III - Black Consciousness

From the book: No.46 - Steve Biko by Hilda Bernstein, 1978, South Africa

What had Steve Biko done to be so persecuted by the police? Why did they pursue him so persistently and find him so dangerous, when no charges had been proved against him? It was as though his very existence was regarded as threatening the stability of the apartheid state, and the state turned the formidable strength of its restrictive laws and its powerful security police to eradicate this threat. Biko was persecuted as a leading exponent of Black Consciousness, the mixture of ideas and action which emerged in the early 1970's with the aim of uniting black people to oppose apartheid and white supremacy. As such he was seen as a threat. Whatever their differences with some of the principles of their forerunners, the Black Consciousness movement was descended from the organisations that the government banned in 1960, following the police massacre of peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville””the African National Congressand the Pan Africanist Congress.

The ANC and PAC went underground and into exile. Using techniques and personnel taught by experts in the USA and Portugal, the security police waged a relentless war against African organisations and all their former members and supporters, who had been identified, listed and marked down in the years when the organisations had operated legally up to 1960. The mid 1960s were a period during which the political aspirations of the people of South Africa appeared to be totally silenced. There was a series of devastating trials of which the best-known was the 'Rivonia' trial, when leaders of the African National Congress (Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others) were sent to Robben Island for the rest of their natural lives. Trials in many different parts of the country continued for a long period. It seemed the old organisations had been broken up and totally suppressed. Revival waited on a new generation.

In the late 1960's and early 1970's new organisations began to take shape, in the first place among black students. SASO (South African Students Organisation) soon spread through the segregated black universities””the 'tribal colleges' ””although its militancy was not welcomed by the authorities. The movement grew among black intellectuals, journalists and poets and stimulated creativity in poetry and the theatre.

The Policy Manifesto adopted by SASO at its 2nd General Students' Council in July 1971 defines its concept of Black Consciousness. SASO believes, it states, that South Africa is a country in which both black and white live and shall continue to live together. But that, because of privileges accorded to them by law and because of their continued maintenance of an oppressive regime, whites must be excluded from the struggle towards realizing black aspirations. The idea of Black Consciousness and the organisations which it inspired are themselves direct products of bans and prohibitions, of the whole apartheid regime. The concept of Black Consciousness was not a new one devised by Biko that thrust itself suddenly on the South African scene. Nor did it derive directly from the 'Black Power' movement in the USA, as the government tried to claim. And the emphasis on black nationalism was not a new and hitherto unknown proposition.

National unity of Africans, founded on national consciousness, was the first aim of the ANC from its inception in 1912. The idea was propounded more forcefully by the ANC Youth League, formed in 1943 by a younger generation of potential leaders, impatient of the tactics of petitions and pleas of the past. The new group accepted the general policies and goals of the ANC, but sought to generate among the African masses a spirit of militant nationalism and self-reliance. In 1946 A. M. Lembede prepared a policy document for the ANC Youth League in which he rejected co-operation between Africans and other groups. While this might be highly desirable, he said, it could only take place between Africans organised as a single unit and other 'non-European' groups as separate units. 'Non-European unity is a fantastic dream which has no foundation in reality'.

Lembede spoke of the pathological state of mind brought about among blacks by racism””the loss of self-confidence, inferiority complex, frustration, and idolisation of whites. Lembede died young, but some of the strands from the ideas he propounded were taken up by the Pan-Africanist Congress when it split away from the ANC at the end of 1958. (PAC rejected co-operation with other groups and emphasised black nationalism. It believed in an 'Africanist' struggle for liberation.) Other elements in the Youth League developed from this early 'nationalist' position to a revolutionary position in which they were prepared to fight with people of all races.

In 1948 the ANC Youth League Manifesto described African nationalism as 'the dynamic national liberatory creed of the oppressed African people'. It sought to create 'a united nation out of heterogeneous tribes, free Africans from foreign domination and enable Africa to make her own contribution to human progress and happiness'. Black Consciousness emerged again as a potent idea in a period when despite the rejection of tribalism by all strands of the liberation movement in the past forcibly as government policy through many laws; through the Group Areas Act; which provides for total residential separation of different racial groups; through separate 'tribal' colleges””part of the whole scheme of Bantu Education; through separate political parties ('mixed-race' organisations became illegal).

Thus the first aim of Black Consciousness was to conquer feel black inferiority, to inculcate black pride. Black Consciousness was declared of life, an attitude of mind, with the basic tenet that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic human dignity. It implied awareness by black people of the power they wield, both economically and politically; and that the black man must build his own value system, see himself as self-defined and not defined by others:

'Liberation of the black man begins first with liberation from psychological oppression by himself through an inferiority complex'.

Much emphasis was placed on Black Consciousness as a state of mind Black Consciousness also contained a strong element of Christianity.

Out of the movement grew a new wave of cultural energy expressed particularly in drama and poetry:

I am the liberator
no white man can liberate me
only a black man can free himself.

The poetry of lament gave way to the poetry of liberation, a positive, proud, defiant expression of being black:

Tame a mamba
Set it to work and starve it
Teach it your language
And when it speaks, lock it in.
Tame a mamba
Teach it your culture
And mock it
Restrict its movements
Find it outside at night, arrest it And when it hibernates

Search for it and send it to jail.
Tame a mamba
But when it resists
And begins to hiss
Send it to the gallows.

While SASO specifically excluded whites, a resolution of the Black Renaissance Convention held at Hammanskraal in December 1974 rejected all forms of racism and discrimination. It called for a united and democratic South Africa, and an anti-racist society.

However, perhaps partly because it sought to operate openly and legally, the Black Consciousness movement became less definite when defining its objectives. Drake Koka , first secretary of the BPC, described his organisation as 'not a movement of confrontation, but a movement of introspection'. And Adam Small, a leading poet and writer and spokesman on Black Consciousness said 'Protest itself is a form of begging, really, and we have indeed decided that we are no longer going to beg white South Africa ... Instead we are simply to manifest our pride in Blackness time and time again'.

As the liberation movements banned by the government were committed to an armed and underground struggle, the Black Consciousness movement took on the role of 'overground', trying to operate within the laws, and preferring to work through community projects. (It was strongly committed to self-help schemes such as clinics). Inevitably many within the movement expressed more militant attitudes. Biko refuted the liberal idea of integration as a counter to apartheid because it was impossible to achieve. The whole system had to be overhauled before black and white could walk together hand in hand to oppose a common enemy. He wrote:

'While the white liberal identifies with the blacks, the burden of the enormous privileges which he still uses and enjoys becomes lighter. Yet at the back of his mind is a constant reminder that he is quite comfortable as things stand and therefore should not bother about change'. The thesis of white racism, according to Biko, could only have one valid antithesis: a solid black unity to counter-balance the scale. 'If South Africa is to be a land where black and white live in harmony without fear of group exploita­tion, it is only when these two opposites have interplayed and produced a viable synthesis of ideas and modus vivendi. We can never wage any struggle without offering a strong counterpoint to the white racism that permeates our society so effectively'.

Biko believed that no group, however benevolent, could hand power to the vanquished on a plate. "We must accept that the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress . . . our situation is not a mistake on the part of whites but a deliberate act, and no amount of moral lecturing will persuade the white man to 'correct' the situation".

In many ways, Biko's exposition of Black Consciousness echoed ideas from the past, such as Lembede's. But while Lembede had emphasised the exclusion of all non-Africans, Biko expounded the unity of all those who were discriminated against on the grounds of colour or race, and thus Black Consciousness embraced the Coloured and Indian sections of the population as well as the African.

Other echoes from Lembede emerges in Biko's ideas. For example, Lembede asserted that blacks, while retaining and preserving belief in the 'immortality of our dead ancestors', must base their present-day ethical system on Christian morals. Thirty years later, Biko spoke of the need to re-assess history and give past leaders of the blacks their true place; while there was a strong case for a re-examination of Christianity: 'I do not wish to question the basic truth at the heart of the Christian message". 'Out of the heterogeneous tribes', declared Lembede, 'there must emerge a homogeneous nation . . . the feeling of being Africans irrespective of tribal con­nections, social status, educational attainment or economic class'. Biko, thirty years on, called for blacks to resist all attempts by protagonists of the Bantustan theory to fragment them: 'We are oppressed, not as individuals, not as Zulus, Xhosas, Vendas, or Indians. We are oppressed because we are black. We must use that very concept to unite ourselves and to respond as a cohesive group'.

Steve Biko refuted charges that Black Consciousness was a parallel type of black racism. Merely by describing yourself as black, he said, 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 human being. Biko was always a spokesman for 'non-violent' ways. This emphasis was one reason why Steve Biko and Black Consciousness won some acceptance amongst white South African liberals, and a measure of support from statesmen of the Western world. But there is not, nor can ever be, a 'non-violent' situation in today's South Africa. The laws themselves are violent laws, violent'' administered (what better witness to that than Biko's own death?). There may be pauses between the eruptions of violent confrontation in the townships and on the streets; but they mark only the ebb and flow of the constant underlying and overt violence.

In their dealing with blacks the police are not bound by Christian ethics but by the precepts of power, in which might is right. There is no way in which action against apartheid starting from the most peaceful forms of protest can be kept within the framework laid down by the leaders. Even in the early days, SASO confrontations with state authorities on campuses of the tribal colleges soon became violent. SASO leader O.R. Abram Tiro was assassinated by a parcel bomb when he fled to Botswana in 1974. Inevitably the apartheid state would move violently against the growing organisations, against the articulate young intellectuals who wrote stinging poems and pilloried the white-run state. It awaited only the occasion. The occasion was decided when SASO/BPC organised a series of rallies in support of the victory of FRELIMO in Mozambique.

The events in Mozambique and later in Angola struck South Africans with tremendous force. If whites, at first totally unbelieving, felt tremors of fear at the shattering defeat of their armed intervention in Angola, blacks greeted the end of Portuguese colonial rule and the triumph of the liberation organisations with tremendous joy. SASO and BPC decided to 'share in the joy of the FRELIMO victory'; the struggles in South Africa and in Mozambique 'are clearly intertwined', they claimed, for their common purpose is 'the realisation of a free and united Africa ”” the birthplace and mother country of the black peoples of the world'.

As soon as the rallies were publicized, the Minister of Police invoked special powers to ban all gatherings throughout South Africa. Despite the ban, large crowds gathered at Currie's Fountain in Durban and at the University of the North, Turfloop (one of the tribal colleges). Police moved in with dogs, batons and tear gas. The crowds were attacked and dispersed. SASO offices were raided, representatives of both organisations arrested. Harassment, arrests, confiscation of typewriters, documents and other materials, continued for two weeks. The end-product a trial””which came to be called the SASO-BPC trial.

It was the longest trial that had yet been heard under the Terrorism Act. The Rand Daily Mail described it as a trial of Black Consciousness itself. There were 136 days in court, 61 state witnesses, defence witnesses. All nine accused, together with other members of SASO and BPC, had been kept in detention without charge under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act for periods of up to 130 days before their first court appearance in January 1975. They were kept in custody during the whole of the trial period. Almost 16 months of jail, much of it spent in solitary confinement, before they were sentenced. One of the reasons for the length of the trial was that though 'terrorism' was charged, no actual act of physical terrorism or of recruitment for military training was alleged by the State. The issue in the trial was whether 'black consciousness' as a philosophy, and as practised by the two organisations, constituted 'terrorism'. The indictment was concerned with speeches and pamphlets issued between 1971 and 1974, showing, so the State alleged, that the accused had conspired to commit acts which would bring revolutionary change to South Africa; and had been involved in 'a course of preparation' to recruit blacks into a Black Power bloc hostile to whites and to the state.

In the week before Christmas in 1976, white South Africans were preparing for lavish spending while black South Africans were observing a period of mourning for the many who had died in confrontations with the South African police in the six months which began in Soweto in June. And in the Palace of Justice, in Pretoria , Mr. Justice Boshoff passed sentence on nine exponents of Black Consciousness””six of the accused to six years' imprisonment, the other three to five years.

'In our country', said Mr. Justice Boshoff, 'we have democratic regime norms, and freedom of speech and assembly play an important part in our party system, which is based on opposing views and consequent dispute of ideas. . . While freedom of speech and assembly must be regarded as fundamental in our democratic society, it does not mean that everyone with opinions or beliefs to express may address a group at any public place and at any time'.

He recognised that blacks had no effective voice or vote in the allocation of values and could only protest against 'what might be regarded by them as grievances', and was satisfied that neither SASO nor BPC had the characteristics of a revolutionary group. But he felt that the concept of Black Consciousness, in building group cohesion and solidarity, did encourage feelings of hostility between blacks and whites. In what must be one of the most significant judge­ments in South African legal history he accordingly convicted the nine accused as 'terrorists' on the basis that they had expressed the political frustrations and attitudes of the blacks in South Africa, and more particularly of the Black Consciousness movement. A precedent had thus been created. Terrorism may now be committed not only through physical violence, but also through the expression of thoughts, ideas and desires for liberation. And to characterise the white power system as one of murder, oppression, exploitation, fascism, robbery, or plunder is now 'an act of terrorism'.

By the time these judgements were given, Steve Biko was already restricted and confined to King William's Town, which is why he had not been indicted with the others who had been put on trial. Now some of his fellow Black Con­sciousness leaders were in prison, and many had been forced, like so many before them, into exile. The Minister and the police, by restricting Biko so severely, had enabled him to escape trial. But they had not stopped him from continuing to play a role in the Black Consciousness movement. Despite the ferocity of repression the unrest that began with the students of Soweto was continuing. Boycotts against the schools were widespread, and many of them were in the Eastern Cape and in the Ciskei area close to King William's Town.

As long as Biko still remained alive he was a dangerous enemy of apartheid. His image was untarnished; his prestige among black Africans was high; and the commanded respect among those whites with whom he had come into contact. With the SASO/BPC 'terrorists' contained, the security police turned their attention to the destruction of this potent leader. The official government and police view was that unrest was not endemic among blacks, but the direct results of 'agitators'. This meant not simply restraining those designated as agitators, but publicly proving that they had conducted 'agitation' or planned terrorists activities. It was not enough just to detain Biko under Section 6. It was not enough to prefer charges, if they could be made. After many years, even decades, of imprisonment on the Robben Island, black prisoners, once released, plunged again into political activity. And the images of those remaining on the Island were still powerful.

It was in this context that Steve Biko faced the last few months of his life.

The Terrorism Act (Section 6)

The Terrorism Act (No. 83 of 1967) establishes the offence of partici­pation in terrorist activities', such activities being very broadly denned. Furthermore, if an accused is found guilty of having committed any act included in the list, the onus is on him to prove that his intention was not to commit terrorism. Once convicted, the minimum sentence that the court may impose is 5 years' imprisonment, the maximum””death.

Section 6 of the Terrorism Act allows any officer of the police over a certain rank to order the arrest without warrant, and the detention for interrogation, of any person whom he has reason to believe is a terrorist, or is withholding information relating to terrorists or to offences under the Act. A person so detained will be held, subject to such conditions as the Commissioner of Police or the Minister of Justice may determine, until the Commissioner is satisfied that he has replied adequately to all questions asked at his interrogation, or that no useful purpose will be served by his further detention, or until the Minister orders his release.

It could be added, in view of the number of deaths in detention under the Terrorism Act””"or until he dies".

The Act also provides that no court of law may upon the pronounce validity of any action taken under the provisions relating to detention, nor order the release of any detainee. No one shall have access to a detained person or be entitled to information about him except the Minister, or an officer of the State acting in his official capacity. If circumstances so permit, a magistrate may visit the detainee once a fortnight.

No.46 - Steve Biko

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