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.