I was invited by the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) to attend their annual conference in July 1970. In the lead up to the conference I went on a wide-ranging political tour of the country, meeting a spectrum of people from government ministers in Pretoria to underground anti-apartheid activists in overcrowded, impoverished Soweto.
Walking the streets of white, prosperous Johannesburg, I was abruptly reminded of the everyday reality of apartheid when my black student companion stared at me when I suggested we did what was normally routine – quench our thirst in a roadside café, which of course was for ‘Europeans’ only. No matter how well-informed you thought you were about the laws of apartheid in theory, nothing quite prepared you for their callous practice on the ground.
Part of the purpose of the visit was to seek out the leadership of the newly formed, blacks-only group, the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), the student wing of the Black Consciousness movement. Many at home questioned whether NUS should initiate cooperative relations with a group which excluded white people from joining.
As it turned out, I was allocated a room for the week with the SASO president, Steve Biko , one of the most impressive people I had ever met, before or since. He was to gain huge posthumous international fame following his brutal murder seven years later, but at the time was barely known outside his country. I had not previously heard of him myself.
During the conference Steve Biko and I spent long periods of time kicking a football at each other in the field - he shared my love of the game - and he talked with great wisdom about many things.
He must have realised that NUS' recognition of SASO could have far-reaching consequences - through NUS’ connections with other European unions and their respective channels to governments - but his purpose was not to persuade but to explain. Unlike the leaders of the Afrikaan Studenten Bond, Biko and SASO were committed to a multiracial future for South Africa. Before that time came, he and others felt, it was vital that blacks had hands-on experience in running things. Otherwise, black-led government wouldn’t come about, and the black population wouldn’t be prepared to rule.
Despite the fact NUSAS was prohibited by law from operating on black campuses, Steve Biko insisted NUSAS remained the national student union.
At the NUSAS conference I spoke about NUS' policy in support of the liberation movements, although in principle we would naturally have preferred to see a non-violent end to Apartheid. Despite my knowing privately that some individuals on the NUSAS exec felt similarly, a public statement was issued by NUSAS strongly dissociating the union from NUS' support for the liberation movements.
The South African press had a field day with my speech and I was quickly ushered out of the country. Waiting for me back in London was a letter from the South African Minister of the Interior banning me from returning.
I was painted as endorsing terrorism, I was strongly advised not to have any contact with the friends and colleagues I had met in South Africa. NUS, as a body, also had to tread carefully, as it too was deemed to support ‘terrorists’. The fact that NUS is now based in Mandela Street is a splendid irony.
SASO was eventually banned in 1977, the same year that Steve Biko was killed, although in the end of course, unlike the ASB, SASO achieved its aim of a non-racial society. The apartheid regime had brutalised and then murdered a very fine human being. But this was not unusual. The more far-reaching tragedy was that they cheated history by robbing the future of a potentially great leader.
On my return to the UK the NUS conference endorsed my recommendation to initiate relations with SASO. However, this was not a popular decision with everyone. A journalist from The Times came to interview me and ended up castigating me for allegedly ending a proud British student tradition of supporting only ‘non-racist’ organisations. He was resistant to every argument I put forward and he published a very critical article about NUS. I would like to think that years later he might have been embarrassed by the simplistic position he took.
Tony Klug was a Vice President and then Deputy President of NUS, 1968-71. After completing his Ph.D in International Relations, he went on to work for many years for Amnesty International. He is currently an independent writer and consultant, specialising in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is a special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group, co-chair of the Arab-Jewish Forum and author of four Fabian pamphlets on the Middle East, including the recent ‘How Peace Broke out in the Middle East’ and ‘Visions of the Endgame’