The Black Consciousness philosophy gained most of its support in the secondary schools and universities. The role played by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in the Soweto revolt is demonstrated by the students' demand for an educational system that was representative of Africa and Africans. Most student leaders raised the concern that the current educational system was Euro-centric, and undermined African achievement.
The Africanist revival of African history that centred around themes such as African ‘civilisations' and Black people’s ‘heroic achievements', made a deep impression on many university and high school students. As early as the late 1960s, university students, who were to become student leaders in the 1970s, were already questioning the domination of White liberal politics in the freedom struggle.
The imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction came at a politically volatile time, as the 'centre of gravity' in Black student politics had shifted dramatically in the mid-1970s. The emerging Black Consciousness philosophy was transforming the way young Black people thought, and it boosted their self esteem. The introduction of Afrikaans frustrated this change. According to Biko, the difficulty of coping with a foreign language in schools caused 'an inferiority complex.' He added that, the language problem “inculcates in many black students a sense of inadequacy. You tend to think that it is not just a matter of language. You tend to tie it up with intelligence.”
For this generation of Black students, Afrikaans was the language of the police and their employers, and an instrument for giving orders. They believed that the imposition of Afrikaans was designed to train them for servitude. Afrikaans was also, as one student put it, 'a terrible academic pain'. “The kids were failing exams in thousands,” recalled a Black journalist. This was because for many years Maths, Science and other subjects were taught in English. The sudden shift to Afrikaans gave rise to difficulties in the student's understanding of jargon and technical terms.
According to Mono Badela (interviewed by Mufson in January 1988), “...[the students] saw Afrikaans as a means of suppression...suppressing them from advancing educationally.” It was due to these problems that, at the end of May 1976, student leaders in Soweto travelled secretively from school to school to rally fellow students to protest against Afrikaans. Student grievances against the use of an unfamiliar language eventually culminated in the Soweto riots of 16 June 1976.
The impact of SASO on schools led to the formation of the South African Students Movement (SASM). Although SASM was an autonomous group, it grew out of the BC. It seems that in a number of schools, teachers were sympathetic and supportive of the student movement because it had included an educational support mechanism to assist students with exam preparations and university studies. As a result, it was able to operate from school classrooms to organise and educate scholars about the BC philosophy.
Out of SASM, another new and autonomous body emerged. This was the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC) and it was to play a decisive role in the organisation of the 16 June riots. The growth of the SSRC was noticeable within a short period of time. By the end of 1976, its reputation was acknowledged by the daily newspaper The Star in its editorial, which urged the government to accept their demands.
The editorial stated that:
“Its [SSRC demands] essentially a plea for peace pegged on two conditions – that all students held in detention without trial are released and that “police harassment” of schools should end ...the SSRC seems to us a reasonable starting point for some sort of township détente ...the SSRC may not speak for all the township's youth, but it is the only visible and legal organ of a key sector of black opinion.”
It appears that the inspiration for the youngsters did not come from the ANC and PAC movements in exile. Mpho Mashinini, who was sixteen at the time of the student revolt, recalled thinking, “We were the real struggle [not the ANC under Oliver Tambo, the real heroes. [Youths] viewed the ANC as old and useless and saw themselves as the new fire.”
That fire began with Black Consciousness and its leading proponent, Biko. Biko had diagnosed why Black South Africans were too weak to free themselves years after most of Africa had become independent of the colonial powers. That weakness had little to do with the force of arms, he said, and everything to do with the power of the mind. “Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills,” he wrote. “And this latter effect is probably the one that creates mountains of obstacles in the normal course of emancipation of the black people.”
On 13 June 1976 the South African Students Movement (SASM) Action Committee resolved to organise a peaceful protest march against the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. The 16 June riots demonstrated the impact of BC, and marked its emergence as a revolutionary consciousness which influenced and motivated Black students across the country to challenge oppressive structures and ideas.
BC, SASO and the Soweto Riots proved that children of school-going age were a potential political constituency in their own right. The new political consciousness instilled in the youth obviously agitated the Apartheid regime. The process leading up to the Soweto uprising saw Black school-going youth catapult themselves to the forefront of militant opposition to Apartheid. However, the events of 16 June were the unintended result of a series of ad hoc decisions made by a young and patchily organised student movement comprised of both boys and girls.
The process itself reveals all the elements which contributed to the “take-off” of the youth factor - principally the growth of a powerful, aggressive, but as yet untested generational consciousness. This consciousness was fuelled by widespread economic and social grievances, and the absence of political channels for its articulation.
The 1976 riots drew white attention to Black Consciousness, but it must be noted that Biko had nurtured his views over the previous decade. Due to his earlier role and his part in influencing the riots, Biko became one of the most carefully watched people in the country and was detained several times. Yet his ideas continued to influence high-school students through the church, and debating and cultural societies outside of state control.