How did black consciousness impact on the labour movement in South Africa


How did black consciousness impact on the labour movement in South Africa

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  1. Summary of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM)

    The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was a grassroots anti-Apartheid activist movement that emerged in South Africa in the mid-1960s out of the political vacuumcreated by the jailing and banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress leadership after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. The BCM represented a social movement for political consciousness.

    Black Consciousnessorigins were deeply rooted in Christianity. In 1966, the Anglican Church under the incumbent, Archbishop Robert Selby Taylor, convened a meeting which later on led to the foundation of the University Christian Movement (UCM). This was to become the vehicle for Black Consciousness (George Muykuka)

    The BCM attacked what they saw as traditional white values, especially the “condescending” values of white people of liberal opinion. They refused to engage white liberal opinion on the pros and cons of black consciousness, and emphasised the rejection of white monopoly on truth as a central tenet of their movement. While this philosophy at first generated disagreement amongst black anti-Apartheid activists within South Africa, it was soon adopted by most as a positive development. As a result, there emerged a greater cohesiveness and solidarity amongst black groups in general, which in turn brought black consciousness to the forefront of the anti-Apartheid struggle within South Africa.

    The BCM’s policy of perpetually challenging the dialectic of Apartheid South Africa as a means of transforming Black thought into rejecting prevailing opinion or mythology to attain a larger comprehension brought it into direct conflict with the full force of the security apparatus of the Apartheid regime. “Black man, you are on your own” became the rallying cry as mushrooming activity committees implemented what was to become a relentless campaign of challenge to what was then referred to by the BCM as “the System”. It eventually sparked a confrontation on 16 June 1976 in the Soweto uprising, when 176 people were killed mainly by the South African Security Forces, as students marched to protest the use of the Afrikaans language in African schools. Unrest spread like wildfire throughout the country.

    Although it successfully implemented a system of comprehensive local committees to facilitate organised resistance, the BCM itself was decimated by security action taken against its leaders and social programs. By 19 June 1976, 123 key members had been banned and confined to remote rural districts. In 1977 all BCM related organisations were banned, many of its leaders arrested, and their social programs dismantled under provisions of the newly Implemented Internal Security Amendment Act. In September 1977, its banned National Leader, Steve Biko, died from injuries that resulted from interrogation while in the custody of the South African Security Police.

    The Ideology of the Black Consciousness Movement

    As appears on SA History:

    The emergence of the Black Consciousness movement that swept across the country in the 1970s can best be explained in the context of the events from 1960 onwards. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the National Party (NP) government, which was formed in 1947, intensified its repression to curb widespread civil unrest. It did this by passing harsher laws, extending its use of torture, imprisonment and detentions without trial.

    By the late 1960s, the government had jailed, banned or exiled the majority of the Liberation Movement’s leaders. In response to this, an intensified wave of tyranny, and a new set of organisations emerged. These organisations filled the vacuum created by the government’s suppression of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. United loosely around a set of ideas described as “Black Consciousness,” these organisations helped to educate and organise Black people, particularly the youth. In fact, the eruption of the Black Consciousness Movement signalled an end to the quiescence that followed the banning of the black political movements.

    The BCM urged a defiant rejection of apartheid, especially among Black workers and the youth. The South African Students Organisation (SASO) – an arm of the movement – was founded by Black students who refused to join NUSAS, another student led organization. At the same time, Black workers began to organise trade unions in defiance of anti-strike laws. In 1973, there were strikes throughout the nation, in cities like Durban. The collapse of Portuguese colonialism and the victories of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in Mozambique, and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in Angola, stimulated further activity against apartheid. This culminated in the Soweto Uprising of 1976.

    In 1976, student protests against Bantu education in Soweto, the Johannesburg informal settlement reserved for Africans, led to a two-year uprising that spread to Black townships across the country. The protests encompassed all Black grievances against the apartheid system, and in that period police reportedly killed many protesters, including schoolchildren. Workers then mobilised to protest police killings of innocent demonstrators.

    In the following year, boycotts and unrest among students and teachers grew after Steve Biko, a leader of SASO, died in a Pretoria detention cell. He had been detained by the police under the Terrorism Act, and after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the 1990s, it was revealed that he was tortured and killed by police. Within a month of Biko’s death, the government had detained scores of people and banned 18 Black Consciousness organizations, as well as two newspapers with a wide Black readership.

    The Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa is synonymous with its founder, Biko. From the beginning of Biko’s political life until his death, he remains one of the indisputable icons of the Black struggle against apartheid. As leader of the movement, he instilled courage among the masses to fight an unjust system under the banner of Black Consciousness. Defining Black Consciousness is no mean task. However, a broad understanding of the concept can be made from Biko’s speeches and writings, including those of his close friends and other writers.


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