This article will feature in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019)

By the end of 1964, the majority of Anti-Apartheid resistance within South Africa had been supressed. Repressive legislation limited speech and movement. Black leaders, trade unionists and activists had been imprisoned  or driven into exile. With the ANC suppressed, the Black Consciousness Movement took up the mantle of resistance. Despite contemporary perceptions, the ANC did not always dominate the anti-apartheid movement. It owes a debt to a multitude of organisations who, at different times, were vital in resisting apartheid such as Robert Subukwe’s Pan African Congress, the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Unity Movement, and Steve Biko and The Black Consciousness Movement.

The Black Consciousness Movement was a group of students and intellectuals. They emerged out of a galvanised student movement at Bush College one of the few universities where black students were afforded limited freedom of expression. In 1969,  frustrated with the lack of black leadership and radical ideas in student politics, a group of Students including Steve Biko, who would later become their most prominent leader, left the National Union of South African Students and formed the non-white South African Student’s Organisation (SASO). Their idea of fostering black leadership would become a key tenement to Black Consciousness’s philosophy. 

SASO galvanised activism across black campuses, and focussed initially on ‘consciousness raising’ rather than building a mass movement. Black Consciousness was a radically different philosophy to that of Mandela’s ANC, rejecting white leadership and working towards developing an independent self-sustaining black society.  Radically, they argued that Apartheid oppression was as much psychological as political. They drew on many indigenous cultural and political practices for inspiration. Moreover, they followed the intellectual traditions of thinkers such as Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and Franz Fanon. In speeches, Steve Biko emphasised black power, self-expression and self-promotion as a means of counteracting the propagation of an inferiority complex on the black population by the white government: “When you say, black is beautiful, you are saying, man you are okay as you are, begging to look upon yourself as a human being”. 

From 1972, the movement formed the Black People’s Convention (BPC). Its first meeting brought 145 organisations and 1400 delegates. Its refusal to work within the apartheid system meant that this was the first mass, truly anti-apartheid national organisation since the 1960s. Unlike the male dominated ANC, the BPC had significant female representation, with a woman, Winnifred Kgware elected as its first leader. Across the country, they developed a series of community development programs, from textile manufacturing to health clinics. Additionally, they developed black arts and culture in yearbooks like ‘Black Review’. Due to the apartheid government’s scorn for and repression of black culture, even this cultural development was an act of black resistance.

The movement began to clash with the Apartheid state more directly later in the 1970s. They gained widespread support through the state’s persecution of BCM activists in the SASO-BPC trial of 1976. With leaders like Steve Biko called to testify in court, their philosophy and ideology of black unity and consciousness was broadcast across South Africa through press reports. The trial ironically gave BCM activists a platform they had been denied since being banned from speaking publicly in 1973. 

As well as high profile publicity, SASO continued to spread its ideas and foster black leadership amongst black youth. This was particularly successful in Soweto, which already had a rich history of anti-apartheid activism. The South African Student Movement (SASM), an organisation of high school students, organised a march in 1976 against the use of Afrikaans (the white minority language) in black schools. The peaceful march evolved into a national uprising after hundreds of school children were killed by the police. Today this protest is known as the Soweto uprising. It demonstrated the success of the BCM in ‘liberating’ the minds of black South Africans and allowing them to conceive of their own freedom. Importantly, it began to show the cracks in the apartheid system.

Eventually, the pressure of bannings, restrictions and police violence took its toll. Particularly devestating was Steve Biko’s brutal murder on the 12th September 1977. Following the 1970s its significance faded, although some activists continue the organisation even today. Others were absorbed into other organisations, like the United Democratic Front, a group that dominated anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s.

The BCM was central to the eventual dismantling of Apartheid. Firstly, it ideological focus on the promotion of black culture and black self-sufficiency radicalised black politics. Secondly, its attempt to dismantle the psychological repression of racialised systems of knowledge and power galvanised resistance. Finally, the global outcry against Steve Biko’s murder exposed the Apartheid governments brutality to the world, helping to push it towards reform.

Given this, it is puzzling that Steve Biko and the BCM do not have a prominant place in popular narratives of apartheid South Africa. Certainly, the BCM’s ideas were less palatable to a western audience. They did not court white liberal sympathy, instead emphasising self-resistance and expression. Their views also did not fit into the ANC’s vision of a ‘non-racial’ post-apartheid South Africa. In the 1990s, the ANC, whose activist base was largely in exile around the globe, co-opted much of the anti-apartheid zeitgeist. With their influence in the international community, they were able to claim much work as their own. But, with de-facto segregation and inequality still present in much of the country today, the ANC’s policy of racial reconciliation has, in many ways, failed.

To conclude the BCM demonstrated a radical anti-apartheid alternative was possible. By fostering a black cultural renaissance, creating community-led programs and galvanising the student movement they not only helped resist the apartheid regime, they also created the basis for a new black philosophy.