Address by President Nelson Mandela at the National Congress of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS)

7 December 1995

Members of the National Leadership of COSAS
Distinguished guests;
Ladies and gentlemen.

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.

The long cherished dream of free and equal education is gradually taking shape. The Government is phasing in the system of free education. Parliament has legislated for a policy to speed up the transformation of our education system.

And let us assure you that no one will be allowed to stand in the way of the creation of the new system. We will approach the issues sensitively and with maximum consultation; but we shall never ever compromise on matters of principle.

Dear delegates;

Beyond the initial steps the government has taken, lies a steep path.

Conflicts with racial undertones in a number of educational institutions in the past year have shown that change requires more than legislation. Our emergence from a divided past calls for the active commitment and participation of parents, teachers and communities.

In this regard, I have noted with trepidation the recent developments at the University of Witwatersrand. As government, we unequivocally recognise and respect the autonomy of our universities; because it is only in this way that they can truly become institutions of higher learning, with rigorous, critical, independent and creative teaching methods and content. Only in this way can these institutions exercise their initiative to find the best and most productive ways of contributing to the development of South African society - be it in the economic, social, artistic or other spheres.

We value very highly the contribution that Wits and other universities can and should make to the comprehensive transformation of society. Needless to say, and as all South Africans and the academic fraternity would agree, this requires that these institutions should transform themselves to become truly South African, in the content of their syllabi, in their style of management and in the composition of their student bodies, academic staff and administration.

In this context, government cannot allow Wits University or any other such national resource to implode upon itself.

I have had discussions with the Minister of Education on this matter; and he has informed me that the Ministry is consulting with role-players within and beyond Wits itself, with the aim of making proposals on how the current crisis at this university can be attended to in the most impartial and inclusive manner.

This will ensure not only the integrity of the process aimed at resolving these problems. It will not only guarantee that the final product enjoys legitimacy across the board. The overriding consideration of government is that the Witwatersrand University emerges from this crisis even better armed to contribute decisively to the transformation of South African society.

And, we should reiterate that two basic principles are critical to education in our democracy - principles which are non-negotiable. These are, the need for transformation from the old order, and an unconditional rejection of racism.


In the same vein, the responsibilities of an organisation like COSAS in the primary and secondary institutions extend well beyond the immediate issues of education. The reconstruction of our country depends on the development and involvement of our youth in an all-round way.

We therefore support the code of Conduct aimed at promoting the culture of learning and teaching in all our schools.

Though progress has been made in integrating many schools, the demographics of the past still persist in terms of residential areas. It is therefore correct that COSAS should seek the twinning of schools across suburbs, including sharing of resources, sports and cultural exchanges, debates and so on. A strong and solid foundation for a non-racial nation will be built in the classrooms and lecture halls, in the canteens and playgrounds of schools, colleges, technikons and universities of today.

One of the most critical challenges is encouraging young people to choose careers which promote the strategic goals of the nation. Our main weakness is not merely in the natural sciences; but also that we might end up with many university graduates especially in the humanities, but with a shortage of the skills needed to build houses and roads, to design machines and operate them, to plan cities and to build and service computers.

Along with these challenges, are three major problems requiring urgent attention:

Firstly, criminal action in the form of violence against teachers and students, and the sale and taking of drugs.

Secondly, sexual harassment and child abuse which is scarring many young people.

Thirdly, the spread among youth and the rest of society of the AIDS virus.

COSAS, along with teachers and parents, should play a leading role in ensuring public awareness and co-operation with the police to rid our schools of these scourges.

Chairperson and delegates;

I do not mention these problems to scare you, but to highlight some of the challenges which face you. COSAS, I know, has never been afraid of challenge.

The future of our country is in your hands. It will be what you make of it today. Development requires proper education and training; and the best time to acquire life-skills is now. In the competitive international market-place to which we are opening our economy, success and even survival of the nation, will depend on you.

Therefore, your congress, Chairperson, will be critical in shaping the future of our country.

May I take this opportunity to wish you and your delegates successful deliberations. Let this be the congress to firmly chart the students' way forward from resistance to reconstruction and development, from poverty to a better life for all.

We once more salute you, the Young Lions of Reconstruction and Development.

I thank you

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation