Steve Biko, black consciousness and the elections

Ebrahim Harvey

Left Field

The recent commemoration of the death of Steve Biko, founding father of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), put the spotlight on the movement and came at a time when, represented by the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) and the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa), it is faced with very difficult times.

Both parties participated in the 1999 elections, with only Azapo winning one seat in Parliament. This was a sad reflection of the declining fortunes of the movement which is worsened by the ongoing strife between the two parties, who still have unresolved acrimony that led to and emanated from the breakaway formation of Sopa in 1998.

But what are the prospects for the BCM becoming a serious opposition to the dominance of the African National Congress-led government?

At an organisational level reunification of the two parties is an essential first step. Their failure, even at a tactical level, to join forces to contest next month’s local government elections is a good opportunity sadly missed.

But it will be very difficult for the BCM to maintain a separate identity in the midst of many other left organisations who are also striving to build a mass socialist party. It needs to seek a broader socialist identity in concert with other left formations.

On its own, even if the two parties are reunited, it has such tiny support that it would hardly make a more significant impact on the political situation.

Why is it that the BCM has never acquired a truly mass organisational character, as the ANC has?

Firstly, aside from the huge historical advantages that the ANC had over it, one of the main reasons was that since its inception it had a largely student, youth, intellectual and middle-class leadership with its origins in the universities.

Secondly, while Azapo’s commitment to socialism at its birth in 1978 was a huge step forward (unlike the earlier period when I was told that this is Africa and I must not introduce my “foreign socialist ideology” into the Black People’s Convention, of which I was a member), its analytical grasp of the race/class nexus was, and still is, hesitant, half-measured and confused, perhaps best expressed in its policy of excluding whites despite a commitment to socialism.

While the Congress of South African Trade Unions, in which most organised black workers are based, was formed on a non-racial basis in 1985, in 2000 the BCM is still breaking its head over a basic democratic and socialist principle.

Thirdly, while strong on rhetoric it was always weak in building and sustaining mass organisation and campaigns on concrete issues, unlike the United Democratic Front (UDF), which, despite its populism and to a large degree because of it, was able to build mass campaigns of unprecedented power. This major weakness led to many BCM leaders and activists joining the UDF and ANC in the Eighties. It has remained a big weakness. At no stage did it achieve, sustain and expand a substantial base in the black working class, generally, and the trade unions in particular. Yet the turn to a clearer socialist vision in 1978 required it to.

But even if we accept the blacks-only policy of the BCM which is not a correct socialist position in several respects, even given our racist history it has still failed to organise and mobilise the black working class. Had it made a conscious, serious and sustained turn to black workers many years ago, at the height of its power in the Seventies, it would have been a really powerful force today. Its historical strengths aside, the ANC was able to supplant the BCM from the Eighties onwards because of its serious weaknesses.

Sopa’s alliance with the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) to contest next month’s elections, as part of the flurry of electoral alliances, reflects the individual weakness of parties vis—vis the ANC.

But the serious weakness that afflicts the BCM also afflicts the PAC: the failure to organise the black working class, and even for that matter its “African” component, and particularly to build and sustain a substantial base in the trade unions.

Sopa still talks about a “Black Republic of Azania”. This is an acute manifestation of confusion. Such twaddle, in this day and age, is most unfortunate for a socialist party. This is because the BCM has never clearly resolved the critical relationship at the level of ideology, theory and programme between itself and Marxism. In it elements of Marxism and black nationalism gingerly coalesce.

Though more advanced than Azapo, lack of coherent theory, class analysis and programme is still evident in Sopa.

But these are weaknesses inherent since the inception of the movement. Biko himself did not seriously deal with these issues because by the time of his tragic death he had not yet made the transition to class analysis.

In fact, Biko treated the distinct move towards it by Diliza Mji, the first BCM leader to criticise the emphasis on race and lack of class analysis, very cautiously. This was months before the 1976 Soweto uprisings.

Therefore the great and heroic stature of Biko and the BCM does not and cannot obscure many weaknesses, which, unless addressed, will continue to see the BCM remaining a minor political player on the periphery or like little more than a flea on the back of an elephant.

But the situation today in which the ANC overwhelmingly dominates no longer makes it possible for the BCM to address these weaknesses in isolation from the general weakness of the left, of which it is a part.

Some of the major weaknesses of the BCM, like little mass support, are shared by the broad left. The potential that it had, and still has, to become and remain a powerful revolutionary force was frustrated by these weaknesses.

Therefore, much as the legacy of Biko and aspects of black consciousness are still relevant, we also need to be mindful of its serious limitations, which does not in the least detract from the legacy but places it in perspective.

The BCM is in urgent need of a fundamental review, the objective of which is to overcome these limitations, in theory and practice. The election results next month will most likely reinforce such need.

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