Black Consciousness Movement

The black consciousness movement was a political, cultural, and social movement that originated in South Africa during the same time as the rise of Black Studies in the United States, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The leader of the black consciousness movement was Bantu Stephen Biko, a charismatic man of enormous intellectual abilities. Biko became an international symbol of the resistance against white racial domination in the late 1960s, and then he launched a conceptually clear definition of black consciousness for the youth movement of South Africa.
Biko's understanding of the black consciousness movement began with defining those who were legally, politically, economically, and socially discriminated against as a group in South African society. For Biko, people had to identify themselves as supporting the liberation struggle in order to be a part of the black consciousness movement. Since the black consciousness movement was political, Biko argued, black consciousness was not a matter of pigmentation but a reflection of a mental attitude. This argument of the black power advocates in the United States resonated with the black consciousness movement in South Africa. Moreover, what Biko saw was that if he could get the masses simply to describe themselves as black, they would be on the road toward emancipation. Thus using blackness as an identifier meant that people had committed themselves to fight against the forces that sought to use their blackness as a stamp of inferiority and subservience. For individuals to say “I am black” was to state a positive position about how they saw themselves. This was a revolutionary concept in a society where it was commonly assumed that blackness was something negative.

Overcoming Unconsciousness

The black consciousness movement cannot be fully appreciated without the understanding that South African people who were not white did not necessarily see themselves as black. Biko and others in the movement recognized that there were people in South Africa who had a nonwhite identity that would always frustrate them because the aspiration of the nonwhite is often to be white, which is really impossible. Nonwhites were those who sought to serve the interests of white racial domination by serving in the police force or by calling the whites by honorific titles. This was madness, according to the black consciousness movement.
The movement asserted that these people should stop being nonwhite, stop being people who hated blackness and who despised their own culture. Black people were capable of standing with their heads high in defiance of oppression rather than surrendering their souls to white people. These proud people were the new people that the black consciousness movement wanted to create. Therefore, it was possible to define black consciousness as the realization by Africans of the need to rally together around the cause of liberation from oppression and to operate as a group to rid themselves of the shackles that bound them to perpetual servitude. Furthermore, it was a corrective and sought to demonstrate that blackness was not an aberration and whiteness was not normal. The aim was to get whites off of the backs of blacks. This new realization was meant to infuse the black community with new pride in the African values, culture, religion, and general outlook on life. But the critical element that made this new vision a movement was the relationship between the consciousness of the self and the emancipatory program.

Overhauling a Racist System

Biko and his allies came to realize that they could not seek reformation of the system because that would imply accepting the major premises of the racist society itself. The society had to be completely overhauled. Blacks were out to completely transform the system. The black consciousness movement wanted to ensure that Africans were convinced of the truth of their position. It was impossible for people to be conscious of themselves and yet remain in bondage. The envisioned self had to be a free self.
The black consciousness movement recognized that it was not just the liberation of Africans that was at stake but the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world from the aggressive and exploitative activities of white culture. It must be acknowledged, however, that in countries where whites exploited each other, they never reached the level of brutality they reached in exploiting blacks. This was clearly not a coincidence but a deliberate plan to completely eliminate any attempt at freedom on the part of blacks. The unjust racial structure of South Africa, so similar to that of the United States in many instances, in which whites had been deliberately made haves and blacks made havenots, had inspired a confrontation between the races.

Contradictions of Workers

What Biko wanted to point out was that in South Africa there was no worker in the classical sense who was white, for even the most downtrodden white worker was invested in the apartheid system. The whites were protected by laws preventing them from having to compete with blacks. The only real workers in apartheid South Africa were black, and yet they were the lowest on the economic ladder. The black consciousness movement challenged the socialist theory that the workers would unite.
The most violent antiblacks in South Africa were the lowest class of whites. The class analysis did not seem to hold in this case because color was far more important in the apartheid system than anything else, and white workers did not see anything that allowed them to identify their lot with blacks. White racial domination was the one force that had to be destroyed because it infected everything. So long as Africans' vision remained clear and they conceived of themselves as free, freedom was inevitable. But it was important that they avoid losing themselves in an amorphous work of colorlessness. The black consciousness movement was not just a means to an end but a process meant to influence black people to regard themselves as central rather than as appendages of white people. In this respect, black consciousness as conceptualized by Biko was an antecedent to Afrocentricity.
The black consciousness movement delineated its basic beliefs in order to enable blacks to increase their understanding of how the system of white privilege worked in South Africa. The movement addressed these beliefs to the black community as follows:
  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. We are committed to emancipation and it is our duty to bring to the black people the deliberateness of the enemy's subjugation scheme.
  4. We must have committed people who will go on and continue our program.
Stephen Biko's vision was so complete that he saw implications for correcting false images of blacks in the culture, education, religion, and economics. He was most aware of the terrible role played by religion, education, and the media in creating a false understanding of Africans by blacks as well as by whites. Although there were many organizations that used his concept of black consciousness, Biko remained the principal interpreter of the movement—until he was bludgeoned to death by white police on September 12, 1977, at the age of 30. At that time he became a martyr to the South African liberation struggle.



  • black consciousness movement
  • consciousness
  • South Africa
  • Africa
  • black people
  • apartheid
  • movements


Further Reading

  • Biko, Steve. (1979). Black Consciousness in South Africa. New York: Random House. This may be the authoritative work on the beliefs and opinions of the leader of the black consciousness movement; it is certainly one of the best works about Biko's thoughts and philosophy.
  • Biko, Steve. (2002). I Write What I Like: Selected Writings (A. Stubbs, Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This is a collection of the works of Steve Biko, which the reader will find an accessible introduction to his writings.
  • Mandela, Nelson. (1995). Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. New York: Little, Brown. This is a comprehensive autobiography of the most respected leader of the South African liberation struggle. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and while he was in prison many people fought to bring about his release and liberation for the nation.
  • Sparks, Allister. (1986). Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa's Road to Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A well-known journalist gives his account of the changes in South Africa, which makes it clear that overcoming the history of brutality and death, including that of Steve Biko, will remain a challenge to the country for years to come.