In 1968 Black Students attending a University Christian Movement conference met separately, ostensibly to discuss the 72 hour clause which forbade them to remain in a white area for more than 72 hours at a stretch. However once together they discussed for the first time, formally, the idea of forming a black organisation[i]. This meeting set the course for the launch of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) which  Sam Nolutshungu writing in 1982 described as “ the single most important development in the internal politics of South Africa in the period 1967 -76”.

The South African Student Organisation, the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) and various other organisations that formed part of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), through their formation and mobilization of black people, broke the political lull that existed in South Africa since the banning of the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress in 1961.  The launch of SASO lead to the introduction of Black Consciousness philosophy into the South African political landscape.

The Black Consciousness Movement and the philosophy of Black Consciousness went on to mobilise and create the impetus for the 1976 uprising that would lead to the exodus from South Africa of many young people who would join the ranks of the exiled liberation movements. Thus was born a new phase of the South African liberation struggle.

Following the mass banning of all BC organisations on the 19th of October 1977, the Azanian People’s Organisation was launched in April 1978 to be the torch bearer of black consciousness and to lead the struggle for a free Azania.

With many of the young people who went into exile following the 1976 uprising supporting the Black Consciousness philosophy, a need for a BC organisation in exile soon arose. This led to the formation of the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania BCM(A) in 1980 in London. The BCM(A) grew to have chapters and offices in Botswana, where Onkgopotse Tiro was assassinated, Zimbabwe, England, the United States of America, Canada, France, Belgium and Germany. While AZAPO mobilized within the country, the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA) waged a political struggle in exile. Through the formation of the Azanian National Liberation Army (AZANLA) the BCMA also wage an armed struggle. It sent BCM militants for military training in, amongst others, Libya, Eritrea, and China.  With their training complete, fighters of the Azanian National Liberation Army engaged the forces of the apartheid regime in many theaters within the country.

Post the banning of BC organisations in 1977 and into the ‘80s, the black consciousness movement continued to play a leading role in the struggle for liberation.   Following the 1977 bannings, the black consciousness movement reorganised and launched various organisations that pursued the struggle and organised different sectors of society.  Very few people today know that organisations such as the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), the Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO, the precursor of SASCO) and the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (PEBCO), amongst others, were formations of the black consciousness movement.

Betraying a mentality that persists until today, the ANC through its formation the United Democratic Front (UDF) sought neither cooperation nor co-existence but destruction of other liberation movements with different ideological perspectives. To achieve a hegemonic position, it used violence.  Many black consciousness activists lost their lives through the UDF’s rapacious drive for hegemony, many falling victim to necklacing  – a burning tyre put around a person’s neck – a weapon favoured by UDF activists. The feud that broke out between the ANC aligned UDF and AZAPO was a direct consequence of the vicious drive for hegemony by the former and was ostensibly launched by AZAPO’s 1985 campaign against Ted Kennedy’s Tour of South Africa[ii].

Remaining true to its philosophical precept of unity of the oppressed, AZAPO pursued cooperation which led to the formation of the National Forum(NF). The NF sought to offer different tendencies within the liberation movement an opportunity to air their views.  Essentially the forum aimed to narrow the difference between the liberation groups.

Saths Cooper, former AZAPO President, described this development as follows: “[There has been] a tremendous degree of ideological ferment and confusion.  We think we need mature, sober consideration of all the issues in the liberation struggle and while principles should not be sacrificed, partisan approaches should take a back seat.”[iii]  The National Forum, a call for which was made at and AZAPO Congress in February 1983, sat in June 1983 with 800 delegates representing 200 organisations. After two days of discussion the Azania People’s Manifesto was adopted.

In the face of the hardships arising from the feud, AZAPO launched the Azanian Students Movement (AZASM) and Azanian Youth Organisation (AZAYO) which, respectively, dominated student and youth politics and helped mobilise students and the youth in the struggle against apartheid. In the same period AZAPO successfully campaigned for the isolation of apartheid South Africa by tirelessly and vigorously waging the cultural boycott in the country.

As the 1980s drew to a close, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the apartheid regime could not continue as it had. The struggle mounted inside the country, the sanctions and increasing isolation of the regime were having a negative impact on the country. The regime could no longer govern the country as it had and the economy was in a free fall, with high levels of capital flight, decline in the international exchange rate of the Rand and steep rise in inflation.

Against this background, groups of Afrikaner intellectuals began exploring the possibilities of a negotiated settlement with the ANC in exile. These talks lead to the Dakar Conference of 1987 were “61 South Africans met in Dakar, Senegal, the majority were Afrikaans-speaking South Africans and 17 were members of the ANC”[iv]. The discussions with the exiled ANC were an addition to the discussions that had been ongoing with Mr. Nelson Mandela while he was incarcerated in a house on the grounds of Victor Vorster Prison.

By end of August 1989 the OAU’s Subcommittee on Southern Africa had adopted the Harare Declaration which stated:

We believe that a conjuncture of circumstances exists which, if there is a demonstrable readiness on the part of the Pretoria regime to engage in negotiations genuinely and seriously, could create the possibility to end apartheid through negotiations … We would therefore encourage the people of South Africa, as part of their overall struggle, to get together to negotiate an end to the apartheid system and agree on all the measures that are necessary to transform their country into a non-racial democracy.

The Harare declaration was followed by the unbanning of liberation organisations and the announcement of the pending release of Mr. Mandela. By 4th of May 1990 the apartheid regime and the ANC met at the Presidential residence in Cape Town and agreed on what is called the Grooter Schuur minute. This meeting was followed by another in August 1990 which produced the Pretoria minute.

Ever alive to the possibility for the betrayal of the liberation struggle the BCM(A), AZAPO and the PAC met in Kadoma, Zimbabwe to assess the situation and determine their position with regards to a road map to negotiations. The Kadoma consultation passed resolutions on the negotiations, among others, which noted a “common desire of our people for unity” and resolved to “work towards the establishment of a broad-based principled Patriotic Front”.  It was also agreed that “all organisations of the oppressed that accept the democratic Constituent Assembly formula be invited to participate in the conference to launch the Patriotic Front.” The “Patriotic Front” was to be the forum through which consensus on both the negotiation process and the final outcome of the negotiations could be achieved ,amongst ‘patriots’.

The Kadoma Consultation re-iterated that “the only mechanism that can genuinely democratise the system in our country is the Constituent Assembly elected on a one person, one vote basis with all Azanians over the age of 18 voting on a common voters roll in a unitary state”. It further resolved that “the only kind of negotiations that the AZAPO, BCM(A) and PAC will be amenable to is to discuss the transfer of power from the minority to the majority through an elected Constituent Assembly [and that] such a meeting must take place at a neutral venue under an impartial chairperson.

Despite its reservation about the process leading up to negotiations the BCM was adamant that it would not “give others a free hand to negotiate our birthright away … if invited to the negotiating table under acceptable circumstances, it would participate”[v].  It would however insist on open negotiations as opposed to confidential ones and It would refuse to compromise on, one person, one vote in a unitary Azania, and a formula for the redistribution of land and wealth[vi].

Maintaining the same principled stance, AZAPO, a member of the steering committee of the Patriotic Front, issued a letter to all those bodies participating in apartheid structures, demanding their withdrawal from those structures as a pre-condition to their admission to the launch conference of the “Patriotic Front”.  The then Democratic Party demanded that AZAPO must withdraw the letter and apologise for its contents, failing which, it (the Democratic Party) would not attend the Conference. When AZAPO refused to withdraw the letter and apologise, the ANC and PAC expelled it from the convening committee.

As if to prove true the reasoning behind the objection of AZAPO to the inclusion of Bantustants leaders and others who participated in apartheid structures, the National Party organized its own meeting with its allies in November 1991. The attendees to this meeting included some of the Bantustan leaders and parties from the tricameral parliament which were founding members of the Patriotic Front.

In bilateral discussion between the ANC and the National Party, the two agreed on multi-party talks and on who should be invited. The first multi-party constitutional talks were then scheduled for end of November at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park.  These were called the ‘Conven­tion for a Democratic South Africa’ (CODESA).  The CODESA agenda included, amongst others, a discussion on general constitutional principles, a constitution-making body or process, transitional arrangements or an interim government.

This agenda clearly fell afoul of the agreement between the PAC, AZAPO and BCM(A) in Kadoma and the declaration of the Patriotic Front which called for a constituent assembly elected on one person one vote to draft the and adopt the new constitution of the country.  When AZAPO received an invite to participate in CODESA it rejected it again maintaining a principled stance.

Rather late in the game, the PAC, which was in the steering committee of CODESA, walked off the steering committee due to concerns that all decisions were subject to bilateral agreements made between the National Party and the ANC.  This had been preceded by the PAC accusing the ANC of violating the Patriotic Front Declaration when the latter had agreed to multi-party negotiations. However, the PAC would, after its walk out, later rejoin CODESA I and II discussions and the Multi Party Negotiating Forum thus, itself, violating the Patriotic Front Declaration. 

In 1993 AZAPO decided not to participate in the “historic” 1994 general elections. AZAPO rejected the interim constitution that would govern the elections and the period leading up to the adoption of a new constitution. The interim constitution was based on agreements reached during what is now commonly referred to as the World Trade Centre or Kempton Park negotiations.

AZAPO argued that these agreements would not deliver substantive freedom to the black people of South Africa. The agreements entrenched property rights effectively legitimising the dispossession that black people had experienced over a period of close to four centuries.   The government positions held by the apparatchiks of the apartheid regime would be retained as per the agreements. The government set up after the election would not be a true reflection of wishes of the people as a government of national unity was guaranteed up until the next elections.  Further to this, the parliament formed as an outcome of the elections would not have the power to change the interim constitution.

AZAPO was certainly not opposed to elections as a tool in the democratic enterprise.  Indeed, Steve Bantu Biko, one of the fiercest proponents of BCM, called for “one man, one vote” as early as the 1970s.   AZAPO recognised suffrage as one of the oldest demands of our people dating back to the 19th century. What AZAPO was opposed to, was the meaningless gesture of electing a government that will not be able to make any meaningful material deference to the lives of black people.

The idea of what type of freedom would be brought about by the elections represented a fundamental difference in the conception of freedom between AZAPO and many of the liberation movements that participated in the elections.  The difference simply lay in, the liberal notion that freedom is ‘freedom from’ as opposed to the radical conception of freedom as ‘freedom to.’

The 1994 elections certainly brought about freedom from legal discrimination and legally condoned oppression.

Yet, what AZAPO conceived as freedom and still does, extends beyond civil rights to the right to realise one’s full potential in cooperation with others.  We want to see freedom and democracy extending to all spheres of life.

Following the return of those who were in exile, the BCMA and AZAPO merged in the 1994 historic Shaft 17 Congress and the name Azanian People’s Organisation(AZAPO) was retained . In 1999, AZAPO participated in the National Elections for the first time.  This decision was based on strategic consideration and the fact that it was now possible to change the constitution


Resulting from the adoption of the 1996 South African Constitution which made it possible for a party of coalition of parties with a two thirds (2/3) majority in parliament to change it, AZAPO entered electoral politics through participating in 1999 General Elections. Committed to the improving the lives of Black people and all South Africans, AZAPO allowed its then President Cde Mosibudi Mangena to serve in government as Deputy Minister of Education and as Minister of Science and Technology.

To this day, AZAPO remains the leading exponent of the Black Consciousness philosophy in South Africa and draws inspiration from eminent sons and daughters of this soil such as Steve Biko, Onkgopotse Tiro, Strini Moodley, Abu Asvat and Vuyelwa Mashalaba.  AZAPO remains committed to the struggle for total liberation which aims for the total abolishment of any form of political oppression, economic exploitation and marginalisation and social degradation of Black people (as defined by Black Consciousness). To this day AZAPO mobilises Black people and all people of conscience for the ushering in of a state and society where all forms of oppression, exploitation and marginalisation shall be done away with, where the free development of all is a necessary condition for the free development of one.


[i] Biko, S.  1996, I write What I Like p11

[ii] Gibson,N. 2004 . Black Consciousness 1977 – 1987; The Dialectics of Liberation in South Africa p19 Centre for Civil Society , Durban South, Africa

[iii] Ibid, p15

[iv] http://www.idasa.org/our_products/resources/output/a_common_vision_for_sa/

[v]Mangena, M. writing on behalf of the Central Committee of the BCM(A) in an Internal Memo to all regions of the BCM(A) on the Changing  Situation in Azania

 [vi] Ibid


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