Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (1936–2018) in front of her banishment house in Brandfort’s Majwemasweu township, c. late 1970s. (Photo: South African History Online)
The Soweto uprisings of 16 June 1976 have become firmly entrenched in South African popular memory. However, the school boycotts that happened in Mangaung (Bloemfontein) in the aftermath of the Soweto unrest are neither well-known nor well-documented. This article briefly discusses the Mangaung riots of 1976, 1977 and 1980. In addition, the article provides contextual historical information to explain the main causes of the unrest. While Soweto and other major black townships of the Witwatersrand region (presently Gauteng Province) were a hub of political activism and resistance politics during the late 1970s, significant political trends that were noticeable in the Free State Province (previously Orange Free State) and specifically in Mangaung at that time, also deserve attention.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s some influential members of an older generation of struggle veterans such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Caleb Motshabi and Martha Mohlakoana succeeded in connecting a younger generation of Free State activists with the banned African National Congress (ANC) and its underground networks. These activists – many of them students and unemployed youth – have played a key role in establishing activist networks, youth organisations and youth clubs across the province. This group included well-known Free State personalities such as Morris Moadira, Isaac ‘Ike’ Moroe, Jani Mohapi, White Mohapi, Gregory Nthatisi, Lucky Moloisane, Oupa Molema, Brian Nakedi, Ronnie Pieterson, Charlie Pieterson and Beatrice Marshoff, to name a few. Many of these individuals have featured prominently in the boycotts that disrupted schools and training institutions in the greater Mangaung region during the period in question.
The political thinking, strategies and objectives of the young activists who operated mostly in the Free State and often in neighbouring Lesotho were influenced and inspired by a number of significant political events and trends that affected black politics on a national level. The most important are the already-mentioned Soweto uprisings and the courage demonstrated by Soweto’s students who fought against the notorious ‘Bantu Education’ system; the poor quality of black people’s education in general; and, importantly, the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction for certain subjects taught in black schools. The unrest that started in Soweto spread nationwide and affected schools and training institutions in the Free State and Mangaung when students protested in solidarity with the plight of the Soweto students but, importantly, also for other reasons.
Other significant political trends that have influenced the Free State’s young black activists include the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and activist Steve Biko’s (1946–1977) writings and philosophies; the growing influence of Charterism, that is, the ideology associated with the Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC in 1955; the increasingly oppressive nature of the apartheid state and its military and paramilitary (read ‘security police’) structures; the growing influence of the ANC’s underground network of ‘cells’ and its emerging aboveground network of organisations; the forming of militant national student organisations such as the Azanian Student Organisation (AZASO) and the Congress of South African Students (COSAS); and, finally, the influence of populist rallying cries such as ‘Liberation before education!’ and ‘Equal education for all!’. Collectively, these events and trends have contributed to the transformation of the political culture in Free State townships and the radicalisation of black students and youth. Subsequently, the students not only challenged the education system but also the political status quo.
One of the significant consequences of the political radicalisation of black township youth was the forming of a number of local activist youth organisations in various Free State townships, notably those situated near the province’s major towns and cities such as Parys, Sasolburg, Welkom, Kroonstad and Bloemfontein. These organisations include, among others, the Bloemfontein Student League (BSL), Mangaung Cultural Youth Club, Botshabelo Youth Cultural Club, Mangaung Youth Congress (MAYCO), Botshabelo Youth Congress (BOYCO), Thabong Student Congress (THASCO), Thabong Youth Congress (THAYCO), Tumahole Student Organisation (TSO) and Tumahole Youth Congress (TUYCO). These organisations have played an important role in spearheading and organising the Mangaung school boycotts; often by using stage plays and cultural activities as a front for political education and mobilisation.
Since the late 1970s black schools in Mangaung have fallen victim to chronic instability due to growing resistance against the imposition of the unpopular ‘school boards’. These governing bodies were directly associated with the apartheid education authorities. Needless to say, local student and youth organisations exploited the instability that was caused by growing discontent. Consequently, the use of school boycotts and class disruptions – as had been the case in Soweto – became the students’ preferred strategy for expressing their anger. The Mangaung school boycotts were characterised by, among others, organising of mass meetings on school premises; organising of protest marches on school grounds and in township streets; refusal to attend classes; targeting school board structures and members of such boards; and stoning and occasional burning of school buildings.
During 1976, 1977 and 1980 a wave of boycotts and protest actions affected prominent schools in Mangaung and Thaba Nchu. These riots made headlines in local English newspapers The Friend and Goldfields Friend. During July, August and September 1976 no less than seven schools and training institutions in both Mangaung and Thaba Nchu were affected when students protested in solidarity with the Soweto students but also for other reasons. At that time local black students were severely affected by a shortage of handbooks, overcrowded classrooms and poor school infrastructure. Information concerning the school riots was meticulously documented by the apartheid bureaucracy. Listed below (in Afrikaans) are the schools and institutions in Mangaung and Thaba Nchu that were affected, and the nature of the damage incurred. One such incident happened on the night of 26 July 1976 when students of Marang Primary School in Bochabela set classrooms alight. Goldfields Friend reported that the main grievance was the use of ‘Afrikaans as a medium of instruction’ at the school.
In 1977 another wave of school boycotts hit Mangaung schools, notably Ikaelelo Secondary School (Rocklands), Lereko Secondary School (Rocklands) and Sehunelo Secondary School (Batho). According to Ike Moroe, The Friend’s reporter at that time, the students’ grievances were primarily aimed at the hated school boards. Angry students took to the streets and stoned the offices of the Southern Free State Bantu Affairs Administration Board – a building seen as a symbol of the repressive apartheid state. Liquor stores and municipal buses were also pelted with stones by ‘mobs of schoolchildren’, to quote The Friend. While the paper reported in detail on the mayhem caused by the students, it also assured its mostly white anxious readership that the police managed to quell the riots by hitting students with batons and setting dogs on them.
In July 1980 unrest flared up again at some of Mangaung’s secondary schools, including Sehunelo, Lereko and Ikaelelo. Students participated in a mass boycott of classes and, according to The Friend, they gave ‘the education system’ as the reason for the stay-away. At Sehunelo student leaders addressed mass gatherings while students of other schools marched in the streets and shouted slogans. By that time the Mangaung school boycotts had become rather well organised, partly because seasoned activists such as Ike Moroe, Gregory Nthatisi and Lucky Moloisane were acting as ‘links’ between the students and the ANC underground structures in the Free State and Lesotho. Furthermore, ANC veteran Winnie Madikizela-Mandela played an important role by encouraging and educating students who visited her in Brandfort. According to one of the students, Mzwandile Silwana, he and other student leaders ‘had a [political] relationship’ with Winnie and she helped them in ‘understanding the setup in the country.’
In conclusion, the Mangaung school boycotts of the late 1970s and 1980 are considered a turning point in the struggle history of the Free State. On a personal level, the boycotts were also a turning point in the lives of the students. Many student leaders were arrested, put on trial, and handed short-term jail sentences. Others were expelled from school by the school boards. As a result, many students – the so-called ‘lost generation’ of the seventies and eighties – never completed their secondary schooling. Some student leaders left the country, went for military training in Africa and Eastern Europe, and returned to Mangaung where they operated in ANC underground structures. These young people sacrificed their youth so that those who came after them could enjoy the fruits of freedom when the doors of education were finally opened to all South Africans.
Anon. Liliesleaf – a place of liberation. Grade 12: Civil resistance: The role of the youth in the struggle. Rivonia, 2013.
Du Preez Bezdrob, A.M. Winnie Mandela: A life. Cape Town, 2018.
Historical Papers Research Archive, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg: Soweto Uprising, 16 June 1976, ZA HPRA A3200.
Lodge, T. Black politics in South Africa since 1945. Johannesburg, 1983.
National Museum, Bloemfontein, Batho Liberation Heritage Project and Mangaung Liberation Heritage Project: Oral history interviews conducted with I.K. Moroe, 24.3.2021 & M.G. Silwana, 3.9.2021.
Phahle, R. We don’t want no education, Solidarity 4, October 1980, pp. 134-168.
Goldfields Friend, 28.7.1976.
The Friend, 1.9.1977; 10.7.1980 (special edition).
Twala, C. & J. Seekings, Activist networks and political protest in the Free State, 1983–1990. In: The Road to Democracy in South Africa, vol. 4 (1980–1990), part 1, SADET (Cape Town, 2010), pp. 765-813.
Twala, C. The emergence of the student and youth resistance organizations in the Free State townships during the 1980s: A viable attempt to reorganize protest politics?, Journal for Contemporary History 32(2), December 2007, pp. 39-55.