Though first publicized as a respected medium for the liberation struggle in 1967, poetry and literary expression had been popularized throughout the 1950s and earlier 1960s. The end of the fifties brought about the emergence of protest literature, a shift from the more entertaining stories published in Drum Magazine of the 1950s. Included were:
‘the brutality of the Boer, the terrible farm conditions, the phenomenal hypocrisy of the English-speaking liberal, the disillusionment of educated Africans, the poverty of African life, crime and a host of other things’ (Ndebele 44).
This literature focused on the powerless without focusing on the source of powerlessness. Its target audience was the oppressor, the White liberal or any group who yielded power. This tone was quite different from later literature, targeting the downtrodden and oppressed.
Writing and cultural expression that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s not only reflected the situation of oppression, but also was marked by an analytical character. Looking at the interiority of being Black or non-White in South Africa came to dominate cultural expression. By contrast, material that contained any sense of defeat or self-pity was condemned or went unpublished in the ‘60s. The shift in narrative coincided with a shift in popular genre as well.
In 1967 Dollar Brand’s poems were published in Classic literary magazine. This marked the start of the poetic renaissance of the Black Consciousness era. By 1970, the SASO Newsletter was also publishing poetry and literary pieces which projected a new Black South African image. At a point when cultural hegemony was probably at its greatest, numerous literary magazines were surging forth onto the Black artistic scene: Ophir, New Coin, Donga, Wietie Purple Renoster and Bolt. The publications offered an opportunity to creatively address the issues proffered and encouraged into dialogue by BC: ‘consciousness of what being black means in that society, and therefore also a consciousness of self, of identity.’ For each of these publications, the editorial boards consisted almost entirely of Blacks. The very composition of the publishing groups reflected the philosophy of Black Consciousness: to emerge as a strong, equal opposition to institutionally dominant White South Africa. Furthermore, the content of these publications encouraged liberation from self-inflicted oppression as well as apartheid-imposed oppression. The BC movement monopolized on the ability of cultural activity to educate and articulate about political expression in a way that was less-inflammatory and at times more meaningful than political means.
Throughout 1972, the cultural aspect of the liberation struggle featured prominently in SASO and BC-related activities. James Matthews, Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Serote and Sipho Sepamla all presented readings of their literature at Turfloop University. In 1972, the Black People’s Convention (BPC) was also established as a politics-driven umbrella organization of BC, yet it initiated the Black Arts Studio in the October of the same year. The Black Arts Studio invited artists from all over South Africa, including Omar Badsha, and Paul Sibisi, to exhibit their art in Durban.
Theater was a particularly popular medium for promoting Black Consciousness ideology, and mobilizing and strengthening the identity of township audiences. Theater was cheap, mobile, easily improvised and changed to avoid censorship and received well by urban Blacks especially. Playwrights such as Mthuli Shezi, Fatima Duke and Winston Ntshona popularized plays in the 1970s and early 1980s that included themes of township life and Black Consciousness ideology. These plays also challenged apartheid-inculcated ideas of Black mobility, racial hierarchy, socioeconomic status, and social interaction. Nation-wide traditions of story-telling (intsomi, inganekwane), heroic poetry (izibongo, maboko), oration, song and dance, were incorporated into these plays and helped to increase their accessibility with audiences throughout the country. Like poetry, theater did not entirely bow to cultural hegemony or imperialism in its form. Though plays were written or performed mainly in English, multilingualism offered a specific connection between audience and performer. Also, actors frequently invited the audiences into the scenes, reinforcing the idea that was observed onstage was also apparent in daily life. These two characteristics broke from classic Eurocentric theater. Theater of the BC movement aligned with the tenets of BC ideology: to dissociate from White influence, create new narratives and form and conscientize the Black community.
Poetry, as an element of theater, as well as a published form of cultural expression was used frequently by BC. Invoking the izibongo or traditional Zulu praise poem, Black Consciousness poets drew from cultural traditions to discuss, criticize and express the oppression of the present. Informed by the ideology of Black Consciousness, the poetry of the 1960s and 1970s as well as other forms of cultural expression fostered the growth of a newly defined Black identity, meant to counter the negative discourse of non-White subordination. In poetry specifically, artists began to assert their identity by positively referencing township life while simultaneously recovering a sense of cultural continuity with the pre-colonial past.
One aspect of this process was to appropriate the English language as a unifying characteristic for non-White South Africans In 1979, the English language was acknowledged as the voice of the populist cause when Ingoapele Madingoane wrote his epic Africa, My Beginning in the language. Madingoane was a frequent performer with Black Consciousness groups, having participated in pieces throughout the country with BC’s MDALI (Music Drama Arts and Literature Institute).
After 1976, the youth and student movements began to systematically incorporate oral poetry into their activities. Poetry became strongly tied to the labor movement of the late 1970s as izibongo-like performances were included at trade-union rallies, political meetings and funerals in affirmation of solidarity. A number of poems performed at Trade Union Meetings in Durban were ultimately collected and published in the 1986 book Black Mamba Rising. Again, praise poems in these forums were used to raise self-consciousness of community and solidarity. The marrying of form: izibungoi and Eurocentric, resounded with the early Black Consciousness call to cast off cultural imperialism and exploitation in favor of crafting a new creative style. Black Consciousness sought to break from the cultural norms imposed by the apartheid education system, and the movement responded by manipulating the present experiences of the oppressed, integrating these with past traditions and confronting the future with new forms of cultural representation and a rewritten history.