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Remembering the 1988 National Students Boycott

Reflections and lessons from a movement in time.

On Wednesday, 16 June 1976, between 10,000 and 20,000 young students in South Africa marched through the township of Soweto, Johannesburg, to affirm and amplify their opposition to the apartheid government’s proclamation that would see Afrikaans replace English as the medium-of-instruction in schools, and to assert their desire for an education regime that was characterised by racial equality, fairness and shared prosperity.

In an attempt to suppress dissent, quash protest and establish compliance, the security cluster responded with brutality– firing live ammunition, dispersing teargas canisters and physically assaulting the students; thereby killing between 176 and 700 young South Africans and severely injuring many others.

But the Soweto Uprising is not just a moment in South Africa’s history.

Indeed, the protests re-iginited a public flame of resistance against apartheid and offered young people an opportunity to re-imagine their political agency, and their role in establishing a fairer and more equal political order.

Eight years later, in 1984, that flame caught on in Namibia, when students gathered at the St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic School in Dobra, and formed the Namibia National Students Organisation (NANSO); a militant body that mobilised students and the general populace against foreign control, colonialism and the Bantu Education system.

At the time, the South African Defense Force (SADF) and Koevoet (a paramilitary counterinsurgency wing of the SADF) had turned schools in northern Namibia into terror zones; regularly assaulting, raping, detaining and killing teachers and students, and firing live ammunition into classrooms as retaliation for the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN)’s military offenses and attacks.

But in 1988, under the leadership of NANSO and around the 10th anniversary of the Cassinga Massacre, the over-700 students at the Ponhofi Secondary School in Ohangwena said, “no more”. By the end of May, it is estimated that nearly 20,000 students from 20 schools in northern Namibia were on strike– demanding the implementation of UN Resolution 435, and the removal of all army posts from the vicinity of schools and hospitals. And so, the nationwide student rebellion of 1988 was born.

On 6 June, a peaceful rally in solidarity of the student rebellion was attacked by police and Koevoet contingents armed with sjamboks, clubs, teargas and rubber bullets. During the skirmish, eight people are reported to have been severely injured, with an estimated 40 children and adults arrested, including then NANSO Secretary General Ignatius Shixwameni.

In support of the students’ demands, a month later, the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) – then representing over 50,000 Black workers – launched a two- day national strike; with additional demands to release the detained protesters, and to remove the army from Black-occupied townships. It is, to this date, the largest strike ever held in Namibia; paralysing industry, mining and commerce during the period and amplifying the demands of students.

By the end of June 1988, South Africa’s military bases were still not moved away from schools, but the 40,000 children across the country were steadfast in their quest for freedom, and refused to return to school. Nonetheless, on 9 July, student, labour and church leaders convened a National People’s Assembly to discuss ways to end the turmoil in the country’s schools. The Assembly resolved that students should return to schools while a National School Crisis Committee negotiates with the apartheid government on the boycott’s demands. Consistent with UN Resolution 435, the military bases were eventually withdrawn from schools.

The 1988 National Students’ Boycott reminds us of our collective power to drive sociopolitical change, and, indeed, issues a moral obligation to do so. The students who participated in the student rebellion – some of them late, many of them now much older than they were – did more than simply register a political opinion against apartheid: they demonstrated the power of young people when united in common purpose. And now, more than ever, this power can be useful in building a Namibian House that is characterised by shared prosperity, inclusivity and sustainable growth.


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