The Congress of South African Students (COSAS) was established in June 1979 as a national organization to represent the interests of Black school students in the wake of the Soweto uprisings.
Students marching to a funeral of COSAS member in KwaMashu, KwaZulu Natala, 1981. Photographer: Omar Badsha
In 1982, COSAS adopted the theme; Student-Worker Action and promoted the formation of youth congresses to serve the interests of young workers and unemployed youth. These facilitated cooperation between school students, young workers and the unemployed youth.
In 1983, the COSAS welcomed the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and played a key role in the formation of the regional UDF structures in all of the provinces. It saw the UDF as representing a common platform to fight for a free and democratic South Africa.
By 1985, school boycotts had rendered the schools unworkable and ungovernable and mirrored the collapse of the Black Local Authorities in the townships. Their slogan Liberation now, Education later! saw chaos in schools across the country and resulted in the National Education Crisis Committee being formed in 1986. Eventually COSAS was banned in mid 1985 as the state of emergency was declared by South African government.
By the time of its banning in 1985, it was estimated that the organization enjoyed the support of almost 3 million students, or more than half the country’s Black students.
COSAS continued to play an active role although it was banned. The organisation helped to establish South African Youth Congress (SAYCO) which was secretly established in Cape Town in 1987.
During the resistance campaign, launched by extra-parliamentary groups under the auspices of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) in August 1989, COSAS unbanned itself.
In May 1990 the organisation was reinstated at Orlando Stadium, Soweto. At the same time the publicity secretary of COSAS, Mike Dube, gave an exposition of the organisation’s re-building process. In October 1990 two of COSAS’s management members joined the Provisional National Youth Committee, established to reactivate the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).
During the national congress of COSAS held in December 1995, the South African President Nelson Mandela said; “It is refreshing for me to brush shoulders with the young lions of a democratic South Africa. Your organisation earned its proud reputation in the crucible of struggle. Yours is not an association of arm-chair critics. From the day of its formation, the Congress of South African Students demonstrated that it practises what it preaches.
Above all, we are proud that, today, COSAS is making its mark as a leader in the reconstruction and development of education, as a builder par excellence.
Through positive and creative campaigns, you are showing that when you mobilised for militant action against apartheid education, you did not see this as an end in itself. When you refused to succumb to the apartheid jackboot, it is because you knew you had a role not only in eradicating racist education, but also in the introduction of the new system. As we join efforts to build a new educational system in a new society, COSAS has not been found wanting.”