About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Search Loading

National Union of South African Students (NUSAS)

The National Union of South African Students was formed in 1924 by students from nine English and Afrikaans-speaking universities. Until 1936 Nusas was an exclusively white student organisation. When the University of Fort Hare applied for membership in 1933, all the Afrikaans universities, with the exception of Stellenbosch, withdrew. Stellenbosch withdrew from Nusas in 1936, and in 1945 Fort Hare was permitted to become an affiliated member. Shortly afterwards other black universities also became affiliates.

Initially Nusas aimed at serving as an umbrella student organisation to promote the interests of students, and to serve as a forum where differences could be thrashed out. In the fifties it voiced its opposition to segregation in tertiary education. But the organisation gradually underwent a shift in its political views and by the early sixties Nusas no longer de-voted itself to education issues alone, but began opposing apartheid measures in general. In its capacity as a protest body, Nusas organised street marches, demonstrations and sit-ins at university administrative offices.

This led to the government introducing suppressive measures, including the restriction of Nusas leaders and the banning of publications. An extensive network of police spies also infiltrated the organisation; of these, the most significant was Craig Williamson, who later even infiltrated the International Defence and Aid Fund and other international organisations.

By 1969 the predominantly liberal views and modus operandi of Nusas displeased its many black student members (who by that time had made a shift to black consciousness) to such an extent that the majority of affiliated black universities and individual members of Nusas formed their own organisation, the South African Students' Organisation (Saso). The critical attitude of its black members towards Nusas's political views, along with government suppression, led to the radicalization of the organisation in the seventies. Nusas openly propagated disinvestment by American companies in South Africa. After the publication of the report of the Schlebusch commission (the commission's brief was to investigate "radical organisations"), eight Nusas leaders were served with five-year restriction orders. The Nusas "Free Political Prisoners" campaign in 1974 led to leaders in the organisation being accused of promoting the aims of the ANC.

Nusas remained one of the few predominantly white organisations which devoted itself to establishing a democracy in South Africa. The organisation's radical political views from a white perspective led conservative white students on English campuses to distance themselves from Nusas and its activities and form the National Students' Federation (NSF).

After the launching of the Azanian Students' Organisation (Azaso) and the Congress of South African Stu-dents (Cosas) and their move away from black consciousness, Nusas launched a number of joint campaigns with these two organisations in the early eighties. The group, which had become a UDF affiliate, also worked closely with the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). In the mid-eighties Nusas tried to establish branches on Afrikaans campuses. Despite continued resistance from university authorities, it established an active branch at Stellenbosch University. It was less successful on other Afrikaans campuses and at Potchefstroom University its supporters were harshly victimized by anti-Nusas students.

Despite these setbacks this national student organisation, the second-oldest in the world (the oldest is the National Union of Students in Britain, established in 1922), continued to grow. By 1989 Nusas membership exceeded 50 000 through affiliate and associate membership. In the same year it adopted the Freedom Charter, and at its annual congress resolved to work towards an alliance with the South African National Students' Congress (Sansco). This body came into being when the Azanian Stu-dents' Organisation changed its name to Sansco in 1986. In October 1990 a Nusas executive member was appointed to the Provisional National Youth Committee, established to reactivate the ANC Youth League. Roth Nusas and Sansco decided at their respective annual congresses held in December 1990 to merge by July 1991. Steven Silver of Wits and Mike Koyana of the University of the Western Cape were elected president respectively of Nusas and Sansco at these congresses.

In March 1991 it was announced that a new student movement, the Student Patriotic Front, would be established late in 1991. Six student organisations, namely Nusas, Sansco, Paso, Azasco, Azasm and Cosas, would be included in the movement. Nusas and Sansco are planning to disband and then form a new student organisation, with an estimated membership of too 000, at a congress later in 1991.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.