The broad influence of BC

2019-10-23 06:01

THIS year marks the 42nd anniversary of Black Wednesday, when the apartheid regime banned 18 civic organisations in an attack on media freedom and civil society.

Many of the organisations were aligned to the Black Consciousness Movement. The high number of organisations outlawed by the nationalist government speaks to the breadth of impact Black Consciousness (BC) had on SA.

South Africans often adopt simplistic historical narratives. For example, the historical role of BC is seen primarily in its renewed challenge to the apartheid state in inspiring the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976. A fuller appreciation of its history and impact transcends this narrow focus.

The craft of historians has been summed up in the so-called five Cs of historical thinking: context, complexity, contingency, causality and change over time. Using this principle, I have studied South African civil society in the late 1960s and 1970s.

While this time was seen as a lull in the opposition to apartheid, closer examination emphasises the importance of ideas, debates and movements in the period. My book Black Consciousness and Progressive Movements under Apartheid, shows how activists drew on global movements of social change in their responses to the oppression of apartheid. To understand BC and its wider impacts historically, we need to understand this broader context.


Firstly, BC emerged together with a growing global Christian challenge to apartheid. The World Council of Churches set a benchmark at the Cottesloe Consultation (December, 1960) in response to the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960.

At the consultation, South African churches, including Afrikaans churches, effectively rejected apartheid. The final statement read: “all racial groups who permanently inhabit our country … have an equal right to make their contribution towards the enrichment of the life of their country”.

The World Council of Churches became further radicalised. By 1970, it had authorised the first of a series of financial grants to the banned ANC and other liberation movements.

Secondly, my book helps to place BC in the wave of global protests in 1968. The sit-in by white students at the University of Cape Town is normally given pride of place. But the protest by black students at the University of Fort Hare in 1968 led to a wider mobilisation across SA universities.

During their sit-in, Fort Hare students sang the anthems Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and We Shall Overcome. Their choice showed how their desire for national liberation and the influence of the Global Sixties merged. The radicals within the mainly white National Union of SA Students (Nusas) were quick to recognise the legitimacy of the challenge of BC and pushed for a change in Nusas accordingly.

Thirdly, I locate BC in the rebirth of the labour movement.

My book points to the limits of the binary that BC leader Steve Biko and philosopher Richard Turner have often been cast in. I argue for their common understanding of economic exploitation as the basis of apartheid.

They agreed on the need for drastic structural change to address the social ills but disagreed on how to achieve this.

Pointing to Biko’s thinking on the economic rationale of apartheid unsettles the pigeonhole that he is often placed in as a theoretician of race.

Fourthly, my book acknowledges the tension between BC and feminism.

I show how female activists within the BC movement appropriated the liberation that their male comrades laid claim to.

Lastly, my book uses the term “shock waves” to describe the impact of BC on organisations like Nusas and the Christian Institute. The Christian Institute was established by Reverend Beyers Naudé and a small group of Dutch Reformed clergy in August 1963. Naudé’s contact with Biko and BC activists in 1971 helped change the orientation of the institute.


South Africa has important and often forgotten histories that must be recovered. The frustrations that are manipulated by populists need to be channelled correctly.

South Africans need to remember the organisational and ideological efforts of the country’s noblest daughters and sons, and strive to follow in their footsteps. — The Conversation.

• Ian Macqueen is lecturer, Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria.


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