Oukasie YCW and the struggle against apartheid

Kally Forrest’s book, “Bonds of Justice: The Struggle for Oukasie” tells the story of a black South African town’s struggle for liberation at the height of the apartheid regime during the 1980s.

It is also the story of the local YCW that formed many of the town’s young leaders during that period of great conflict.

Located near the white town of Brits, which is 60 km north west of Pretoria, Oukasie “was the site of remarkable struggles for freedom, dignity and justice,” Forrest tells us. “The black inhabitants of Oukasie took their fight to the seemingly invincible apartheid government.”

French priest, Jean-Marie Dumortier – known as J.M. to the Oukasie community – had been sent by the Catholic Church in France to establish the YCW in the towns of Oukasie and Mothutlung in the late 1970s, Forrest explains.

“His arrival marked the development of a powerful black leadership, particularly from Oukasie, both in trade unions and in the community,” she continues. “So strong was the YCW’s impact on youth leadership that it changed the face of politics and development in Brits and Oukasie.”

It is for this reason that her book devotes much space to explaining “how YCW recruits were trained and how they operated.”

“It is also crucial to understand how they engaged with emerging non-racial trade unions and how- they built the union movement in Brits,” Forrest says.

Although YCW groups had already existed in South Africa from the 1930s and 1940s, it really developed from the 1950s under the leadership of Eric Tyacke, a trade unionist and Catholic lay activist from Johannesburg, who relaunched the movement in South Africa in 1949.

By the 1960s, the movement was 65% African with another 20% among the coloured population and the remainder being white.

However, the movement seriously took off during the 1970s though.Although it made use of Church infrastructure, it was an autonomous movement run by its members with YCW fulltime organisers “paid according to their needs,” Forrest notes.

By the early 1980s, the movement was beginning to organise in the Brits area where its “way of operating greatly empowered community and trade union members,” she continues.

“The YCW was a real university for me,” Jacob Moatshe recalled in an interview with Forrest. “I became grounded and conscientised through my own problems. You took responsibility and became proud of your own actions.”

The movement also worked in a highly organised way, as illustrated by its manual, as Forrest explains:

“The YCW produced a manual to guide the Campaign. Its contents explored how to organise a campaign and included guidelines for precampaign meetings, launching of activities, rally information, ways of campaigning and songs. The manual suggested that community and worker meetings should divide into groups and plan around such questions as: Who can our group involve in the campaign in our township or area? In our schools? At work? At church? Who did we involve last year? Who do we invite to the launching weekend? How many launching pamphlets do we want? 

Dates were set for each phase of action, which involved detailed report-backs and discussion. Group committees were required to review the past month and plan for the next. Study methods were inclusive, imaginative and required active participation from all members in groups through song, discussion, analysing messages on T-shirts and so on. The manual was presented accessibly, with images and cartoons, and was brief and easy to read.”

Quickly, the movement began to organise and lead action in the local factories, helping to organise trade unions there.

Indeed, YCW leaders eventually led a difficult but eventually successful year long strike at the B&S factory.

“I cannot recall without a tightening of my throat the meeting which followed their victory with the young militants of the YCW which had organised an end of year regional meeting,” Jean-Marie Dumortier told Forrest.

The YCW also led another major local battle against the relocation of the Oukasie community from its location close to the white Brits town.

However, this struggle also had great costs.

Government agents organised the bombing of the house belonging to YCW leader, David Modimoeng, injuring him and killing his wife, Joyce, who was also an activist.

Jean-Marie Dumortier credits the restraint of the YCW leadership with preventing an escalation of violence in the district following these attacks. Later still movement leaders played an important role in the reconciliation process once the apartheid system had been defeated.

Later, Nelson Mandela himself would pay tribute to the role of the YCW in that struggle.

Opening the International YCW World Council at a soccer field near Oukasie in 1995, Mandela said:

“One of the YCW’s most important characteristics is that it situated itself in the social realities of people … and places strong emphasis on effective organisation.

Our decades of struggle, outside and inside prison, taught us that the most important tool of resistance is proper organisation… YCW’s emphasis on active participation of its members in developing plans to change their lives has proved to have great potential for capacity-building among our youth.”

Forrest concludes her book in similar fashion, highlighting the role and method of work of the YCW leaders:

The Young Christian Workers (YCW), which targeted young people and initiated this battle, has existed on the margins of labour and struggle histories. This book places the YCW, as well as the trade unions and other organisations in which they participated, at the centre of the narrative, and reveals a political tradition that emerged in the struggle against apartheid which posed an alternative to organisations like the South African Communist Party’ (SACP) and the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Rooted in a socialist interpretation of Christianity, these young workers rejected the high-profile protest action and populist rhetoric of youth organisations like the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) and followed an independent path. They were guided by the method of “See, Judge and Act”, which entailed the development of an informed, reflective and strategic programme of participatory action to bring change. This approach developed a mature and accountable leadership.

The YCW’s approach meshed with the emerging independent trade union movement, creating a leadership which guided Oukasie’s resistance to removal in the 1980s and engaged in bottom-up infrastructural development in the early 1990s.”

We can be thankful to the author for documenting such an important story in the history of the South African YCW.

Stefan Gigacz

Kally Forrest, Bonds of Justice: The Struggle for Oukasie, Hidden Voices Series, Fanele, Jacana Press, Johannesburg, 2019.