’, Peter Taafe wrote recently in ‘Socialism Today’ (Taafe 2018) both on the global context of the French revolt and also on some of the events that took place across the world in that year. He argues that the ‘events’ in France were one aspect of ‘a year of revolution… and to a lesser extent counter-revolution throughout the world’. Yet he does not mention in his ‘overview’ of popular protest among students and workers much about Africa; yet there too, 1968 was a year of political turmoil.
In the days before social media – which played a significant role in the mobilization of protests during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 and during recent mobilizations across Africa – news of the ‘events’ in France often took some time to reach Africa. But this was not always the case, however. African students in Europe and on the African sub-continent were in contact with each other and were therefore aware of what was happening elsewhere (see, Plaut 2011); news of the ‘events’ in Paris certainly reached the French-speaking public in West and Central Africa very fast. It seems striking, therefore, that even those discussions of the 1968 ‘events’ that have emphasised their international or ‘global’ nature have failed by and large to discuss the extent to which popular protest and conflict in Africa that year – and indeed throughout the 1960s – had both their own internal dynamics and yet were also linked closely with wider international events and developments.
For most commentators and scholars, it was only events in the Global North that constituted ‘Global 1968’. None of the relevant overviews brings related events on the African continent to the fore. ‘What’, Becker has already asked (see the blogpost by Becker on roape.net here), ‘is the reason for the fact that in the current debates on ‘1968’ and its legacy on the African continent are almost never mentioned?’ Burleigh Hendrickson similarly remarked in 2012, ‘in spite of this global turn, many of these studies have reproduced Eurocentric narratives by focusing on actions in the transatlantic First World. Popular student and worker movements of the 1960s occurring in the Third World, including North Africa, have received far less attention’.
A Decade of Struggle Across Africa
In fact, the 1960s as a whole constituted an exceptional decade of popular protest across Africa. From 1960 onwards, in much of Africa, when so many former colonial territories gained their political independence, the various national liberation movements were transformed, in a complex and uneven fashion, into struggles against the widespread establishment of one-party states and the espousal by many new nationalist (often military) governments of various forms of authoritarian populism, as well as against neo-colonialism and post-colonial imperialism. In the southern parts of the continent, where White minority regimes still held power, the struggles against settler colonialism and apartheid were taken up afresh by a new generation.
In all of these struggles, students, as well as workers and the unemployed, socialist and communist political parties played a key role. But not only was ‘the 1960s’ a decade of struggle in many individual countries across the African continent, but the rise of radical protest was also ‘international’, in the sense that not only did these struggles take place at around the same time, in similar or comparable circumstances, but there were often direct links between protest in one country and protest in another, and there was also a movement of political activists across continents which served to stimulate and invigorate local struggles and to reinforce the inter-relationship between them all.
Even commentators who identify popular protest in the Congo, in Guinea, in Upper Volta and Senegal, and in Kenya and Ethiopia, fail to recognize some of the cases that we consider below, notably those in North Africa. Our own contribution can rectify this only to a certain extent, simply because there was too much happening in Africa in the 1960s to be able to cover it all in one article, so our approach is necessarily selective.
Case Studies: North Africa
In Egypt, in the early 1950s, a military coup had displaced the British puppet king and led to the establishment of a regime under Gemal Abdel Nasser, which, while ‘speaking for the people’ (the peasants and workers) was hostile not only to the feudal landowners but also to any political opposition or any attempt to create independent trade unions to represent the working class directly. Egypt’s defeat by Israel in June 1967 led to a political as well as a military crisis and Nasser’s resignation as president. He returned after massive popular demonstrations in his support. But his credentials were damaged.
In February 1968, students and workers launched protests calling for political reforms. The first move was made by steel workers in Helwan (to the south of Cairo) protesting the military court’s lenient ruling in the case of the military aviation officers accused of negligence during the June war. They were joined on 21 February – which is Egyptian Student Day – by up to 100,000 students from major universities in Cairo and Alexandria. The Cairo uprising alone resulted in the death of two workers and the wounding of 77 citizens, as well as 146 police officers. Some 635 people were also arrested, and some vehicles and buildings were destroyed in the capital. The protest obliged Nasser to give a major speech in response, which, in the light of the June 1967 defeat, was exceptionally conciliatory.
Seen by some as the most significant public challenge to is regime since workers’ protests in March 1954, this popular movement forced Nasser to issue a manifesto promising the restoration of civil liberties, greater parliamentary independence from the executive, major structural changes, and a campaign to rid the government of corrupt elements. A public referendum approved the proposed measures in May 1968, and elections were held for the Supreme Executive Committee. Hailed at the time as signaling an important shift from political repression to liberalization, the manifesto and the promised measures would largely remain unfulfilled.
Further student unrest broke out in November 1968 following the announcement of a new education law. The uprising began with protests by high school students in the city of Mansoura. They were joined by university students and others, including peasants, and the next day, demonstrations resulted in clashes with the security forces which led to the death of three students and a farmer as well as the wounding of 32 protesters, nine police officers and 14 soldiers. News of the events in Mansoura reached Alexandria University, where leaders of the student movement from the engineering faculty launched massive protests and clashed with police forces, in which some 53 policemen and 30 students were injured.
The head of the Faculty of Engineering Student Union, Atef Al-Shater, and three of his colleagues were arrested. The governor of Alexandria tried to convince the students not to escalate the situation, but they held him inside the faculty and did not allow him to leave until Al-Shater and his colleagues were released. The national assembly discussed the problem of the new law the day after the governor of Alexandria was detained. On 25 November there was a strike by workers in Alexandria as well as large-scale demonstrations which ended in clashes with the police, resulting in 16 deaths.
Fifty public buses were smashed, along with 270 tram windshields, 116 traffic lights, 29 stalls, 11 shop windows and a number of other public transport and private vehicles and lampposts. A sit-in staged by the Faculty of Engineering ended without achieving any significant results because of the lack of food during the days of Ramadan and power outages suffered by the protestors, as well as the withdrawal of the union leader from the sit-in and the governor’s threat to evacuate the building by force. Those who were arrested during the sit-in were transferred to the courts for trial, but ultimately, no trials were held. After three months of being detained, the students were released but their leaders were sent for military service.
In the late 1960s, the Egyptian economy went from stagnation to the verge of collapse, political repression (particularly of the Muslim Brotherhood) increased and the first steps towards privatization and liberalization – that would be continued and accelerated under his successor Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat – were taken by Nasser, who then died in September 1970. Sadat was unpopular with the more radical students both because of his moves to liberalize the economy and to effectively reverse Nasser’s ‘Arab socialism’ in favour of a form of ‘neo-liberalism’ and also because he promised on more than one occasion that there would be ‘a final reckoning’ with Israel but did nothing to pursue such a policy. This led in 1972 to the outbreak of yet another uprising in the Egyptian universities.
In Morocco, the national minister of education, Youssef Belabbès, published a decree in 1965 preventing young people above the age of 17 from attending in the second cycle of lycee (high school). In practice, this rule affected 60 per cent of students. Although at that time the Baccalauréat concerned only a few (1,500 per year) it became a rallying symbol which set off student unrest in Casablanca, Rabat, and other cities.
On March 22, thousands of students gathered on the soccer field at Lycée Mohammed-V in Casablanca. According to an eye-witness, there were almost 15,000 high school students present that morning. The goal of the assembly was to organize a peaceful march to demand the right to public higher education. Arriving at the street in front of the French cultural centre, the demonstration was brutally dispersed by the security forces who fired on the demonstrators. The students were thus compelled to retreat into the poorer neighbourhoods of the city, where they explained their grievances to local workers and the unemployed. They agreed to join up and meet again the following day.
On March 23, the students gathered again at the stadium of Lycée Mohammed-V. They were soon joined by their parents, workers, and the unemployed, as well as people coming from the bidonvilles (slums). This time, the assembly was not so peaceful. The advancing protesters vandalized stores, burned buses and cars, threw stones, and chanted slogans against the king. The response was swift and decisive: the army and the police were mobilized. Tanks were deployed for two days to quell the protestors, and General Mohamed Oufkir, the Minister of the Interior, had no hesitation in firing on the crowd from a helicopter. King Hassan II blamed the events on teachers and parents. He declared, in a message to the nation on March 30, 1965: “Allow me to tell you that there is no greater danger to the State than a so-called intellectual. It would have been better if you were all illiterate.”
After the events of March 23, the opportunity was taken to arrest suspected dissidents including communists and Iraqi teachers. In April, the king also tried to come to terms with the more radical political opposition, notably the UNFP (Union nationale des forces populaires). These discussions came to nothing and in June the king declared a state of emergency. The UNFP continued to criticize the regime and on 29 October 1965, its leader, Mehdi Ben Barka, was abducted and assassinated in Paris. Students in Casablanca mobilized for an anniversary demonstration on 23 March the following year, and many were arrested.
By 1968, although students in Morocco were certainly aware of what was happening in France, they were no longer inclined to rise up in protest against the regime. The state of emergency declared in June 1965 lasted until 1970. The ‘Years of Lead’ is the term used to describe a period of the rule of King Hassan II (mainly the 1960s through to the 1980s); a period marked by state violence against dissidents and democracy activists.
It is not clear to what extent the Egyptian and Moroccan students who were involved in protests in the 1960s were directly influenced by the ‘events’ of 1968 in Paris; the Moroccan protests preceded those in Paris by three years, while those in Egypt appear to have been a response to the specific circumstances of Egypt after the 1967 military defeat. In the case of Tunisia, however, there is little doubt that there were direct links between the student protests there and in France. Burleigh Hendrickson (2012) has made it clear, that, in his view, during the series of events surrounding the student protests of March 1968 at the University of Tunis, political activists across Tunisia and France forged communication networks or drew upon existing ones in order to further their political claims.
He argues that ties with the former metropole shaped students’ demands and that a strictly nationalist perspective of events is insufficient. In response to state repression, Tunisian activists shifted their struggle from global anti-imperialism towards the expansion of human rights at the national level. The networks between France and Tunisia proliferated over the course of 1968 and beyond as concrete realities shaped the direction of new claims. Furthermore, while certain aspects of the Tunisian movement were specific to the local context, it was also transnational for several reasons: 1) activists identified with international and anti-colonial causes such as Palestinian liberation and opposition to the Vietnam War; 2) actors and organizations involved in the protests frequently crossed national borders, especially those of Tunisia and France; and 3) the Tunisian and French states responded to specifically transnational activism with varying degrees of repression.
He argues that Tunisia’s post-colonial relationship with France established important Franco–Tunisian networks of students and intellectuals that took on new forms during and after the protests of March 1968. Just as imperial knowledge was constructed in a ‘web of empire’ in which the colonies acted as relays of knowledge transmission, transnational circuits of activists emerged in the postcolonial era to constitute ‘webs of resistance’. These networks of Tunisians moving between France and Tunisia and of French activists who had ties to Tunisia enabled the trans-nationalization of political activism—and often made it more difficult for states to contain. They provided access to information censored in Tunisia from the comparatively safe distance of the former metropole, and Paris became a meeting place for activists from other former colonies who were sympathetic to the Tunisian cause.
For Hendrickson, the ties – both hostile and friendly – that linked Tunisians with Paris and the French with Tunis are evidence of a wider global process of building networks of resistance that resonated well beyond the moment of ‘68 itself. Moreover, Bourguiba’s extreme reaction to the 1968 protests contributed to a shift in the nature of protesters’ claims, which was eventually manifested in the creation of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l’Homme) in 1976 and the establishment of the first Amnesty International section in Tunisia in 1981, in which 68’ers played an instrumental role. The state’s repression of activists fuelled unprecedented activism in the region, conducted initially from afar, making 1968 seminal in the development and articulation of opposition to a Tunisian single-party state. Tunisia’s place in the ‘global 1968’ thus goes far beyond the fact that it occurred simultaneously with other movements around the world.
Case Studies: Central Africa
African countries south of the Sahara also experienced student and broader popular protest during ‘Global 1968’. Although the protests took different forms, many involved mass mobilisation together with other sections of society, including workers and the unemployed. In some cases, the protests were successful, at least to some extent in provoking significant change; in other cases they were not. One of the most significant examples is that of Senegal, which has already been covered in Becker’s blogpost on roape.net.
University students had been consistent and vocal critics of Joseph Mobutu’s regime since the early 1960s. During the first two years after Mobutu’s 1965 coup student groups supported his programme of nationalisation and Africanisation, the national student body Union Générale des étudients du congo (UGEC) – though cautious – took his radical rhetoric at face value. This relationship is easy to dismiss today, but as we have seen Mobutu was speaking from a radical script, condemning tribalism and calling for a new nationalism that would return the Congo to its African roots. The renaming of cities, town and provinces and later the insistence that European names be replaced by ‘authentic’ African ones was conformation to the student body of Mobutu’s sincerity. Mobutu also saw the co-option of the student body – and principally its main representative body the UGEC – as a key element in his control of potentially the most important opposition group in society. Taking the lead of the UGEC the new government even recognised Lumumba as a national hero.
The student movement was regarded as a vital element in Mobutu’s attempt to conquer civil society. Was the regime exaggerating the threat from students? The organisational and political coherence of student groups – in the national union and university affiliates – was far greater than other groups in civil society, a situation that was common in many sub-Saharan African countries after independence. Mobutu was desperate to control his unruly students, and to convince them of his national project.
However, the alliance did not last. The tension between the regime and students was graphically demonstrated on the 4 January 1968. When the vice-president of the United States Hubert H. Humphrey attempted to lay a bouquet of flowers at the Lumumba memorial in Kinshasa, students from Lovanium university who had turned up for the occasion pelted the vice-president with eggs and tomatoes. A UGEC communiqué stated that the protest had been called to prevent ‘a profanation by the same people who had yesterday done everything [so that] the great fighter for Congo’s and Africa’s freedom disappear[ed]’ (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2002, p.177). The event caused the regime obvious embarrassment, but also clarified the reality of Mobutu’s fake anti-imperialism. The definitive rupture came later in 1968 when the regime banned the UGEC following the arrest of the president André N’Kanza-Dulumingu and student protests in Lubumbashi, Kinshasa and Kisangani.
Mobutu’s strategy of co-opting the student leadership of UGEC eventually won out. Apart from the national president N’Kanza-Dulumingu who refused co-option for years, other leaders caved in. The MPR would not tolerate an independent voice of student organisation, instead the ruling party created the Jeunesse du Mouvement populaire de la révolution (JMPR), whose leadership saw their political futures tied to a blind loyalty to the regime. The co-option by the regime of the now-banned UGEC did not however silence student activism. The next years were marked by violent demonstrations and strikes across the country. In 1969 sixty students from the University of Kinshasa were killed. In what was to become a familiar gesture of solidarity students in Lubumbashi marched through the city bare-footed and bare-chested in support of their fallen comrades in the capital almost two thousand miles away. Other universities came out in support, and hundreds of activists and student leaders were expelled.
Case Studies: East Africa
From the very outset, in the kingdom of Ethiopia, the curriculum and other aspects of student life at the University College of Addis Ababa (founded in 1951) were strictly controlled; Emperor Haile Selassie was himself Chancellor and many members of the government sat on the ruling council of the University. Tight censorship was imposed on the student newspapers that began to appear in the late 1950s.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the tight control of ideas and actions, unrest began to boil among the university students in the early 1960s. Students began their push for political and social change and participation subtly in the form of poetry. In 1962, at Student Day Ceremonies in May, students read poems that were charged with political commentary that criticized Selassie’s regime. After the readings, several students were suspended and many more warned not to meddle in politics, but this did not hinder the students from doing so.
Although the unrest was widespread in the early 1960’s, the students of Addis Ababa lacked any central leadership or a unifying cause. But disturbances in the forms of protests continued, causing the university to shut down in 1963. In 1964 and 1965 students held large demonstrations under the slogan ‘Land to the Tiller!’ which called for a redistribution of land from wealthy landlords to working class tenants. The students did not direct their protests at Emperor Selassie, but instead appealed to Parliament, which was in the midst of debating the polarizing question of land distribution. Students held demonstrations outside the Parliament building in 1965 in favor of redistribution, and their cause was bolstered from abroad, as nations like Sweden threatened to cut ties if reforms were not made.
Despite the protests and pressures from abroad, the regime did not budge on the issue and created a law banning student organizations, unions, and demonstrations. In 1966, the students added a new cause to their movement, demonstrating against the imprisonment of beggars in camps outside Addis Ababa. Their demonstrations led to small improvements in the camps’ facilities and treatment of the incarcerated. Enthused by their small victory, students reorganized their efforts in 1967, when the movement became more unified and cohesive. The student unions that were protesting various issues they had with the government joined into one organization, the University Students Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA) and focused on overthrowing the government. The University newspaper ‘News and Views’ was replaced by a much more politically charged publication called ‘The Struggle’. The student movement now had a single, unified voice.
A major issue that drove the movement was opposition to the large military presence that the USA had in Ethiopia at the time. The students saw the US as keeping Emperor Selassie in power and focused their actions on opposing Western influence in Ethiopia, and worldwide. In March 1968 students protested at a fashion show in protest of mini-skirts, a style that the students saw as un-Ethiopian. They organized a student boycott and picket lines and attempted to stage a large demonstration in the streets surrounding Addis Ababa. Police cracked down immediately, resulting in violent clashes, involving beating and some shooting of students and other protestors, and some fringe violence from students, including stoning buses and the US Embassy, and overturning cars.
Protests continued into 1969 at the University College of Addis Ababa (USUAA) and spread to other colleges, universities, and even high schools. The USUAA drew up a list of ten demands on the government, distributing them widely in pamphlets and by word of mouth. These demands included the overturning of new school fees, the expulsion of the American Peace Corps from Ethiopia, an overhaul of the government and education system, and trials for police officers who had fired on students at peaceful demonstrations.
They also accused the government of mismanaging resources and criticized the state of education in Ethiopia. The movement snowballed among younger students until a large part of the school system had to be shut down due to massive demonstrations, school boycotts, and riots. When secondary schools attempted to reopen, students staged a sit-in in schools that resulted in 500 arrests and one death when police arrived to break up the action.
Haile Selassie tried hard to hide the massive unrest from international eyes, heavily censoring newspapers and publications. Finally, though, he made an appearance on television agreeing to discuss the demands with the students, but at the same time ‘The Struggle’ was banned. By the end of 1969, Selassie had made some concessions by firing his minister of education and pardoning some of those arrested earlier that year. However, these concessions were not enough to stop the student movement. Over the next few years, the government cracked down hard on the student movement, violently dispersing organized demonstrations.
Student activism has been common at the University of Dar es Salaam throughout its history and has played a part in its institutional development, as well as in helping shape the wider social and political agenda in Tanzania. As the country’s flagship university, it was always going to play an important role in Tanzania’s development, but there was a contradiction – here as in other African countries – between students as an educated cadre for the progressive transformation of economy and society on the one hand, and students as a privileged elite on the other.
Nyerere, like most other African leaders, had numerous confrontations with students through the late 1960s and 1970s as the government of Tanzania – rather as in Ghana – increasingly drew the University of Dar es Salaam and those it regarded as its privileged cadres into its initiatives for development, many of which were regarded by the students as blatant ‘top-down’ state intervention inimical to participatory democracy. The student demonstration that received the most support in 1968, was one held in Dar es Salaam in July to protest against an agreement recently signed by the government to receive American aid, thus highlighting the strong anti-imperialist, and specifically anti-American, attitude of many Tanzanian students during the Vietnam war.
Student attitudes towards the USA were somewhat different in Kenya. As early as 1959, before Kenya attained independence on 12 December 1963, nationalist leader Tom Mboya had begun a programme, funded by Americans, of sending talented youth to the United States for higher education. British colonial officials opposed the programme. The next year Senator John F. Kennedy helped fund the programme, which is said to have trained some 70 per cent of the top leaders of the new nation, including the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, environmentalist Wangari Maathai.
The development of the University College of Nairobi from its origins as a technical college in the late 1950s took place in piecemeal fashion over several years. In 1968, however, hundreds of students from the University College marched through the streets of Nairobi, accompanied by a contingent of anti-riot police, to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and eventually the president of the students’ union, Chibule wa Tsuma, handed over a strongly-worded memorandum to the Soviet Ambassador urging the withdrawal of troops from Czechoslovakia, and the release of Mr Dubcek and all of the other arrested political leaders.
In March the following year, students from the University College organised a demonstration to protest against the hanging of African nationalists in Rhodesia. One of those involved was arrested and convicted of ‘incitement to the defiance of lawful authority’ and ‘assaulting a police officer’, for having twice attempted to break a police cordon in front of the British High Commission and having exhorted other students to stage a ‘sit-down’, and also for having thrown a stone which hit a policeman.
Case Studies: South Africa
The 1960s are widely regarded as the decade in which mass protest in South Africa was effectively repressed and the leadership of the ANC and PAC either forced into exile or put on trial and imprisoned. It is true that the first years of the decade saw much opposition crushed by the apartheid state. But the 1960s in South Africa were, like the decade that preceded it and those that succeeded it, years in which the struggle continued, even if to some extent in more muted forms, in the universities both ‘black’ and ‘white’ and elsewhere, largely among the ‘black’ community but also among some sections of the ‘Asian’, ‘coloured’ and ‘white’ communities.
The demonstrations against the pass laws in Sharpeville and Langa in 1960 were brutally crushed. Shortly afterwards, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-African Congress (PAC) were banned under the Unlawful Organisations Act No 34 which provided for organisations ‘threatening public order or the safety of the public’ to be declared unlawful. Even the Liberal Party came under pressure, with 35 of its leading members arrested and detained at the Fort in Johannesburg and banning orders under the Suppression of Communism Act restricting the political activities of 41 leading members of the party for the next five years.
The imprisonment, execution, escape or departure into exile of so many opposition leaders and activists during 1964 undoubtedly had a negative impact on the ability of the opposition to maintain the same level of activity in the second half of the decade as it had during the early years of the 1960s. As Raymond Suttner commented in 2012, in his essay on the ‘long and difficult journey’ of the ANC at the time of its centenary, its initiatives under the rubric of the ‘armed struggle’ (through the ANC’s armed-wing MK) ‘were brought to a swift halt, first with the arrest of the national leaders… and then with the ‘mopping up’ of smaller units over the following two years’ (International Affairs, 88 (4):729). But it is not correct to suggest that protest and opposition to the apartheid regime died away entirely in the second half of the decade.
Suttner points out that while ‘until recently, historians record the period between the Rivonia Trial and the 1976 Soweto uprising as one of almost complete inactivity’, in reality ‘a substantial number of supporters and members remained outside prison’, many of whom formed underground units in both urban and rural areas, and continued the struggle, albeit on a significantly smaller scale. ‘In the meanwhile’, he suggests, ‘the gap left by the ANC in the public domain was partially filled by liberal organizations and the new vibrant self-assertion of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). There was also active support now from the international community and from ‘anti-apartheid movements’ in many parts of the world.
During these years students were regarded as a particularly dangerous source of protest against the apartheid regime, and further ‘segregation’ was seen as a method of control. On 1 January 1960, for example, the Minister of Bantu Education assumed control of the University of Fort Hare (already identified as a key source of resistance and rebellion) and all ‘black’ students (including Coloured and Indian) were prohibited from attending formerly ‘open universities’, particularly the Universities of Cape Town (UCT) and the Witwatersrand (Wits). Under the 1959 inappropriately named ‘Extension of University Education Act’, Fort Hare was transformed into an ethnic institution for Xhosa-speaking students, and a number of ethnic ‘bush colleges’ were founded for various racial and ethnic groups, including also the University of the Western Cape (UWC) for ‘Coloureds’ and the University of Durban-Westville (UDW) for ‘Indians’.
Notwithstanding these oppressive moves under the regime’s grand apartheid scheme, the latter part of the 1960s saw the emergence of opposition to apartheid among students and some university and college staff, as well as among other broadly liberal organizations. Student protests and reformations of the organised student movements were significant too. The developments need to be understood in respect to major student organisations of the time, particularly NUSAS (founded in 1924), the Afrikaanse Nationale Studentebond (ANSB) founded in 1933, and the South African Students Organisation (SASO), founded in 1968. After the establishment of the ANSB, students from Universities of Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom and Pretoria withdrew from NUSAS, followed at a later date by Stellenbosch. NUSAS was always vocal in its criticism of the apartheid regime of the National Party and backed the ANC in their campaign against repression, and adopted the Freedom Charter and involved its members in non-racial political projects in education, the arts and trade union spheres.
In the 1950s and 1960s NUSAS ideologically emphasised ‘multiracialism’, and ‘liberalism’ of the South African variant that claimed incompatibility between apartheid and capitalism. Even then, however, a small number of Marxists and members of the South African communist party were members of the student association. In the 1960s there were direct confrontations between government and the NUSAS leadership, which at some instances resulted in detention, banning, deportation and withdrawal of passports for the office-bearers. NUSAS President Jonty Driver, for instance, was detained in August and September 1964 without trial by the police and held in solitary confinement, possibly because of his suspected involvement in the African Resistance Movement (ARM), a small group of young white militants.
At the ‘black’ universities which had been established as apartheid institutions in the early 1960s small numbers of students joined NUSAS, and at some institutions of tertiary learning battles took place for permission to form autonomous Student Representative Councils (SRC) and to affiliate to NUSAS. An exception was the longer-established University of Fort Hare, where – in contrast – the SRC temporarily disaffiliated from NUSAS in 1952 because of frustration about racist tendencies within the student association. The Fort Hare students argued that they had not been too successful in their attempts to radicalise NUSAS. They also raised concerns of alleged racial slights.
They argued that that NUSAS, despite its multiracial membership, was essentially dominated and controlled by white students. This was what Steve Biko, a student at the all-black University of Natal Medical School (UNMS) had in mind when he expressed in his column, ‘I Write what I Like’, in the SASO Newsletter, his objection to ‘the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is a sine qua non in this country and that whites are divinely appointed pace-setters in progress’ (Biko 1987: 24).
Biko was frustrated that NUSAS and other anti-apartheid groups were dominated by white liberals, rather than by the blacks who were most affected by apartheid. He believed that even when well-intentioned, white liberals failed to comprehend the black experience and often acted in a paternalistic manner. In 1968, he and others thus formed the South African Student Organisation (SASO), which for political reasons offered membership to students of all ‘black’ sections of the population, which included those assigned to the apartheid categories of ‘African’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’.
Biko and his associates believed that to avoid white domination, black people had to organise independently. Influenced by Frantz Fanon and the African-American Black Power movement, Biko and his compatriots developed Black Consciousness as SASO’s official ideology. The movement campaigned for an end to apartheid and the transition of South Africa toward universal suffrage and a socialist economy. It organised Black Community Programmes (BCPs) and focused on the psychological empowerment of black people. Biko believed that black people needed to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority, an idea he expressed by popularizing the slogan ‘black is beautiful’.
In the early years, the new all-black SASO was allowed space to grow at the black universities, in part because the government regarded the separate black student association and its emphasis on largely psychological-oriented black consciousness as quite compatible with the apartheid ideology. They were to learn very soon that SASO, and more generally the ‘black conscious movement’ that Biko promoted, posed a major threat to the regime. But by the time that SASO began to be more active in political campaigns, from about 1972-3 onwards, the organisation had established already firm structural roots, which made it difficult for the government to entirely suppress it despite brutal repression, best exemplified by the murder of Biko in 1977.
Despite their organisational split, white and black student activists of NUSAS and SASO continued working together. In the early 1970s, a new generation of white students also became active in increasingly radical politics. Radical anti-apartheid and increasingly ‘new-left’ white students organised campaigns to rediscover the history of resistance which had been hidden through the repressive climate of the 1960s. They then embarked on a massive campaign for the release of all political prisoners. At the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), they took the protest beyond the confines of the campus into the city of Johannesburg. Students engaged with the workers and labour conditions on the campuses and founded ‘wages commissions’. Radical students and a few younger academics became instrumental in laying the grounds for the new black trade unions that emerged in the 1970s.
In some instances, black and white students, and a few younger, radical academics, worked together in these new leftist politics. Radical academics were involved particularly in the efforts around strikes and the emergence of structures and ultimately new black labour unions in the first half of the 1970s. Of special significance was Richard (Rick) Turner, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Natal in Durban, who worked closely with Steve Biko. Their political cooperation and personal friendship played a significant role in the ‘Durban moment’, a massive wave of strikes in 1972-3, which is often regarded as the harbinger, if not the start, of the new wave of resistance that led to the Soweto uprising, the massive uprisings of the 1980s and eventually the demise of the regime. Like his friend and comrade Biko, Turner was assassinated by the apartheid state in 1978.
The Mafeje Affair
Apart from the significant organizational developments during that year, South Africa too had its 1968 moment of ‘transgressive’ student activism (J. Brown 2016). At the country’s oldest university, the University of Cape Town (UCT), Archie Mafeje, a black master’s graduate of UCT (cum laude) and by then in the process of completing his PhD at the University Cambridge, was appointed in 1968 to a senior lecturer position in social anthropology. The university offered him the job, but then, after government pressure by the apartheid regime, rescinded the offer.
The issue was discussed at the congress of NUSAS, which organized most of the UCT students at the time, and the idea emerged of a sit-in along the lines of the university occupations then taking place in the rest of the world. Some of those who were involved remember that the European protests (in Paris and elsewhere) were widely reported in South Africa and that students followed them with interest (Plaut 2011). So, when the university authorities failed to stand up against the government intervention in its hiring policies in August 1968, a mass meeting took place in the university’s grand Jameson Hall, normally the site of graduations and other academic events. After rousing speeches from student leaders, most of the one thousand–strong audience marched out, and about six hundred students occupied the university’s administration building.
Yet, for a brief moment in August 1968, South Africa had its taste of ‘1968’. Those involved remember the inspiration and solidarity they received from Paris and London. Beyond media connections, Rick Turner who had recently returned from his doctoral studies at the Sorbonne provided a personal link of lived experience (for a full account of the Mafeje affair read Becker’s account).
The events at UCT are hardly remembered today, few of the international debates on the 1968 movements take note of the protests against the university’s dismal attitude during what has become known as the ‘Mafeje affair’, nor is there much memory of these 1960s student protests in South Africa itself. For most observers, ‘student uprising’ in South Africa refers in the first place to the events commonly known as ‘Soweto 1976’ – which is generally regarded as the beginning of the country’s student protests.
Though the Soweto uprising was in the main focus due to the protests by school-going pupils and high school students, and not led by university students, it was connected to, and ideologically grew out of developments at South African universities, which started in 1968. Most prominently, of course, this included the Black Consciousness (BC) movement, commonly associated with Steve Biko and SASO.
Although a comprehensive discussion of ‘1968’ on the African continent is impossible here, the examples we have presented demonstrate that students, workers and often the unemployed urban poor revolted in different ways and in contexts different from than those that took place in the North American and Western European settings. However, even a selective survey like this, let alone a closer comparison, of the many uprisings in Africa’s 1968 shows the diversity of settings and forms of activism on the continent. Our survey also suggests that the 1960s were a crucial decade for popular protest and ‘revolt’ across Africa – as they were elsewhere across the world. Despite a few honourable exceptions the problems with the huge amount of literature that poured out of the social movements in the late 1960s and 1970s (and continues to) was its extraordinary eurocentrisism. As we have shown the decade was as important for activists and other groups in Africa as it was in Europe and North America. 1968 was a crucial year for student revolutionaries on the continent. In Senegal, in events that some have claimed predated the upheavals in France, students were central to the worst political crisis the President, Leopold Senghor, had faced since independence eight years previously. Forcing him to flee the capital and call in the French army to restore order, after only eight years of independence. The unfolding of these events and the fact that they took place at the same time and often in relation to protests in the Western centres of the ‘global movement’ indicate conclusively that Africa should not be left blank on the map of scholarship that seeks to understand ‘1968’ in a global perspective.
Heike Becker is a regular contributor to roape.net, she is an activist and writer. As a professor at the University of the Western Cape she teaches anthropology and writes on politics, culture, and social movements across the continent.
David Seddon is a researcher and political activist who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world. He studied ‘food riots’ and protest in a ground-breaking study on North Africa and the Middle East Free Markets and Food Riots: the politics of global adjustment with his co-editor John Walton. Seddon also coordinates the roape.net series on Popular Protest and Class Struggle in Africa.
Featured Photograph: Egyptians pour into the streets on 9 and 10 June, shouting, ‘we shall fight’ in support of President Nasser, and against his resignation (June, 1967).
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