Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Black Man, You Are on Your Own!": Making Race Consciousness in South African Thought, 1968-1972*

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Black Man, You Are on Your Own!": Making Race Consciousness in South African Thought, 1968-1972*

Article excerpt

South Africa does not let go of its heroes easily. A cursory glance at today's newspapers reveals that past triumphs yield multiple political resurrections.1 This is especially so when the hero has passed on; more so still when their deaths came in service of what became the "miraculous" transformation of 1994. This is true of individuals, like Steve Biko, and movements, like his own, the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s. South Africa's still conflict ridden present demands a usable past in which the struggle to end apartheid continues to play a meaningful role, much as South African historiography's turn to political economy in the 1980s itself provided a usable past for a generation of activists. History is not history there.

But what about academia? What does scholarly inquiry into the past demand? Over the past few years I have been researching what I thought would be the first historical monograph on the Black Consciousness Movement between 1968-1977; I had hoped to add that decade's characters and stories into the grand narrative of South African's struggle against, and ultimate victory over, apartheid. However, that is not exactly what I found. Although the struggle did (eventually) come and 1970s activists played roles of lesser and greater distinction in subsequent events, I found- especially between 1968 and 1972- not only politics, but a critical period of intellectual production that explored issues more fundamental than political process; more fundamental, even, than Biko and others' reputations as "revolutionaries" would suggest. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, students, church people, and other activists reassessed the nature of life under apartheid; they looked critically at themselves and at their community and argued that if some sort of change was going to come, it needed to begin at the level of the individual, on the fraught terrain of consciousness.

These were four critical years: they encompassed the end of the 1960s, the decade that had opened with Sharpeville and seen internal resistance to apartheid either still or go deep underground; and they opened the 1970s, the decade that would soon see workers shut down South Africa's major port and students take to the streets in a more general rejection of the white National Party's system. The period 1968 to 1972 provides the critical transition, connecting the apparent quiet of the 1960s with the fervor of the late 1970s. What precipitated this development? Below I argue that the answer does not lie exclusively or even primarily with political pronouncements, but instead with students' self-conscious exploration of their existential circumstances; in ideas, like that coined by Barney Pityana, Biko's successor as the president of the South African Students Organisation (SASO): "black man, you are on your own."2

The last was an oft-repeated dictum. Pityana' s assertion has often been interpreted to reflect black university students' decision, in 1968, to withdraw from the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), an event that was arguably the most consequential of these four years.3 The conflict with white liberals is typically suggested to have been the main thrust of Black Consciousness' early days and, cast as such, a preview of its later and more renowned confrontations with the apartheid state. This interpretation is in some sense supported by Biko's earliest writings, which were about white liberals' appropriate role in the anti-apartheid straggle. Yet I think that the ideas contained within Pityana' s phrase more appropriately belonged not only to the conflict with white liberals and against the white state, but to a conversation that activists were determined to first have among blacks. Indeed, from the vantage point of mid-1970s struggles, Biko reflected that in the early 1970s, the phrase reflected not only autonomy from white interference, but also "confidence ... dignity and self-respect. …

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