The core message of Black Consciousness may now seem to be simple and straightforward, but in the 70s, it was groundbreaking. In a time of general acquiescence within oppressed communities following the wave of state repression of the 60’s, BC was subversive, radical and life-giving.
If the black experience under apartheid was a powder keg, for the professionals and intellectuals BC constituted the striking of the match. The result was Black anger (expressed as passive resistance) and the assertion of “black power”. For the working class and the wider community, it was less directly efficacious. But these sectors were indirectly impacted as black consciousness activists began working to establish trade unions and community projects.
Black Consciousness propagated that:
- Ideas per se were a powerful force. A primary emphasis was placed on changing thinking and outlook, including perceptions of themselves, among black people
- Black pride resting on black traditions and notable historical achievements ought to be a key starting point. Black writing, black music and black achievement in various fields in Africa and the Diaspora should be celebrated.
- Black people should unite and reject ethnic divisions as an imposition of apartheid. Black solidarity should also overshadow the difference between African, Indian and Coloured.
- Blacks should reject the term “non-white”; instead of using white as the reference point, they should embrace a positive identification with the term black.
- In the theological sphere, black theology should be advanced; in this connection, reference would be made to a Christ that more likely was a swarthy Easterner than a blue eyed European and who was Black also in the sense that he sided with the poor and downtrodden.
- Whites should have no place in the struggle. This meant that black people should liberate themselves, as captured in Steve Biko’s phrase “Black man (sic), you are on your own”. Whites who wanted to work for justice should work in their own communities.
There were many “fights” or clashes, particularly in the eighties (when rival resistance groups strove for dominance and movements appeared to be vying to “own” the masses and the struggle); but these battles obscure a fundamental complementarity between Black Consciousness and an ANC approach to the struggle.
The ANC, focusing on national liberation, organized the masses around the concept of an inclusive national liberation as expressed in the rights enunciated in United Nations declarations and charters. Inherent in the ANC’s broad mass-based approach was the notion that ideas could not be the starting point in mobilization; ideas changed – and change happens - when material conditions and balance of forces are shifted or through a focusing on the material interests of target groups. Given how much the later Oliver Tambo, former ANC President, has written on this approach, I dub it the Tambo path to freedom.
There are distinct differences in approach. I choose, however, to see these differences [depicted in the table below] not as antagonistic or mutually exclusive: I see the two approaches as conceptual and strategic ingredients that combine, intermingle and work in complementary ways in history and contemporary reality (click on the box below for a clearer view):
Many of us easily combined the two approaches in our lives. Some who had been in the BC movement crossed over to join the ANC-aligned liberation forces in the height of engagement with the apartheid state, as the ANC regained ascendance in on-the-ground struggle. People like Mosioua Lekota, Ahmed Bawa, Ishmael Moss and others continued to espouse the core philosophy of BC; and sought to play a role in minimising tension and conflict between the rival political forces. A good number of my peers defined themselves as both black conscious and “progressive”.
My first real engagement with politics and political ideas happened through coming into contact with black consciousness. This occurred indirectly: my older brother and a few friends in Pietermaritzburg had some links with prominent SASO activist Henry Isaacs, who at the time was banned and under house arrest. I imbibed the philosophy through overhearing their animated discussions that followed their visits to him. I later heard a form of it disseminated by Norman Middleton at Labour Party meetings in the local community hall.
However, by the time I arrived at UWC in 1977, BC appeared to be on the wane (of course, the vicious state crackdown on BC organization has also played a part). The leading activists, some with roots in black consciousness, were already beginning to organise through educational material and discussion groups on an ANC and Marxist platform. Students listened to the ANC’s Radio Freedom on crackling transistor radios behind locked hostel doors.
Looking ahead, it is clear that the new South Africa needs to honour the late Black Consciousness leader
Steve Biko (who was killed in detention in 1977). And when it does so, it should remember him less in terms of his death than in relation to the life he lived, the power of his ideas and the continuing relevance of Black Consciousness as an antidote to the dominance & widespread internalization of racist thinking in our society.
I have no fixed ideas about how Steve Biko should or could be honoured and black consciousness acknowledged. But we should take into account that in heritage there is a move away from monuments that are “frozen in time” and static. The emphasis should be on representations that are interactive and that include reflection and discussion of the contemporary role of Black consciousness.
Clearly, Steve Biko’s name will be remembered through the name change processes, and indications are that we could be driving down Steve Biko Road or Avenue before long. But we need to go beyond this. Thus, for example, planners in relevant government agencies could consider creating a place for thinking and remembrance in Soweto, near the Hector Peterson museum and the famous Vilikazi Street. Here the link can be drawn between BC and the uprisings that began in June 16. Another possibility is to locate a “living museum” next to the District Six Museum or near the Bat Centre in Durban; in such a facility, art, text, film and interactive material can be used, in addition, to discuss racial oppression over time in Africa and the Diaspora, together with ideas and leadership in response to such oppression.
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