The period after the Sharpeville Massacre and the banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC), especially after the Rivonia Trial, saw a lull in anti-apartheid politics that only ended with the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).
Black Consciousness was established as an effective political force by the early 1970s, and by 1972 it had achieved a success that made the State wary of the new organisation’s potential for anti-apartheid resistance, and for its capacity to challenge the apartheid project.
The BCM emerged with the formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) in 1969 after Black students broke away from the White-led student federation, the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), and formed their own student organisation, drawing African, Coloured and Indian students into one body, with all of them defining themselves as ‘Black’.
The students’ early experiments with political opposition have been described by Mamphela Ramphele as a trial period, during which they developed the discourse of Black Consciousness as well as forms of political protest and constructive attempts to render social services and boost local economies in an effort to promote self reliance and self-determination. They built clinics, helped impoverished squatters, created literacy programmes, held leadership training seminars, created new youth organisations, produced resistance literature and mounted cultural events and protests that shook the apartheid regime.
The increasing effectiveness of the BCM led to a state crackdown in March 1973 which drastically affected the lives of the restricted, but also the general course of resistance to apartheid.
The proliferation of Black Consciousness
Soon after the founding of SASO in 1969, students established branches at all the Black universities and tertiary institutions throughout the country. SASO produced a publication, SASO Newsletter, from 1970, with Steve Biko as editor. They printed 4000 copies of each publication in the 1972-3 period, reaching thousands of students.
The BCM also began to produce annual reviews of the state of the nation, in conjunction with Spro-Cas, the publishing unit established by the Reverend Beyers Naude’s Christian Institute. The first Black Review was published in 1972, and these continued until 1976.
By 1972 the BCM established the Black Community Programmes (BCP), which besides undertaking community projects also put into practice the BCM policy of ‘conscientisation’. BCP’s most successful venture was probably the Zanempilo Clinic in Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape.
BC activists soon realised that student formations were limited in various ways, and the idea of a national organisation was proposed. Its function would be to represent Black people on a national level and take forward the project to dismantle apartheid.
The Black People’s Convention
In March 1971, SASO leaders held meetings with black organisations, with a view to the formation of a national black political organisation. After various meetings, they resolved to form the Black People’s Convention (BPC), which was launched in Edendale, Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) in July 1972, with Reverend Mashwabada Mayatula heading the organisation and Drake Koka as secretary-general. SASO students filled many of the other official positions, ensuring that BPC was a thoroughly Black Consciousness (BC) organisation.
Mthuli Shezi, who served on the BPC executive committee, was killed by a railway official who pushed him onto the path of an oncoming train in 1972, just before BPC would have its first congress.
The first national BPC conference took place in Hammanskraal from 16 to 17 December 1972, with 1400 delegates from 145 organisations in attendance. They resolved to ‘unite all South African blacks into a political movement, which would seek liberation and emancipation of black people from both psychological and physical oppression’.
By December 1972, BPC had 25 branches with a minimum of 25 members in each branch, and 41 branches a year later. BPC launched the Black Allied Workers’ Union soon after it was launched, with Drake Koka heading the new union. Meanwhile SASO and BCP were making efforts to form a Black Workers’ Council.
Saths Cooper and Strini Moodley, who were prominent in the Durban Central branch of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), left the NIC when their BC ideology was perceived as a threat by the older Indian activists. The pair took many of the NIC members with them into BPC in mid-1972.
BCM and other organisations
The BCM also gave rise to other cultural groups: Theatre Council of Natal (TECON) in Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal), Music, Drama and Literature Institute (MDALI) in Soweto and Peoples Experimental Theatre (PET) in Lenasia, Transvaal (now Gauteng). The groups were particularly active in theatre, staging plays in major centres which spread the new Black ideology of non-collaboration, self reliance and their own interpretation of Black non-racialism. Works that were staged included Requiem for Brother X and Shanti (about the relationship between an Indian girl and a Black youngster who joins the Mozambican guerrilla movement, Frelimo).
The BCM also began to conscientise students at their leadership seminars and formation schools. They formed an umbrella organisation for school pupils, calling it the National Youth Organisation (NAYO). The South African Students Movement was also formed, with the most prominent branch in Soweto.
Relations with church organisations were central to the development of Black Consciousness, with the University Christian Movement (UCM) playing a facilitating role in the birth of SASO. UCM leaders Basil Moore and Colin Collins became exponents of Black Theology, drawing on the works of James Cone in the United States of America (USA) and others and South African theologians, developed a school of Black Theology.
The Tiro Affair and its Aftermath
Onkgopotse Abram Tiro was the SRC president at the University of the North (known as Turfloop by students) in 1971. At the graduation ceremony in April 1972, Tiro delivered a blistering speech lambasting the apartheid system and its educational policies.
When Tiro was expelled on 3 May 1972, the students went on the offensive, boycotting classes at Turfloop. Police were brought onto the campus, and more than a thousand students were expelled.
SASO organised a formation school in Alice in the Eastern Cape, which was held on 12 May 1972. The students resolved to call on black students at other campuses to join the strike, which the majority of black students did. This resolve, which became known as the Alice Declaration, prompted students at every black campus to go on strike.
When students at Turfloop returned, they found that Tiro and a score of SRC leaders had been barred from re-admission, and half of the students, about 500, went on strike once again. Many students abandoned their studies altogether, but of these, as many as 30 students found work teaching at schools in Soweto, where they influenced school pupils with the philosophy of Black Consciousness. Tiro taught at Morris Isaacson School, where he had a great influence over Tsietsi Mashanini (who would become the leader of the students who took part in the June 1976 uprising in Soweto. Aubrey Mokoena, the president of the SRC at Turfloop in 1972, was also expelled and went to teach at Orlando North Junior Secondary School in Soweto.
At the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where SASO had established a branch by 1972, students produced Die Geel Dokument (The Yellow Document), in which they presented the administration with an ultimatum to address a list of grievances. When the university failed to respond, students held a mass meeting on June 8. When SRC leader Henry Isaacs was detained the students renewed their protests, and the administration closed the university, demanding that students re-apply for re-admission. The students rejected the demand, and were joined in their protests by parents. A mass meeting was held at the Athlone Athletic Park in Cape Town on 8 July, attended by some 12,000 people, the largest anti-apartheid gathering since the period before the Sharpeville Massacre. The debacle ended with the replacement of the White rector by a Coloured rector, a retreat by the state.
1973: Developments that led to the Crackdown
BCM policies were evolving throughout this period, and the homeland policy, part of the National Party’s separate development ideology, was beginning to be accepted by some in the Black Community, if only by those who were appointed functionaries of the various homelands. When SASO’s Themba Sono suggested at a conference in 1972 that BC begin to have more cordial relations with homeland leaders, SASO expelled him and took a strong stance against the homelands, threatening to disrupt the National Party’s reliance on Blacks to accept the Bantustan policy.
BCM policies against Bantu education were being taken up at virtually every Black tertiary organization, including Coloured and Indian institutions, presenting the government with the possibility of alliances that worked against the policy of separate development. School students were also impressed by the attacks against Bantu Education, and regarded people such as Tiro and Biko as heroes to be emulated; a development that troubled the apartheid regime.
By now the State, which had initially viewed SASO’s breakaway from NUSAS as an acceptance by Blacks of separate development, began to see the BCM as a possible revolutionary force, especially after it was clearly leading the 1972 student protests at African, Indian and Coloured institutions.
In January 1973 Black workers in Durban embarked on a spontaneous strike, demanding higher wages and better working conditions. They were joined by workers in the area who went on a series of strikes, with employers in general yielding to their demands. While no political grouping was directly involved in the organizing of the strikes, BPC issued pamphlets in support of the strikers.
The State Cracks down.
Realising that the BC movement was intent on fighting apartheid and was not based on the apartheid principle of separate racial organisations, the state banned Koka and Bokwe Mafuna in March 1973. The move came soon after the wave of spontaneous strikes by Durban workers which shook the regime. Although there was no evidence linking the BC movement with the sudden development, the security forces suspected linkages and cracked down on the BCM labour organisers before they could establish links with the striking workers.
In August the trial of Mosibudi Mangena ended with his conviction, after he was found guilty of trying to recruit two police officers for the exiled organisations and sentenced to five years in prison.
Nine more BCM leaders were banned in the six months after the initial eight were banned.
Effect of the Crackdown
It is evident that the State struck at the heart of the BCM, banning strategic members of SASO, BPC, BCP and BAWU. The organisations were served a severe blow, but survived and continued with their resistance work as best as they could.
Some leaders and rank and file members went into exile to join the ANC or PAC, while others tried to establish BC exile organisations.
SASO, which reached a peak in 1973, never recovered from the bannings. According to Saleem Badat, in his book Black Man, You are on your own, the repressive measures had several effects on the BCM:
1. Repression made students more wary of political activity and of joining SASO.
2. The lack of leadership saw SASO struggling to define a way forward.
3. Problems of discipline began to emerge within the ranks of the student organisations.
4. SASO was declared an ‘affected organisation’ under the Affected Organisations Act, and was no longer allowed to receive funding from organisations based overseas, severely affecting the resources of the organisation.
5. SASO’s publications, so crucial for disseminating its ideology and for informing students of developments on the various campuses, were affected by the lack of funding and by government crackdowns on printers.
BC activists began to leave the country, including Tiro, Nengwekhulu, and Keith Mokoape. Tiro was killed in January 1974 when he opened a parcel bomb sent to him in Botswana.
In 1974, the BCM staged the Viva Frelimo rallies at Curries Fountain and at Turfloop University, which led to the arrest of 13 SASO/BPC activists. Eventually the accused were reduced to nine after four were acquitted for various reasons. Their trial, officially known as State vs Cooper and eight others, dragged on for 16 months, after which the accused were found guilty and sentenced to five and six-year terms on Robben Island.
The Soweto Uprising in June 1976 led to further state crackdowns on students, BC activists and many others.
Biko was detained after an abortive trip to Cape Town, during which he tried to meet with BC people from the city and with Neville Alexander, but failed. He was arrested at a roadblock near Port Elizabeth and was killed while in detention, on 12 September 1977. The outrage over his death, national and international, shook the regime, which a few weeks later banned all the organisations belonging to the BCM, as well as the World newspaper and the Christian Institute.
• Thomas Karis and Gail Gerhart, From Protest to Challenge, Volume 5: Nadir and Resurgence, 1964-1979; 1997, Unisa Press, Pretoria
• Xolela Mangcu, Biko: A Biography, 2012, Tafelberg, Cape Town
• Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane, Bavusile Maaba and Nkosinathi Biko, The Black Consciousness Movement, in South African Democracy and Education Trust, Volume Two, 1970-1980