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Black Consciousness


Black consciousness is the name of a black nationalist political movement originating in South Africa during the 1960s and 1970s. It proclaimed the necessity of black South Africans to rely on themselves for liberation and to claim South Africa as an African nation. Black consciousness drew on a tradition of black nationalist thought in South Africa associated with Africanist political movements and emerged during a time when the older antiapartheid movements, especially the African Nationalist Congress and Pan-African Congress, had been driven deep underground by state repression. It also drew on the rhetoric and ideology of black power and black theology coming out of the United States in the 1960s.

Stephen Biko (1946–1977), a former medical student, served as its most important leader and philosophical guide. The movement emphasized black self-reliance in the struggle against the racist apartheid system in South Africa. Many of the participants in the Soweto uprisings of 1976 espoused support for black consciousness. The suppression of that movement and especially Biko's death while in police custody in 1977 weakened the organizational base of the movement. Many of its supporters went into exile, where they mostly joined the larger African National Congress (ANC), the biggest of the movements fighting for majority rule in South Africa. Those that remained in South Africa became active in civic organizations that made up the United Democratic Front during the 1970s and 1980s. Biko himself became an international icon in the struggle against apartheid, and was celebrated in popular music, a best-selling book, and a motion picture. While the movement left little long-term institutional impact, its message of black empowerment helped mobilize the younger generation in the struggle. Its popularity forced the ANC to adopt a more populist approach to the struggle and helped create the basis for the mobilization of the 1980s, which succeeded in forcing the Apartheid regime to free ANC leader Nelson Mandela (b. 1918) and negotiate a relatively peaceful transfer of power. Likewise, the term black consciousness entered the lexicon of Pan-African political discourse.

Black consciousness developed out of a long tradition of racial nationalism in South Africa. Liberation movements in South Africa operated within a tension between a liberal and multiracial or nonracial view of the struggle against white domination and a more "Africanist" conception of the struggle. The former emphasized solidarity among all the peoples of South Africa, including progressive whites as well as Asians and "coloreds." The oldest and largest liberation movement, the African National Congress, generally espoused this philosophy even as it became more radically socialist in its politics after World War II. Nonracialism was enshrined in the Freedom Charter of 1955 (along with socialism), giving the movement its alternate name of Charterist. Africanist critiques emerged by the 1920s. They argued that South Africa was an African nation occupied by colonial settlers who had no inherent right to be there. Activists such as Anton Lembede (1914–1947), founder of the Congress Youth League (CYL), often called on the communal traditions of African societies as well as external advocates of black autonomy such as Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) and Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), as their inspirations. The Congress Youth League movement of the ANC in the 1940s brought together young activists who promoted a more Africanist view of the struggle, often pitted against an older ANC leadership that sought allies among liberal whites in South Africa and socialist governments abroad. The CYL movement eventually led to a split in the ANC. One faction, led by Robert Sobukwe, broke off and formed the Pan-African Congress. The rest, led by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo, gradually took control of the ANC and pushed it to more active resistance in the face of the tightening of Apartheid. They, however, converted to (or remained loyal to) the general Charterist position on nonracialism. The smaller Pan-African Congress (PAC) during the 1950s tried to press for even more direct mobilization against apartheid. The massacre of at least sixty unarmed PAC protesters in 1960 at Sharpeville resulted in the suppression of both the ANC and PAC in South Africa, imprisoning or driving into exile most of the leaders and activists of those organizations.

The early 1960s saw a period of relative quiet in black activism in South Africa. Biko and other black students developed the concept of black consciousness in the later 1960s on the segregated university of campuses of South Africa. By the mid-1960s, the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) was one of the few national institutions still integrated and engaged in activism for change. However, NUSAS's leaders came primarily from the English-speaking white universities of South Africa and followed a liberal, moderate antiapartheid program. Black students, including students from Indian and coloured campuses, felt the organization was becoming less concerned with political change and more with narrow university issues. In 1967, at a meeting of NUSAS at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, the university administration required the students to use segregated facilities. In response, black students led by Biko, Barney Pityana, and Harry Nengwekulu helped found the all-black South African Students' Organisation (SASO). Biko emerged as the leading spokesman of the group. He was a medical student at the University of Natal Medical School, Black Section.

After 1969, the black consciousness movement called for blacks to liberate themselves psychologically first. It claimed many black people had internalized ideas of inferiority and dependency from the racism of apartheid. Once black people had come to believe that they had the right and power to stand up for themselves, they would then be able to take power in their own hands. One of the principle targets of the movement was the perceived dependence of blacks on white liberals to speak for them. Biko stated, "Merely by describing yourself as black, you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being." Biko argued that only blacks (and he included the non-African peoples of color in South Africa in this definition) were truly oppressed in South Africa and that white liberals generally sought to play the role of gatekeepers toward blacks. The movement drew to some extent on the ideas of "Africanist" critics of the nonracialism of the ANC such as Sobukwe of the PAC as well as the ideas of black power and the black theology movement in the United States. Like the PAC, the black consciousness movement also criticized the close alignment of the ANC with the South African Communist Party and the Soviet bloc.

After 1969, the black consciousness movement began to gain at least nominal adherents throughout the black population of South Africa. Black consciousness adherents created a number of organizations dedicated to political mobilization and community service. They operated in an environment where the South African government kept a close watch on black organizations and had to be careful about both their words and their actions lest they call down the repressive state apparatus on themselves. In addition to SASO, the Black People's Convention, founded in 1972, created an alliance of over seventy organizations dedicated to black consciousness, including new, often unrecognized, labor unions and the South African Student Movement that included secondary school students. Biko became the head of the organization, and the South African government promptly "banned" him, a sentence that restricted him to his hometown of King William's Town in what is now the Eastern Cape Province and severely limited his ability to remain in contact with other members and organizations in the movement. The University of Natal also expelled him from medical school.

The resonance of black consciousness's call for pride and self-reliance helped create the conditions that led to a wave of antiapartheid unrest by 1976, despite the absence from the active political stage of leaders like Biko. A wave of strikes by black workers swept through the country in 1975 and 1976, and they were often led by "unofficial" unions affiliated with the black consciousness movement. In 1976, the government announced that henceforth it would require the teaching of Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language of white Afrikaners, instead of English in many black schools. Many blacks saw this as an effort to keep them isolated. Students in the township (a suburb designated for blacks only) of Soweto outside Johannesburg began a boycott of classes. Confrontations with the police led to a broader mobilization in favor of school and work stay-aways. Between 16 June and October of 1976, violence spread to townships in many parts of South Africa. Even though the government dropped its requirements on the use of Afrikaans, the movement took on the air of a general uprising. By the end of 1976, the South African government reported over 500 people had died in the violence, a figure many think is much too low to be accurate. Regarded as the guiding light of the uprising, although due to the banning order not particularly involved in its planning, Biko himself was arrested four times during this period, the final time in August 1977. Then, he was beaten repeatedly, suffered head injuries, taken in the back of a Land Rover to Pretoria, and died on 11 September 1977. The government denied responsibility for his death. Only with the work of the postapartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa almost twenty years later was formal responsibility for Biko's death laid at the feet of the police.

Black consciousness organizations and supporters came under extreme pressure after the 1976 uprisings. Many went to prison; many others went into exile. In both places, they began to drift into ANC-led circles. The ANC, for its part, adopted a more populist attitude toward mobilization. In South Africa, organizations affiliated with the black consciousness movement provided the basis for community organizations that continued the struggle against apartheid. Tensions remained between the ANC's commitment to the Freedom Charter, which called for a socialist and nonracial future for South Africa and these organizations and adherents. Some supporters of black consciousness created the Azanian People's Organization (AZAPO), which claims to be the main heir to the black consciousness movement. This movement in the 1980s and political party in the 1990s remained small.

Black consciousness represented a South African response to the conditions of 1960s apartheid. Its leaders drew on a range of ideas from abroad and from the past to shape their version of racial nationalism. Yet the influences of black power and black theology in the United States, the African nationalist movements that brought independence to much of the rest of Africa, revolutionary theorists such as Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) and Amilcar Cabral (1924–1973) merely contributed a language to what was an indigenous development. In its successful mobilization of mass protest, it forced the more widely recognized liberation movements to adopt a more populist and less rigidly ideological approach to the struggle. Likewise, its success at grassroots organizing, which again mirrored the efforts of some black power organizations in the United States, helped change the political landscape of South Africa. The main legacy of the movement remains its mobilization, especially of young people, in the 1970s as a prelude to the struggles of the 1980s that led to the end of apartheid. Nelson Mandela said at the twentieth anniversary of Biko's death, "The driving thrust of black consciousness was to forge pride and unity amongst all the oppressed, to foil the strategy of divide-and-rule, to engender pride amongst the mass of our people and confidence in their ability to throw off their oppression."

Gregory H. Maddox

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