In the early 1960s, the apartheid government banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress. Many of their leaders and cadres took the decision either to operate underground or go into exile.
Although the government’s plan may have been political repression, the South African Student Organisation (Saso) arose in the lull that followed.
At two meetings, in 1967 and 1968, students from several universities — Turfloop, Fort Hare and particularly the Durban Medical School — the University of Natal’s “black campus” — believed that the existing student organisation, the National Union of South African Students, could not effectively represent and understand the needs of black students.
Saso came into being in 1968 and members got together with students from other campuses to rally and conscientise them — and formulated the Black Consciousness philosophy. This encouraged unity and solidarity, awareness and rejection of psychological oppression, and the need for self-assertion and reliance.
From this student base a wider Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) emerged.
That was 50 years ago. Today the first name that comes to mind when the BCM is discussed in mainstream texts is that of Steve Biko. With the exception of people such as Onkgopotse Tiro and Mamphela Ramphele, few other names are as prominent in the public consciousness.
More specifically, one has to ask who the women of the BCM were. What role did they play, and where are they today?
“The Black Consciousness Movement was started by what I call a group of very daring young men and women. It wasn’t actually started by Steve Biko; he was one of the leaders but we often forget about the other people who are involved in the beginning of Saso,” says Christine Qunta, an activist, author, lawyer and BCM veteran.
She became a member in 1972 when delegates from the organisation visited the University of the Western Cape to rally students.
“Steve Biko, Bokwe Mafuna and Onkgopotse Tiro came to campus to talk to us about Black Consciousness. They spoke of solidarity, psychological liberation and self-assertion in great detail. It wasn’t just ‘let’s be black and proud’. When I first heard this I thought, ‘oh, my God!’ It made absolute sense. I was 20 at the time and can tell you now, a light bulb went off in my head and I have never looked back.
“The truth and absolute sense that Black Consciousness made never left me. It’s the one thing that has propelled me to effectively contribute towards the struggle,” the now 66-year-old says.
Saso was divided into three sections: local, regional and national. Soon after joining the organisation, Qunta sat on Saso’s local executive as a secretary. In 1973, she was one of the students who rejected apartheid education by walking off campuses.
“We were no longer willing to accept being prepared, as [Hendrik] Verwoerd said, to be good workers. I was in my final year doing a social science degree. In my family, I was the only person who had finished high school and managed to go to university so it was a big sacrifice. But I didn’t see it as a sacrifice. This needed to be done.”
Qunta then devoted all her attention to the highly visible and fearless work Saso did to shake the government.
“I remember once writing a pamphlet about how oppressive the white people are. It was quite inflammatory for the time. I must tell you, when I was in Harare in exile, I was now an old woman with children, and I read that pamphlet, I thought, ‘God, how did I even think of writing that?’
“We went and distributed it at the Kaapse Klopse parade in Cape Town.
“Imagine! At that time, if you could be caught with things like that, you could literally go to prison. But those were the women of the BCM,” she recalls with triumph.
Speaking about these women — those who came before her and those who were her contemporaries — Qunta lets out a long laugh before describing them in a sentence: “We were not scared; we were irritated.”
This fearlessness can perhaps be attributed to the BCM’s work to liberate its members from all the ideological constraints of oppression.
The BCM often hosted meetings and conferences that required members from different regions to congregate. This is where Qunta met Deborah Matshoba and Nomsizi Kraai, the women who mentored her and had the biggest influence on her life, not only because of their strides but also because of the way they defied their male counterparts’ view of women.
“They weren’t just activists;they were super-glamorous. I remember there was one meeting in 1973 at a conference with a long dispute about a change in the constitution. Dressed to kill — in their braided natural hair and traditional wear and two-pieces — they came into the forum and took charge.
“I was impressed by their intellect, their sense of style and how they held their own with the men. There was literally no difference between the two. Those women were my role models.”
When asked about the BCM’s approach to gender oppression and sexism, Qunta hesitates to answer. Rather she highlights the movement’s essential focus on racial oppression. Women were encouraged to join the struggle not because they were women but because they too were oppressed.
After a pause, she says: “I think the attitudes of the men within the movement weren’t different from the attitudes of men generally. Sometimes the men in the Black Consciousness Movement would only regard women as people they could sleep with — but not the activists within the movement, we were very assertive.
“We didn’t call ourselves feminists but we didn’t take nonsense from men; we weren’t going to be pushed around. I still remember being very uncomfortable and criticising some of the leaders for that.”
In 1982, the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo), an offshoot of the BCM, formed the Black Domestic Workers’ Association and Black Women Unite. These were replaced by Imbeleko,an organisation that resists women’s oppression. Imbeleko is an appropriate name for an organisation whose motto is“carrying the nation.”
Who were some of these women?
[Brigitte Mabandla was arrested in 1974 for her involvement in the ‘Viva Frelimo’ rallies (Photo: Alet Pretorius/ Gallo Images)]
Vuyelwa Mashalaba was the first female secretary of the South African Student Organisation’s (Saso) national executive committee:
In her biography Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader Mamphela Ramphele starts the third chapter with her recollection of meeting Mashalaba as her starting point into activism. The two met in January of 1968 at the UNB medical school. Mashalaba came from a family of high achieving women, led by her mother in Maclear, a small town north of East London.
She played tennis and had a large collection of Miriam Makeba records. A few weeks into their introduction, Mashalaba introduced Ramphele to founding members of Saso such as Steve Biko, Aubrey Mokoape and Charles Sibisi shortly before the student organisation was formed.
An important part of Black Consciousness was reading, and Nikiwe Deborah Matshoba was Saso’s first literacy director:
Born in Krugersdorp in 1950, Matshoba was a granddaughter to Samuel Matshoba: an adviser to the chief priest of the Israelites, Enoch Mgijima, who was killed at the Bulhoek Massacre in 1921. After a dispute over land in Bulhoek, a force of 800 police officers with firearms battled with 500 men, armed with spears and knobkerries, from the Israelites church. The battle left an estimate of 163 Israelites dead, 129 wounded and 95 taken prisoners.
Matshoba’s mother was the eldest daughter of the Barolong chief in the Western Transvaal. Although she was next in line for the throne she was denied her chieftainship when her father died because she was a woman. Instead of fighting the resistance she devoted her time to the church.
After forced removals Matshoba followed in the footsteps of her mother by joining the church’s Young Women’s Christian Association which sent her to Ghana for its world congress hosted in 1971. Soon thereafter she began her university studies. In 1973 she took on her directory role in Saso.
Under the Suppression of Communism Act, she was arrested in 1976 and held in solitary confinement over an 18 month period. She has also been arrested under the apartheid Terrorism Act.
During one of her arrests she was told to write a statement about her duties in Saso. She had a large iron ball secured to her ankle and was not allowed to sit so she obliged. However it was not what the officers wanted so they make her rewrite it over and over again. Matshoba was assaulted for a week and refused her asthma medication as a result of resisting despite the torture. The imprisonment lasted until 1983. Matshoba passed away in 2014.
Nkosazana Dalamini-Zuma served as the organisation’s deputy president in 1976:
Dlamini-Zuma’s tertiary studies began in 1971 at the University of Zululand where she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science. While studying, she served as an underground member of the ANC, she was the deputy president of Saso in 1976.
In 1994 Dlamini-Zuma was appointed as the Minister of Health. During her time in the office she passed the Tobacco Products Control Bill which made smoking in public places illegal. In addition to this, she used her time in office, which ended in 1999, to desegregate healthcare by offering the financially marginalised access to the basics.
While she has spearheaded solving a number of problems in South Africa, she has come under fire for a number of controversial matters.
Many years later, in 2012, she was elected as the first woman to take on the chairperson role in the African Union Commission. As recent as 2017, Dlamini-Zuma began campaigning for the presidency of the ANC.
Winnifred Kgware was elected as the first president of the Black People’s Convention, an organisation in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), in 1972:
As a teacher and wife of Turfloop University’s rector, Kgware (born in 1917) supported students in protest action against government’s restrictions on black campuses. Once she organised a Methodist prayer group, after students were banned from worship on campus, her residence on the campus was established as the meeting place for the student activists.
In addition to this she encouraged high school students at Hwiti High School to form a students’ representative council where 15 year old Peter Mokaba was elected the president of the SRC.
When Saso was established in 1968, Kgware used the age gap between her and the students to play a leading role in its formation. So in 1972 when Saso held its first conference, that came to be known as BPC, Kgware was elected as the convention’s president. In 2003 she was awarded The Order of Luthuli in Silver for her lifelong commitment to democracy ideals and justice.
Thenjiwe Mtintso, a journalist at the Daily Dispatch, was a member of Saso and was banned:
Growing up in Soweto, Mtintso’s mother was a domestic worker and her father was a trade unionist and member of the ANC. Due to financial constraints, she left school and worked as a labourer in factories. This money was then used for part-time studies at secondary school then at the University of Fort Hare.
At Fort Hare she joined Saso which led to her expulsion but she did not cease political activism. She used her words as a journalist at the Daily Dispatch newspaper to continue her activities as a political organiser within the BCM.
Mtintso went into exile in 1978 following an arrest that subjected her to brutal torture at the hands of the security police. In exile, she joined the ANC’s military wing uMkhonto we Sizwe and underwent military training until she became a commander of the MK.
“We were like a rare species. We were heroines for the fact that we chose to join MK, because patriarchy didn’t expect us to join the armed struggle,” Mtintso told a Mail & Guardian reporter in 2017.
In 1992 she returned to South Africa. Shortly thereafter in 1994 she became an ANC member of parliament. This was followed by her appointment as the first chairperson of the Commission of Gender Equality in 1997.
Mtintso is the current South African ambassador to Malawi.
Brigitte Mabandla was a part of the Saso committee that organised the Viva Frelimo rallies:
When 43 members of Saso were arrested in 1974 for planning “Viva Frelimo” rallies, Brigitte Mabandla was one of them. During her arrest she was tortured by the Security Branch and was barred from seeing her five-month-old baby.
In 1979 Nombulelo Mkefa was appointed as Azapo’s deputy president:
When the BCM was banned for its role in the 1976 uprisings, the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) replaced it.
Sibongile Mkhabela was the only women out of 11 members of the Soweto Student Representatives Council who were accused of leading the 1976 uprisings:
Mkhabela attended Naledi High School in Soweto where she joined a political movement to fight until South Africa was totally liberated. During her time in police custody she refused to incriminate her fellow cadres. Instead she endured severe torture from the security police.
When she moved from solitary confinement into prison, Mkhabela continued to resist inhumane treatment. She recalls one incident in a transcription of a call between her and Qunta in the book Women in Southern Africa: “For instance, they gave us overalls, from which there was a change only once a week. I’m not a pig; so I walked around in my panties and bra in protest. We were then given denim overalls thrice a week”.
Other women include Nomsizi Kraai, Thabile Mangena, Sam Moodley (Sumboonam Pillay), and Asha Rambali.