What Was the Black Consciousness Movement?

Voice of Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa

Biko Family Defiant © Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Biko Family Defiant. © Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was an influential student movement in the 1970s in Apartheid South Africa. The Black Consciousness Movement promoted a new identity and politics of racial solidarity and became the voice and spirit of the anti-apartheid movement at a time when both the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress had been banned in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre.

The BCM reached its zenith in the Soweto Student Uprising of 1976 but declined quickly afterward.

Rise of the Black Consciousness Movement

The Black Consciousness Movement began in 1969 when African students walked out of the National Union of South African Students, which was multiracial but white-dominated, and founded the South African Students Organization (SASO). The SASO was an explicitly non-white organization open to students classified as African, Indian, or Coloured under Apartheid Law.

It was to unify non-white students and provide a voice for their grievances, but the SASO spearheaded a movement that reached far beyond students. Three years later, in 1972, the leaders of this Black Consciousness Movement formed the Black People’s Convention(BPC) to reach out to and galvanize adults and non-students.

Aims and Forerunners of the BCM

Loosely speaking, the BCM aimed to unify and uplift non-white populations, but this meant excluding a previous ally, liberal anti-apartheid whites.

As Steve Biko, the most prominent Black Consciousness leader, explained, when militant nationalists said that white people did not belong in South Africa, they meant that “we wanted to remove [the white man] from our table, strip the table of all trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African style, settle down and then ask him to join us on our own terms if he liked.”

The elements of Black pride and celebration of black culture linked the Black Consciousness Movement back to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as the ideas of pan-Africanism and the Negritude Movement. It also arose at the same time as Black Power movement in the United States, and these movements inspired each other; Black Consciousness was both militant and avowedly non-violent. The Black Consciousness movement was also inspired by the success of the FRELIMO in Mozambique.  

Soweto and the Afterlives of the BCM

The exact connections between the Black Consciousness Movement and the Soweto Student Uprising are debated, but for the Apartheid government, the connections were clear enough. In the aftermath of Soweto, the Black People’s Convention and several other Black Consciousness movements were banned and their leadership arrested, many after being beaten and tortured, including Steve Biko who died in police custody.

The BPC was partially resurrected in the Azania People’s Organization, which is still active in South African politics.

Sources:

Steve, Biko, I Write What I like: Steve Biko. A Selection of his Writings, ed. by Aelred Stubbs, African Writers Series. (Cambridge: Proquest, 2005), 69.

Desai, Ashwin, “Indian South Africans and the Black Consciousness Movement under Apartheid.” Diaspora Studies 8.1 (2015): 37-50. 

Hirschmann, David. “The Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa.”  The Journal of Modern African Studies. 28.1 (Mar., 1990): 1-22.