Biko and Black Consciousness

The Definition of Black Consciousness

This is the paper produced for a SASO Leadership Training Course in December 1971 by Bantu Stephen Biko.

We have defined blacks as those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realization of their aspirations.

This definition illustrates to us a number of things:

1. Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.

2. Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.

From the above observations therefore, we can see that the term black is not necessarily all-inclusive, i.e. the fact that we are all not white does not necessarily mean that we are all black. Non-whites do exist and will continue to exist for quite a long time. If one’s aspiration is whiteness but his pigmentation makes attainment of this impossible, then that person is a non-white. Any man who calls a white man “baas”, any man who serves in the police force or security branch is ipso facto a non-white. Black people – real black people – are those who can manage to hold their heads high in defiance rather than willingly surrender their souls to the white man.

Briefly defined therefore, Black Consciousness is in essence the realization by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression – the blackness of their skin – and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude. It seeks to demonstrate the lie that black is an aberration from the “normal” which is white. It is a manifestation of a new realization that by seeking to run away from themselves and to emulate the white man, black are insulting the intelligence of whoever created them black. Black Consciousness, therefore takes cognizance of the deliberateness of the God’s plan in creating black people black

It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life. The interrelationship between the consciousness of the self and the emancipatory programme is of a paramount importance. Blacks no longer seek to reform the system because so doing implies acceptance of the major points around which the system revolves. Blacks are out to completely transform the system and to make of it what they wish. Such a major undertaking can only be realized in an atmosphere where people are convinced of the truth inherent in their stand. Liberation therefore is of paramount importance in the concept of Black Consciousness, for we cannot be conscious of ourselves and yet remain in bondage. We want to attain the envisioned self which is a free self.

The surge towards Black Consciousness is a phenomenon that has manifested itself throughout the so-called Third World. There is no doubt that discrimination against the black man the word over fetches its origin from the exploitative attitude of the white man. Colonization of white countries by whites has throughout history resulted in nothing more than sinister than mere cultural or geographical fusion at worst, or language bastardization at best.

It is true that the history of weaker nations is shaped by bigger nations, but nowhere in the world today do we see whites exploiting whites on scale even remotely similar to what is happening in South Africa. Hence, one is forced to conclude that it is not coincidence that black people are exploited. It was a deliberate plan which has culminated in even so-called black independent countries not attaining any real independence.

With this background in mind we are forced, therefore, to believe that it is a case of haves against have-nots where whites have been deliberately made haves and black have-nots.

There is for instance no worker in the classical sense among whites in South Africa, for even the most downtrodden white worker still has a lot lose if the system is changed. He is protected by several laws against competition at work from the majority. He has a vote and he uses it to return the Nationalist Government to power because he sees them as the only people who, through job reservation laws, are bent on looking after his interests against competition with the “Natives”.

It should therefore be accepted that analysis of our situation in terms of one’s colour at once takes care of the greatest single determinant for political action – i.e. colour – while also validly describing the blacks as the only real workers in South Africa. It immediately kills all suggestions that there could ever be effective rapport between the real workers, i.e. blacks, and the privileged white workers, since we have shown that the latter are the greatest supporters of the system.

True enough, the system has allowed so dangerous an anti-black attitude to build up amongst whites, who are economically nearest to the blacks, demonstrate the distance between themselves and the blacks by an exaggerated reactionary attitude towards blacks. Hence the greatest anti-black feeling is to be found amongst the very poor whites whom the Class Theory calls upon to be with black workers in the struggle for emancipation. This is the kind of twisted logic that Black Consciousness approach seeks to eradicate.

In terms of the Black Consciousness approach we recognize the existence of one major force in South Africa. This is White Racism. It is the one force against which all of us are pitted. It works with unnerving totality, featuring both on the offensive and in our defence. Its greatest ally to date has been the refusal by us to progressively lose ourselves in a world of colourlessness and amorphous common humanity, whites are deriving pleasure and security in entrenching white racism and further exploiting the minds and bodies of the unsuspecting black masses. Their agents are ever present amongst us, telling that it is immoral to withdraw into a cocoon, that dialogue is the answer to our problem and that it is unfortunate that there is white racism in some quarters but you must that things are changing.

These in fact are the greatest racists for they refuse to credit us any intelligence to know what we want. Their intentions are obvious; they want to be barometers by which the rest of the white society can measure feelings in the black world. This then is what makes us believe that white power presents itself as a totality not only provoking us but also controlling our response to the provocation. This is an important point to note because it is often missed by those who believe that there are a few good whites. Sure there are few good whites just as much as there are a few bad blacks.

However what we are concerned here with is group attitudes and group politics. The exception does not make a lie of a rule – it merely substantiates it. The overall analysis therefore, based on the Hegelian theory of dialectic materialism, is as follows. That since the thesis is a white racism there can only be one valid antithesis, i.e. a solid black unity, to counterbalance the scale. If South Africa is to be a land where black and white live together in harmony without fear of group exploitation, it is only when these two opposites have interplayed and produced a viable synthesis of ideas and modus vivendi. We can never wage any struggle without offering a strong counterpoint to the white racism that permeate our society so effectively.

One must immediately dispel the thought that Black Consciousness is merely a methodology or a means towards an end. What Black Consciousness seeks to do is to produce at the output end of the process real black people who do not regard themselves as the appendages to white society. This truth cannot be reserved.

We do not need to apologize for this because it is true that the white systems have produced throughout the world a number of people who are not aware that they too are people. Our adherence to values that we set for ourselves can also not be reversed because it will always be a lie to accept white values as necessarily the best. The fact that a synthesis may be attained only relates to adherence to power politics. Someone somewhere along the line will be forced to accept the truth and here we believe that ours is the truth.

The future of South Africa in the case where blacks adopt Black Consciousness is the subject for concern especially among initiates. What do we do when have attained our Consciousness ? Do we propose to kick whites out ? I believe personally that the answers to these questions ought to be found in the SASO Policy Manifesto and in our analysis of the situation in South Africa. We have defined what we mean by true integration and the very fact that such a definition exists does illustrate what our standpoint is. In any case we are much more concerned about what is happening now, than will happen in the future. The future will always be shaped by the sequence of present-day events.

The importance of black solidarity to the various segments of the black community must not be understated. There have been in the past a lot of suggestions that there can be no viable unity amongst blacks because they hold each other in contempt. Coloureds despise Africans because they (the former), by their proximity to the Africans, may lose the chances of assimilation into the white world. Africans despise the Coloureds and Indians for a variety of reasons. Indians not only despise Africans but in many instances also exploit the Africans in job and shop situations.

All these stereotype attitudes have led to mountainous inter-group suspicions amongst the blacks.

What we should at all times look at is the fact that:

1. We are all oppressed by the same system.

2. That we are oppressed to varying degrees is a deliberate design to stratify us not only socially but also in terms of the enemy’s aspirations.

3. Therefore it is to be expected that in terms of the enemy’s plan there must be this suspicion and that if we are committed to the problem of emancipation to the same degree it is part of our duty to bring to the black people the deliberateness of the enemy’s subjugation scheme.

4. That we should go on with our programme, attracting to it only committed people and not just those eager to see an equitable distribution of groups amongst our ranks. This is a game common amongst liberals. The one criterion that must govern all our action is commitment.

Further implications of Black Consciousness are to do with correcting false images of ourselves in terms of culture, Education, Religion, Economics. The importance of this also must not be understated. There is always an interplay between the history of people i.e. the past, their faith in themselves and hopes for their future. We are aware of the terrible role played by our education and religion in creating amongst us a false understanding of ourselves. We must therefore work out schemes not only to correct this, but further to be our own authorities rather than wait to be interpreted by others.

Whites can only see us from the outside and as such can never extract and analyze the ethos in the black community. In summary therefore one need only refer this house to the SASO Policy Manifesto which carries most of the salient points in the definition of the Black Consciousness. I wish to stress again the need for us to know very clearly what we mean by certain terms and what our understanding is when we talk of Black Consciousness.





Steve Biko 1946-1977. A lot of nations have celebrated leaders, revolutionaries. Revered minds. What has become an exciting part of our own national history is when a really young leader is admired. Steve Biko’s teachings form part of the most important collective dialogues in South Africa. Dude literally pioneered June 16. The same course of events that helped actuate the milk and honey we currently enjoy. Steve Biko’s legacy is an extremely valuable asset to all youth of today. His contributions, though not particularly physical, still have to be acknowledged as much as the celebrated achievements of our sterling heroes in the field of politics. For those that are not too clued up about Biko, please do some reading on dude. It will serve your thinking well.

“A fact that is often lost sight of in much that one reads about Steve Biko, is that he was a mere 23 years when he developed his own thinking and ideas about black consciousness. He not only developed the ideas in splendid isolation, he worked with friends and fellow students who gathered around him and formed what was clearly an intellectual cell. It was out of that cell that a movement developed much along the lines of similar social change and revolutionary intellectual movements throughout the history of Europe.

This came about not because Steve Biko was any more brilliant a scholar than any of his colleagues. He was not. He did not possess wealth of resources and financial backing to attract others to him and to his ideas. He did not. What he did extremely well was to read. Steve was a voracious reader. He read everything he could lay his hands on. As a medical student, he could debate with me an English major the finer points of literary criticism of Shakespeare and the novels a of George Eliot. He understood the politics of decolonisation in Africa and India. He had insight into the anti-imperial wars throughout Africa and in Vietnam. And he had a critical understanding of the politics of the civil rights movement in the United States. Black Consciousness for him was moulded by a diversity of intellectual forces and fountains: from the liberation history of South Africa, the pan Africanism of Kwame Nkrumah, the African nationalism of Jomo Kenyatta, the negritude of the west African scholars like Leopold Sadar Senghor, Aime Cesare and others in Paris. Biko taught himself a political understanding of religion in Africa. He devoured John Mbiti. Ali Mazrui. Basil Davidson, he understood the critical writings of Walter Rodney and he interpreted Franz Fanon. He laid his hands on some philosophical writings like Jean Paul Sartre and made ready use of some philosophical concepts like syllogism in logic and dialectical materialism in Marxist political thought. All this by a young medical student.

It is remarkable, with the benefit of hindsight, that in the particularly brutal circumstances of the South Africa of the 1970s, there could emerge out of the inauspicious social environment of his home, township and schools, someone with a precautious mind, a public intellectual ahead of his time and a philosopher whose ideas were to shape the future. I believe that the second gift of Steve’s was instrumental. He could write well and he loved writing. His loved for the written word translated into his ability to craft words and ideas. It is important to realize that unless one can write and write words and ideas that have a precision of expression and a beguiling simplicity, one will never be able to reach one’s audience. Steve would sit through the night, often after an all-night party and wrote articles and pamphlets to the student unions and SASO branches across the country. An interesting aspect of this and his method of engagement was that the pieces he wrote would most likely have be the subject of furious debate in his room over a glass of beer. He would engage the debate largely in an interrogative mood. In the process discussion was participative and all contributions were valued. I have no recollection of Steve lording it over everyone else. But he was relaxed among peers and comrades. The Allan Taylor Residence in Merebank, Durban had a group of students who practiced the Platonic art of the rhetoric. This rhetoric was also translated in the dialogues Steve engaged in with a large number of others: David Russell and Fr Aelred Stubbs, CR; Richard Turner and the NUSAS leadership, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi (as he was then known as), Donald Woods in later years and many other overseas correspondents. His letters have become a mine of information and insight into his own evolving thinking.

Black Consciousness was ultimately not about mind games. It was as is now common knowledge, a “way of life. That explains why BC had such a strong commitment to community development. That helps one to understand how transformational intelligence was possible during the repressive and claustrophobic atmosphere of the 1970s That is how he could appeal so successfully to the intellectual curiosity of young, black and proud South Africans. To be with Steve was a life-changing experience”.

N Barney Pityana, 2002

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