The Black Consciousness Movement in South African Literature

by Amatoritsero (Godwin) Ede


Perhaps the antecedents of any serious modern black South African literary production could be located in the fifties when political repression was at its most physically visible, reaching a climax in the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960. Writing (especially Prose) was curtailed by book bans and censorship, such that magazines like The Drum, The Classic and The Purple Renoster, New Classic, New Coin, New Nation, Izwi and Ophir became alternative outlets for furtive creative efforts – usually poetry. Nevertheless the urgent desire to extensively address the socio-political ferment in a country whose apartheid regime had turned literature into a ‘clandestine’ activity finally largely drove literary production out of south Africa in the sixties. Those writers, mostly still in their formative years and living under repression within the country, still wrote but their efforts, in the main, did not really appear in book form until much later.

Emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement

Naturally the exodus of Black south African writers created a literary depression, and a vacuum. More a political expedient, the Black Consciousness Movement came into existence in the womb of the South African students Organisation (SASO) about the same time and became a rallying point for cultural rejuvenation and artistic production.

The Black Consciousness Movement developed at the end of the sixties as an ideological correlative of the SASO founded in 1969. On the heels of the Sharpville massacre notable black political organisations like the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-African Congress (PAC) were driven underground and there was no visible platform of opposition anymore.

There was a huge exodus of African intellectuals, some of whom were members of these organisations [and] these exiled groups worked tirelessly to fill in the vacuum by re-establishing underground organisations inside the home-base […] especially in institutions of learning like high schools, boarding schools, theological seminaries and universities. It was from the black universities, in the late sixties, that first efforts were made to establish an above-ground all-black organisation .

SASO was carried unto the political and cultural arena on the back of The church – namely the University Christian Movement (UCM). The latter had a mixed membership of black and white students and as was to be expected in an atmosphere of legally enforced segregation there was antipathies between them. Besides “[…] hypocrisy and arrogance on the part of the white students made integration impossible and antagonised black feelings. Ignorance and complacency of the white students about black experience drove another wedge between the students. An inferiority complex created mistrust on the part of the black students as to the sincerity of their white counter-parts [… and above all these …], there was a desperate necessity for the creation of an “independent” organization whose initiatives were to co-ordinate with the underground organizations inside and outside South Africa” .

The Black and white memberships of the UCM naturally sheered off into black and white caucuses respectively by the end of the sixties, with the former maturing on the wings of serious debates on Black theology into a black student organisation (SASO) completely different in aspiration and vision from the multi-racial but predominantly white determined National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). SASO was formed in 1968 at a conference in Marianhill and inaugurated in 1969 at Turfloop. It was “the prime mover of the Black consciousness Movement in South Africa” (Motlhabi, 1984; 106 in Snail,1992; 243).

Historical Background to the BCM

Apart from the immediate and heated political situation in south Africa itself there was some external influences which informed the idea of black self-awareness and national unity propagated by BCM. On the one hand, there was the influence of the African political awakening of the 1880s (Motlhabi, 1984; 107 in Snail, 1992; 244) and the development of African Nationalism inspiring the formation of the ANC in 1912, and on the other hand there was the rise of African nationalism all over the continent leading to agitations for independence from the colonial triumvirate of Britain, France and Portugal. “In the writings of Steve Biko, [the moving force behind SASO] there is evidence that he drew examples from the works of Kaunda, Nyerere, Aime Cesair, Nkrumah, Amilcal Cabral, and even Samora Machel” (Snail; 244). Fidel Castro, Frantz Fanon, Du-Bois, Marcus Garvey and Mao were other influences. Some schools of thought also argue that the American Civil Rights Movement reflected itself in the character of the BCM. According to Biko himself: “At this time we were also influenced by the development of the Black consciousness movement in the United States. There were differences of course, […] but I do want to acknowledge the inspiration of the black consciousness movement in South Africa by the development of Black thought in the USA in the 1960s.” (Zytra, 1976; 5 in Snail 1992; 357).

The aims of the BCM may be formally summed up in the words of Barney Pitaya, the Vice-president of SASO: “To make the black man see himself, to Pump life into his empty shell; to impulse him with dignity; to remind him of his complicity in the crime allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth […] This means Blacks must build themselves into a position of non-dependence upon Whites. They must work towards a self-sufficient political, social and economic unit … Black man, you are on your own!” (Hope and Young, 1981; 79 in Snail 1992; 246).

Apart from the message of political consciousness, the BCM carried an urgent cultural manifesto in the weather of its being. The questioning of Christianity inherent in the idea of black theology is significant in this respect. Black students’ participation in the UCM exposed its white/black hierarchy to them, leading to thoughts of having a black church. “This is precisely were the Black Consciousness Movement began; for the ideology it developed rejected the status quo to produce a new Christian paradigm bent on revolutionizing both the material structure and cultural super-structure of South Africa.” (Fatton, 1986; 67 in Snail, 1992; 255). The thesis of those schools of thought favouring a major influence on BCM from Black politics in the USA is supported by the fact that SASO’s formation coincided with the decision of the church in America to address the plight of the American Blacks within its ranks. In the same spirit and in order to steer the South African church away from its century-old manipulation and prevent its being continually used as a tool of subtle, insidious political and cultural oppression, SASO called for Black theology. To quote Biko once more: “I grew up in the Anglican church, so this question is an important one for me. But it is a troublesome question. For in South Africa, Christianity for most people is purely a formal matter. We as Blacks cannot forget the fact that Christianity in African is tied up with the entire colonial process. This meant that Christians came with a form of culture which they called Christian but which in effect was western, and which expressed itself as an imperial culture as far as Africa was concerned […] When an African became a Christian, as a rule he or she was expected to drop traditional garb and dress like a westerner. The same with many customs dear to Blacks, which they were supposed to drop for supposed “Christian”…. reasons”. (Zystra, 1976; 5 ff. in Snail, 1992; 256). Thus the BCM was a call for a complex of political, religious and cultural awakening. Writers of the BCM period were in the fore-front of heeding that cultural call as reflected in their poetry, for poetry – and plays – were the major genres of that period. There are several reasons for the shift in genre.

Genre shift.

Before and after Sharpeville most pioneer black modern South African writers were either banned, incarcerated or exiled in the main, such that there was a clear division between exile literature and literature within the country. Although there was prose writings by first generation writers, being outside and away from the eye of the storm must have made them turn to Autobiographies. For example before writing autobiographies in exile, Peter Abrahams, who left south Africa in 1936 at the age of 20 – relatively earlier than others, had also written (in exile again) Mine Boy (1946), The Path of thunder (1948), Wild Conquest (1950) and A Wreath for Udomo (1956). Those writers who went out by the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties like Ezekiel Mphahlele, Todd Matshikiza, Bloke Modisane, Alfred Hutchinson and Noni Jabavu also wrote prose but usually only memories of their experiences in South Africa, such that before the Black Consciousness period Autobiographies were the literary expedient for the ‘far-removed’.

In the sixties there was a drastic shift towards Poetry amongst those South African writers who lived and worked inside South Africa. There are several reasons for this – an obvious one being that the immediacy of the political realities demanded poetry, which does not need the long consistent work normal with prose. According to Mphahlele:

Poetry may seem a quicker way of doing things. You can write a few short verses and get to the punch line quicker, this may allow you to achieve a kind of unifying sensibility which you do not find easily or readily in the novel. […] You can compress reality into a single statement. It is a lot quicker that way. […] It’s become a fugitive means of expression. And they seem to be able to express themselves much quicker in poetry than they would if they tried writing a novel.

There is also an argument that the poetic form was simply less obvious and would bye-pass government censorship. Nadine Gordimer was one such person. She believed that “[…] black writers have had to look for [literary] survival away from the explicit if not to the cryptic then to the implicit [and that ] in demotic, non-literary terms, a poem can be both hiding-place and megaphone.” (Gordimer, Black Interpreters; 52 in Egner, 1998; 176). Nevertheless Poetry did get banned. The first collection of poems to be banned in south Africa through the instrument of the publication Act was Cry Rage by James Mathews and Gladys Thomas. And subsequent poetry books suffered the same fate. This probably has to do with the fact that the poets were too emotionally close to the subject and not subtle but rather explicit in their choice of diction and imagery. This is particularly true of the Black consciousness period.

In retrospect one could say that perhaps one good reason for the persistence of Poetry, apart from the fact that the government tolerated it more readily since they assumed it reached a smaller audience, was the performance culture that began to emerge in the face of iron control and the lack of adequate publication outlets. Here it is important to remember that literature anywhere in Africa was actually orature before the advent of the print media. And ‘orature’ took several forms like parables, fables, work songs, praise songs, lullabies, genealogy chants, the folk ballad, the dirge, the abuse, and stories, all verbally transferred from generation to generation. In modern times, and lacking other media, poetry simply reverted to its oral roots in the form of readings and performances. In the BCM era under-ground political meetings must have been a good place – and a large enough audience – for a performance or recital, especially so if poetry was an ideological accompaniment, as it was to some extent, of the freedom struggle. This is not to say that poetry was not being actively read also. For example, on the question of audience-reach, it should be noted that even Mtshali’s Sounds of a Cow-Hide Drum (as text) reached a print-run of 16000 copies within a year. So there was not just only a ready listening but also a reading audience. Moreover, poems of the BCM era were urgent, palpable rather than mystical or obscure, written ‘to be read while you run’.

The dramatic form was also notable alongside poetry during the BCM era. Maganyi believes that […] “Gordimer’s thesis is an important one though if taken too hastily it may tend to obscure other operative circumstances that need to be taken into account. Poetry and, to a lesser extent, the dramatic form appear to be the most appropriate mediums for creative individuals in the grip of an experiential overload. The artist who has a lot to say and wants to express it forcefully and in a hurry will choose the poem, a play, or for that matter the short story”. Nevertheless there was little if any prose writing at the period in question. The idea of ‘performance’ as the chief means of reaching the public – especially the black public, is supported by the fact that drama had no fixed places of enactment as in a ready-made stage in a city hall with ready-made seats for the audience. It was most impromptu and really ‘dramatic’ as it took place without warning anywhere people were gathered in large numbers, for example at a train station or in a bus; and before arrests could be made actors and audience had already moved on. The stage was ubiquitous and invisible. This came to be labelled ‘Guerrilla Theater’.

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s.moodley August 27, 2007 - 7:35 am

i would like to read your views on plays, performances used to raise political consciousness in the 70s

Anonymous December 26, 2005 - 12:48 pm

i am writing a advanced higher dissertation on the BCM and this article was ideal!It has allowed me to create the framework for my dissertation,giving me a clear plan and method of thinking


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