The Struggle for Blackness, Black Consciousness and Black Empowerment in South Africa


The struggle for blackness and empowerment of black South Africans began in the 1960’s as a direct response to institutionalized racial segregation deeply rooted in the apartheid system. This burgeoning struggle sought to advance a new attitude of mind in black South Africans with the sole aim of rejecting value systems created to infringe on their basic human dignity. The incarceration of anti-Apartheid campaigners such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu created a political void that eventually birthed the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) (Mandela, 2013). Its primary aim was to raise the cognizance of all subjugated Africans in South Africa with keen focus on their political consciousness. Comparative scholars versed in the social history of the United States and South Africa view this march to black consciousness as an attempt to fight the remaining vestiges of white domination.

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Black South Africans drew inspiration from African-Americans who successfully resisted segregation and took pride in their sense of identity. The general idea behind black consciousness was rejecting the condescending values that were historically forced on Africans by white colonizers and the idea that their overlords had the monopoly on truth. During the 1970’s, black consciousness was at its peak in South Africa and is generally viewed as a catalyst for the 1976 Soweto Uprising that left a trail of death and destruction. Blatant acts of subversion within South Africa soon made leading anti-Apartheid activists the target of the South African Security Police and the Special Branch. Essentially, the idea of black consciousness marked the beginning a new era where indigenous South Africans became aware of their inherent blackness and embracing it with pride. Hence, the struggle for blackness, black consciousness and empowerment marked a significant phase in the history of South Africa. It is now hailed for prompting Africans to recognize their cultural, political and socio-economic values.

Context of Black Consciousness in South Africa and its Links to the United States

Although the struggle for blackness, black consciousness and empowerment was always bound to develop in South Africa, the Black Power movement from the United States played a major role in inspiring its inception. The emergence of the Black Consciences Movement (BCM) in the early 1970s was analogous to African-American movements such as the Black Panther Party and Black Power. These movements championed black pride in a fashion rarely seen before while affirming their black identity within the context of emancipation. During this period, African-Americans were beginning to develop a unique sense of self coupled with Pan-Africanism and overt negritude. Over the years, Malcolm X has widely been regarded as the originator of this idea and philosophy that ultimately led to his assassination at the Audubom Ballroom in 1965. 

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His incendiary rhetoric against all forms of racism, segregation and discrimination irked many who beheld him as nothing more than an abrasive defector minister of the Nation of Islam hell-bent on starting a race war. Nevertheless, Malcolm X still remains a notable figure in the black consciousness movement as an intellectual who espoused black separatism and blatant opposition to integration (Marable, 2012, p.67). His idea of a global wave of black consciousness and militancy soon spread across the globe, consequently influencing Steve Biko Bantu’s philosophy. It was this threat that led the white apartheid government of South Africa to implement the Internal Security Amendment Act as a countermeasure to curtail the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). According to South African revolutionaries, black consciousness was expected to take place in two phases; psychological liberation and physical liberation. As Desmond Tutu noted in his assessment, the only sure way that South African blacks would redefine this unjust value system was by first conceding that theself-appointed white minority operated using principles of an oppressive system designed to exploit the former (Tutu, 2014). Black consciousness, therefore, became an attempt to band together as a subjugated people to counter the divide and rule policy employed by an authoritarian apartheid government.

Black Consciousness as a Source of Empowerment for South Africans

The rise of black consciousness is still considered a groundbreaking moment in the history of South Africa. For the first time in nearly three centuries, blacks were beginning to question the popular narrative touted about African history. For instance, Steve Biko noted with great wonder the manner in which the Anglo-Boer coalition supported the fallacious myth that the country’s history began in 1652 when Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape (Biko, 2019, p. 41).  The prevalence of these fables meant that a majority of black South Africans readily accepted them without questioning their veracity. Black consciousness, therefore, endeavored to dispel these inaccurate accounts in favor of an authentic depiction of reality where African greats such as Shaka, Hintsa and Moshoeshoe were recognized as an integral part of the region’s history. In addition to this, black South Africans were also challenged to think independently and avoid believing the torrents of information they were being bombarded with by the white establishment. As part of the broader campaign for empowerment, blacks also had to contend with the damaging effects that missionaries and Christianity had on the African psyche.  Clerics such as Allan Aubrey Boesak openly admitted that Christianity had been purposefully hijacked by the colonialists to suit their selfish interests (Boesak, 2015). The typical black native readily ditched their animistic traditional African religion in favor of Christianity which was the embodiment of foreign influence in the region. Missionaries went ahead of their colonial masters as a scheme to pacify indigenous populations using Christianity. The recognition of this fact by black consciousness activists revealed how religion was used as an effective weapon of oppression and the primary reason why indigenous South Africans had to be reborn in a new state of consciousness. Empowerment of black South Africans thus began with the acknowledgement that their malleable minds were twisted and manipulate by exploitative masters hence the need to rid the slave-mentality. Before beginning their liberation journey, the oppressed had to first accept themselves as human beings worth dignity and active participants in their salvation. Moreover, black consciousness empowered indigenous South Africans to clamor for change in their society without depending on the white liberal establishment to their bidding. In fact, this new awakening led many to strongly believe that while liberals were part of the Anglo-Boer establishment that was determined to kill the revolutionary fervor of black consciousness. 

The Transformative Effect of Black Consciousness

The push toward black consciousness is a fundamental part of South African history. Tensions resulting from the political pressures rife during this period led to stringent reactionary responses by the apartheid government as a way of ensuring that a firm grip on power was maintained. The first order of business was banning the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the African National Congress (ANC). These parties were considered an immediate threat to the establishment and had to be muzzled especially since their growing influence meant that they were in a collision path with the government. 1960 thus became a dark year for progressive politics and free speech in South Africa.

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The matter was further exacerbated by the Sharpeville massacre during that same year which further convinced the government that leading black political parties were social menace that needed to be contained. Together with the imprisonment of political figureheads after the 1963 Rivonia trail, a sense of political quietness soon swept across the country. Black South Africans remained without the leadership that they desperately yearned for, with many having a difficult time rallying behind any viable political cause that had emerged during this period. The political vacuum that was evident during this age gave rise to black student associations keen on furthering the ambitions of detained leaders. For instance, the Durban Students’ Union and the African Students Union of South Africa (ASUSA) were influenced by the idea of black consciousness. The acceptance of this paradigm shift in the mindset of black South Africans remains the primary reason why the revolutionary flame blazed brighter than ever with the aim of achieving freedom and equality. Black consciousness allowed the oppressed frame unique thoughts untainted by white liberals and the system’s status quo.

The Impression Left by Black Consciousness in South Africa

The struggle for blackness, black consciousness and empowerment had long-lasting implications on the South African society. It marked the beginning of fears by the white minority that the status quo would soon be disrupted, marking the beginning of new era for race-relations in the country. Some of these uncertainties lay in the dread that a takeover by black South Africans would destroy the western civilization around which the country was built around. White liberals who were considered themselves allies of disenfranchised Africans in South Africa were shocked by the speed at which black consciousness spread in the country. Black consciousness shattered the multi-racialism philosophy that purportedly described South African society. Black South Africans were no longer afraid to voice their opinions regarding matters of national interest with their aim being to be treated equally in their native land. Furthermore, black South Africans demystified the myth that only the whites were born to lead while others became subservient to their rule. Black consciousness also raised the awareness of indigenous South Africans in relation to their abilities and capabilities. An entire generation of South Africans soon concluded that they did not need the self-appointed “messiahs” who presented themselves as white liberals ready to lead them to the proverbial Promised Land (Macqueen, 2018, p. 23). Black South Africans effectively organized themselves and chartered their course with the aim of taking control of their destiny. Additionally, the white establishment failed to uproot this idea despite numerous arrests made by state agents. Black consciousness now enjoys support from indigenous South Africans who view it as a reflection of the dreams and aspirations of the majority.


Black consciousness emerged in South Africa as a struggle for blackness and empowerment for the disenfranchised majority. It traces its origin from African-American movements such as the Black Panther Party and Black Power that challenged the white establishment in the United States. The concept of black consciousness soon became a source of empowerment for South Africans which is why it is still remembered among the most transformative ideologies of the 20th century.

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