Spartacist South Africa No. 14
From the Archives of Marxism
Biko’s Black Consciousness: A Liberal Nationalist Programme
We reprint below an article originally titled “Behind South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement” from Young Spartacus No. 74 (Summer 1979). Young Spartacus was published by the Spartacus Youth League, then the youth organisation allied with our American comrades of the Spartacist League/U.S. The article reviews two then-recently published books: I Write What I Like by Steve Biko and Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology by Gail M. Gerhart. This incisive Marxist review of the origins of Black Consciousness ideology is timely as the betrayals of the ANC/SACP/COSATU Tripartite Alliance capitalist government have led many student activists to turn to “Africanist” variants of black nationalism for an alternative.
The indented quote at the end of the article below includes a demand that we have subsequently repudiated, namely the call for a “constituent assembly based on universal suffrage”. We sought in this way to address the democratic aspirations of the disenfranchised masses and provide a vehicle through which the working class, at the head of the oppressed masses, could be mobilised for socialist revolution. However, a constituent assembly is a form of bourgeois government, and thus to call for one is not a democratic demand at all; indeed this demand is in contradiction to the struggle for a workers government. Our international organisation concluded in late 2011, in light of extensive historical experience, that for communists to raise this demand can only create illusions in capitalist democracy (see “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand” in Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-2013).
The article also contains the following sentence: “Only the proletariat, standing at the head of the peasantry and establishing a black-centered workers and peasants government, can secure liberation by a workers revolution that smashes apartheid.” But due to the dispossession of black Africans from their land (for example through the 1913 Natives Land Act, which demarcated the most barren 13 per cent of the country as “Native Reserves”), South Africa has no peasantry to speak of. Instead, hundreds of thousands of landless black and coloured farm labourers toil on highly mechanised and capital-intensive commercial farms, still largely owned by whites. Spartacist/South Africa stands for the struggle for a black-centred workers government, which, unlike the current government of frontmen for the overwhelmingly white capitalist rulers, would expropriate the productive lands without compensation and convert them to collective and state farms.
* * *
Soweto, June 16, 1976. Ten thousand black students surged through the streets of this huge township, ten miles from Johannesburg. As the crowd converged on Phefeni Junior Secondary High School, ten police cars blocked their path—thirty police, blacks armed with batons and whites armed with revolvers and submachine guns, emerged. Without warning, the police suddenly aimed and fired, pumping over 300 rounds into the unarmed crowd. One teenage student fell dead with a slug in his chest. Within four days the official body count of slain blacks had climbed to over 100 dead and 1,100 wounded as then South African prime minister Balthazar Vorster issued the command to “maintain law and order at all costs”.
The plebeian masses responded to this deliberate, cold-blooded slaughter by the racist apartheid regime with an outburst of pent-up fury. The squalid townships that ring South Africa’s cities saw thousands-strong crowds of workers and youth hurl themselves against the symbols of oppression with torches, knives, stones and bare hands. In the next year over 1,000 were killed as rebellions continued to convulse the townships.
Out of this movement one first began to hear of the Black Consciousness movement and Steve Biko. But just over a year after Soweto achieved worldwide infamy, Steve Biko was arrested. For 19 days he was held naked in solitary confinement. Then his hands and feet were shackled to a metal grill while he was alternately questioned and beaten for 50 hours. Still naked, bloodied and in a semi-coma, Biko was flung onto the floor of a Land Rover and driven over 750 miles from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria. Twelve hours after arriving, he died in his cell.
International protests denounced this atrocity in South Africa’s white supremacist hell. Yet outside the land of apartheid terror, not much was really known about Biko and the Black Consciousness movement. As Biko put it, the “first step” in the struggle against apartheid was to instill or re-instill race pride among the black masses. Why did such a subjectivist form of South African black nationalism develop in the early 1970s? What were the origins of the Black Consciousness movement? What was its relationship to the older nationalist organizations, the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)?
Donald Woods’ Biko, published last summer, offered few answers. His brief treatment of Biko’s politics is so superficial as to be simply untrustworthy (for a review, see: “Stephen Biko: A Martyred Black Liberal”, Young Spartacus No. 67, October 1978). Two recent books, however, are much more useful. One is a collection of Biko’s major writings and speeches selected and annotated by (like Woods) a white liberal friend of his, Aelred Stubbs, a British Anglican priest. Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology, by American left-liberal academic Gail Gerhart, presents a sympathetic account of Biko’s movement. In contrast to the empty moralistic rhetoric found in so much liberal and left writing on South Africa, Gerhart’s book is articulate, informative and politically sophisticated.
Nationalism or Class Struggle?
Gerhart’s analysis is premised on the acceptance of the political framework provided by South African black nationalist politics. She projects only two alternative paths to the liberation of South African blacks which reflect the major differences in the nationalist movement:
“...where the nonracial nationalism has aimed at a pluralistic sharing of power [with whites], orthodox nationalism tends toward a ‘winner-take-all’ view, with Africans winning power to control the state.... [O]rthodox nationalism rejects alliances with anti-apartheid whites, whereas nonracial nationalism has tended to favor such alliances.”
Believing (rightly) that the white ruling elite will not progressively extend democratic rights to blacks leading to the formation of a liberal multiracial bourgeois democracy, Gerhart sympathizes with the “orthodox” (“Africanist” or “black power”) nationalists who seek to establish an “African socialist” regime of the Nkrumah/Nyerere type.
Furthermore, Gerhart accepts the self-justification of the “orthodox” nationalists that their opposition to “nonracial” nationalism flows from the hypocrisy and impotence of white liberalism/radicalism in their country. However, Africanist nationalism is not primarily derived from a rejection of liberal white paternalism. Despite their often bitter disagreements, both of the nationalist tendencies base their political views on the same terrain: the denial of class struggle.
Given the extreme intensity of racial oppression in South Africa, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalism must and will be a contender for leadership over the black working class. A proletarian-socialist revolution will require sharp political struggle against black African nationalism and the nationalists themselves fully recognize this fact.
It is significant that anti-communism marked the worldview of “orthodox” nationalism from its inception. Gerhart writes that Anton Lembede, founding father of Africanist nationalism in the 1940s:
“argued that race-consciousness nationalism was the only creed potent enough to inspire Africans to action, but that communists would always work to undermine nationalism because of their commitment to the theory of class conflict and to ‘internationalism’....”
Lembede’s successors were so virulently anti-communist and anti-Soviet that they even gained the support of some prominent white South African liberals on that account!
The experience of African independence struggles, however, fully confirms the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution, which proclaims that neither bourgeois nor various petty-bourgeois forces can guarantee even the most basic democratic rights. Whether openly neo-colonialist, “African socialist” or “Marxist-Leninist”, nationalist regimes have bowed down before the imperialists. Neither the liberal nor the “orthodox” nationalists can emancipate the masses of South Africa. Only the proletariat, standing at the head of the peasantry and establishing a black-centered workers and peasants government, can secure liberation by a workers revolution that smashes apartheid.
The Split in the African National Congress
When Gerhart writes of the conflict between “orthodox” and “nonracial” nationalism, she is centrally referring to the 1958-59 split in the ANC, hitherto the hegemonic organization of black opposition. This split, which led to the creation of the PAC, was a major event in post-war black South African politics. Although both groups were effectively suppressed a few years later, their bitter rivalry continues to dominate South African exile politics to this day.
To understand the split one has to go back to ANC factional politics of the early 1940s. The ANC was then a relatively small organization of the black African elite engaged in respectfully lobbying the liberal elements of the white ruling group. It resembled and operated much like the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and the Urban League in the U.S. today.
This ultra-conservatism provoked opposition from a group of younger militants, who in 1944 set up the ANC Youth League with Lembede as its first president. But the ANC “Young Turks” were a heterogeneous group whose only common denominator was rejection of the ANC’s traditional policy of pressuring the more “enlightened” white rulers. For many this primarily meant a turn toward the mass organization of blacks for direct action. But for others, notably Lembede and A.P. Mda, it was the rejection of liberalism as an ideology in favor of pan-African nationalism that was important.
Gerhart reveals that Lembede’s ideas were influenced by the growing white Afrikaner nationalism of the late 1930s, which in turn identified with European fascism. In fact, in his early period as an ANC activist, Lembede would cite Hitler and Mussolini approvingly as authorities on “dynamic nationalism” (until his colleagues convinced him that this was in bad taste)!
The ANC “Young Turks” won a decisive victory in 1949 when they ousted much of the “Old Guard” and adopted the “Program of Action” which declared “the people will be brought together by inspired leadership under the banner of African nationalism with courage and determination”. What became the Africanist opposition saw this as a “nation-building” program and would later accuse the new ANC leadership of betraying it. Most ANCers, however, saw it as primarily a turn toward a more activist policy.
In the next few years the ANC undertook a program of mass resistance to apartheid laws, notably the 1952 Defiance Campaign. The turn to mass action brought the ANC into collaboration with the pro-Moscow South African Communist Party and its associated organizations who were the only numerically significant force willing to participate. Although the Africanists accused the ANC leaders of having sold out to the Communists, it was the Stalinists who capitulated to the ANC by adopting the program of liberal nationalism. In line with the standard Stalinist theory of two-stage revolution, the CP declared that the ANC would lead the first, bourgeois-democratic stage.
Moreover, in order to appeal to the insignificant white liberal bourgeoisie, the Congress Alliance (the ANC/CP bloc) stopped well short of even a genuinely bourgeois-democratic program. The 1955 Freedom Charter, which formally is still the ANC’s program, states: “There shall be equal status in the bodies of the state, in the courts and in the schools for all national groups and races.” This implies a racially-federated governmental system with the whites perhaps having veto power over important legislation and policy. In other words, the Congress Alliance Freedom Charter opens the door to the kind of “black majority rule” which now exists in Rhodesia under the Muzorewa/Smith regime!
The South African CP’s capitulation to white bourgeois liberalism was by no means limited to this program for the future. Throughout the 1950s the Stalinists advocated voting for the English-dominated United Party (UP) opposition, which stood for a slightly reformed apartheid system. (In fact, UP representatives who aided in drawing up the brutal Suppression of Communism Act, proposed the execution of “communist agitators”.) In 1959 the CP switched its electoral allegiance to the Progressive Party of diamond magnate Harry Oppenheimer, which favored extension of the franchise—only to “educated” blacks.
The Africanist opposition to the ANC’s multiracialism in large measure took the form of anti-communism. As Gerhart puts it:
“...anti-communism became an auxiliary theme of the Africanist attack on the Congress Alliance, with white and Indian designs to ‘capture’ and ‘dominate’ the ANC portrayed as part of a sinister offensive directed from Moscow and carried out through African ‘functionaries’.”
The Africanists split from the ANC in late 1958 at a conference in which both factions were armed with sticks and lengths of iron. They went on to form the Pan Africanist Congress in April of the next year. PAC’s foremost leader, Robert Sobukwe, defined its goal:
“We aim, politically, at government of the Africans by the Africans for Africans, with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Africa and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.”
—reproduced in Thomas Karis and Gwendolen M. Carter, eds., From Protest to Challenge:
A Documentary History of Politics in South Africa 1882-1964 (1973)
This formulation was incorporated into PAC’s basic program.
Thus, PAC stands for an ideological definition of citizenship, one which would exclude a black African member of the pro-Moscow Communist Party or a black Trotskyist loyal to proletarian internationalism. And who is to judge whether someone is or is not “loyal to Africa”? Obviously, the PAC leaders. If they came to power one can be sure that any black workers who went on strike would quickly be condemned for “disloyalty”. PAC, then, is simply black African bonapartism out of power, an organization led by the would-be Senghors, Kuandas and Nyereres of South Africa.
Determined to outdo the ANC in militancy, the newly-formed PAC attempted to launch a mass civil disobedience campaign against the hated pass laws which control the daily movement of the black population. It was an anti-pass law demonstration on March 16, 1960 which made a small black township south of Johannesburg a world-wide synonym for racist atrocity. At Sharpeville that day, South African police wantonly fired into the unarmed demonstrators, killing 69 and wounding almost 200.
Faced with massive black protests and stay-at-home strikes in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre, the Afrikaner nationalist regime (supported by the United Party) moved to crush completely all organized African opposition. The ANC and PAC were outlawed and their leaders were hunted down. In response both groups turned toward insurrectional terrorism, the ANC/CP bloc through Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and the PAC through Poqo.
But by 1963 the military actions of the African nationalists had been ruthlessly suppressed and all the main and secondary leaders of the ANC, PAC and CP and their peripheral organizations were in prison or in exile. While the ANC and PAC ceased to exist as effective organizations within South Africa, they remain important in exile having gained diplomatic standing as the recognized opposition to the white supremacist regime. Moreover, their leaders, such as imprisoned Nelson Mandela of the ANC, no doubt retain much authority among South Africa’s black masses.
Black Students and White Liberals
Not since the early years of this century have South Africa’s blacks been as atomized, demoralized and defenseless before white racist rule as in the mid- to late 1960s. With the suppression of the mass African organizations the only organized opposition to the apartheid status quo was the small, liberal white community concentrated on the campuses and in the English-speaking churches. Under these circumstances the new generation of radical black intellectuals grew up in the white-led National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and the University Christian Movement. And it was in these organizations that Biko and the other founding members of the student-based Black Consciousness movement found their start.
In the late 1960s NUSAS contained 27,000 whites and only 3,000 blacks, although blacks outnumber whites in South Africa by four-and-a-half to one. In part this reflected the enormous overrepresentation of whites in the college-going elite. It also resulted from the fact that at the government-run black universities students were effectively discouraged from joining the liberal NUSAS.
The apartheid system gives liberal white leaders inestimable practical advantages in any legal multiracial organization. Within a multiracial Leninist vanguard, blacks and whites would function on an equal footing. A revolutionary party in South Africa would have to operate clandestinely, violating the apartheid laws. But the white-dominated liberal student organization adhered to apartheid legality with its privileged position for whites. At the 1967 NUSAS conference, for instance, the black delegates suffered a humiliating experience. While the white delegates stayed in comfortable dormitories near the conference site, the blacks had to be driven back and forth from an African township miles away. Events like this fueled Biko’s hatred of the white liberal paternalism embodied in these organizations and helped lead to the founding of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) as a 1969 split from NUSAS.
From the first days of SASO’s existence Biko had to defend the formation of a separate black organization in the face of charges that this in itself affirms apartheid. His opponents pointed out the fact that the hard line pro-apartheid Afrikaanse Studentebond initially welcomed the SASO split from the liberal, multiracial NUSAS as an indication that black students had opted for “separate development”. Additionally, Biko was desirous of gaining for SASO the political and financial backing of American and West European liberal circles, however much he might disdain their South African counterparts. And Western liberals were unlikely to look favorably upon a black split from one of South Africa’s few multiracial organizations.
The notion that he was leading a black student bantustan was clearly repellent and embarrassing to Biko. He answered his critics by arguing that although he upheld liberal principles and opposed racial separation, multiracial organizations under present South African conditions were paternalistic, tokenistic and neglectful of black needs:
“While, as a principle, we would reject separation in a normal society, we have to take cognizance of the fact that ours is far from a normal society. It is difficult not to look at white society as a group of people bent on perpetuating the status quo. The situation is not made easier by the non-acceptance that black students have met with in all the so called open organizations both religious and secular. All suffer from the same fault basically of accepting the fact that there shall be white leadership and even worse, that they shall occupy themselves predominantly with problems affecting white society first.”
—“Letter to Students’ Representative Council Presidents” (February 1970), Steve Biko, I Write What I Like
Biko’s condemnation of the hypocrisy of the white South African liberal community and his acid portrait of the typical well-off white liberal assuaging his conscience through soirees with well-mannered blacks hits the mark:
“First the black-white circles are almost always the creation of white liberals. As a testimony to their claim of complete identification with the blacks, they call a few ‘intelligent and articulate’ blacks to ‘come around for tea at home’.... The more such tea-parties one calls the more liberal he is and the freer he shall feel from the guilt that harnesses and binds his conscience. Hence he moves around his white circles—white-only hotels, beaches, restaurants and cinemas—with a lighter load, feeling that he is not like the others. Yet at the back of his mind is a constant reminder that he is quite comfortable as things stand and therefore should not bother about change.”
—“Black Souls in White Skins?” (August 1970), ibid.
It is clear that his rebellion against white liberal paternalism was the shaping political experience of Biko’s brief life. He generalized this personal (really class-generational) experience into a theory of liberation for South African blacks. He looked upon the absence of significant black resistance in the late 1960s not so much as a result of the temporary effectiveness of savage state repression but as a reflection of a profound sense of inferiority among the black masses. He concluded that a precondition for militant struggle was the nurturing of race pride:
“[T]he type of black man we have today has lost his manhood. Reduced to an obliging shell, he looks in awe at the white power structure and accepts what he regards as the ‘inevitable position’.... All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of a man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.
“This is the first truth, bitter as it may seem, that we have to acknowledge before we can start on any programme to change the status quo.... The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth. This is what we mean by an inward-looking process. This is the definition of ‘Black Consciousness’.” [emphasis added]
—“We Blacks” (September 1970), ibid.
However, little more than two years after Biko wrote that a lengthy “inward-looking process” was needed before there could be effective struggle against white oppression and exploitation, tens of thousands of black workers paralyzed his home city of Durban in a strike wave that shook South African society. For over a year the black proletariat struck again and again against starvation wages and the industrial color bar and for the right to organize trade unions. The Vorster regime of hardline Afrikaner reactionaries was forced to tolerate the illegal black unions. The awesome power of the black proletariat had been unleashed proving that the black workers were not “bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity” as Biko would have it.
Biko: A Liberal Nationalist
Gail Gerhart claims Biko for the “orthodox” nationalist tradition:
“Like the ideologues of orthodox African nationalism from Lembede onward, Biko and the architects of SASO began from the premise that oppression was most immediately a psychological problem. Seen from this perspective, the liberal approach could never provide a solution because it failed to take into account the spiritual dimension of the African’s plight, most importantly his need to cast off his complexes of dependence and deference toward whites.”
This analysis is so partial as to be seriously misleading.
While Steve Biko may have broken from the “liberalism” of certain white South Africans, he by no means broke from liberalism per se. Biko stood far closer to bourgeois reformism, both in the South African and, especially, in the international contexts, than did the Africanist nationalists of the 1950s. The Africanists’ attack on the ANC’s multi-racialism was at least linked in some measure to greater tactical militancy. By contrast the Black Consciousness movement was deliberately quietist in its tactics.
The trade union grouping associated with Biko’s movement, for example, Drake Koka’s shadowy Black Allied Workers Union, eschewed even economic militancy. Shortly after it was founded in 1972, this organization stated it aimed “to win the respect of the employers, the public and government; to create a climate of opinion in which laws about Bantu trade unions and discriminatory industrial and labour laws could be reformed.” It promised not “to hold the economy of the country to ransom by organizing illegal strikes and making unreasonable demands for political reasons” (quoted in David Davis, African Workers and Apartheid ).
The most characteristic feature of Biko’s worldview became apparent in his international approaches (a point which Gerhart practically ignores). The anti-liberal nationalists of the 1950s (Sobukwe, Mda) were pan-Africanists while Biko was not. Twenty-five years ago most of black Africa was in the hands of European colonialists. South African black leaders could thus project a united African uprising against colonial rule which would also sweep away the white Afrikaner regime in the southern-most country of the continent. In 1959 Sobukwe could declare in apocalyptic fashion: “Afrika will be free by 1963!”
Today, almost everyone knows that the notion of the black African states conquering South Africa is a pipe dream. The surrounding states are militarily weak and most, including the “Marxist” People’s Republic of Mozambique, are economically dependent upon white South African capital. The present generation of South African black nationalists (including Biko) have thus turned their eyes from Accra and Nairobi to Washington and Bonn looking for potential allies in the struggle against apartheid.
When it was announced that Henry Kissinger would visit South Africa in the fall of 1976, Biko informed a New York Times reporter of what he would say to the imperialist American Metternich if he could meet with him. Biko would advise the mass murderer of the Indochinese people that “America simply cannot afford to prop up the system at a time when it is seriously being challenged by progressive forces” (19 September 1976).
As the scepter of power passed into the hands of “liberal” Jimmy Carter, Biko renewed his appeals to the U.S. Warning that if the American rulers didn’t offer “full scale support of the struggle for black man’s liberation,” they risked losing the hearts and minds of South Africa’s blacks to Russia, Biko laid down his demands:
“America must therefore re-examine her policy towards South Africa drastically....
“America must insist on South Africa recognizing the need for legitimate non-government-initiated platforms like the Black People’s convention....
“America must call for the release of political prisoners and banned people like Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Barney Pityana and the integration of these people in the political process that shall shape things to come.”
—“American Policy towards Azania” (December 1976),
Biko, op. cit.
Biko’s appeals went unanswered, for the world’s leading imperialist power is hardly more “progressive” than the South African apartheid regime. The butchers of Hiroshima and My Lai, the murderers of George Jackson and Fred Hampton, the massacrers of Attica—the U.S. imperialists will never lift a finger for the liberation of the black masses.
Biko’s strategy to pressure “democratic” U.S. imperialism to withdraw its economic support to South Africa was picked up by the American proponents of “divestment”. Taking Carter’s “human rights” babble for good coin, the divestment forces were encouraged by some bourgeois liberals’ desire to pressure their junior partners in Pretoria to make a few cosmetic reforms through trade and investment sanctions. Begging university trustees to dump all or part of their South Africa-related investments replaced militant anti-apartheid demonstrations on U.S. campuses. Ironically, the “divestment movement” ostentatiously boycotted SYL [Spartacus Youth League]-initiated protests at the time of Biko’s brutal murder: only a year later did divestment coalitions latch onto candle-lit “commemorations” of Biko.
Whether or not a couple colleges sell their Xerox holdings—divestment is an empty moralist gimmick. American capitalism has substantial investments in South Africa. The U.S. imperialists know that any significant opening toward democratic rights for blacks would lay the basis for great social struggles that could go beyond the bounds of capitalism. (They are concerned with the dangerous intransigence of the apartheid regime for precisely that reason.) The U.S. ruling class is no more opposed to apartheid than the Nationalist Party—just more able to mouth off about “human rights”.
For a South African Trotskyist Party!
Despite their tremendous courage and determination in the face of savage repression, the young followers of Steve Biko and his Black Consciousness movement face a dead end. Spontaneous urban rebellion, “race pride” or futile attempts at terrorism are incapable of winning victory against a powerful state and technologically advanced oppressor caste armed to the teeth.
One year after 13-year-old Hector Peterson was the first to die in the streets of Soweto the international Spartacist tendency [predecessor of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist)] wrote:
“Neither the ‘black consciousness’ student movement nor the traditional nationalist leaders can show the way forward to the Soweto protestors. The liberation of the oppressed non-white masses of South Africa awaits the construction of a Trotskyist vanguard party rooted in the black and ‘Coloured’ (mixed-race) proletariat. Such a party will centrally pose the struggle for democratic demands—abolition of the pass laws and all racialist legislation, end of job reservations, equal pay at the highest levels, full trade-union and political rights for blacks, destruction of the Bantustan system, redistribution of land and a constituent assembly based on universal suffrage—aimed at destroying the apartheid police-state regimentation which sharply impedes the mobilization of the oppressed blacks. It must be stressed that these democratic demands can be won only through the organization of the powerful working class around the struggle for its own class rule.”
—“Soweto Bleeds”, Workers Vanguard No. 164,
1 July 1977
Through its massive superexploitation of black labor, white South African capitalism has created a powerful enemy within its own vitals. Under the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard party, a mass black labor movement will be the gravedigger of apartheid.