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South African History Online

The Nelson Mandela Centenary will be making headlines around the world on 18 July. But 50 years ago, Mandela was in prison and the African National Congress was virtually defunct within South Africa. Instead, it was a students’ organisation that reignited the struggle against apartheid. 

As we celebrate the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela and his contribution to the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, as well as the inspiration he still holds for oppressed people around the world, we must remember to also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO).

An organisation that helped re-ignite the struggle against apartheid, and still holds a lesson or two for the present African National Congress (ANC) government and the world.

A world of apartheid

In 1948, South Africa was not unlike many other regimes around the world. There was segregation in America and the Caribbean, and racist and/or colonial regimes in most of Africa and much of Asia.

It was only after the independence of most African and Asian countries in the fifties and sixties, and the intensification of a white racist system called apartheid, that South Africa ended up becoming a world pariah.

Apartheid was based on racially segregated areas, deliberately poor education of non-whites and a brutal police and legal system that clamped down on anyone who dared to challenge white minority rule.

The high noon of apartheid

Apartheid was initially challenged inside South Africa by the ANC, Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other groups, and outside South Africa from an array of solidarity movements from around the world.

But by the late sixties, the ANC and PAC became more or less defunct within South Africa because the apartheid regime had imprisoned most of their leaders, including Nelson Mandela. 

The ANC, PAC and South African Communist Party were operating from exile and had more or less no organised political presence within South Africa itself. Very few young people therefore had first-hand experience of the ANC or PAC at the time. 

In addition to this, European companies such as Shell, and US $200 million worth of loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund between 1951 and 1967, ensured that the South African government had sufficient funds to implement apartheid in full (trading and loans would continue well into the eighties).

Black participation

The ANC-led liberation movement had until the sixties mostly pursued a programme of multiracial cooperation, which had been possible up until the early sixties. But the intensification of apartheid, and the interracial polarisation that it led to, in the sixties and seventies made such cooperation virtually impossible.

The resurrection of the anti-apartheid movement within South Africa therefore came from the formation of the South African Students’ Organisation in 1969. 

A black (defined by SASO as those who are oppressed by apartheid, i.e. Africans, Indians, Coloureds etc.) organisation that removed itself from what they saw as the paternalistic (if well-intentioned) white leadership of the national students organisation—the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS).

SASO’s constitution specifically stated that although the ideal was to have one South African national student organisation, apartheid had made it impossible for black students to engage in meaningful cooperation within such a body.

Steve Biko was one of the forming members of SASO, as well as its first President. He was to become a leading member of the movement that SASO spawned, and indeed in the struggle against apartheid, until his murder by the South African security police officers in 1977.

In his first presidential address, Biko said that SASO’s role was to boost the morale of black students and act as a pressure group for their benefit.

“What we want is not black visibility but real black participation”, Biko said.

Black Consciousness

But as Steve Biko realised early on, “the importance of the SASO stand is not really to be found in SASO per se – for SASO has the natural limitations of being a student organisation with an ever-changing membership”. 

Biko and many of the other student leaders had grown up in the townships, unlike many of the previous anti-apartheid leaders, and had first-hand experience of the brutality of the apartheid system.

They hatched the idea of forming a broader movement, to reach beyond the student community and into the townships. This was to become the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which included organisations such as the Black People’s Convention (BPC) and the Zimele Trust Fund, established in 1972, as well as publications such as Black Review, Black Viewpoint and the SASO Newsletter, which were read by many thousands.

The BCM launched educational programmes that introduced the message of self-reliance and Black Consciousness to high-school students and township youths throughout the country and used the media strategically.

Biko defined Black Consciousness as “an attitude of mind and a way of life” that focussed on “the cultural and political revival of an oppressed people”. 

Black Consciousness meant to enable blacks to fight defeatism, develop hope, and build up black humanity by infusing blacks with pride and dignity, reminding them of their complicity in allowing themselves to be misused.

Biko urged blacks to be their own “authorities rather than wait to be interpreted by others” by demonstrating “the lie that black is an aberration from the ‘normal’ which is white”, and insisted that Black Consciousness “no longer seek[s] to reform the system because so doing implies acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves”.

Boisterous Biko

On the stand as a witness at the 1976 SASO-BPC trial, Steve Biko was to become the embodiment of the attitude of Black Consciousness. Extraordinarily, the testimonies from the trial could be quoted, so apart from those present at the court, Biko also had a South African as well as a world-wide audience. 

The boisterous conduct of the accused at the SASO-BPC trial, and the BCM attitude that they represented, was to become an important contributing factor to the Soweto uprisings that in turn were paramount in reigniting the liberation struggle inside South Africa.

At the SASO-BPC trial, Biko could tell the world that whites are “only human, not superior”– a bold and daring rhetoric from a black man in apartheid South Africa in the early seventies.  

And the increasing confidence that the BCM promoted was spreading, Biko told the court.

“The boldness, dedication, sense of purpose, and clarity of analysis of the situation – all of these things are a direct result of Black Consciousness ideas among the young in Soweto and elsewhere”, Biko told the court.

The Soweto uprisings

Many whites and the apartheid state itself seemed to believe that South Africa was a democratic state with mainly happy citizens, the odd discontented black aside. The Soweto uprisings that started on 16 June 1976 were to change all that by revealing the legitimate grievances of the black masses.

The uprisings, where many thousands of students and school-children peacefully protested against poor educational standards and the appalling standards of living in the townships, led to a fragmentation of white consensus and to a new culture of protest amongst black South Africans. It also spawned a belief amongst many blacks that armed struggle was the only viable way of confronting the apartheid government.

Also because of the apartheid regime’s disproportionate response, where police fired on unarmed students and thousands of heavily armoured police were deployed with helicopters dropping teargas on the townships. Hundreds ended up dead and many more were wounded during the three days that the subsequent rioting lasted.

The uprising that had started in Soweto quickly spread to other townships and took on a larger scope, as the initial more or less disorganised outbreaks of violence against state symbols turned into organised demonstrations, stay-aways and strikes in the months after the initial demonstration. These events were to re-ignite the liberation struggle and create a revolutionary spirit inside South Africa.

After the banning of all BCM organisations and the murder of Steve Biko by South African security police in 1977, many BCM members ended up joining the ANC and PAC in exile, ensuring that these movements were strengthened and reinvigorated both numerically and ideologically.  

Former BCM activists were also “re-educated” on Robben Island, after which many joined the ANC.  The number of ANC exiles swelled from 1000 in 1975 to 9000 in 1980. Inside the country, the BCM and Black Consciousness ideology helped bring about the United Democratic Front. 

BCM influence

The official BCM ended up embracing Africanism or Soviet-style Marxism, and were reduced mostly to rhetoric and a trivialisation of the philosophy of Biko.

Nevertheless, the BCM had been an important contributor to the psychological side of liberation from apartheid, and the legacy of Biko and the BCM was felt throughout South African liberation politics.

The new self-confidence that Black Consciousness had infused was an important element in the re-invigoration of the liberation struggle as a whole, as blacks in all walks of life, including a majority of Africans of high school age in the mid-seventies, were affected.

This can be seen in the many former BCM members becoming ANC government ministers and National Executive Committee members, presidential advisors, highly ranked civil servants and university chancellors. These include the present South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was part of the BCM before joining the ANC.

Lack of true integration

The goal of the BCM had been a society that could “not be achieved through the introduction of selected reformist measures as advocated by white liberals” but through “the overhaul of the socio-economic system which apartheid had built and sustained over many decades”, as former Secretary General of the BPC Sipho Buthelezi wrote in 1991.

These goals are yet to be properly implemented, yet alone achieved, by the ANC-led governments that have ruled South Africa since 1994. 

What Biko and the BCM were looking for was a true fusion of cultures in South Africa, a non-racial, non-exploitative and non-exclusive society where specific minority rights are discouraged, unlike the multi-culturalistic philosophy in present-day South Africa. 

“Does this mean that I am against integration? If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behaviour … then YES I am against it”, Biko wrote in 1970.

Instead, Biko wanted what he referred to as “true integration”. 

“Once the various groups … have asserted themselves to the point that mutual respect has to be shown then you have the ingredients for a true and meaningful integration … out of this mutual respect … there will obviously arise a genuine fusion of the life-styles of the various groups. This is true integration”, he concluded. 

A microcosm of the world

According to Biko, apartheid “is but a microcosm of the global confrontation between the Third World and the rich white nations of the world which is manifesting itself in an ever more real manner as the years go by”, as he told the audience of a students’ conference of both black and white student leaders in 1971.

But if a society based on a “true integration” could be implemented in South Africa, there is also a lesson to be learned by the rest of the world. 

For Biko believed that “the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face”.


* Peter Kenworthy is a journalist and has holds Master of Social Science.


Comments (1)

  •'s picture

    Peter Kenworthy is right to celebrate the creation of the SASO and the role of Biko in the Black Consciousness Movement, which have had a lasting impact on the on-going political struggle in South Africa. But it is also important, I believe, to pay tribute to the role of NUSAS the other main (if predominantly white) students' union, to those in the ANC and the SACP who were not in jail or exile and who continued to fight apartheid against the odds, to the ARM, to the Black Sash, to the one liberal MP (Helen Suzman) who soldiered on in defiant opposition, and also to the London Recruits - all of whom remained active during the second half of the 1960s.

    Jun 02, 2018