After a two-year eclipse caused by the long shadow of police repression, South Africa's black movement is hesitantly resuming its political activities.
This renaissance, however, is plagued by the efficient dispersal and elimination of the movement's leadership through harassment, bannings and jailings. Two years ago last month the most articulate black consciousness spokesman, Stephen Biko, died in police custody and no one has yet appeared to replace him as a national leader.
The first evidence of the movement's renewed political activity was a national conference early in September of the Writers' Association of South Africa, an all-black journalists' trade union that gave a resounding pledge of allegiance to the philosophy of black consciousness.
The Azanian Peoples' Organization held its first national conference a few weeks later. Although it is not openly stated, this group appears earmarked to replace the Black Peoples' Convention, the spearhead organization of the movement that was banned along with 17 other black consciousness-oriented political groups in the government clampdown on black politics in October 1977.
Thirdly, in Johannesburg's all-black township of Soweto, the ad hoc Committee of Ten, headed by physician-politician Nthato Motlana, has launched a drive to transform itself from a small working group into a mass civic association.
Its role will be to pressure the government to bring about change, its organizers said. Although it will speak only for Soweto, it will actively encourage the formation of similar groups in other urban black communities, said Motlana, who has become the black consciousness spokesman for Soweto, a mantle that younger and more radical activists appear willing to let him wear for the time being.
There is a widespread commitment to black consciousness as a phiolsophy that, in the words of an Azanian People's Organization statement, is "a firm expression of the will of black people to participate fully in the power structure of democratic government [and] ensures a united effort towards changing the status quo," But there also is disagreement and lack of clarity on strategies and tactics to be used by the movement due to the overall leadership vacuum.
For example, some within the movement question the efficacy of the political tactics adopted by the three organizations: noncollaboration with government institutions and nonnegotiation with any government official, unless Pretoria is willing to speak about meaningful power sharing.
Motlana acknowledges these difficulties: There are many people, including myself, who feel the days of protest politics are over. Having said that, if you ask me what possible scheme I have, I'd say I have none. I would be dishonest to suggest how I see blacks achieving liberation. I don't know -- it's not for me to say," he told a local newspaper, adding later that there is a lot of confusion about a lot of issues."
Complicating the movement's renewal task is the fact that it comes at a time when the government of Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha has embarked on a reformist course to eliminate racial discrimination in the economic and social spheres and allow some kind of localized political rights for blacks. By addressing the most glaring aspects of black discontent, the proposed changes are meant to undercut the support of those in the black consciousness movement who are demanding fundamental political and economic change and, ultimately, black majority rule. The population of more than 26 million is 17 percent white.
Implicit in the government's refors is the acceleration of the development of a black middle class whose yested interests will make it an ally of the whites in support of the white-dominated, albeit reformed, economic and political structures. For the black consciousness people this attempt to divide blacks along class lines strikes at the heart of their philosophy, which promotes unity on the basis of being black.
To counteract this "middle-classism" as they call it, activists say they will gear their organizational efforts to attracting grass roots support. They admit the movement, dominated by university-educated blacks, has neglected this group in the past.
This is why, for example, resolutions by the People's Organization and the Writers' Association emphasized the importance of trade unionism and a Writers' Association resolution urged the journalists to extend their groups' membership to all black workers on their newspapers.
Meanwhile, in a particularly significant development, followers of the movement who fled the country have established foreign-based offices of the movement, thus resolving a two-year-long debate in black consciousness circles on the desirability of institutionalizing abroad a movement whose goal has always been to spread "a way of thinking" among black people living in South Africa.
The decision to open external black consciousness offices comes partly in response to growing defections from the movement of more militant youths turning to South Africa's oldest black nationalist organization, the African National Congress. The Congress is committed to armed struggle as the only way of gaining black political rights and offers guerrilla training to South African exiles.
By moving to counter both the Congress abroad and the blacks working from government-approved platforms at home, the black consciousness movement appears to be trying to end the two-year hiatus on in its political activities by offering blacks an alternative between armed uprising and collaboration.
Despite the hiatus, black consciousness has remained a powerful philosophical component in black thinking, be it economic, artistic, theological or educational.
When it began 10 years ago on campuses of the segregated all-black universities set up by the white minority government, the movement was initially a philosophical and cultural rejection of white attitudes and lifestyles. It was an affirmation that "black is beautiful" in order "to defeat the one main element in politics which was deliberately cultivated by the system," according to Biko.
It gained its strongest support among youths and educated middle-class blacks in urban areas where generations of blacks had grown up in an industrializing society unrestricted by the tribal outlooks and loyalties that are still strong in rural areas.
In an effort to spread this pro-black philosophy and give it some political clout, in the early 1970s the students organized black-run community projects and formed the Black Peoples' Convention as a national political vehicle for black consciousness. They rejected political alliances with whites and opposed the government's Bantustan system.
Many black consciousness activists avoid explicitly defining what kind of political and economic system they would like to see in South Africa and they refuse to do so today, saying that "it's safer not to.
Private conversations suggest most black consciousness followers support a so far loosely defined socialism that is accompanied by strong anti-west sentiments since they see the West's capitalist ties with Pretoria underpinning its racial system. But they are equally distrustful of Soviet-style communism regarding it as "foreign" to Africa as Western-style capitalism.
The black consciousness movement was the only vehicle around in 1976 and 1977 that could harness the anger and revolt that erupted in black communities. But this role was cut short by Biko's death and the subsequent bannings of the organizations that subscribed to the black consciousness set of values.
Deprived of this leadership, black dissident politics has been dormant in universities and urban communities, a fact underscrored by two recent events. Prime Minister Botha visited Soweto on Aug. 31 and encountered no hositle demonstrators or ugly incidents.
Secondly, independence festivities for Venda, the third black "homeland" to accept independence under the government's apartheid system, went off without a hitch in the rural town of Thoyoyandou, formerly Sibasa, that two years ago was a hotbed of anti-government black consciousness activity.
Meanwhile, in the doldrums of dissidence over the past 24 months, there has been a resurgence of activity on the part of those black leaders who operate within the government-created political structures condemned by the black consciousness movement. Though generally dismissed as "sell-outs" by youths and by others who oppose the government's policies because they "help make the system work, their position has been strengthened in recent months by the piecemeal economic reforms and the conciliatory approach to race relations of Botha, who took the novel step of visiting these leaders on their home turfs.