Forms of civil society protest emerged from the 1960s to 1970s

1970s: Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa

Teachers and learners should note that there are many links on this site which deal with the depth and breadth of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. This Grade 12 classroom section gives a broad outline of the content required for the school curriculum. For more detail, and for research sites for your Continuous Assessment Tasks, you should refer to the links suggested in this section, particularly SAHO's Black Consciousness Movement feature.

This background section is a short summary of events in South Africa in the decades preceding the 1970s. It is not part of your Grade 12 curriculum, but simply serves to refresh your memory about what you learnt in Grade 9.

Apartheid in South Africa

The National Party come to power in 1948 and governed the country according to apartheid laws. Apartheid literally means 'apartness'. It was a policy designed to keep white South Africans separate and to oppress black South Africans.

People can be divided into many different kinds of groups, for example, males and females, rich and poor, young and old, and so on. Apartheid divided South Africans into groups according to skin colour. Apartheid was based on racism and built on the prejudice that white people were superior to everyone else.

According to the Population Registration Act of 1950, every person had to be classified and registered as White, Coloured, Indian/Asiatic or 'Native'. 'Native' was later labelled 'Bantu' and still later 'Black' by the apartheid government.

The use of capital letters for each group reinforced the government's ideology - that 'race groups' are rigid and fixed.

The whites-only government made the laws and held all the positions of power. Apartheid laws affected every detail of the lives of all South Africans. Laws controlled who had power, who could vote, where people lived, worked and were educated. The best land, resources, facilities and amenities were reserved for whites and laws were brutally implemented.

White people's lives became better, while black people experienced more and more hardship. The state empowered whites economically, while black people were deliberately denied access to wealth creation.

Not all whites supported apartheid, and not all black people actively resisted it. Some white people participated actively in the struggle against apartheid, while some black people co-operated with the apartheid state, usually in exchange for financial reward.

Apartheid government Prime Ministers were:

The government changed in constitution from 1979 under the next Prime Minister, P.W. Botha. The head of government was now called the President:

State repression always went hand in hand with resistance. As early as 1902, a political organization called the APO was founded and demanded rights for 'coloured' people. The ANC or African National Congress was formed in 1912. The South African Indian Congress was formed in 1923 to struggle for Indian rights.

These organisations peacefully resisted the laws that discriminated against all black people. Resistance took the form of peaceful protests like boycotts, petitions and strikes. The nature of resistance was passive and non-violent up until the early 1960s.

What is racism?

South Africa's population was divided up in 1948 as follows:

69% African
21% White
8 % Coloured
2 % Indian

Total population: 11,415,945

The apartheid system and the division of the population were built on racism. Racism is the false idea that certain groups of people are better than others. Racists divide the human race into different 'race groups' and believe that it is acceptable to exclude or dominate 'inferior groups' on the grounds of their 'race'.

Most people take it for granted that all humankind can be divided into 'races', but the concept of 'human races' is not scientific. Physical features like skin colour, hair type and facial shape do not relate to how people think or behave.

Clearly, not all people look the same. Some are tall and others are short. Our skin colours and hair textures are different, and we have different facial features. Scientists say these differences developed through evolutionary changes about 150 000 years ago. People developed differently according to the environments they lived in.

For example, people living in parts of the world where it is hot developed darker skins to protect them from the rays of the sun. People living in colder climates have short, stout bodies to keep in heat and pale skins, as there is less sunlight.

The genes or chemical codes in the nucleus of all living things determine the colour of our skin. The genes that determine skin colour are as important as the genes that determine the size of our toes.

Many people argue that the word 'race' should no longer be used for the following reasons:

  • Most scientists today would say that there is no such thing as race.

  • The misuse of the term 'race' to classify people has gone hand in hand with disregard for human rights. This has resulted in cruel behaviour towards those regarded as 'inferior'.

These racial categories that were used to label us in the apartheid era have in many ways become part of our identities and how we think about ourselves. As the laws that existed were applied according to these categories, it is impossible to write a history of South Africa without using racial labels.

The United Nations Organisation was formed at the end of the Second World War. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights confirms:

  • The inherent dignity and worth of the human person

  • The equal rights all members of the human family

  • That we should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

The National Party apartheid government came to power in the same year that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Apartheid laws ignored every one of the rights recognised in this Declaration, and the South African government did not sign the UDHR. The United Nations declared apartheid a 'crime against humanity'.

In 1957, a Declaration of Conscience was issued by more than 100 leaders from every continent. The Declaration was an appeal to South Africa to bring its policies into line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The Declaration began the slow process of mobilising world sentiment against apartheid. South African democrats, of all colours, felt supported and many white racists learned for the first time how isolated they were.

You can read more about the international struggle against apartheid in the Grade 12 section on South Africa the 1980s.

Resistance to apartheid in the 1950's

The majority of South Africans experienced apartheid as a negative, harsh, unjust system. The National Party government forbade resistance to its laws.

Many people have used non-violence in South Africa and in other countries to demonstrate their demand for change. The life and work of M.K Gandhi, who lived in South Africa between 1893 and 1914, has inspired many non-violent movements, including the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

In the 1950s, people continued to resist without violence. Protests were met with state repression, such as banning, arrests, stricter laws and police violence.

In 1955, an important document called The Freedom Charter was agreed upon at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto. The Congress of the People was a joint anti-apartheid movement including; the African National Congress, the (white) Congress of Democrats, the Coloured People's Congress, and the South African Indian Congress. In the following year many members of the Alliance were arrested and charged with treason.

The policies set out in the Charter included a demand for a multi-racial, democratically elected government. Africanist members of the ANC rejected the Freedom Charter and broke away to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959.

Resistance in the 1960s

a. The Sharpeville Massacre

By 1958, nearly one and a half million Africans were being convicted under the pass laws every year. By 1960, two of the political organisations resisting apartheid, the ANC and the PAC, organised anti-pass campaigns. The PAC organised a demonstration on 21 March 1960.

On 21 March 1960, thousands of people gathered outside the police station in Sharpeville (near Vereeniging), offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books. The police opened fire on the crowd, and at the end of the day, 69 people were dead and nearly 200 wounded.  Most of those killed had been shot in the back as they tried to flee. The massacre made international headlines.

b. Philip Kgosana and the march to Cape Town

After the Sharpeville massacre, tensions began mounting in the Cape Town African townships of Nyanga and Langa.

Philip Kgosana, a leader of the PAC in Cape Town, was 23 years old when he lead a march of 30 000 people from Langa to the city centre of Cape Town on 30 March, 1960 (9 days after the Sharpeville massacre). In Cape Town, he met with the police chief on behalf of the marchers. The police chief promised to set up a meeting between Kgosana and the Minister of Justice, on condition that the marchers returned home.

Philip Kgosana convinced the crowd to walk back home. When he arrived for the promised meeting with the Minister of Justice the following day, he was arrested. At the end of 1960, he was allowed out on temporary bail to visit his family in the Transvaal for Christmas. He used this opportunity to flee the country and began a life in exile.

c. The banning of the ANC and PAC and the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe and Poqo

The government responded to the 1960 anti-pass protests by banning the ANC and PAC.

Many people began to feel it was useless for the ANC and PAC to continue using non-violence against a government that responded with violent attacks on unarmed people.

The ANC established an underground armed movement known as Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) or the Spear of the Nation, which was led by Nelson Mandela. Between 1961 and 1963, MK attacked over 200 non-civilian targets throughout South Africa. The targets included government buildings and other property, like electricity pylons. People were not initially attacked.

In August 1962, Nelson Mandela was captured by the police. In June 1963, other leaders of Umkhonto weSizwe, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and Ahmed Kathrada were arrested in Rivonia, Johannesburg. They were charged and tried in the famous Rivonia Trial. They were sentenced to life imprisonment in June 1964.

The PAC formed an armed wing called Poqo. They are less well-known today but also played an important role in SA history.

Robert Sobukwe was the founding president of the Pan Africanist Congress. Some of his ideas later inspired Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement.

Sobukwe was put on trial for his role in the anti-pass campaign and sentenced to three years in prison in Pretoria. After completing his three-year sentence, Sobukwe was detained by a special Act of Parliament called the 'Sobukwe Clause', and transferred to Robben Island.

The 'Sobukwe Clause' was approved annually. On the Island, he was completely isolated from the other political prisoners. After Sobukwe's release from the Island, he was sent to Kimberley, a place where he had never lived before, and kept under house arrest until his death in 1978.

In the 1960s, after the Rivonia Trial and Sobukwe's arrest, organised resistance to apartheid within South Africa slowed down. Many anti-apartheid leaders and supporters were in jail or had gone into exile. However, in the 1970s, a new movement called Black Consciousness or BC led to renewed resistance.

The movement was led by a man called Steve Biko. BC encouraged all black South Africans to recognize their inherent dignity and self-worth. In the 1970s, the Black Consciousness Movement spread from university campuses into urban black communities throughout South Africa.

Biko was banned in 1973. This meant that he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time, was restricted to certain areas, and could not make speeches in public. It was also forbidden to quote anything he said, including speeches or simple conversations, or to otherwise mention him.

In spite of the repression of the apartheid government, Biko and the BCM played a large role in inspiring protests, which led to the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976.

What is Black Consciousness?

In 1959, when Robert Sobukwe and others broke away from the African National Congress to form the Pan African Congress, they argued against the non-racial stance of the Freedom Charter, and for the African leadership of the freedom struggle. Many of Sobukwe's ideas influenced the Black Consciousness Movement which developed in South Africa in the 1970s.

Black Consciousness is a global movement which aimed to restore black consciousness and African consciousness, which had been suppressed by slavery, colonialism and racism.

The Black Consciousness Movement was an understanding that black liberation would not only come from structural political changes, but also from psychological transformation in the minds of black people. It was not enough to just believe in and fight for freedom. To take real power, black people had to believe in themselves and the value of their blackness.

The term Black Consciousness was originally used by an American educator and Civil Rights activist named W. E. B. Du Bois. He said that people of African origin should take pride in their blackness.
Du Bois explained that African Americans had a 'double consciousness' which corrodes their sense of identity. Black identity had been influenced by:

  • The stereotypes and misrepresentations of black Americans as weak, stupid and cowardly, by dominant white American culture.

  • Racism experienced by black Americans excluded them from mainstream society.

  • The internal conflict experienced by African Americans between being African and American simultaneously.

Double consciousness is an awareness of one's self, and an awareness of how others perceive you and expect you to behave. The danger of double consciousness for Blacks was in changing their identities according to how whites perceived them.

After the Second World War, Pan Africanism swept through colonized Africa. The Uhuru Movement called for "Africa for the Africans" and independence from colonial rule.

During the 1960s and 1970s most of Africa's colonies became politically independent, but South Africa remained under the firm grip of apartheid.

Steve Biko

The Black Consciousness Movement began to develop in South Africa during the late 1960s. The ANC was committed to an armed struggle, but Umkhonto we Sizwe was not able to seize and hold territory in South Africa, nor to win significant concessions from the apartheid regime.

The ANC had been banned, and although the Freedom Charter remained in circulation in spite of attempts to censor it, for many South Africans, the ANC had disappeared. As black people continued to struggle against apartheid, Biko and other Black Consciousness theorists began to engage with the meaning of blackness itself.

BC also drew on the rhetoric and ideology of black power and black theology coming out of the United States in the 1960s.

Biko was inspired by some of Robert Sobukwe's ideas. He was also influenced by the ideas of Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, as well as thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Léopold Senghor,Aimé Césaire, Amilcar Cabral, and the American Black Panther Party.

Biko's ideology reflects the concern for the existential struggle of a black person as a proud and dignified human being, in spite of the oppression of colonialism and apartheid. Biko saw the struggle to restore African consciousness as having two stages:

  • Psychological liberation

  • Physical liberation

An important part of psychological liberation was to insist that black people lead black liberation movements. This meant rejecting the non-racialism of the ANC. Whites could offer understanding and support, but could not lead or belong to the Black Consciousness Movement. It was argued that even well-intentioned white people, often unwittingly, re-enacted the paternalism of the society in which they lived. Biko stressed that in a racist society, black people had to first liberate themselves and gain psychological, physical and political power for themselves before non-racial organizations could truly be non-racial.

A parallel can be seen in the United States, where Malcolm X, the American Black Power leader, also rejected white participation.

As Steve Biko said:

'We are aware that the white man is sitting at our table. We know he has no right there, we want to remove him from our table ... decorate it in true African style, settle down and ask him to join us on our terms if he wishes'.

With regard to physical liberation, at times Biko agreed with the non-violent tactics of M.K Gandhi and Martin Luther King. However, Biko understood the political control and formidable military might of the apartheid regime, so non-violence was a strategic move, rather than a personal conviction.

For Biko, Black South-Africans included those classified as Indians and Coloureds. Biko advocated the eradication of the stereotypes and inter-group suspicions amongst all oppressed South Africans. Oppression existed in varying degrees against those who were classified 'non-white' as a deliberate means by which the apartheid government divided the oppressed among themselves. Biko stated that:

"Being black is not a matter of pigmentation - being black is a reflection of a mental attitude. Merely by describing yourself as black 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 being.ÁƒÂ¢Á¢Â‚¬ Source: www.azapo.org.za

Steve Biko observed that Black Africans seemed to be defeated and had been "reduced to an obliging shell". Black Consciousness was not black racism, and did not call for vengeance on white society. BC aimed to cultivate a sense of solidarity and pride in black South Africans.

Along with political action, a major component of the Black Consciousness Movement was its Black Community Programs, which included the organization of community medical clinics, aiding entrepreneurs, and holding "consciousness" classes and adult education literacy classes.

Dr Mamphela Ramphele started her career as a student activist in the Black Consciousness Movement. She was especially involved in organizing and working with community development programmes. She and Biko had a long romantic relationship, although Biko was married at the time. He and Ramphele had two children, the first, a girl, Lerato (1974), died at two months. Their son, Hlumelo Biko, was born in 1978, after Biko's death.

From 1977 to 1984 Dr Ramphele was banished by the apartheid government to Lenyenye near Tzaneen where she continued doing community work with the rural poor and established the Ithuseng Community Health Programme.

The state suppression of the BCM after the Soweto Uprising in 1976, and Biko's death while in police custody in 1977, weakened the organizational base of the movement. Many of its supporters went into exile and the majority joined the African National Congress (ANC), the largest movement fighting for majority rule in South Africa.

The PAC's Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), the successor to Poqo, was also active in exile. However, the ANC's MK grew over the years in international and national stature and became the more powerful liberation movement.

1976 Soweto Uprising

This is a very brief summary of the Soweto Uprising. There are many articles and photographs on this site which you should refer to.

Soweto stands for South-West Townships, and lies to the south west of Johannesburg. It was a township set up by the government for black Africans to live in. Today, the events in Soweto and around the country in 1976 are remembered in a public holiday called Youth Day every year on June 16 in South Africa.

Although he did not directly take part in the Soweto riots, Steve Biko's BC ideas motivated students. On the morning of 16 June 1976 twenty thousand school children in Soweto went on a protest march. They were protesting against having to use Afrikaans as one of the languages of instruction at school. One young student said at the time:

"In 1973 I was doing Form One (Grade 8). We were taught Maths in Afrikaans - not all subjects were taught in Afrikaans. We had difficulties; even Mr Ntshalintshali, who taught us Rekeningkunde, struggled with Afrikaans. Both teachers and learners battled with Afrikaans." - Phydian Matsepe - quoted in Soweto 16 June 1976, Elsabe Brink et al, Kwela Books, 2001

The issue of Afrikaans was just the spark that started the Uprising - the real issue was the oppressive apartheid laws.

The march started off peacefully, but later the police opened fire on the protesting students.

The media often name Hector Petersen as the first child to be shot by police. However, another boy, Hastings Ndlovu, was in fact the first child to be shot, but there were no photographers on the scene, and his name never became famous.

Activity: The poster above depicts an iconic South African image. What is an iconic image and what scene does this image represent?

The iconic image of the dying Hector Petersen, a thirteen year old boy from Orlando High, taken by press photographer Sam Nzima, was published around the world.

Chaos then broke loose throughout the whole of Soweto. Within the following week, at least 176 had died. Within the next few months, the protests and clashes with the police had spread to 160 black townships all over South Africa. 1976 was a turning point in South African history. The campaign against apartheid increased in intensity, and so did the government's repression.

Over 14,000 students left the country and went into exile. They joined Umkontho we Sizwe and APLA for military training in other countries. The liberation struggle against apartheid had new life. Resistance against apartheid increased both inside and outside South Africa.

Biko's death

The government detained Steve Biko without trial for a few months in 1976. In 1977, Biko was arrested again. Within eighteen days of his arrest, he was dead. According to the officer in charge, "there was a scuffle...Mr Biko hit his head against a wall." (It was later shown that he was brutally tortured).

News of his terrible death spread quickly across the world. It caused an international outcry and Biko became a martyr and symbol of resistance against apartheid, and a universal symbol of resistance against oppression.

A British songwriter, Peter Gabriel wrote a song called Biko, with the words:

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher.

In 2007, thirty years after his death, Biko's son Nkosinathi, who manages the Steve Biko Foundation, said:

"In popular culture, he [remains] a very powerful symbol of hope ... an icon of change. He helped to articulate our understanding, our own identity that continues to resonate in young South Africans to this day. His ideas have a real influence well beyond the political field, in cultural organisations, in research organisations and in churches".

Biko's funeral was attended by diplomats from 13 Western countries, and over 10 000 South Africans from all over the country. Apartheid police roadblocks prevented thousands more from attending.

The funeral was not only a commemoration of Biko's life, but also a protest rally against apartheid.

In 1997, Biko's killers appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to request amnesty for the death of the student leader. However, they only claimed responsibility for assaulting him and maintained that his death was accidental. They also testified that they lied about his date of death. Biko's family opposed the TRC hearings on the grounds that they would rob them of justice.

Shifting political alliances in the late 1970s

In the 1960s, the apartheid government decided to take away the South African citizenship of Africans by creating 'homelands'. Africans were divided into 'ethnic groups' such as Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana or Sesotho. The already existing 'native reserves' were to be turned into 'independent states' for each 'ethnic group'.

The word 'Bantustan' was a negative word used to describe these 'native reserves'. Bantustan is used in a mocking way because people who lived in the Bantustans did not have real power and few supported the leaders. None of these Bantustans were recognised by the outside world.

The government's aim was the total removal of the African population from South Africa. Connie Mulder, Minister of Plural Relations and Development said:

There will be not one black man with South African citizenship ... Every black man in South Africa will eventually live in some independent new state. There will no longer be an obligation on this Parliament to accommodate these people politically.

People were forced to move to the Bantustans, and dumped in the middle of nowhere with inadequate facilities. Millions of people were moved by the police and the army so they would fall within the boundary of an 'independent' Bantustan.

In this attempt to divide black South Africans, the KwaZulu 'homeland' was created for Zulus. In 1976, Mangosuthu (Gatsha) Buthelezi was named chief minister of KwaZulu, and the white government declared KwaZulu a self-governing territory a year later. Buthelezi established good relations with the National Party government, but refused to take 'independence'.

Buthelezi had been a member of the ANC Youth League, and in those days, had befriended leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle. He attended Sobukwe's funeral in Graaff Reinet in 1978. At the funeral, Buthelezi was jeered at and stoned by young militant Black Consciousness followers.

Desmond Tutu, at the time the Bishop of Lesotho, was a speaker at the funeral, and he advised Buthelezi to leave. The humiliated chief was taken to safety, but in the process, one of his bodyguards shot and wounded three of the mourners. The incident signalled a split between Buthelezi and the ANC, as the ANC did not want to alienate the young Black Consciousness followers that were joining the ANC in exile after the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Last updated : 16-Nov-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011