Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA)


The Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA) was the external arm of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), and had offices  in Botswana, England, the United States, Canada, France, Belgium and Germany. The aftermath of the June 16 unrest in Soweto witnessed thousands of students leaving South Africa to join liberation organisations (primarily the ANC and the PAC) based in Southern Africa.

The Context: Funding and the Battle for the Soul of Black Consciousness

The Black People’s Convention, the political wing of the BCM and the counterpart of the South African Students Organisation (SASO), decided to set up an external wing outside the country. Offices were first established in Botswana under the leadership of Ranwedzi Harry Nengwekhulu.  It was here that the BCMA faced more formidable obstacles in its recruitment drive because the ANC was well established and the exiled Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC), led by the charismatic Tsietsi Mashinini, commanded the support and following of the majority of students.

The decision to establish an external wing was fraught with difficulties notably ideological and other differences that surfaced between the BC activists and their counterparts in the ANC and PAC. By this time, the older liberation organisations had achieved a degree of relative stability, the ANC more so than the PAC. Tensions between the movements were not only determined by ideological differences but also by competition for resources and recognition from states that were sources of funding and support.

While the PAC had initially secured a greater degree of support from newly independent African countries in the 1960s, by the mid-1970s the ANC was on the ascendancy, recognised by various states where they established bases for military training and insurgent operations. It is significant that the growth of the ANC in Africa in the 1960s is often attributed to Tenyson Makiwane, who later defected to join the government of Independent Transkei.

The ANC also had well-established networks, linked to international anti-apartheid movements, in Europe and the US. Through its organisational and structural ties to the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), its cadres received training and support from the Soviet Union. In this context, the decision by BPC to establish a separate political formation was viewed with wariness by the ANC, which tended to regard the new grouping as a possible ‘Third Force’ that would be susceptible to Western imperialist influences.

The BC activists, on the other hand, were motivated by concerns that sprang from their philosophical orientation as well as from their critiques of the ANC and PAC. Life in the ANC camps, many found, was difficult and full of hardships, and the strict hierarchies of military life sat uncomfortably with a generation that valued spontaneity and the critical consciousness espoused by BC theorists such as Biko.

It is significant that following the Soweto Revolt of 1976, contestation for both membership and legitimacy between the ANC and the PAC intensified. Each, claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the masses, sought to grow their membership by recruiting thousands of exiled students. And yet it is BCMA that could, with justification, claim exiled students as their constituency. But BCMA was slow off the starting blocks, taking four years after the uprising to formally launch itself as liberation movement in exile. By this time the South African Youth Revolutionary Council (SAYRCO), claiming to be the legitimate representative of exiled youth and the poisoned arrow head in the struggle against apartheid, had already been launched. 

Already the SSRC, led by Khotso Seathlolo after Mashinini had been expelled from the movement, had set up SAYRCO in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, during the Easter weekend of 1979. That SAYRCO’s founding conference was held in Lusaka is curious, as Zambia was known to recognise only the ANC as the legitimate South African liberation movement. Only Nigeria recognised the body as a legitimate anti-apartheid formation. Mashinini was viewed with suspicion by the ANC after he expressed scepticism of both the ANC and the PAC.

Black Consciousness philosophy allowed for a variety of interpretations and strategies to oppose apartheid, and the movement itself had a changing relation to concepts such as class struggle and socialism. Some within the movement were committed socialists, while others used the philosophy to justify a Black entrepreneurial spirit.  And SAYRCO, proclaiming itself to be an essentially BCM formation and keen on working with former BCM activists, occupied an ambivalent position about its commitment to class struggle and  defined the struggle in racial terms.

Some BC organisations had links with forces that the ANC and PAC regarded with suspicion. According to social scientists such as Davies, O’ Meara and Dlamini, the Black Allied Workers Union (BAWU), a BC initiative, received funding from the AFL-CIO, the US labour organisation, and BAWU secretary general Drake Koka ‘had strong links with various social-democratic organisations in Europe, and particularly, West Germany’.

Davies, O’ Meara and Dlamini regard the period between the Soweto uprising and the banning of the BC organisations in October 1977 as the ‘high point’ of the BC movement.  The period, they contend, ‘intensified attempts by various imperialist interests to turn the BCM into a “third force”, as an alternative to the ANC and PAC. While it would be untrue to suggest that these forces in any way controlled the Black Consciousness movement, the Geneva-based International University Exchange Fund in particular gave the BC movement a great deal of support as part of its “third force” strategy.’

From the beginning then, the decision to establish external bases was viewed with suspicion, and presented Western powers with possibilities to co-opt BC activists and temper their left leanings.

The Branches and their Activities

Davies, O’ Meara and Dlamini state that ‘in 1979 the Black Consciousness Movement of South Africa was formed in London, later changing its name to the BCM of Azania’. However recent research indicates that the BCM had started operating before 1979.

BCMA in Botswana and Onkgopotse Tiro’s footprint

The Botswana branch was the first to be established, probably in 1977 or 1978. The BCM footprint can be traced to Onkgopotse Abram Tiro who, in 1973, fled to Botswana after getting wind that he was sought after by the security police. While in Botswana, Tiro is known to have continued to promote BCM and forge strategic links with numerous organisations that would help the movement grow. One of his achievements was to forge links with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Sensing that Tiro’s initiatives could pose a threat in future, the South African security police conspired to eliminate him. And in February 1974 Tiro was killed when a parcel bomb exploded in his face. This ended the first attempt by the BCM to establish itself in exile.

The majority of students fleeing police harassment soon after the outbreak of the Soweto uprising went to Botswana. At this stage BCM did not have a high proile representative in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital. When many students arrived in Gaborone they were most likely to be snapped up by the ANC and PAC. Many of the first arrivals were immediately taken up by the ANC to become Umkhonto we Sizwe’s June 16 Detachment. When Nengwekhulu and his comrades arrived in Botswana, opportunities to recruit exiled students were curtailed.

Onkgopotse Tiro, Azanian activist. Source: Photo by Gallo images/Sunday Times

Towards the end of 1976, when Mashinini became a representative of the SSRC in exile, some students had become wary of joining the ANC. This followed Mashinini’s appeal to students inside the country who were planning to flee to not join the ANC or PAC. Some heeded to Mashinini’s call further limiting BCM’s recruitment efforts. To improve this position, they needed to establish organisational links with the SSRC in exile. Besides Lesotho, mergers between the SSRC and BCM were common. was attempted.

It is possible that while heading the BCM office in Botswana, Nengwekhulu may have tried to recruit members from exiled students with promises of scholarships abroad. This was an approach used by many liberation formations in exile. It is not clear if Nengwkhulu was able to recruit a significantly large number of students through this approach. What is clear though is that right up to October 1979, thousands of exiled students were still milling around Gaborone, Maseru, Lesotho’s capital and Mbabane in Swaziland.

In October 1978 in Botswana, as in Lesotho and Swaziland, thousands of potential recruits for liberation movements were offered scholarships notably by the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. And by the time BCMA was formally launched in London during the Easter weekend of 1980, the number of potential recruits had thinned considerably.

Barney Pityana and BCMA’s missed opportunities in Lesotho

Between 1976 and 1978 there was no hint of BCM presence in Lesotho. Consequently, students entering Lesotho as refugees, housed at the only refugee camp provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) were faced with the choice of joining either the ANC or PAC. The majority joined the ANC. Barney Pityana’s arrival in Lesotho in 1978 had the potential of establishing BCM as a serious contender for support among exiled youth, who at this stage  outnumbered the adult population by far. Pityana’s stay in Lesotho was brief. He made no effort to interact with the exiled community and did little to establish a BCM structure in Lesotho. In fact, for the duration of his stay, Pityana was ensconced in the remote village of Masite, deep in the Maluti mountains, where Steve Biko’s  friend and author of his memoirs, Father Alfred Stubbs was the resident priest. He remained in Masite while his travel arrangements for his passage to London were being finalised.  

But there were a few individuals who perceived themselves as BCM activists, consciously rejecting overtures from the ANC and PAC. Duma Ndlovu, poet and founder member of Medupi Writers Association that was banned along with 18 other BCM members in October 1977, and several university students in exile, was among them. They were joined by scores of students who were active members of the SSRC and had been part of the appeal to students in 1977 never to join the ANC and PAC in exile. This is a group that Pityana could have met.

Barney Pityana one of the founding fathers of Black Consciousness Movement. Source: Photograph supplied by Africa Media Online

And while this group was twiddling thumbs, the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s offer of an opportunity to study in Germany was made. These, along with exiled students who joined the ANC with the purpose of undergoing military training took up the offer. Ndlovu in the meantime had secured a scholarship to study in the US. By the end of October 1978 hundreds of refugees, mainly exiled students, had left Lesotho for Germany.

One of the major developments inside South Africa barely mentioned in history is the formation of the Soweto Students League (SSL)in 1978. SSL was established as a successor to the SSRC with Ishmael Mkhabela and Lybon Mabasa (both instrumental in founding AZAPO) acting as advisors. Oupa Mlangeni and Teboho Moremi were president and secretary general respectively. SSL failed to make an impression in its brief history, with Mlangeni and Moremi forced to flee to Bloemfontein when sought by the security police. While in Bloemfontein they helped local students organise the Bloemfontein Students League (BSL).

Early in November, barely a month after the mass efflux of exiles to Germany, unrest broke out in Bloemfontein. Schools in the Orange Free State town ground to a halt as students clashed with police. The protest was organised by BSL. It was following this unrest in Bloemfontein that scores probably a few hundred students from Bloemfontein fled into Lesotho. Once in Lesotho they joined up with Mlangeni and Moremi.   

These students, members of BSL, were already considered members of the soon-to-be-created SAYRCO. BCMA’s failure to forge organisational links with SAYRCO in Lesotho meant that they could not attract these new arrivals. Consequently SAYRCO in Lesotho as elsewhere on the African continent became the largest BCM formation in exile. For the remainder of 1978 and throughout 1979 this grouping held regular meetings, reinforcing the need for a structure apart from the ANC and PAC.

On the occasion of the third anniversary of the Soweto uprising in June 1979 the group was involved in a contest with the ANC over the right to organise the event. The ANC won and organised the third anniversary of the Soweto uprising in Lesotho. Throughout July and August 1978, tensions between SAYRCO members in Lesotho and the National Executive Committee (NEC) surfaced. SAYRCO’s NEC in Lesotho, represented by Majakathata Mokoena was accused of bourgeois tendencies. These tensions worsened, culminating in a mass walkout by disgruntled members.

In the meantime, another high ranking BCM activist from inside South Africa entered Lesotho. Tenjiwe Mtintso arrived in Lesotho accompanied by two former BPC members. It wais this three that attempted to forge links with SAYRCO with limited or no success. And when SAYRCO collapsed, Mokoena left Lesotho on a scholarship. He went to England. Mlangeni loitered in Maseru for a while, and Moremi joined the ANC. Early in 1980 or sometime in 1981 Mtintso, realising that prospects for a BCM formation in Lesotho were non existent, joined the ANC.

BCMA in Europe and the quest for the formation of a United Front of all liberation formations

A branch was slowly set up in London, England, from 1977 onwards by Chris Matabane, Haroon Variava and Lingham Moodley, among others. They were joined the next year by Barney Pityana when he went into exile in 1978. On his arrival in London, Pityana is reputed to have declared that part of his mandate was to encourage the formation of a united front of South Africa’s liberation formations. It is not clear whether BCM activists in London embraced this mandate. What is apparent is that the formation of SAYRCO and its existence in Lesotho, Botswana, Nigeria and Liberia was a negation of the ANC and PAC. 

While their initial activities were conducted as a grouping of individuals rather than a strictly defined ‘branch’, funding from the International University Exchange Fund and from World University Services allowed them to set up offices in Upper Gower Street in London. Variava became the only paid branch official, running the office on a full-time basis.

The branch began publicising South African issues in London. One of the first events they organised was a memorial for Steve Biko, who had been killed by security police while in detention on 12 September 1977. The memorial was held on 20 September 1977 at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and Majakathata Mokoena, one of the executive committee members of the Soweto Students Representative Council, delivered a tribute to Biko.

Variava had been active in Lenasia, the Indian township outside Johannesburg, and had been a member of the People’s Experimental Theatre, and the brother of BC leader Sadecque Variava. Moodley was a BC activist from Durban, and the brother of BC leader Strini Moodley. He was one of the defendants in the State vs Cooper trial, but charges were dropped against him and three of the original 13 accused, and he left the country before the trial was concluded. Other members included Basil Manning and Jyrus Kgokong.

The group set about establishing links with other exiles and radical groups in England and elsewhere, and began to receive support from British politicians, especially those from the Labour Party. They organised scholarships for South African students in England and Botswana, among other countries.

The grouping attracted fellow exiles and like-minded radicals, and SAYRCO’s Khotso Seathlolo was a frequent visitor, although SAYRCO maintained a distance from the grouping, preferring to remain an independent entity. But their activities also brought the BCM activists into contact with more sinister elements, such as the apartheid spy Craig Williamson, who had infiltrated the IUEF to become the body’s Deputy Director General. Williamson, who used to visit the BCM offices, revealing that he had been a spy in January 1980.

When the IUEF withdrew funding for the BPC External Office in January 1978, the activists were mystified, speculating that the ANC had pressured the fund to halt support for its competitor. But by early 1980, they pinned the blame on Williamson.

Late in 1979, the BC grouping, still referring to itself as the External Office of the BPC, began publishing its own journal, Solidarity, with Lingham Moodley as editor. The publication set out its purpose in its first editorial: ‘To highlight the struggle of the Azanian peoples from the BPC party perspective. It was designed to articulate BPC’s aspirations and present BPC’s polemics against recalcitrant ideas that seek to submerge the Convention’s role in the prosecution of the struggle.’

The first edition of Solidarity contained excerpts from the SASO policy manifesto; a piece written by Steve Biko while he was publishing articles under the pseudonym Frank Talk (Fear – An Important Determinant of South African Politics); a tribute to Biko delivered by Majakathata Mokoena at the memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral; and articles on Western capitalist investment in SA, Blacks in the National Economy of SA, and Black Women Power.

Meanwhile,  BC activists acted as representatives or established bases in Canada, the US, Belgium, Germany and France. In Paris the movement had Jeff Baqwa, in Germany Mazibuko Mkhalwela, and in the US Andrew Lukele.

With representatives based in various countries, the organisation held a consultative meeting, and decided to hold a conference to ensure that the various branches were in co-ordination with each other. They set the date, from 28 December 1979 to 4 January 1980, and planned to hold the conference in Kenya. But a week before the set date, according to a statement in the third issue of Solidarity, ‘the Kenyan government informed us that a Kenyan Parliamentary ruling forbids the holding of political meetings by outside political organisations in Kenya’.

By October 1980, the external office decided to reconfigure the organisation, and they officially established the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania, as reflected in the fourth issue of Solidarity. Rose-innesPhahle, a former member of the Non-European Unity Movement who had been in exile from 1965, now took over the editorship of the journal.

The Decline of the BCMA

When the IUEF withdrew funding in January 1978, they set a trend, and the BCMA eventually ceased to get funding from the World University Services. However, Peter Gabriel, the former vocalist for the super group Genesis and propagator of World Music, whose song Biko had hit the charts, donated 12,000 pounds to the BCMA, enabling them to keep their offices running, even though the activists were forced to move to cheaper premises in Islington.

The group’s attempts at securing recognition from governments in Africa, especially Nigeria and Libya, also suffered setbacks. A trip to Nigeria, undertaken in the belief that they had been invited, turned into a disappointing venture when they had trouble getting past customs at the airport, and the Nigerian government informed the group that there had been no such invitation. The group were subsequently accommodated in government VIP units but they left the country without securing a commitment for funding or recognition. The Libyans also withheld recognition and funding.

By 1982 the grouping’s funds had dried up and they were unable to keep their office in operation. The various members of the organisation drifted apart, forced to devote themselves to individual economic survival.

Rose-innes Phahla went on to publish Azania Frontline and Azania Worker, which he edited for a number of years, tracking developments in politics and union issues.

Solidarity continued to be published until the tenth issue in 1983, which featured an article on PW Botha’s President’s Council. A further double issue, numbers 11 and 12, was published in the course of 1985, featuring an article on Edward Kennedy’s visit to South Africa, and a piece on the struggle of Aborigines in Australia by Vuyisa Christine Qunta.

Inside South Africa, the Black Consciousness organisations were being overshadowed by ANC-influenced tendencies, and the United Democratic Front had proved to be more influential than the BC-inspired National Forum, both launched in 1983. Relations between supporters of the two organisations reached a zenith, and these attitudes were reflected in exile communities. Undoubtedly, the ANC had also managed to use its influence to close off sources of support for the other liberation groupings.

In Botswana in the early 1980s, exile political activity declined, both in frequency and intensity. It was not until the outbreak of popular struggles of the mid 1980s and 1990s that yet again, thousands of students fled to Botswana. On this occasion though, many were already members of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS). And once they arrived in Botswana, it was the ANC that they were keen on joining. The implications were that BCMA in Botswana could not take advantage of the new generations of exiled South African students.

In Lesotho, SAYRCO began 1979 with the highest number of followers following the arrival of students from Bloemfontein. By the end of 1979 however, internal tensions and conflicts between SAYRCO’s members in Lesotho and the organisation’s National Executive Committee (NEC), represented by Majakathata Mokoena rocked the movement. In protest, the majority of these students decided to abandon SAYRCO and joined the ANC. This marked the collapse of SAYRCO’s branch in Lesotho, at the time the largest in terms of membership. It also meant that BCMA was moribund in Lesotho, as none of SAYRCO’s disgruntled joined the movement. The few members of BCMA in Lesotho, having failed to establish organisational links with SAYRCO became disgruntled. Some sought scholarships abroad, deciding to develop their own careers. BCMA’s leading member in Lesotho at this time, Tenjiwe Mtintso, joined the ANC. She is currently South Africa’s ambassador to Italy.

• Marothodi, C., (2006), “Black consciousness in South Africa”, from World Socialis, [online] Available [Accessed on 25 January 2012)
• Overcoming Apartheid, building democracy, "Black Consciousnedss" [online] Available at: