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The Anti-Apartheid Movement: 50 years on

Monday 22 June 2009 Global Justice

NUS played an important role in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, fighting for justice and equal rights for all. Fifty years on we take a look back at NUS’ campaign to help end apartheid in South Africa.  

NUS, and thousands of students across the UK, played an important part in the Anti-Apartheid Movement  (AMM) that eventually saw an end to the violent regime which discriminated against and oppressed the majority of the country’s population on racial grounds. 

Student activism

In the 1960s, students were concerned about many international issues, ranging from the war in Vietnam to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, fascism in Greece, Spain and Portugal and the independence struggles in southern Africa: in Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and in South Africa itself.

International affairs became a focus for NUS during the sixties and seventies; anti-apartheid was one of many campaigns NUS worked on, but it remains one of its most important.

NUS’ strong connection to South Africa, largely through supporting the work of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), had developed over a number of years as apartheid became more deeply entrenched. In 1970, NUS Deputy President Tony Klug visited the country where he met many political and opposition figures and attended the week-long NUSAS annual conference. This was shortly after the NUS conference had passed a motion in support of the liberation movements.

Unbeknown to him, he was to share a room with Steve Biko, a leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and president of the newly formed South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), who was later brutally murdered by the apartheid regime. Tony himself was subsequently banned from the country following a speech he made at the conference. Nearly 40 years on, he shares his story  with us.

Anti-Apartheid in the 80s

NUS’ involvement in the Anti-Apartheid movement reached a peak in the 1970s and 1980s when students across the UK marched in their thousands and ensured the debate was kept alive.

Continued pressure from students contributed to Barclays Bank withdrawing its investment and support for the regime. NUS, in conjunction with local students’ unions, had threatened a nationwide student boycott of the Bank if it did not withdraw from South Africa. Eventually, Barclays decided to withdraw its support, citing NUS' as a influential factor.

NUS was instrumental in setting up a network of anti-apartheid activists in the 1970s at almost every union across the UK. This activity was largely led by Mike Terry , who succeeded Tony Klug as the Convenor of the NUS International Policy Group, and went on to become the Secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The main aim of this campaign was to apply pressure on universities and colleges to dispose of their investments in southern Africa.

NUS also supported local action. When the rugby club at Queen’s University Belfast agreed to tour South Africa, they were opposed by their students’ union and NUS.

The end of Apartheid

After several decades of campaigning, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Apartheid eventually came to an end in 1994.

Since then NUS has continued to support students and students' unions in Southern Africa. Most recently NUS has worked with Action for Southern Africa, the successor organisation to the Anti Apartheid Movement, to help students in Zimbabwe.

From passing motions in support, to lobbying our government to do more, to more practical acts such as fundraising, NUS continues to recognise the powerful role students in the UK can play in offering solidarity to our friends and peers in other countries.