Southern African students and the Role of WUS 1969 – 1982

South African students demonstrating against police violence

Introduction to WUS

I left South Africa as a refugee from the Apartheid regime. Arriving in London on an icy morning in March 1979, I was met off the plane by Tad Mitsui, WUS Associate Secretary for Africa, who asked if I would be interested in taking up his post as he would be returning to Canada. I couldn’t imagine anything better than working for an organisation I knew well, but my wife, Maryke, was expecting a baby in six weeks and we had just completed an enormously complicated and emotional effort to leave South Africa. Another move was just too much of a leap to take.

But it seemed that working for WUS was written in the stars. A couple of months later after our son Gregory was born and we were beginning to get the hang of being parents, Richard Taylor, the General Secretary of WUS, rang me. After being appointed, the person who had been offered Tad’s post decided that he couldn’t face living in Geneva so the job was advertised again and he wondered if I wanted to apply. After four months, a new baby and no current prospects of work in the UK, a second chance at getting the dream job was too good to miss. I applied, was interviewed in London and in July was on my way to Geneva.

The South African years in the sixties

I’d been involved in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) which received funding from WUS, notably for its prisoner’s education program which funded educational courses for political prisoners, many of them on Robben Island. In 1969, as Acting President of NUSAS, I visited WUS in Geneva on my way back to South Africa after attending the World Assembly of Youth and paid a further visit in late 1971, seeking funding for the Open School which was emerging out of the Youth Programme of the South African Institute of Race Relations which I had established after leaving NUSAS.

The middle years of the 1960s was a strange period in South Africa. There was the high-profile opposition to apartheid of the late fifties and early sixties as apartheid was expanded and deepened and was met by boycotts, protest, defiance campaigns, the drawing up of the Freedom Charter and, eventually, the massacre at Sharpeville and the beginning of armed resistance which led to the imprisonment, banishment and banning of most of the leadership of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations. But there was continuing opposition and the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement in the late sixties challenged the liberal, largely white led multiracial opposition to apartheid as much as it confronted apartheid.

Black consciousness and the Soweto Uprising, 16th June 1976

The sixties were also the era in which Africa secured its independence from colonial rule, and its intellectuals sought to reinterpret its history and forge the identity of its nations and people. It was the time of the civil rights struggle in the United States and, later, the black power movement. In South Africa the emergence of the black consciousness movement in the late 1960s brought new energy to the resistance to apartheid and oppression. A new generation of leaders, exemplified by Steve Biko, emerged and challenged the old orthodoxies, particularly the need for white involvement in liberation which the new movement, with its slogan “black man you are on your own” saw as being as much cultural and psychological, as political. The Soweto uprising of 1976 was both the culmination of a building storm and the beginning of a sustained era of unrest which culminated in the downfall of apartheid 14 years later.

 In this period a huge number of projects and programs involving a large number of organisations and individuals were contributing in large and small ways to the growing pressure for change. Many were supported by overseas donors including WUS, both from its international headquarters, which acted as a channel for support for the internal projects in South Africa and, through its national committees, to provide opportunities for refugees from South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe at universities in countries across the world.

The People’s College

Anti-apartheid organisations were supported by WUS and its committees over many years, providing not only money but solidarity in difficult times. Richard Taylor, the WUS General Secretary, visited South Africa in 1977 and I met him at SACHED (the South African Committee for Higher Education) where People’s College, the project which I ran, was partly funded by WUS.

People’s College was one of SACHED’s flagship projects and certainly its most high profile. With its mixture of academic courses aimed at high school students, practical courses varying from motor mechanics to house repairs, general education on economics and politics and material for use in literacy groups it attracted a wide and varied readership. Regional organisers set up readership groups aimed to support reader groups, particularly for high school students and literacy groups. Material in formal education was drawn from Turret College, SACHED’s correspondence program which offered formal education for students to obtain formal qualifications and then proceed to university.

Following the murder of Steve Biko in September that year there was an upsurge in resistance and protest, particularly amongst young blacks in the areas. As the movement spread and violence increased, the government responded with a massive crackdown on organisations and individuals. The World, a newspaper with a readership of over three million and its editor and a number of other journalists were banned. The paper had carried People’s College so it too was prohibited.

For some months we tried without success to get another newspaper to carry it. In May the following year as we were beginning to give up hope, along with Dave Adler, the Director of SACHED, I was served with a banning order preventing me from working for a range of organisations and imposing a huge number of restrictions on my movements, meeting with others and ability to work. Ten months later I left South Africa to go into exile in the UK. 

WUS in Southern Africa: my involvement continues

In 1979 WUS was an important conduit for educational support for southern African refugees as well as supporting a large number of anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa. Over the previous decade or more an enormous scholarship program managed by WUS with the support of donor governments and national committees had transformed the University of Rhodesia where black students became the majority before independence. This had the potential to ensure the rapid and equitable development of the country once independence was secured. Alongside this WUS implemented a substantial program of scholarships for Rhodesian (Zimbabwean), South-West African (Namibian) and South African refugees, some attached to the liberation movements, some to the black consciousness movement and some to other groups. Many were at universities and colleges in Africa, Asia and elsewhere supported by local WUS committees

For me this was an entirely new world. I had little contact with the Southern African exile community and no real knowledge of this part of the organisation’s work. Of course, I did know about the organisations and programs being supported internally in South Africa, ranging from NUSAS to the Open School which I had started in 1970, SACHED with which I had been connected in different ways from 1967 through NUSAS, the prison and medical scholarship programs, People’s College and the Newspaper Project, as well as the Community Agency for Social Enquiry for which I secured its initial funding in the first round of donor applications I made for WUS in 1980.

Working Openly

The open structure of WUS with its national committees and combination of scholarships for exiles and support for organisations working against apartheid within the country made it essential for it to work as openly as possible. We worked on the assumption that the apartheid regime and security apparatus largely knew what we were doing and certainly which organisations we were supporting, that we were running scholarship programs but probably not the names of the students we were supporting though it is, of course, likely that some were known through the regime’s extensive network of spies and informers. We also judged in the early stages of my work that it would not be productive for us to have direct relations with the liberation movements – if you don’t have information, there is nothing to give away – though many of the students were closely involved.

The spy in the International University Exchange Fund

The support program for refugees changed massively in the early 1980s with the collapse of the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF) following the revelation that its deputy director, Craig Williamson, was a South African spy. IUEF had a similar scholarship program to WUS but, through Williamson, was much more closely involved with the liberation movements and particularly the ANC. In addition, IUEF had a large program for refugees from other African countries. After extensive negotiations with the Scandinavian donors WUS took over a large number of southern African scholarships as well as acquiring a new program for refugees from other African countries and added a large number of Latin Americans to the WUS program for Chilean refugees.

It’s about change

Wider political changes were also having an effect on WUS. The Sandanista victory in Nicaragua led to the WUS international General Assembly being held in Nicaragua in August 1980. In addition to celebrating the liberation of the hosts, the Assembly also celebrated the liberation of Zimbabwe four months earlier. This was a highly charged gathering which would have lasting and, eventually, disastrous effects on the organisation. As a foretaste of the challenges to come, the election of a new General Secretary produced high drama. Two candidates stood for election – Klavs Wulff, a Dane who had been involved in WUS in the first half of the 1970s and Marco Gandasgui, the head of the Panamanian delegation. As the votes were being counted, the Nicaraguan President accompanied by an armed guard appeared and asked to address the Assembly, making an impassioned plea for a Latin American to be elected. In the event Klavs Wulff was elected though all the Latin American delegates with the exception of those from Chile and Costa Rica abstained. Despite some discussion about my position following the Williamson affair, I was offered a new two-year contract.

Expansion of programs

Following the Assembly Klavs Wulff negotiated the transfer of the IUEF programs to WUS and we set about building the organisation to reflect the wider group of students it had acquired, and to expand programs to support refugees from a wider group of countries in Africa and Latin America. Over the following period we made a massive effort and succeeded in absorbing and developing the programs we had inherited as well as expanding the internal South African program with a number of new initiatives.

By the time I left WUS in June 1982 it was a substantially bigger and more dynamic organisation, but the seeds of future conflict had been laid in the intervention in the 1980 Managua Assembly and the pressure that was put on me to leave prior to the 1982 Assembly in Harare. As in the past the organisation had responded to and developed in response to a crisis which was not of its own making. But difficult issues had begun to emerge which would need to be addressed as it became clear that the programs supporting Zimbabwean students would be wound down and other African students would not be maintained beyond those currently being supported. In addition, increased politicisation and ideological differences became more apparent at the Harare Assembly, which I helped to run after I had left the Secretariat.

Dissolution of WUS International

WUS International was finally dissolved in 2000, after collapsing financially in 1996. How and why this happened is still unclear. As I write this revised paper ten years after it was first published, what is clear is that events and programs were run for which there was not sufficient funding and that the financial reserves were exhausted, loans were taken out against the WUS properties in Geneva which finally had to be repaid leaving no funds to maintain the organisation.

For not dissimilar reasons, WUS UK (renamed Education Action) closed down in 2010 and, lacking international support, committees in the developing world also collapsed. Four northern parts of WUS remain. WUS Germany, WUS Austria and WUS Canada have retained the name and their programs. WUS Canada had since the 1970s withdrawn from the central organisation and ran a separate program which has continued and developed over the years. WUS Germany and WUS Austria retained their identity and continued to develop their programs, focussing increasingly on Eastern and South Eastern Europe in response to the changing political situation. WUS Denmark had supported the WUS International projects but withdrew from the international organisation in the mid-1970s, changed its name to IBIS and then merged with Oxfam to become IBIS/Oxfam which continues to operate. [WUS in France became French University Service in 1944 but remained a member of WUS international until 1990, and continues to work extensively with foreign, especially refugee, students. Ed.]

The full story of what happened to WUS International remains to be told: at the time of writing the WUSI archives, which are held in a university archive in Canada, are inaccessible because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever unfolds, there is a story.

Author profile
Clive Nettleton

Originally from South Africa, Clive Nettleton was the vice president of the National Union of South African Students in 1969. In 1972 he founded the Open School with support from WUS, which also supported his next programme People’s College, an educational supplement written by SACHED for Weekend, a paper with three million black readers. In 1978, the paper was banned and Clive was also banned. In March 1979 Clive left for Britain as a refugee and became Africa Secretary at the WUS International Secretariat in July of that year. After leaving Geneva in 1982 Clive worked as Head of Information for the British Refugee Council. He was Director of Health Unlimited which supported long term programmes in areas affected by conflict for 15 years from 1990 and then spent a year as an Honorary Research Fellow at the London School of Tropical Medicine contributing to papers for “The Lancet” and compiling a report on the Social Determinants of Health of Indigenous People for WHO. Finally, he was the Director for Book Aid International until retiring in 2013. In both South Africa and the UK, he has served on the boards of a range of NGOs and in the UK was a school governor for nine years.