In 2015 students at South African universities rose up in a mass revolt. Young women and men born after the end of apartheid in 1994 demanded free education; they forcefully insisted that tuition fees be scrapped, and also that the contents, methodologies and academic teachers reflect the post-apartheid ‘free’ South Africa.
In the new student movements the legacy of Steve Biko, who was murdered by the apartheid regime on 12 September 1977 became important again. Young students regarded Biko’s call to autonomous Black action as still relevant for contemporary South Africa. Black Consciousness philosophy gained significance again when students insisted upon the reform of curricula, which they said conveyed racist and colonialist forms of knowledge and ignored, even scorned African intellectual experience. Calls on black people to first free their own minds, become conscious of their own, and each other’s conditions and work together to change the material conditions of black students have been the guiding principles of the new South African student movements as they were for the generation of the 1970s.
A brush with the police: Biko’s early politicisation
Stephen Bantu (Steve) Biko was born in what is today the Eastern Cape province of South Africa on 18 December 1946. His father worked as a policeman, and later as a clerk in the King William’s Town Native Affairs office. He was also enrolled for legal studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA), the distance-learning university. Steve’s father died suddenly in 1950, when Steve was four years old. His mother subsequently raised the children on her own, working as a cook at a local hospital.
In 1962 Steve started his senior secondary schooling at the famous mission educational insitutiton in the Eastern Cape, Lovedale college, where his elder brother Khaya was already a student. Khaya, who was politically active with the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), became a major influence on Steve’s introduction to resistance and liberation politics. A few months into Steve’s studies at Lovedale the Biko brothers were taken into custody by the police. Khaya, who was suspected of being involved with Poqo, the armed wing of the PAC, was charged and sentenced to two years imprisonment, with 15 months suspended. Steve was interrogated by the police and though released he was subsequently expelled from the school after only attending it for three months.
Though he was forced to return home he continued going to classes at Lovedale, where he became friends with Barney Pityana, at the time a student at the school. This friendship became significant in the formation of the Black Consciousness movement, and especially the South African Student Organisation (SASO).
Black Consciousness ideology and the formation of SASO
SASO arose out of profound revolts against apartheid and institutional racism, which spread across South African universities from the mid-1960s. In 1968 at Fort Hare, a fairly independent black institution for higher education, students boycotted the installation of the new rector Johannes Marthinus de Wet, a member of the Afrikaner broederbond (a secret society of male white nationalists). Later in the year the university was closed and 23 students, among them Barney Pityana were not allowed to come back. Significantly, a new organisation of student protest arose in the very last days of 1968 when SASO was founded during a meeting, exclusively attended by black students. This event took place at Mariannhill, a Catholic mission west of Durban, and the site of St. Francis College, a coeducational independent secondary school, which was the alma mater of Biko, from which he had matriculated with very good grades in 1965 and subsequently taken up studies at the ‘non-European’ medical school of the University of Natal. Biko became the new organisation’s first President when SASO was officially inaugurated at the Turfloop campus of the University of the North (UNIN) in July of the following year.
The developments that led to the formation of SASO need to be understood in the politics of South Africa’s 1968 moment, a reinvention of the politics of protest. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of new repertoires of resistance in student protests. Yet SASO’s formation was also due to the complex relations of black students with the country’s long-existing national student organisation NUSAS (National Union of South African Students). NUSAS, which had been founded in 1924, was open to students of all races.
At the ‘black’ universities which had been established as apartheid institutions in the early 1960s small numbers of students joined NUSAS, and at some institutions battles took place for permission to form autonomous Student Representative Councils (SRC) and to affiliate to NUSAS. Yet there also was frustration about racist tendencies within the student association. At issue was that NUSAS despite its multiracial membership was essentially dominated and controlled by white students.
In 1968 Biko and others thus formed SASO, which for political reasons offered membership to students of all ‘black’ sections of the population, which included those assigned to the apartheid categories of ‘African’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’. In 1971 the SASO Policy Manifesto set out the Black Consciousness doctrine.
On the organisational level, the SASO activists held that to avoid domination by white ‘liberals’ black people had to organise independently. In 1970 Biko wrote in the SASO Newsletter, suggestively signing as ‘Frank Talk’:
The role of the white liberal in the black man’s history in South Africa is a curious one. Very few black organisations were not under white direction. True to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the blacks and told them so…
Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo. Hence the multiracial political organisations and parties and the ‘nonracial’ student organisations, all of which insist on integration not only as an end goal but also as a means.
Black Consciousness as SASO’s official ideology was profoundly influenced by the SASO leadership’s reading of Frantz Fanon, particularly the militant philosopher’s Black Skin, White Masks and the African-American Black Power movement. In the early years the focus was on the psychological empowerment of black people; they believed that black people needed to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority, an idea they expressed by popularizing the slogan ‘black is beautiful’. As early as 1971, the SASO leadership discussed proposals to cast off the students-only attitude, including the formation of a Black Workers’ Council (later renamed the Black Workers Project) and launched the Black People’s Convention (BPC), a new political movement that would soon run alongside SASO. Practically the activists organised Black Community Programmes (BCPs).
In the early years of its existence, the all-black SASO was allowed space to grow at the black universities, in part because the government regarded the separate black student association and its emphasis on largely psychological-oriented black consciousness as quite compatible with the apartheid ideology. They were to learn soon that SASO, and more generally the ‘black conscious movement’ that Biko promoted, posed a major threat to the regime. But by the time that SASO began to be more active in political campaigns, from about 1972 onwards, the organisation had established already firm structural roots, which made it difficult for the government to entirely suppress it.
An early example of the dialectics of repression and radicalised politicization included the 1972 student protests at ‘Turfloop’ after the Student Representative Council (SRC) President, Onkgopotse Tiro, was expelled after speaking out against Bantu education during a graduation ceremony at the university. 1974 became a crucial year. In January SASO officially condemned the presence of the Apartheid forces in Namibia; the organisation also reaffirmed the non-collaboration stance of the Black Consciousness Movement and condemned the Bantustan leaders. In September of the same year a rally celebrated the ascension of FRELIMO (the Mozambican liberation movement under the leadership of Samora Machel) into power in Mozambique was held despite the refusal to grant permission for the action.
Repression followed suit. Eighty SASO and BPC leaders were detained without trial for their support of the pro-FRELIMO rally and during the following year tried at the Supreme Court in Pretoria, eventually in 1976 they were sentenced and incarcerated on Robben Island. In 1974 SASO was listed as one of the affected organisation under the Affected Organisation Act of 1974. This prohibited it from receiving foreign funding to pursue its objectives. In July 1975 SASO held its annual conference under very difficult conditions. Only one member of the executive committee could attend the meeting. The rest of the executive members were either banned or had been arrested. Finally in October 1977, SASO and other Black Consciousness organisations were banned under the Internal Security Act. The most brutal example of repression of course was the murder of Steve Biko while in detention in September 1977.
The ‘Durban Moment’
As South African student politics radicalised, the protests initially confined to university politics grew beyond campus concerns; they became instrumental in laying the grounds for the new black trade unions that emerged in the 1970s. In some instances, black and white students, and a few younger, radical academics, worked together in these new-left politics. Radical academics were involved particularly in the efforts around strikes and black labour unions. The connection between students, radical academics, workers and other marginalised social groups becomes brilliantly apparent in the ‘Durban moment’, probably the most significant political development ensuing from South Africa’s 1968. The ‘Durban moment’ is often regarded as the beginning of the new wave of resistance that led to the Soweto uprising, the massive uprisings of the 1980s and eventually the demise of the regime.
Early 1973 saw a massive strike wave in the port town of Durban. By the end of March 1973, almost 100,000, mainly African workers, approximately half of the entire African workers employed in Durban, had come out on strike. Through songs and marches, workers made their demands heard – the first public mass action since the political activism of the 1950s. This was political action, and also more immediately a labour revolt; workers exercised the power of factory-based mass action.
What looked like spontaneous strikes, originated in a complex mix: low wages, the humiliation of pass laws and racism, the hardship of migrant labour, forced removals, and significantly the denial of black workers’ right to organize. The strikes signalled the growth of militant non-racial trade unionism, and in a wider sense a revived spirit of rebellion in the country.
There were links between the eruption of workers’ action and the underground liberation movements; the resurgence of Marxist thinking among a new generation came into play. There was however also, though this has sometimes been denied, decisive influence of the recently emerged Black Consciousness movements’ ideas. Of special importance was the links between activist intellectuals, who in different ways embodied South Africa’s 1968 moment, thinking in new ideological perspectives, and having tried out new methods of activism. Most significant here was the special political alliance, intellectual and personal friendship between Steve Biko and Richard (‘Rick’) Turner, a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Natal, who held a doctorate on the political works of Jean-Paul Sartre, which he had completed at the Sorbonne in Paris. In the early 1970s Turner was a researcher into labour issues, and a community and labour organiser in Durban, deeply influenced by the French Left, including Althusserian readings of Marxism.
Turner’s and Biko’s philosophical and political ideas significantly shaped the massive strikes in Durban in the early 1970s and continued to impact on the resistance movement against apartheid in different ways throughout the 1980s. Biko’s radical emancipatory Black Consciousness ideology in conversation with Turner’s anti-capitalist notion of ‘participatory democracy’ provided a brief glimpse into the possibilities of another South Africa.
The murder of Biko while in police detention in September 1977, and the assassination of Turner a few months later, in January 1978 at his home in Durban were devastating for their families, friends and comrades. They were shattering too for the country’s politics of resistance, closing off new non-authoritarian radical forms of resistance. Biko’s (and Turner’s) imaginative power and creativity, and their reflection on alternatives to apartheid beyond the management of the state by the liberation movement in power remains a tremendous inspiration.
This article was first published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).