Black university students had tried for many years to make progress through the multiracial and liberal National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). In particular, NUSAS was outspoken in its criticism of government actions, especially at English-speaking universities where its membership was strong. Several young liberal white leaders of the organisation empathised with the Black cause, and tried to protect politically active Black students from government counter-action by speaking out for them.
However, Biko felt that even within anti-government politics, Blacks still did not play as prominent a role as Whites. Therefore, dissatisfaction with the system arose. In the period 1967-68, Biko, now a medical student at Natal University, was one of the students who began to analyse and criticise the unhealthy political situation in the country. He instantaneously became the hero of millions of Africans who rejected apartheid.
At Wentworth, Natal University’s medical school for Blacks, Biko was elected to the Student’s Representative Council (SRC), and in 1967, attended a conference of students which was critical of the government. Primarily because NUSAS was dominated by whites, Rhodes University, the conference host, refused to allow mixed-race accommodation or eating facilities. Biko reacted angrily to the incident, and slated the incomplete integration of student politics under the existing system, and dismissed talk of liberalism as an empty gesture by Whites who really wished to maintain the status quo and keep Blacks as second-rate citizens.
The BCM that Biko founded rejected the notion that whites could play a role in the liberation of Blacks. “The main thing was to get black people to articulate their own struggle and reject the white liberal establishment from prescribing to people,” said Barney Pityana (Biko’s friend). Biko and his colleagues felt Blacks needed to learn to speak for themselves.
In fact, as Pityana recalled, for white students, “NUSAS was a nice friendly club, another game you played while at university. Then you grew out of it,” but for Biko and other black students, NUSAS was not militant enough. Other liberal organisations like some churches were not open to blacks either. For example, at a non-racial church conference, which Biko attended, white participants discouraged blacks from defying restrictions of the Group Areas Act, which limited Blacks to 72 hours in a white area. This discouragement underlined the extent to which Black South Africans were isolated, even from the church.
At the University Christian Movement (UCM) meeting held in Stutterheim in 1968, young people were enthusiastically supportive of Biko’s idea for an exclusively all-Black movement. In 1969, African students launched a Blacks-only student union, the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) to which Biko was elected president. The union was formed at a meeting at the University of the North near Pietersburg (now Polokwane). However, the students of the University of Natal played the leading role in its formation.
SASO made clear its common allegiance to the philosophy of Black Consciousness. In 1971, to encourage adult participation and promote their broad objectives, SASO leaders established an adult wing (umbrella organisation) of their organisation, the Black People’s Convention (BPC). Through these groups, Black Consciousness became part of a shared frame of reference.
In his new position, Biko was scathingly critical of white liberals who “could skilfully extract what [suited] them from the exclusive pool of white privileges.” He was also resentful of the fact that Blacks found themselves in a situation where the principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, rule of law and civil liberties were secondary to those that informed the struggle for fundamental freedoms in South Africa.
The whole ideology of liberalism was seriously questioned and openly rejected by SASO with Biko as its main mouthpiece. With ever-growing radicalism, he explained why he was against integration when he said, “I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people.”
South Africa’s Black communities received these ideas with mixed feelings. Shocked White liberals, with their sincerity and deep convictions in question, felt they had become easy scapegoats for another racist organisation. The idea that Black people might determine their own destiny, as well as develop a new Africanism with deep roots in the Black Consciousness Movement, swept across Black campuses. This strongly influenced those who had experienced the frustrations of the system of Bantu Education, and those who detested feelings of inferiority to White people.
In a short time, SASO became identified with Black Power and African humanism. This was reinforced by ideas emanating from Black America and Africa. In particular, Biko preached that racial polarisation of society into hostile camps was a preliminary to race conflict, and a strategy for change. He was convinced that, in order to prevent Blacks from sinking into apathetic acceptance of the system of separate development, continuous agitation had to take place to shake them up.
At the 1972 SASO conference, hostility towards Black leaders from institutions of apartheid emerged, resulting in the expulsion of the president of the adult wing of SASO (BPC), Themba Sono. Sono was expelled after giving a presidential address at the SASO annual conference, calling for a pragmatic approach and careful collaboration with White liberals, and for “Bantustan” leaders to advance the objectives of the organisation and the liberation struggle. Biko described Sono’s speech as “very dangerous”.
In fact, Sono had Chief Gatsha Buthelezi in mind when he pleaded for some sort of co-operation with selected leaders, and he said he was a “force you cannot ignore.” Nevertheless, Biko could not be persuaded to ally with a leader that he thought represented the Black Face of Apartheid, because Buthelezi had accepted a leadership position in a 'white-made homeland'.