In the early 1960s the National Union of South African Students, NUSAS, was based around white campuses (University of Witwatersrand, Rhodes, University of Cape Town, and University of Natal) and leadership positions were almost entirely taken by white students. The issues raised by black students were largely ignored. Several attempts were made to create a representative voice for black students: the African Students' Association (connected to the ANC) was formed in 1961, the African Students' Union of South Africa (similarly connected to the PAC) in 1962, as well as the Durban Students' Union and the Cape Peninsular Students' Union which merged together to form the Progressive National Students' Organisation. Whilst all were vehemently opposed to the NUSAS, political infighting akin to those of anti-Apartheid parties resulted in a lack of national agreement.
The University Christian Movement, UCM, was formed in 1967 and gave black students an opportunity for representation. At the UCM Conference at Stutterheim in July 1968, 40 black students from around South Africa met to discuss the future and the need for a nationally representative black student organisation. Steve Biko was one of the students at the meeting.
The first step was a 'representative' conference held at Mariannheim, Natal, in December 1968, where the structure of the South African Students' Organisation, SASO, was determined. The SASO was inaugurated in July 1969 at Turfloop1, campus of the University of the North, with Biko as president (he was then studying medicine at the University of Natal).
In his presidential address to the 1st National Formation School of SASO, 1 December 1969, Steve Biko laid out the aims of SASO as an organisation:
- To crystallise the needs and aspirations of the non-white students and to seek to make known their grievances.
- Where possible to put into effect programmes designed to meet the needs of the non-white students and to act on a collective basis in an effort to solve some of the problems which beset the centres individually.
- To heighten the degree of contact not only amongst the non-white students but also amongst these and the rest of the South African student population, to make the non-white students accepted on their own terms as an integral part of the South African student community.
- To establish a solid identity amongst the non-white students and to ensure that these students are always treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
- To protect the interests of the member centres and to act as a pressure group on all institutions and organisations for the benefit of the non-white students.
- To boost up the morale of the non-white students, to heighten their own confidence in themselves and to contribute largely to the direction of thought taken by the various institutions on social, political and other current topics.
Biko argued that blacks should work on their own, not under the guidance of white liberals.
Even from the start SASO's critics labelled it a racist organisation, but its black-only aspect gave it leeway with the Apartheid government who were more worried about white-liberal opposition. SASO rapidly won support from the (African) University College campuses, as well as from Indian students at the University of Durban-Westville and Coloured students at the University of the Western Cape (Belville). In 1972 SASO helped to create the Black People's Convention, BPC, an umbrella organisation which was based upon the philosophy of Black Consciousness. At the same time SASO started to call for boycotts on African campuses.
The Apartheid government started to take notice, in 1973 eight of SASO's leaders were banned (for five years), in 1974 eighty SASO/BPC activists were detained without trial (all detainees later alleged severe torture), and in 1975 nine members were charged and convicted under the Terrorism Act (despite there being no proof of 'acts of terrorism'). Steve Biko was not the only member to die in custody. On 5 August 1976, Mapetla Mohapi, died at the Kei Road police station. Police claimed he had committed suicide and an inquest found that nobody was responsible for his death. He had previously been held in 1974-5 for a period of 164 days without charge, and was banned in September 1975.
SASO remained active until 1977 when it was banned along with the BPC.
1Five University Colleges were set up by the Apartheid government: Ngoye for Zulus, Turfloop for the Tswana and Sotho, Fort Hare (which had previously been non-ethnic) for Xhosas, Belville for Coloureds and Durban-Westville for Indians.