Fighting for decent education


The school boycotts contributed to speeding up change in South Africa and Grahamstown youth were among the first to launch what would become a national student uprising in the 70s.  Elron Kleinhans, Jongi Mene, Dumasani Budaza and Sinethemba Yame researched and wrote this piece on Makhanda’s (Grahamstown’s) social and cultural history in 2012 as part of a partnership between the Albany Museum and Rhodes University’s Isikhumbuzo Applied History Unit.

In 1975 protests started in African schools after a directive from the Bantu Education Department that Afrikaans had to be used on an equal basis with English as a language of instruction in secondary schools. The issue however, was not so much the Afrikaans as the whole system of Bantu Education which was characterised by racially-separated schools and universities, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers.

Grahamstown’s 1975 student uprising was one of the first to occur in South Africa when students of Nathaniel Nyaluza High School gathered for a sit-in and refused to write the mid-year examinations.

That year, only 16 students sat for the matriculation exams. Not long after, the events of 16 June 1976 followed, when more than 20 000 pupils from Soweto began a protest march. In the wake of the clashes with the police, and the violence that ensued during the next few weeks, approximately 700 hundred people, many of them youths, were killed and property destroyed.

Grahamstown’s situation offered a different perspective from other cities. With Grahamstown’s racially segregated residential areas being in such close proximity to each other, people of all colours saw the first hand effects of apartheid and the student uprising. Student leaders nationwide and in Grahamstown, saw the inherent contradictions of the apartheid system not just in educational terms, but also in its economic, political and social aspects. They identified the education system as immediate to their concerns and future, and as the stronghold of the apartheid order. As Steve Biko indicated, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.

School boycotts and protests in Grahamstown occurred in various periods. Grahamstown had isolated incidents of school boycotts in 1975, 1977 and in 1980. A turning point in Grahamstown’s school boycotts occurred in 1977 in the aftermath of Steve Biko’s death, when about 350 students marched in protest against Bantu education. This police met them with a violent reaction. As anthropologist, Cecil Manona observed, “thereafter the townships were never peaceful – isolated cases of burning of schools, stoning of cars on the national road through the township [Raglan Road], and the stoning of buses began.” 1 In Grahamstown, Simon Ntiska School and Nathaniel Nyaluza Senior Secondary students embarked on a boycott.

The school boycotts of 1984-1987 were the longest in duration, had the greatest number of participants, and were the most intense. Attendance dropped to between 0 and 30% by the end of August 1984 when the school boycotts resumed. In September, students’ boycotted school in honour of Steve Biko and Nyaluza students led a 500-strong student march from Joza to Fingo Village. The police dispersed this protest with teargas and sjamboks.

Tensions within townships were renewed in 1984 as broader political issues became more prominent than educational matters. The Nationalist Government gave Rhini a separate city status from Grahamstown in January 1985. By March, rioting took place in Grahamstown. The police reaction resulted in death of youths. The funerals themselves became politicised gatherings. The heavy police presence and the violent reaction to it made funerals a cradle for other funerals. On the 20th of April 1985 police shot dead a student. Students went on a boycott to protest his death. In October that year a Ntiska student was also shot and killed. He was attending a meeting at Nombulelo Hall in Joza when police used rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

Grahamstown’s school boycotts spread from three high schools to 10 primary schools involving around 6600 primary school students and 2360 high school students. At the student’s funeral on the 12th of May, police killed two more students. One was a Mary Waters student, Bully Kohl, the first coloured fatality during the mid-1980s. Thereafter coloured schools returned to the uprising. As a result of this shooting incident, there was no attendance at the 13 Grahamstown East schools.

The hippo, a common sight in the 1980s
Towards the end of 1985, parents became vocal in the involvement in school boycotts. The National Education Crisis Committee (NECC) was formed in December 1985, aiming to get the children back to school. In March 1986 the first State of Emergency expired. In June 1986 students throughout South Africa started planning the 10th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. The state feared students’ activism and replied with a renewal of the State of Emergency on 12 June. It affected Grahamstown because this second State of Emergency was declared nationwide.

Raids took place at night immediately after the State of Emergency was declared. It prohibited anyone entering or being at any school premises or building in townships between 25 June and 30 June 1986 without the Department of Education and Training’s (DET) permission. In December 1986 the Grahamstown
Education Committee (GECC) convened negotiations on the returning of students to schools for 1987. This was an initiative nationally endorsed by the NECC. A solution emerged between students and the GECC which represented the Grahamstown community. At this meeting, 400 students unanimously agreed to return to school in 1987 although their demands were not yet completely met.

It is widely acknowledge that the school boycotts contributed to speeding up the change in South Africa. Grahamstown boycotts were a part of the nation-wide struggle and contributed to the end of apartheid. June is the month we commemorate and celebrate education and youth.

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