Black Consciousness

(an extract from the Minimum Programme)

The Black Consciousness (BC) philosophy in South Africa was born from the realisation that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.
Introduced by the South African Students Organisation (SASO) to the South African political landscape, with Steve Biko as its leading theorist and communicator, BC sought to eliminate the alienation – from self that afflicted the being of the oppressed Black people of South Africa.  It sought to free the mind of the oppressed and as Mabogo More puts it “[Black Consciousness] was and still is a struggle for a new consciousness, a reawakening of a self-consciousness, a re-appropriation of black self-consciousness from the clutches of an appropriative and dominating white consciousness, a rediscovery of the black self which lay buried beneath white consciousness imposed on blacks by cultural, political, economic, linguistic and religious domination”[i].


In a society were Black people were referred to as non-Whites, Black Consciousness gave the oppressed their own separate identity that had no one else as a point of reference.  It then infused that identity with pride that enabled Black people of South Africa to assert, along with Frantz Fanon, that they are not a potentiality of someone else, they are whole who they are.

Writing in an AZAPO newsletter in 1981 Quraish Patel described Black Consciousness as “a negation of white superiority, not a negation of whites as people.   Black Consciousness is at the same time a positive assertion of our being what we want to be… [Black Consciousness aimed to] restore our being human even if the environment is hostile and inhuman for it prepares us for participating in the historical movement towards a free society.”[ii]

Black Consciousness reinvigorated the inherent agency of Black people that had been thwarted by apartheid and placed Black people at the centre of their liberation.   John Alan and Lou Turner, writing after Biko’s death observed that “what is powerful and new about Biko’s ideas is that he always centers the possibility for change within the subjectivity of the oppressed person, and not simply within the South African economy or the hierarchy of the system”[iii] .

Unlike the race based construction of identity that typified apartheid, Black Consciousness defined Black on the basis of political and socio-economic factors. Black people, in the Black Consciousness philosophy, were defined as those who are by law or tradition, discriminated against, politically oppressed, economically exploited and socially degraded and who identify themselves as a unit in the struggle for their emancipation.

Drawing from the Fanonian tradition, Black Consciousness added to the South African landscape an analysis and characterisation of racism as “discrimination by a group against another for purpose of subjugation or maintaining subjugation”[iv].  In elaborating, Biko said, “Racism does not only imply exclusion of one race by another – it always presupposes that the exclusion is for purpose of subjugation.”[v]

With this understanding it is therefore no wonder why Black Consciousness would reject mere integration as the answer. As Biko put it,

The myth of integration as propounded under the banner of the liberal ideology … works from the false premise that, because it is difficult to bring people from different races together in this country, achievement of this is in itself a step towards the total liberation of the blacks. Nothing could be more misleading.[vi]

With racism being about subjugation, and inherent in that the power to subjugate, integration – particularly false integration which is “a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and code of behavior set up and maintained by white people”[vii] would not solve the situation of black people nor would it allow them to be fully who they are.

The rejection of false integration does not mean Black Consciousness is against integration.   To the contrary, Black Consciousness is and has always been for true integration which is, according to Biko, “free participation by all members of a society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people.”[viii]

One of Black Consciousness’ achievements was to introduce the ‘subject’ in the thinking and execution of the liberation struggle in South Africa.  Black Consciousness paid critical attention to the ideology of apartheid and how it operated in society reinforcing racist acts while simultaneously minimising resistance from Black people by promoting alienation from self, a loss of identity and agency.

Black Consciousness unequivocally emphasized the need for psychological liberation.   For Black Consciousness the struggle began with the person coming to self or coming to consciousness.  By understanding one’s history, culture and humanity one could understand the unjustness and evil of apartheid, and to understand it as a human construct meant to achieve and maintain privilege and power. For the Black Consciousness philosophy, with the understanding of self and self-worth Black people would have taken a major step in the path to their liberation.

As a philosophy, Black Consciousness is grounded in the reality of South Africa but draws from the experiences of the African liberation struggle and the struggles of Black people throughout the world.   It is this geneology that gives BC a strong internationalist and Pan African orientation and sensibility.  As Biko put it:

…by Black Consciousness I mean the cultural and political revival of an oppressed people. This must be related to the emancipation of the entire continent of Africa since the Second World War … I feel that the Black people of the world, in choosing to reject the legacy of colonialism and white domination and to build around themselves the their own values, standards and outlook to life, have at last established a solid base for meaningful cooperation amongst themselves in the larger battle of the Third World against the rich nations[ix].

Biko continued and quoted Frantz Fanon, who said “the consciousness of the self is not the closing of the door to communication … National consciousness, which is not nationalism, is the only thing that will give us an international dimension.”[x]

While BC focused its attention on the liberation of Black people, this struggle is, in the BC perspective part of the broader struggle for “true humanity” as evidenced by the title of one Biko’s essay, “Black Conscioness and a Quest for True Humanity”.

The quest for true humanity in the BC perspective is unlike the quest of traditional humanists. The Black Consciousness quest is for a radical humanism which seeks to destroy social and economic inequality and societal structures that entrench inequality and to build a society founded on egalitarianism.

In the march ahead, BC remains as relevant for the 21st century as it was for the 20th. Relevant today as they were in the last century are BC’s eminent qualities which are:

  • Ability to interrogate and surface the operations of power,
  • Ability to decipher acts aimed at marginalising African norms and values and supplanting them with ones meant to alienate Black people from themselves and thus perpetuating subjugation,
  • Its ability to bear witness to human suffering and exploitation and its advocacy and struggle for a society and a world based on radical humanism where exploitation of man by man or of nation by another nation is done away with and forms no part of human  and nation to nation interaction,

The 21st century has, so far, not been marked by the dispersal of power to all, but by its further concentration in the hands of the few.  It has not seen the destruction of oligarchies but their increase in political and economic affairs and it has seen former liberation movements become self-serving entities that sacrifice the needs of the masses through abuse of state resources and corruption.

It is BC that remains the hope for the poor and marginalised people – particularly Black people in the South African context – its power to awaken and to give the oppressed a critical consciousness and to restore their agency, their power to act, is what holds the promise for a different society.

[i]  More, M.P Biko:Africana Existentialist Philosopher in Mngxitama,A. Alexander,A. and
Gibson, N.C. 2008. Biko Lives! Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko, p50

[ii] Quoted in Gibson,N. 2004. p13, Op. cit.
[iii]  Alan, J and Turner, L. quoted in Gibson,N. Op. cit. p9
[iv]  Biko, S. 1996 Op. cit.
[v] Ibid
[vi] Biko, S. 1996. Op. cit.p22
[vii] Ibid, p24
[viii] Ibid, p24
[ix] Turner, L. Self-Consciousness as Force and Reason of Revolution in the Thought of Steve Biko
In MMngxitama, A. et al , p69 Op.cit. 
[x] Ibid.