Southern Africa and WUS (UK) 1979-92

WUS UK was not only about providing a service for refugees, those who had suffered educational discrimination. WUS UK had as a fundamental part of its work information, education, campaigning and advocacy. This meant involving students and staff in universities in the UK in action. 

A key area was Southern Africa. WUS UK produced information on education under apartheid. It encouraged students and staff at UK universities to establish scholarships for South Africans who had to flee apartheid South Africa. There was a significant expansion of such scholarships, sometimes referred to as Southern Africa Campus Scholarships, in the 1980s. The students and staff took responsibility for fundraising to cover maintenance costs for the student and asked, persuaded the university to waive the tuition fees. WUS UK produced a handbook with guidance and advice on how to do this with fundraising suggestions and was able provide candidates for the scholarships.  

The Thatcher government in the UK (1979-1990) banned official contact with the ANC until 1986. Prior to that the WUS UK Annual Conference was used by some in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to meet with leading members of the ANC in exile. The paradox was that in the 1980s, while the UK had a right-wing government which was hostile to the ANC, support for anti-apartheid activity grew. In part this was a reaction to developments in South and Southern Africa but also an increasing willingness to take a ‘Not in My Name’ stance on UK government policy on apartheid. The growing support for the release of Nelson Mandela and others led to increased activity against apartheid.  A key feature of anti-apartheid activity and WUS UK campaigns was to answer the question “I am opposed to apartheid, what can I do?” People could campaign, boycott, call for sanctions, disinvestment, make demands locally, nationally and internationally. Those in UK universities could, with support from WUS UK, set up Southern African Scholarships. 

South African Students struggling against Apartheid

In 1986 or 1987 WUS UK organised a conference in London on Education under Apartheid. This was the first international event four of the key education unions in the UK agreed to sponsor together. I had to negotiate with the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) and ANC London Office as we wanted as the keynote speaker someone from the newly formed National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), part of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa. We eventually got agreement and were able to bring from South Africa Eric Molobi who was an ex Robben Island prisoner and a founder of the NECC. When the ANC had concerns that the apartheid state was isolating Nelson Mandela and seeking to divide him from the ANC it was Eric Molobi who was sent to meet with him. 

WUS UK subsequently had several people from the NECC as keynote speakers to its Annual Conferences including, Blade Nzimande who became the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and is currently the Minister for Higher Education and Ihron Rensburg who has held many roles including Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg 2006-2017. 

In 1985 the European Union established the Special Programme for Victims of Apartheid to support civil society in South Africa opposed to apartheid and provide practical support for those suffering because of apartheid. WUS UK was accepted as a partner in this programme and channelled hundreds of thousands of pounds to organisations in South Africa to provide bursaries for black students. Initially managing this programme meant meetings in Brussels with South Africans flying over or in the region itself, e.g. Harare. When the ANC and other organisations were unbanned, and Nelson Mandela released in 1990, it meant visiting South Africa. My visits to South Africa began shortly after Nelson Mandela was released, visiting bursary organisations, universities, NGOs but also meeting key people in the United Democratic Front and in the ANC, which was re-establishing itself in South Africa. I recall meeting with Chris Hani, General Secretary of the SACP and the most popular leader in South Africa after Nelson Mandela, whose murder in 1993 nearly tipped South Africa into civil war. 

Note : In the 1980s key education unions, the Association of University Teachers(AUT), National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), now both merged into the University and College Union, (UCU), the National Union of Teachers (NUT) now merged into the National Education Union (NEU) and the National Union of Students all joined the WUS UK executive. These unions agreed to sponsor the WUS UK Education under Apartheid Conference.

WUS International (WUS I)  

WUS UK worked with and partly through WUS International in Geneva but there was also some tension. In the early 1980s WUS I provided some funding for a Black Consciousness Movement office in London without consulting or informing WUS UK. This led to some concern from the ANC in the UK toward WUS. Was it trying to divide, weaken the liberation movement? 

The International Universities Exchange Fund (IUEF) based in Sweden which like WUS provided scholarships for South Africans in exile was found to be infiltrated by the apartheid South Africa Bureau for State Security (BOSS) who had planted an agent inside the IUEF, Craig Williamson, who was its Deputy Director. When this was discovered the ANC and AAM and others asked questions of WUS UK, was it infiltrated?  I think what re-assured them was that WUS UK had amongst its staff activists including myself they felt they could trust; we had demonstrated where we stood on apartheid and had built relationships with them. We were also transparent with them. Building such relationships was key in the context of that time. 

Post 1990 and certainly post 1994 the focus and priority became work in South Africa not scholarships for South Africans in the UK. What role should WUS now play? There was a WUS South Africa, however WUS Canada and WUS Denmark (which became Ibis) effectively broke with WUS International to establish an organisation in South Africa, Interfund, bypassing WUS South Africa. WUS UK tried to have a relationship with both Interfund and WUS South Africa. Interfund had resources from northern donor governments. WUS South Africa was a South African organisation but with limited resources. WUS UK preference was for the two to work together but this was never agreed and both eventually folded. 


I had various roles and titles at WUS UK but the last one was Director of Information and Programmes. Subsequently Head of Southern Africa at Christian Aid, 1993-2007 and Director Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA), successor organisation to AAM, 2007-2018) 

Working for WUS UK was the start of a lifetime of work in International Development especially on Southern Africa. The experience reinforced some beliefs and gave me the opportunity to develop. 

What did I gain, learn from my experience at WUS UK? 

Development is political. I think this today and I thought it at WUS. It was a view shared by many colleagues at WUS UK. You need to have or develop an analysis of the context in which you are working. 

Development is about rights. I recall from my Christian Aid experience being surprised that some colleagues struggled with this. For me it seemed self-evident and I in turned struggled to understand why others were proclaiming the “rights-based approach to development” as if it were new. 

Development is both against and for. It is against discrimination, injustice, inequality and for rights, to water, land, food, shelter, decent work and education. 

Working in development involves judgement (nous), humility, empathy and integrity 

Partnership is not reducible to a contract. It is more a relationship which involves using judgement, building respect and trust. Partnership is not the northern agency or government telling the southern organisation or government what to do and how to do it.    

Development involves analysis, consideration of structures, systems and organisations but it also must have at its centre people.   

Being politically active in the UK helped me and indirectly WUS. I did not view international development as something to be done outside of the UK to and for others but as an extension and application of my values and beliefs.   

Author profile
Tony Dykes

Tony Dykes held various positions with WUS UK between 1979 and 1992, the final one as Director of Information and Programmes. Subsequently he was head of Southern Africa at Christian Aid, 1993-2007 and Director of Action for Southern African, 2007 to 2018.