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This June 16, remember the Black Consciousness movement – and mourn its tragic demise

The commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the 1976 June 16 Soweto uprising this week cannot avoid confronting the demise of the Black Consciousness Movement, which largely organised and spearheaded the resistance through the high school-based South African Students Movement. 

Today, other than black consciousness-oriented writers such as Andile Mngxitama and Xolela Mangcu, this movement is almost dead. After winning just a single seat in the 2004 and 2009 national elections, the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) lost that too in the 2014 election. In 2006 it won 0.3% in local government elections, which declined to 0.2% in 2011. In electoral terms that is as close to death as you can get. 

The conspicuous political retreat of most of its leading figures over the years is further testimony to its demise. This is the movement that produced some of the most powerful and stirring figures in the liberation struggle: Stephen Bantu Biko, Barney Pityana, Mosiuoa Lekota, Tokyo Sexwale, Mamphela Ramphela, Saths Cooper, Tsietsi Mashinini, Strini Moodley, Onkgopotse Tiro. 

Emerging in 1968, with the birth of the South African Students Organisation (Saso), led by Biko, the movement attempted to fill the vacuum created by the banning of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress and the South African Communist Party (SACP). Rooted in the struggles of black working-class students, its highest point was the 1976 Soweto uprising, which catapulted it into national and global consciousness. 

So potentially powerful was the movement, and therefore a threat to the apartheid regime and the long-standing hegemony of the ANC, that Nelson Mandela secretly penned an essay on its significance, interestingly, shortly before the June 1976 Soweto uprisings. He also requested Cooper, a former president of Azapo incarcerated on Robben Island, to give lectures to prisoners about the origins and history of the Black Consciousness Movement. Cooper and other leaders were imprisoned there after the 1975 Saso and Black People’s Convention trials. 

Today, that once-gallant movement is at best a memory of a past, which held great hopes for the future, but appears to have perished along with those hopes. 

Azapo’s website does not have a 2016 local government election manifesto, two months before the elections. It seems it has been beaten so badly and regularly at the polls that it has lost interest and hope in elections. 

It is not that the ideas of BC are no longer relevant — nor is the recent resurgence of BC-oriented thinking in some areas, especially in the arts and the sociocultural realms. The point is that in our electoral democracy and in the realm of political contestation those ideas have remained just that: ideas. 

The post-apartheid opportunity Azapo had to build an alternative to ANC hegemony and take it on in elections has been lost. Today Azapo does not have a single MP. 

The related problem is that there is also no rigorous self-critical analysis that openly and honestly seeks to explain its decline over the years, which is itself a sign of decay. 

Other than for a brief period in the 1970s, when a BC-oriented trade union, the Black Allied Workers Union, existed, it has had at best tenuous links with organised black labour. This is its major historical weakness; the ANC realised very early the crucial importance of the trade unions, through the influence of its long-standing ally, the SACP. Quite clearly, the ANC’s political longevity has much, if not mostly, to do with its roots in the black, and especially African, working-class movement, particularly the trade unions — though those links are now unravelling as evidenced by the haemorrhaging in the labour federation, Cosatu. 

What is particularly significant about Azapo is that, unlike the earlier emphasis on racism and national oppression and the lack of class analysis, its formation in 1978 made it abundantly clear that it was henceforth committed to what it called “Marxist scientific socialism”, which married the struggle against racism and national oppression to one against the capitalist system or what was called “racial capitalism”. 

Although it made huge progress at the level of ideology and programmes in defining itself more clearly, it failed to organise the black working class in the factories, mines and townships. This explains why, after 1994, the results of its performance in elections was pathetically poor, beaten even by parties such as the African Christian Democratic Party, which has three MP’s against Azapo’s zero. 

Azapo failed to make the transition to electoral and parliamentary politics after 1990. It made a big political and strategic mistake by boycotting the first nonracial, democratic elections in 1994. When it decided to participate in subsequent elections its performance was awful. 

Whether it would have performed better if it had not suffered a split in 1998, which led to the breakaway formation of the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa), is speculative, but it is unlikely that it would have made a big difference electorally. Sopa received a paltry 0.06% in the 1999 elections and 0.10%in 2004, leaving it without any presence in Parliament. 

The potentially very powerful movement Biko started, which also produced some of the best black thinkers, has unravelled in a way that no other radical black political movement has in post-apartheid South African — even worse than the decline of the Pan Africanist Congress, which has just one seat in Parliament. 

Would it be fair to start writing the political obituaries of Azapo and Sopa and, with it, the Black Consciousness Movement? Unfortunately, yes. 

Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer, analyst and author.

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Ebrahim Harvey
Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and author of The Great Pretenders: Race & Class under ANC Rule (Jacana)

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