Black Consciousness and Progressive Movements under Apartheid

Ian Macqueen, Black Consciousness and Progressive Movements under Apartheid (Pietermaritzburg: UKZN Press, 2018)

IN popular perception Black Consciousness (BC) is often portrayed as a breakaway, isolationist tendency; a mirror image of apartheid promoting the interests of black advancement and upliftment. In contrast, Ian Macqueen has produced a brilliant and readable analysis that shows BC to be the product of a multiple set of influences and of its time – that remarkably fertile period of intellectual exploration of the late 1960s and early 1970s, ironically in the midst of acute state repression.

Macqueen explores the Christian roots of BC and its relationship with Black Theology in terms of moral power. The significance of the radicalised Christian Institute also enters the equation. The Durban Moment of the early 1970s is generally remembered for the emergence of independent black trade unionism, but Macqueen alerts his readers to its creative dissident thinking and the intellectual relationship between Steve Biko and Richard Turner. Christianity, liberalism, socialism and feminism all had roles to play.

BC, the New Left and radical Christianity were products of a cauldron of debate and thought that linked South Africa to a wider world beyond the literal dead end of apartheid. None of them endured intact. Instead, they were displaced, often in dubious circumstances, by what was to become the tripartite alliance of the African National Congress, Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party. It is hard not to see a pattern of betrayal in this historical trajectory, which has served the nation ill.

BC’s troubled attitude to feminism is considered judiciously by Macqueen. Some women flourished in the movement, but there was widespread suspicion of alternative loyalties, Western influence and individualism. In similar vein, he does not shirk the currently unacceptable truth that the English-medium universities courageously provided crucial protected space for dissidence in a highly oppressive and perilous environment.

Turner, predictably, saw the significance and positivity of BC: affirmation of self and black dignity rather than a negative rejection of white liberalism. Both he and Biko were heralds of new visions of society, arguably the two most significant revolutionaries in South African history. This is why the apartheid state murdered them both within four months. Were they both still alive, South Africa might be a very different place.

Macqueen, like most historians, understandably tends to avoid the speculative. But what he does tackle head on is the hegemonic approach to our country’s history. It is immensely complex and eclectic. Every significant strand of political thought and praxis was influenced in some way by another. No political movement was an island unto itself.

A particularly notable feature of this book involves Macqueen’s excursion into geography, what he terms the ‘radical spaces’ that nurtured combative opposition debate in apartheid society: Beatrice Street and the Medical School in Durban; the University Christian Movement at Jorissen Street, Johannesburg; and Cape Town’s Mowbray Centre. There is considerable research potential in this idea of oppositional space in both the smaller urban centres and rural areas of South Africa that invites exploration.

Of the relationship between Biko and Turner in pursuit of a just and moral society– ‘fraught but productive’ – Macqueen hopes it can ‘inspire a new generation of students and activists to a radical but tolerant politics’.

All patriotic South Africans can say ‘Amen’ to that.