Black consciousness in South Africa

November 2000, South Africa

This article has been reproduced from the African Socialist (December 2000), a journal of the World Socialist Movement.

What follows is a text submitted by Crifford Marathodi , a W.S.M. member in South Africa, with an introduction by Ben Malcom of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.


This article, focusing on certain strands of the South African “Left” (identified as belonging to the “Black Consciousness” tendency which evolved in parallel with the A.N.C. and its satellites), is a historical account rather than an analysis or critique. Socialists will no doubt form their own conclusions.

It seems evident, though, that this is the history of movements that exist to take up the running of capitalism and whose goals are, at most, a form of state capitalism dressed up in radical rhetoric. The groups described here seem to be classic examples of “alternative bourgeoisies” aspiring to state power in the name of “the workers”. Of course, the major players in the national liberation movement in South Africa have already been incorporated into the political establishment. The A.N.C. and its friends have made for a government that the predominantly “white” bourgeoisie are distinctly unterrified by. Indeed, some of its leading lights have even been absorbed into the lower reaches of the capitalist class itself (e.g. erstwhile trade union “militant” cum millionaire, Cyril Ramaphosa). But the Left, as always, will reproduce some new “extreme” manifestation to offer yet another bogus alternative to capitalism (as seems to have happened in the most recent case of S.O.P.A.). Being representatives of a kind of left wing capitalism such organisations – like S.O.P.A., A.Z.A.P.O. and others – do not propose to get rid of the market economy and install a classless society but, on the contrary, take for granted the continued existence of the state, the market and wage labour. In short, capitalism. It is interesting that they have formulated a theory of “racial capitalism” which takes the spotlight off capitalism per se.

However, it would seem that A.Z.A.P.O., S.O.P.A. etc. , have long missed the boat. It strikes me that ( as with the A.N.C., SACP, P.A.C. etc.) the “Black Consciousness” movements were offering the South African ruling class a way out of the situation they had dug themselves into – that is, a situation where the principal economic power in Africa was being held back by the historical encumbrance of racial conflict. Of course, South Africa has finally embraced “modernisation” and can now forge ahead with a more efficient and “inclusive” exploitation of the working class.

A.Z.A.P.O. etc.’s commitment to capitalism is also evident in its advocacy of such unequivocally “state capitalist” measures as nationalisation of the land. This is a measure usually used to abolish a surviving peasant economy, turn the population into exploitable proletarians and fully establish capitalist relations of production (as happened in Soviet Russia). Like the Bolsheviks, A.Z.A.P.O. make use of the rhetoric about “workers struggle”, “socialism” etc. However, South African capitalism has found no need to incorporate these “Left” ideas or to draw upon their advocates as an emergency, “radicalising” ruling elite; the A.N.C. has already done an effective job of marshaling African workers behind the “national (i.e. capitalists’) interest”, without much upheaval for the bosses.

The history of these national liberation groups is a footnote to the march of capitalism in southern Africa. However, the workers struggle has, at least, achieved a significant gain: it has won for the workers of South Africa the very tools with which they, as a more homogenised, less racially divided, class can now effectively bring about their own emancipation.

Ben Malcom

In order to understand the history of the Azanian People’s Organisation (A.Z.A.P.O.), we need to simultaneously discuss the history of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and what they both stand for.

The BCM, which was formed in 1967, was the umbrella body of all organisations subscribing to the philosophy of black consciousness, including A.Z.A.P.O.. Some of these were:

  • South African Students Organisation (S.A.S.O.) which was formed to cater only for the aspirations of black students, especially at tertiary level.
  • Black Community Programme (B.C.P.) which aimed at coordinating black welfare projects.
  • Black Peoples’s Convention (B.P.C.) which sought initially to unite black voluntary associations such as the Association for the Education & Cultural Advancement of African People of S.A. (A.S.S.E.C.A.). The B.P.C. became a political organisation with Steve Biko, its first honorary president.
  • South African Students Movement (S.A.S.M.) which catered for Interests of high-school pupils.

As black consciousness philosophy was clarified and elaborated numerous organisations came into being e.g. the Black Allied Workers Union, the SA Black Social Workers Association, the Black Women’s Federation and the SA Black Travellers Association. All these organisations were engaged in promoting the cause of black liberation. By 1977 there were a great number of institutional carriers of black consciousness. A.Z.A.P.O. was launched in 1978 as a vehicle of the black consciousness philosophy, long after the emergence of the BCM. It articulates what the BCM stands for. And it argues that South Africa should be renamed Azania – just as other African countries have undergone a change of name – to signify the achievement of national liberation

The BCM’s basic philosophy

This comprises a number of aspects:

  • An awareness of, and a pride in, blackness and a rejection of white stereotypes of black people.
  • Solidarity through group power and building a broad base from which to counter the white strategy of divide-and-rule.
  • Rejection of values that made blacks aliens in their own land.
  • A belief that liberation from psychological alienation and physical oppression can only be achieved by blacks for blacks and could only become meaningful once they eradicated their “slave mentality”and feelings of inadequacy.
  • Acknowledging the religious quality of traditional and modern African culture as expressed in Black Theology
  • Engagement in welfare work and programmes of self-help run by blacks for blacks e.g the Black community programmes
  • A critical examination of white racism and capitalist exploitation and the roots of psychological servitude which have emasculated blacks during years of oppression.
  • The idea that South African history can be interpreted as a dialectical process. From the thesis of white racism and the antithesis of black solidarity will emerge a true humanity without regard to race or colour.*
  • Economic progress of blacks through cooperatives, “Buy Black” campaigns and trade unionism
  • To articulate and direct feelings of alienation
  • To engage in “conscientisation” – a method forged in Latin America to enable largely illiterate adults to “name” their world of oppression, to develop critical tools of analysis and to mobilise their resources to change their life-world.
  • A sense of self-reliance, initiative and solidarity

Formative influences

The BCM filled the vacuum created by the banning of the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania in 1960, after Sharpeville. Although it owes something to black political thought in the USA, it has its roots in South African history. Its ideology, policy and strategy were designed to fit contemporary black experience in South AfricaThe ferment among black Americans in the 60s influenced the emergence of black consciousness as a socio-political force in South Africa. The writings and activities of Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, George Jackson, Malcolm X, James Cone and Albert Cleage played a role in the BCM’s formation.

However, the difference between the war waged by blacks in America and those in SA was that the former did not challenge the American social and political system as such. They demanded full integration based on the accepted principle of equality. As a minority they wanted to exercise their rights as already guaranteed by the US constitution. In contrast, blacks in SA argued they constituted the majority of the population and could no longer be denied full citizenship. Both were victims of racism. But South African blacks maintained that full citizenship involved a radical dismantling of the South African system because its then constitution, economy and laws explicitly favoured the dominant white group.

Black consciousness in South Africa was subject to other influences as well: the anti-colonialist writings of African leaders such as Julius Nyere, Kenneth Kuanda, Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and Franz Fanon; the protracted struggle for independence in Mozambique and Angola; the 1960s student revolts in the Europe and the USA; diverse universal influences, such as continental humanist philosophy, the writings of non-African Third World leaders like Fidel Castro and Mao Tse Tung, Paul Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, and Latin American Liberation Theology, which all had an impact on the young black intellectuals who fashioned the philosophy of black consciousness.

Black Communalism

The term that black consciousness gave to its political and economic policies was “black communalism”. Black intellectuals saw a close link between the politics of white domination and the economics of capitalism. Black consciousness developed a political and economic policy aimed at modifying the worst elements of capitalism. The BCM asserted that social and political change in South Africa will only have meaning if there was a corresponding change in the country’s economy. Such change would require a fundamental redistribution of wealth and resources in a land where these were markedly skewed in favour of whites. This re-structuring of the economy necessitated public intervention which, of course, presupposed a change in political power.

In economic terms, black communalism is rooted in traditional African culture. The BCM believes that Africa has always been characterised by an ‘indigenous socialism’. Thus:

  • The absence of private land ownership in Africa.
  • The egalitarian nature of traditional society.
  • The network of reciprocal relations and obligation based on an extended kinship system.

According to the BCM, black communalism, as an economic policy was based on the principle of sharing and emphasised communal ownership of property and wealth. Black communalism attempted to adapt this principle to the conditions of modern South Africa with its highly industrialised and sophisticated economy. It also envisaged a larger role for the state in planning and controlling economic development.

The BCM’s economic policy in the form of a 30-point statement of policy was published by the B.P.C. in 1971. Amongst other things, it sought to avoid the dilemma of choosing between capitalism and scientific socialism. In the long run, however, it opted for a “socialist solution” as an authentic expression of black communalism. The 30 point statement of policy proposed:

  • Significant modification of the SA economy through state ownership of all land, state participation in industry and commerce (especially in mining and forestry) and an even larger role for the state in planning and control.
  • State supervision of workers’ rights and regular wage reviews, agricultural cooperatives and state assisted markets, minimum foreign investment in commerce and industry and state welfare for the aged and infirm.

This programme, it was hoped, would ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. It was believed the final shape of economic policy would be determined by the outcome of bargaining between blacks and whites. Together, they would determine the economic policy of the country. 

The political goal of black communalism was an open society based on universal adult suffrage irrespective of race, colour, religion or nationality The practical consequence of this would be majority rule in the sense of a predominantly, but not exclusively, black representation in parliament. Black communalism favoured the term “non-racialism” rather than “multi-racialism”because (ironically) it emphasised individual rather than group rights. It advocated universal adult suffrage in a modern democratic unitary state. And It rejected the apartheid idea that blacks should exercise their political rights in independent homelands separate from the so called white areas.

Despite the rejection of violence by the BCM, once it was perceived that black consciousness was not simply a cultural movement but would have important political repercussions, security raids and bannings began. Liberals expressed their fear that black consciousness was anti-white because it defined itself in opposition to white liberal institutions while criticising liberal precepts( like the notion of “multi-racialism”)

Hostility towards the BCM mounted. On 19th October 1977 most known black consciousness organisations were outlawed by the SA government. Many of its leaders were banned, detained or forced into exile.

Black consciousness after 1977

After the outlawing of these BCM organisations the question was would black consciousness survive as an ideology? What form would it take and what would be the strength of its support? What new carriers of its philosophy would emerge? The following changes occurred:

  • Greater acceptance of revolutionary violence and a growing interest in radical (“Marxist”) ideology.
  • Liberation struggle defined in terms of class as well as race.
  • Decreasing use of racially exclusive rhetoric such as “black consciousness.”
  • Growing use of phrases such as the “non-racial democratic struggle” signifying a shift from race to class as the basic category of analysis.

The BCM must be seen in the context of these changes. “Marxists” criticised the BCM pre-1977 for its failure to understand the nature of capitalism and the class struggle in SA. Such criticism came to be increasingly heeded. At A.Z.A.P.O.’s 1981 annual congress, it was asserted: “How to interpret black consciousness as an ideology for liberation is now the black consciousness dilemma. In the early days of black consciousness it was more a matter of conscientising blacks about their oppression. Now it is a question of how to galvanise blacks into a vehicle for liberation, for repossessing the land”

The answer to this self-imposed question was an attempt to transform black consciousness into class-consciousness. Internally, it meant shaping a concrete political strategy based on class interests centred on the role of workers. Attention was given to the ways in which the generation of wealth and capital in SA is made possible by the collective effort of black workers. Black consciousness had hitherto underestimated the role of the black worker. Black power could, if properly organised, exert enormous pressure on the economy and, thereby, on the political system, it was observed. But this shift by black consciousness towards an emphasis on class struggle did not rule out racial conflict. Indeed, the two were interlocked: “it is economic and political exploitation that has reduced the black people into a class”

New Black Consciousness movements

A.Z.A.P.O. was launched in 1978 to fill the vacuum caused by the banning of the BCM just as the latter had come into being as a result of the banning of the A.N.C. and the P.A.C. in 1960. After its launch A.Z.A.P.O. took black consciousness beyond the phase of black awareness into class struggle. Its first president was Curtis Nkondo. A.Z.A.P.O. envisaged a future state in which all persons shall have the right to property and free participation in the political machinery of the country.However, as whites were part and parcel of the oppressive system they were not permitted to become members of A.Z.A.P.O.. For A.Z.A.P.O. there could be no meaningful integration between unequals. Its identification with “the workers” was seen as a way of counteracting the charge that it was elitist. But others argue that it has not got beyond the rhetoric of worker participation.

In June 1983 it launched the National Forum (NF) as a strategic response to proposed legislation to bring about constitutional reform as well as affecting the freedom of movement of blacks in SA. The NF adopted the “Manifesto of the Azanian People” as its policy statement . Its four main principles were

  • Anti-racism and anti-imperialism
  • Non-collaboration with the oppressor and his political instruments.
  • Independent working class organisations.
  • Opposition to all ruling class parties.

The Manifesto opened with the statement: “Our struggle for national liberation is directed against the system of racial capitalism which hold the people of Azania (SA) in bondage for the benefit of the small minority of white capitalists and their allies, the white working class and the reactionary sections of the black middle class..Apartheid will be eradicated with the system of racial capitalism”

It ended with the demand for a democratic anti-racist workers republic in Azania where the workers interests shall be paramount through workers control of production, distribution and exchange. A.Z.A.P.O. identify the root problem in SA not as racialism but “racial capitalism”. Its policy extends black consciousness philosophy in two ways. Firstly, it recognises the collaboration within the system of some blacks because it is in their “class interest”. Secondly, it insists on the importance of trade unionism as an instrument that can bring about the redistribution of power. Surprisingly A.Z.A.P.O. has no formal links with significant labour organisations.

While post-1977 A.Z.A.P.O. (along with its creation, the National Forum) emerged as the primary internal expression of black consciousness, a number of organisations (such as the B.P.C. and S.A.S.O.) that had been outlawed came together to form the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA) in 1979. The BCMA regarded itself as the external wing of the BCM and, in its pronouncements, it arguably evinced an even greater degree of radicalisation. The BCMA, in exile, released a statement asserting that black consciousness is a liberatory ideology based on the “principles of scientific socialism” It also recognised the role of the oppressed black worker as a major factor for liberation and the creation of the “democratic socialist state of Azania” However the BCMA began to experience an exodus of members who joined the A.N.C. and left it devoid of a prominent black leadership

The student wing of A.Z.A.P.O. is the Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO) . It was formed in November 1979 in an attempt to forge a movement among students after the banning of S.A.S.O.. It recognised the need for blacks and whites to work together, contrary to what A.Z.A.P.O. espouses. As its president, J.Phaahla put it: “We (must) understand very clearly the difference between a democratic non-racial alliance and a liberal multi-racial jargon.. One of the future tasks is to draw more people into the democratic front, including whites who have come to accept the righteousness of our demands.”

Another student organisation, the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) stood in conscious opposition to those organisations which claimed to be inspired by black consciousness. In 1982 Wantu Zenzile, its president stated:“The struggle knows no colour. The enemy is neither black nor white. This means the solution will never simply be a black government…We must work together towards a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa”

These two student organisations have shifted more radically than A.Z.A.P.O. and, in my estimation, cannot be regarded as black consciousness organisations.

Mention should finally be made of the Socialist Party of Azania (S.O.P.A.) launched on 21 March 1998. Not much is known about this organisation which can be regarded as a “Johnny-come- lately” in SA politics. It appears to have come about as a result of disagreements within the leadership of A.Z.A.P.O.. Nevertheless it is, strictly speaking, a product of A.Z.A.P.O. and largely embraces the views of the latter In its founding statement it asserts the need to:“build a strong socialist party based on opposition to all forms of racism , sexism and capitalist exploitation by means of a leadership of the socialist revolution by the black working class and its party. Only the black working class and the rural poor have the necessary class interest to create a Socialist Workers Republic of Azania”

S.O.P.A. can thus be seen – along with A.Z.A.P.O. and the Pan-African Congress of Azania – as part of the “Azanian Tendency” within South African politics today.

Crifford Marathodi (South Africa)

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