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Black Consciousness and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa

Llowell Williams

In South Africa the world saw one of the greatest and most powerful social struggles of the Twentieth Century, in which huge numbers of people and a diverse range of organizations wrestled with a racially oppressive government for civil rights and equality. One of the most significant movements to rise from this dark period of South African history was the Black Consciousness Movement. Apartheid, the name given the series of governmentally institutionalized laws and acts aimed at repression of non-whites (native Africans, in particular), shaped the lives of all South Africans, placing enormous value on racial identity. As the group in power, whites sought to establish a society where to be non-white was to be inferior and undeserving of many basic rights. It was this negative identity formation which lead to a backlash within the black community and a new movement to combat white power and racial oppression, one of which was the Black Consciousness Movement. Originally several European colonies, South Africa was eventually unified as a single state in 1910, and then later becoming an independent nation in 1961. The area, having been first established as a colony by the Dutch several hundred years earlier, had a long history of unequal power relations between white Europeans and native African peoples. Racial inequality became official policy shortly following the election of the National Party into the South African government in 1948, with the white-centered government instituting racial categorization and forced residential segregation (O'Meara:33). One of these laws passed by the National Party was the Population Registration Act of 1950 which required all adults to carry an identification card at all times indicating their racial

classification (either white, black, coloured, or Indian). In the same year, the Group Areas Act and Bantu Administration Act used these official classifications as criteria for segregating residential areas. It also retained national citizenship from non-whites and arbitrarily reclassified these people as members of one of several government instituted tribes, with each tribe being residentially confined to a particular geographical area. (O'Meara:40) Although successful in implementing the new segregationist laws, the National Party government was not met without resistance. Initially leading the charge against the white apartheid leadership was the African National Congress (ANC) following its absorption of the Youth League, an African nationalist organization lead by Nelson Mandela, a leftist student wing of the ANC. Allying themselves with other anti-apartheid groups, the ANC began organizing nonviolent strikes, boycotts, rallies, and letter writing campaigns. In the 1950s this program became known as the Defiance Campaign, the aim of which was to rally support for instituting changes to the government and ending apartheid legislation through open civil disobedience. (Davenport:51; Halisi:82) As the African National Congress's power continued to grow and protests continued to escalate, the National Party began to feel increasingly threatened and in response attempted to curb the organization's efforts. Laws were passed and ANC leaders were targeted for arrest, with thousands ending up in jail. (O'Meara:77) Frustrated with the ANC's lack of progress, a small group split off at the end of the 1950s, calling themselves the Pan Africanist Congress. (Gerhart:43) Their first (and last) major act was to organize protests around the country against the use of pass books (the identification papers indicating race), in March of 1960. One of these protests took place in the town of Sharpeville, where nearly 70 people were killed after police opened fire on the black crowd. In the aftermath of the massacre, the National Party declared a

state of emergency and sought to aggressively repress the ANC and PAC. Many thousands of people were arrested, and those who managed to avoid prison were driven underground or out of South Africa. (Gerhart:50) Some former members of the ANC and PAC begun to feel especially frustrated with the lack of success their peaceful resistance had brought, turning to organized military action. The best known militant wing to form from the ANC was known as the Umkhonto we Sizwe, however their actions were limited in scope and success. The South African government had succeeded in squashing the ANC and their Defiance Campaign, creating a major void within the anti-apartheid movement as a whole. (Gerhart:56; O'Meara:83) In the wake of Sharpeville and the fierce repression of the ANC and PAC came a new anti-apartheid movement to fill the vacuum, lead by Steve Biko, known as the Black Consciousness Movement. As an educated student, Biko had read the works of black intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Marvin Garvey who wrote on subjects of cognitive liberation and black empowerment. After witnessing the active government repression of the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups, Biko and others understood the need to change tactics. (Gerhart:70) Moving away from the open resistance methods of the ANC prior to Sharpeville, Biko and his supporters decided the anti-apartheid movement need to take a more grassroots approach. To be at the center of the new Black Consciousness Movement was the South African Students' Organisation (SASO), which was founded by Biko as a breakaway group from the earlier National Union of South African Students. Unlike the National Union, SASO welcomed membership and support from not only black people but other non-whites as well. According to Biko, the struggle against apartheid was not simply one for native Africans, but all people of color. (Biko:22) Unlike the ANC and other previous anti-apartheid movements, the Black Consciousness

Movement's goals went beyond achieving civil rights and governmental representation. Seeing apartheid as something more profound and insidious than a superficial form of political structure, Biko believed that notions concerning the inferiority of blacks and non-whites had become a fundamental South African cultural institution. According to Biko, blacks were socialized into a culture where they were taught to be submissive and deferential to whites. He saw the reversal of this as the new movement's primary objective. Biko referred to the goals of the Black Consciousness Movement as being two fold: first and foremost, psychological liberation, which referred to creating new identities for oppressed non-whites, in which they take pride in being not only Africans, but human beings deserving of equality. The second goal, physical liberation, entails the actual adjustment of government and legal power structures and the achievement of equal civil rights. He was very clear in his belief that the latter could not be effectively accomplished without accomplishing the former; for a truly egalitarian society to be created and to persist, the marginalized people of South Africa needed to actively take pride in their heritage and assert their right to equality. (Biko:30; Halisi:101) With these goals, the Black Consciousness Movement and the organizations within, like the South African Students' Organisation, sought to use tactics to raise consciousness within nonwhite communities. Raising consciousness also meant recreating identities, and redefining social roles. Unlike SASO's predecessor, the National Union of South African Students, goals of establishing multiracial identities were eschewed in favor of advocating and creating a black identity apart from white South Africans. This viewpoint meant that SASO actively rejected major support from whites, believing that only marginalized non-whites had the right or ability to bring needed social change. Understanding that since the Sharpeville massacre and the severe repression of the ANC

speaking out against apartheid publicly was seen as dangerous by most dissidents, Biko and SASO sought to use grassroots tactics to raise public consciousness and rally support for the movement. This was set in motion in 1970 with the creation of what were called Black Community Programmes (BCPs), which were aimed at community building through providing various social services like schools, day cares, medical clinics, and adult literacy classes. The BCPs also organized group meetings where ideas concerning black identity and white oppression were discussed in an open forum. Another action of the BCPs were to create what were called Formation Schools, in which men and women were given community and organizational leadership training that emphasized self-reliance and autonomy. Some of the BCPs also put together and distributed periodical BCM literary publications, such as Black Review and Black Voice. Many of these programs were possible with the support of the South African Council of Churches, a black-based interdenominational organization with BCM sympathies, which was able to raise much of the initial funding for the various Black Community Programmes. (Gerhart: 97) With the success of the BCPs, SASO began organizing some of the largest anti-apartheid protests and strikes in the 1970s. Unfortunately, but 1973, the National Party started aggressively pursuing and arresting known leaders within the Black Consciousness Movement, declaring participation in the BCM an act of treason and terrorism. Many SASO leaders were detained, but were given trials during which they openly spoke about the philosophies of the BCM and their experiences of oppression. Unlike the ANC though, SASO and the Black Consciousness Movement in general were not curbed with the arrests of leadership; instead, these trials, acting as open forums, and the already successful BCPs had ensured the continued growth and support of the movement, among both black and white South Africans. (O'Meara:115)

SASO spent the next couple years recovering from the loss of many of their leaders, but fortunately Biko had so far managed to avoid arrest. They continued in their consciousness raising efforts and maintained various BCPs, gradually growing in numbers, especially among black and Indian students. For a while protests and strikes mostly ceased, however this changed when the South African government passed a new law, the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which required all black schools to use a curriculum based half on Afrikaans and half on English. This was heavily resented by the huge majority of black students, seeing the decree as an assault on their culture. As Desmond Tutu commented, Afrikaans was the language of the oppressor; it was clear this was not a unique sentiment. (Halisi:122) Frustration and resentment of this new law grew among students and teachers alike, leading to the next major protest event in 1976 in Soweto. Originally planned as a peaceful student march through Soweto, marchers were met by armed police blocking their planned path. Despite efforts by march leaders to keep protesters from antagonizing the police, tensions erupted into gunfire, resulting in dozens of student deaths. Riots engulfed the town for several days, with police using indiscriminate force against students, leaving several hundred dead and many more injured by the time order returned to Soweto. (O'Meara:130) Following these events, much like after Sharpeville, the National Party stepped up their efforts to suppress the Black Consciousness organizations, SASO in particular. Biko, seen as being at the forefront of the SASO and the protests in Soweto, was arrested by police in 1977, after which he was placed in prison for several days and murdered. (O'Meara:135) Biko's death, despite becoming a symbol of the struggle against apartheid, lead to many individuals abandoning membership in various BCM organizations out of fear, in favor of joining less radical groups with political goals, like the ANC which had managed to persist and remain

organized underground. (Halisi:141) As the Black Consciousness Movement dwindled towards the end of the 1970s, politically oriented groups such as the ANC returned to the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle. People continued to abandon their BCM groups in favor of highly organized parties like the ANC; besides doing so out of fear, many began to feel the BCM had more or less run its course, having been fairly successful in spreading its message of psychological liberation. Many also became frustrated with the BCM's lack of tangible, concrete goals and its lack of strategy to achieve political change. (Gerhart:133; Halisi:149) Regardless of Biko and the BCM's minimal impact directly on the political stage at the time, they managed to inspire countless anti-apartheid activists and stimulate a great deal of thought about black identity both inside and outside of South Africa. Biko's philosophy of psychological liberation and black consciousness created a significant social legacy, influencing politics in South Africa to this day. While many may see the movement's lack of political progress to be a failure, this was not the primary goal; instead, it should be evaluated based on its success in changing black identities and stirring continued resistance to apartheid.

Sources cited:

Biko, Steve. 1987. I Write What I Like. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Davenport, T. R. H. 1977. South Africa: A Modern History. MacMillan. Gerhart, Gail M. 1979. Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Halisi, C. R. D. 1999. Black Political Thought in the Making of South African Democracy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. O'Meara, Dan. 1996. Forty Lost Years: The National Party and the Politics of the South African State. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.