Biko’s Black Consciousness had a defining role in SA’s liberation struggle history,writes
STEVE BIKO: A Defence is potentially an explosive intellectual and academic study that would be a fitting tribute on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his death. A defence of his philosophy and how it was enriched by those who embraced it and distorted by those it imperilled is long overdue.
Reflecting on the black experience since his death, an opportunity arises for excavating the defining and critical elements of Biko’s legacy deliberately and with malicious intent, airbrushed out of the historical narrative.
This article explores elements of the black radical tradition and paradigm that defined Biko’s BC and why their suppression has impoverished emerging studies in black radical thought.
The Soweto Revolt was the crucible of Biko’s BC philosophy articulating a black radicalism. Stretching for 16 months from June 16, 1976 to October 1977, the Soweto revolt’s defining moment, and a defining moment for black radicalism in liberation struggle historiography, was a campaign begun on August 4, 1976. The stayaway on August 4-6, 1976, and the student march to downtown Johannesburg alarmed the exiled ANC, PAC and the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). Unable to claim the revolt as their own, the exiled movements were exposed for their paralysis and helplessness in the context of deepening racism.
The August 4 campaign was organised. It involved a process of exhortation undertaken mainly by students, appealing to the working population to support what had assumed a political movement transcending school boundaries.
Society was mobilised as a race, a black race, deliberately supplanting and dissolving the ethnic identities thrust upon them.
Blackness as a category of mass mobilisation was a reflection of a shared historical experience accentuated and given meaning by a shared racial identity. It is this realisation that engendered a sense “of a caring for each other” as black people.
It is a conjuncture best articulated in Barney Pityana’s famous remark, “black man, you are on your own”.
Newspaper reports estimated that 85% to 90% of Soweto’s working population heeded the stayaway appeal, paralysing Johannesburg. Typically, and historically, stayaway campaigns and bus boycotts were characterised by violence against those who defied the appeal. With no threat of violent recriminations and in a show of overwhelming black solidarity, the August 4 campaign alarmed the regime and attracted the attention of the exiled movement.
Ruth First and Archie Mafeje lambasted the revolt for not being working class in its character. Both failed to appreciate and recognise the reality that it was not working class precisely because it was inspired by BC’s black radicalism, locating black suffering in white supremacy and not in the political economy.
It did not require the guidance of “friends of the natives” in the tradition of the ANC nor the nuance and sophisticated analysis of the white left explaining why black suffering is to be located in the political economy. In both these historical moments the struggle was characterised by “black as absence”.
The black radicalism forged around the August 4 campaign did not dissipate following the violent reaction of the racist state. It deepened, diffused and spread across South Africa and was carried into neighbouring Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Hundreds of Soweto students, probably a few thousand, fled South Africa in the days and weeks following August 4. The events in Soweto from June 16, 1976 to August 4 defined the mass mobilisation of the 1970s.
The August 4 campaign was an articulation of BC, yet Biko’s intervention is restricted to mental slavery and emancipation from it. The Soweto Revolt looms large as an expression of Biko’s BC and a rare moment in resistance politics when black radicalism was in the mainstream; young men and women thrown up by the events of August 4 in which state violence, reacting to the stayaway and the march, increased visibly.
It heightened the rage these young men and women felt towards “whiteness” and to white people as a race. War songs they sang were laced with phrases such as “senzeni na? izono zethu ubu mnyama. Amabhunu hi zinja”, which translates as “what have we done? Our sin is being black. The boers are dogs”.
This was the political outlook that these exiled students had when drafted into the ANC’s armed formation, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Named the June 16 Detachment (and not the August 4 Detachment) they were redeployed into the country between 1977 and 1981 as part of the “armed propaganda campaign”.
This involved a sustained attack on key installations including power stations, refineries and security installations. These targets were said to be the lifeblood of South African capitalism that the campaign was meant to paralyse.
Cadres of the June 16 Detachment were assigned to political commissars to instruct them on Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory. The Centre for African Studies (CAS) or Centro de Estudos Africanos (CEA), a brainchild of First, was the key research centre providing political education to recruits. They were disabused of the belief that black suffering was located in whiteness, white supremacy and had their rage directed therefrom.
Some in the June 16 Detachment, undeterred in their conviction that violence had to be extended to white locations, grudgingly embraced the new paradigm.
Others appear to have gone through the motions of internalising the new paradigm while secretly intending to direct violence against white society.
In January 1980 three cadres of the June 16 Detachment, Stephen Mafoko, Humphrey Makhubo and Wilfred Madela, headed to the Sanlam building in Silverton’s main street.
There they held 25 staff members, mainly white and Afrikaner, hostage in a siege that lasted seven hours.
The siege ended when Mafoko, seeing police storm the building, opened fire with a rifle and detonated an explosive. A hostage died on the scene and another in hospital.
The rest were rushed to hospital with life-threatening injuries.
In Soweto, the black solidarity forged during the August 4 campaign, and the distinctly black radical character it assumed, endured.
These attributes became evident during another stayaway by Soweto’s working population and a very successful student march into Johannesburg on September 22, 1976. Both events deepened the fear in white society over the possibility of a black rebellion. The black subject typically contorting his face in rage at whiteness in the privacy of his toilet was emboldened, emerging from the toilet combat-ready.
It was not only in respect of black-white relations that there were significant changes.
There was also a marked difference in black-black relations.
The community in Soweto bonded as they had never done before. This contrasted sharply with events a decade later when black society practically consumed itself in the black-on-black violence that defined that historical moment.
Because “black life mattered… and mattered” for real, there was an understanding that no political objective or outcome justified the brutal murder of black people.
If BC taught black society nothing else, it was that “black life mattered”. Lebelo is an author and historian.