History of South Africa

The Rise of Black Consciousness

Steve Biko and the South African Students' Organisation

With the ANC and the PAC banned and African political activity officially limited to government-appointed bodies in the homelands, young people sought alternative means to express their political aspirations. In the early 1960s, African university students looked to the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) to represent their concerns, but, as this organization adopted an increasingly conservative stance after Vorster's crackdown, they decided to form their own movement. Led by Steve Biko, an African medical student at the University of Natal, a group of black students established the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) in 1969 with Biko as president. Biko, strongly influenced by the writings of Lembede and by the Black Power movement in the United States, argued that Africans had to run their own organizations; they could not rely on white liberals because such people would always ally in the last resort with other whites rather than with blacks. He argued that blacks often oppressed themselves by accepting the second-class status accorded them by the apartheid system, and he stressed that they had to liberate themselves mentally as well as physically. He rejected, however, the use of violence adopted by the ANC and the PAC in the early 1960s and emphasized that only nonviolent methods should be used in the struggle against apartheid.

Biko's message had an immediate appeal; SASO expanded enormously, and its members established black self-help projects, including workshops and medical clinics, in many parts of South Africa. In 1972 the Black Peoples' Convention (BPC) was set up to act as a political umbrella organization for the adherents of black consciousness. Although the government had at first welcomed the development of black consciousness because the philosophy fit in with the racial separation inherent in apartheid, it sought to restrict the activities of Biko and his organizations when these took a more overtly political turn. In 1972, SASO organized strikes on university campuses resulting in the arrest of more than 600 students. Rallies held by SASO and the BPC in 1974 to celebrate the overthrow of Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique resulted in the banning of Biko and other black consciousness leaders and their arraignment on charges of fomenting terrorism.

Soweto, 1976

In 1974 the newly appointed minister of Bantu education, Michael C. Botha, and his deputy, Andries Treurnicht, decided to enforce a previously ignored provision of the Bantu Education Act that required Afrikaans to be used on an equal basis with English as a medium of instruction. A shortage of Afrikaans teachers and a lack of suitable textbooks had resulted in English and African languages being used as the languages of instruction. Because Afrikaans was identified by Africans, especially by the young and by those sympathetic to black consciousness, as the language of the oppressor, opposition to this new policy grew throughout 1975 and into 1976. Some African school boards refused to enforce the policy and saw their members dismissed by the government. Students began to boycott classes.

On June 16, 1976, hundreds of high-school students in Soweto, the African township southwest of Johannesburg, marched in protest against having to use Afrikaans. The police responded with tear gas and then with gunfire that left at least three dead and a dozen injured. The demonstrators, joined by angry crowds of Soweto residents, reacted by attacking and burning down government buildings, including administrative offices and beer halls. The government sent in more police and troops and quelled the violence within a few days but at the cost of several hundred African lives.

Similar outbreaks occurred elsewhere in South Africa, and violence continued throughout the rest of 1976 and into 1977. By February 1977, official figures counted 494 Africans, seventy-five coloureds, one Indian, and five whites killed. In August of that year, Steve Biko, who had been held in indefinite detention, died from massive head injuries sustained during police interrogation. By that time, SASO and the BPC had been banned and open black resistance had been brought to a halt.

South Africa History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress