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Black Consciousness in South Africa and the Question of White Oppression under Apartheid


By Edward Powell

Black Consciousness in South Africa and the Question of White Oppression under Apartheid

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 80-93]


The foundation of the South African Student Organisation (SASO) in 1969 is often seen as a turning point in the history of the struggle against Apartheid. The full extent of SASO’s influence upon non-white[1] South African socio-politics continues to be debated, in particular the extent of its role in promoting a new atmosphere of defiance among non-whites that culminated in the Soweto uprisings of 1976-77. Most historical accounts agree, however, that SASO oversaw a resurgence of organised non-white activism after a decade of relatively subdued opposition following the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the outlawing later that year of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC), and the imprisonment of these organisations’ highest-profile leaders – including Nelson Mandela – in the Rivonia trial of 1963-64. A political vacuum set in among non-whites throughout the 1960s, during which ‘politics was a dirty word and people “bottled it all in” for fear of banning, imprisonment, or worse.’[2]According to Daniel R. Magaziner, non-whites were still ‘free to join the Liberal and Progressive parties until 1968[: however,] it was whites in these organisations who for the most part took on the task of articulating African grievances and demands. Blacks who spoke out invited martyrdom.’[3] After the South African Communist Party (SACP) was banned in 1960, liberalism became the only openly anti-Apartheid agenda legally able to operate within South Africa itself. Nevertheless, the liberal agenda committed itself to pursuing – and practicing – a strictly non-racial alternative to the white-supremacist regime established by the incumbent Afrikaner National Party (NP). Furthermore, liberals also advocated non-violence, respecting the rule of law and promoting non-racialism via existing parliamentary structures, in which only whites could participate, and which the NP subsequently dominated. As a result, liberal opposition to Apartheid achieved very little, and the NP government was able to pursue Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd’s (1961-1966) vision of ‘Grand Apartheid’ with relative impunity.

SASO’s founders came of age during this period, and many witnessed first-hand the persecution of relatives suspected of being associated with banned organisations. Furthermore, as non-white members of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), SASO’s founders had all personally experienced the frustration borne out of the failure of the liberal agenda to deliver meaningful change in South Africa. As a politically-active organisation that opposed the state, NUSAS claimed a mandate during the 1960s ‘not only from the schools, where whites were in the majority, but also from the general population, where they most decidedly were not.[4] South Africa’s 46,000 white students clearly outnumbered their 8,600 non-white peers, rendering this mandate highly problematic.[5] Furthermore, towards the end of the decade, the Union began to drift politically to the right, ‘largely confining itself for several years to symbolic multiracial activities and protests after-the-fact against government and infringements on academic freedom.’[6] NUSAS subsequently adopted ‘an ill-defined political mandate that valued the sanctity of political and moral convictions over radical action’ that Ian MacQueen has described as being ‘a political statement more broadly representative of liberals at this time.’[7] To NUSAS’s non-white members, this development only reinforced the sense that South African liberalism in general had ‘become not an inspiration to constructive action but a sterile dogma disguising an unconscious attachment to the status quo.’[8] This frustration came to a head at the NUSAS conference of 1968, during which Steve Biko – a delegate for the University of Natal Non-European medical school – proposed an alternative national student organisation whose agenda would prioritise non-white interests, in spite of the implicit consensus among Apartheid’s opponents that ‘[t]o be politically legitimate meant being “colourless.”’[9] Indeed, Biko went one step further, and proposed that this new organisation would not accept white members. Plans for SASO’s inaugural conference were formalised at a more public meeting at Marianhill in 1968, and SASO was formally inaugurated at Turfloop on July 1 1969, with Biko elected as the organisation’s first president.

The liberal response to SASO’s foundation is already well-documented, and many accounts have drawn attention to how objections to SASO’s racially-exclusive membership policy ironically resonated with its founders’ suspicions regarding the commitment of liberal and dissident whites to overcoming white supremacy.  As Gail M. Gerhart notes,

In NUSAS, a minority, including most of the top leadership, was sympathetic to black initiatives and accepted SASO’s emergence as a healthy development. To the majority, however, acceptance of black separatism came hard and many of the attitudes caricatured in SASO attacks were openly exhibited. If whites were not to be allowed to play the role of defenders and saviors of the oppressed, what role was left for them to play? Excluded from power by the racist white majority, and excluded from the camp of the underdogs by blacks bent on going it alone, liberal whites felt a sense of isolation and weakness unknown in the history of South African liberalism.[10]

Gerhart’s account of the liberal reaction to SASO is fairly typical in its brevity and emphasis upon the ways in which many liberal objections corroborated Biko’s attestation that, ‘although [the white liberal] does not vote for the Nats [the NP] (now that they are in the majority anyway) he feels quite secure under the protection offered by the Nats and subconsciously shuns the idea of change.’[11] Indeed, Mabel Raisibe Maimela has remarked that ‘[i]t is this kind of black criticism of white liberals and liberal institutions which is often adduced as evidence of a basic hostility and variance of purpose’ between SASO and South African liberalism, as well as dissident whites of any political persuasion.[12] Indeed, the debate over SASO’s legitimacy was often hostile, with the organisation’s critics denouncing its promotion of ‘Black Consciousness’ ideology as a capitulation to Apartheid hegemony. On the contrary, Black Consciousness – whose basic tenets were disseminated in SASO’s official newsletter – sought to encourage non-whites to reclaim a leading role in overcoming Apartheid, after years of being ‘led’ – to nowhere, it seemed – by liberal whites. Black Consciousness rejected liberalism – and liberals – as being Eurocentric and therefore little different to Afrikaner nationalism’s white supremacy. According to Biko – whose contributions to SASO Newsletter were instrumental to defining Black Consciousness – liberal whites view[ed] the oppression of blacks as a problem that ha[d] to be solved, an eyesore spoiling an otherwise beautiful view.’[13]

Maimela notes that this critique of liberalism quickly extended to all dissident whites, such that ‘[f]or the [Black Consciousness] adherent, liberal referred to any white person in South Africa who was seen to be opposing the apartheid system of government, whether or not such a person was radical, moderate or even conservative.’[14] According to Maimela, this ‘anti-white rhetoric consciously kept [SASO’s] liberal allies at arm’s length so that they could design their own programme of action without liberal intervention.’[15] Nevertheless, Maimela demonstrates abundantly how ‘many such statements (but by no means all) veiled an often complex symbiotic reality which was frequently concealed from public view under many rhetorical flourishes of the time.’[16] As MacQueen observes[17], Maimela largely demonstrates how this relationship was purely pragmatic, insofar as SASO ‘was frequently dependent on material support from white liberals for the survival of the organisation while the same liberals in turn benefited from associating with a body which had gained the confidence of the black community’. According to MacQueen, however, this relationship was more than a necessary evil, with SASO directly influencing political praxis among a perceptive audience that included white-led and liberal-oriented organisations, many of which responded to SASO by radicalising their anti-Apartheid agenda. For both Maimela and MacQueen, therefore, SASO and white activists were far from irreconcilable, even if their ‘positive symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit and dependency […] was never obvious, overt, public, conspicuous or explicit.’[18] As such, MacQueen remarks that ‘[v]iewing the 1970s through the lens of the polarised rhetoric of Black Consciousness obscures moments of meaningful interaction and their consequences.’[19]

This paper explores a subject of debate between SASO and dissident whites that has largely been subsumed under the ‘polarised rhetoric’ of Black Consciousness: the questionable political status under Apartheid of whites themselves. It is somewhat ironic that many historical accounts of white responses to SASO’s foundation have focused upon how these responses corroborated the new organisation’s ‘polarised rhetoric’.  After all, not only did this rhetoric belie the substantial co-operation and mutual inspiration that occurred between SASO and sympathetic white-led or liberal-oriented organisations, as demonstrated by Maimela and MacQueen. SASO activists themselves – including Biko – frequently qualified its polarised terms wherever they proposed the notion that, under Apartheid, whites ‘themselves are oppressed’, and so ‘must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous ‘they’ with whom they can hardly claim identification.’[20] Clearly, approaching whites as an oppressed demographic under Apartheid was at odds with SASO’s official stance that – in Biko’s words – ‘[b]asically the South African white community is a homogenous community’.[21] Subsequently, the notion of Apartheid oppressing whites may well have been little more than a way of further justifying SASO’s insistence that whites ‘direct their attention to educating their own fellow whites’[22], instead of getting involved in non-white affairs. Nevertheless, a small number of high-profile dissident whites explored this notion further, most notably Horst Kleinschmidt, Clive Nettleton and Richard Turner. This essay will explore how these figures – all of whom were sympathetic to Biko’s critique of South African liberalism – carefully reconciled an acknowledgement of their inevitable roles – as whites – as oppressors under Apartheid’s white-supremacist regime, and a search for ways of comprehending their social and political status – as dissident whites – as one of being oppressed. I will demonstrate how, despite SASO’s ‘polarised rhetoric’, these figures were indeed able to articulate a common experience of oppression shared by whites and non-whites, in a manner that acknowledged the profound differences in how Apartheid oppressed these groups, and therefore posed no threat to SASO’s aspiration towards non-white unity and self-direction.

‘Black souls wrapped up in white skins’

In his contributions to SASO Newsletter, Biko’s manner of addressing dissident whites was far from consistent, marked as it was by a tension between consolidating a bifurcated analysis of South African socio-politics – between white oppressor and non-white oppressed – and encouraging whites to explore their own oppressed status under Apartheid. Ultimately, Biko appears to have never resolved this tension, opting instead to prioritise addressing whites in their capacity as oppressors, as per the ‘polarised rhetoric’ of Black Consciousness. In an early article entitled ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, Biko poured scorn on the claims among liberal and dissident whites that they ‘feel the oppression [of Apartheid racialism] just as acutely as the blacks and therefore should be jointly involved in the black man’s struggle for a place under the sun.[23] Biko’s disdain towards such claims was unreserved, equating them to claiming that dissident whites ‘have black souls wrapped up in white skins’.[24] Without doubt, these claims trivialised the profound disparity between the extent to which Apartheid oppressed non-whites and whites, if indeed the latter could claim to be oppressed at all. However, elsewhere Biko appears to have been less scornful towards the notion that whites were also oppressed under Apartheid, albeit in ways incomparable to the regime’s oppression of non-whites. Nonetheless, Biko maintained that, as long as dissident whites insisted upon campaigning on behalf of non-whites, then the manner of their own oppression would never be established. Indeed, according to Maimela, comprehending whites’ oppression under Apartheid was considered by SASO activists to be a necessary step towards meaningful change in South Africa, insofar as they ‘argued that white liberals should embark on a project of educating their own communities, a process which, if it were successful, would contribute positively towards the overall cause of liberation.’[25] Such a project, of course, would also leave non-white activists to organise themselves, rather than having to contend with paternalistic liberal whites who were ‘presumptuous enough to think that it behoved them to fight the battle for the blacks.’[26] As such, Biko insisted that ‘[t]he liberal must fight on his own and for himself. If they are true liberals they must realise that they themselves are oppressed, and that they must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous ‘they’ with whom they can hardly claim identification.’[27] Again, Biko here dismisses the notion of a common experience of oppression between non-whites and dissident whites, although he also tentatively proposes the notion that, somehow, Apartheid did indeed oppress whites.

Such propositions clearly conflicted with Biko’s bipolar analysis of South African socio-politics, which mostly distinguished uncompromisingly between white oppressor and non-white oppressed. According to Maimela and Macqueen, SASO actively discouraged female members from exploring their status under Apartheid as non-white women, as well as within the heavily phallocentric culture of Black Consciousness that aspired towards liberating the ‘Black man’. Neither Maimela nor MacQueen indicate whether SASO ever acknowledged the ambivalent status of women in Black Consciousness ideology, although Maimela notes that the organisation freely recognised women’s contributions to the success of many of its initiatives. For the most part, though, SASO’s leadership regarded feminism as another form of Western imperialism that threatened to undermine non-white unity by fomenting gender conflict. MacQueen remarks that ‘[t]he feminist critique problematised the central Black Consciousness ideas of oppression and liberation, which held race to be the key determinate, and was a potentially potent threat to the broad church of Black unity’.[28] Indeed, according to MacQueen, pursuing feminist themes threatened to compromise the ‘carefully developed Black Consciousness formulation of exactly who constituted ‘Black’, as those people of colour who were historically oppressed’, by introducing ‘a solidarity that shifted the prime identification from race to gender.’[29] Subsequently, this refusal to explore the status accorded to women in Black Consciousness ‘indicate[d] a tension between it being an open, radical and progressive discourse on the one hand, and on the other its narrower function as a liberation ideology that prioritised black national liberation over women’s liberation.’[30]

It seems to me that a similar tension marked the movement’s ‘quest for a true humanity’ – a humanity embodied by the self-empowered ‘Black man’, but which was undefined by racialism – and Biko’s insistence that only non-whites could qualify as ‘Black’. This tension is most apparent in Biko’s definition of Black Consciousness as being ‘“not a movement for Africans, not a movement for Indians, for Coloured people; it is a movement for people who are oppressed.”’[31] Such formulations sought to repudiate liberal accusations of racism against SASO, as well as to promote a unity of purpose between all non-whites in South Africa that would transcend the state’s policy of discriminating between African, Coloured and Indian non-whites. Initially, Coloured and Indian organisations were hesitant about participating in Black Consciousness because, despite being second-class citizens in Apartheid society, their quality of life was slightly higher than that of Africans. In order to overcome these slight disparities in oppression between these three groups, ‘Black’ identity came to articulate specifically the experience of oppression of all non-whites, an experience that all three groups shared, but which was clearly unfamiliar to even the most persecuted dissident white. Biko’s contention, therefore, that Black identity extended to ‘“people who are oppressed”’ clearly should not be taken completely at face value.

However, this contention inevitably implied that only non-whites were oppressed under Apartheid, an implication that Biko himself questioned elsewhere. This ambiguity appears to persist throughout Biko’s writings, suggesting that, rather than resolve it, Biko opted instead to prioritise addressing whites in their capacity as oppressors. After all, insofar as this device effectively ‘othered’ dissident whites[32], it was necessary to the task of promoting unity between Coloureds, Indians and Africans via Black Consciousness’s collective ‘Black’ identity. According to Chantal Mouffe, ‘in order to construct a ‘we’ [i.e. a unitary political identity] it must be distinguished from a ‘them’, and that means establishing a frontier, defining an ‘enemy’. There will therefore exist a permanent ‘constitutive outside’ […] an exterior to the community that makes its existence possible.’[33] Insofar as Black Consciousness promoted self-empowerment, Biko was naturally much more concerned with establishing non-white unity than with addressing the potential ambiguity of whites’ political status under Apartheid. Indeed, for Biko to address this ambiguity for whites would have been to disregard the importance that Black Consciousness attributed to self-empowerment. According to Biko, in order to emancipate themselves, non-whites were required to acknowledge their ‘complicity in the crime of allowing [themselves] to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of [their] birth.’[34] This recognition was only possible via an ‘inward-looking process’, which for Biko was ‘the definition of “Black Consciousness”’, as a mode of political praxis.[35] SASO’s call for whites to ‘re-evaluate their moral and political standpoint’[36] can be approached in similar terms, as an ‘inward-looking process’, in order to arrive at a similar revelation. Indeed, Biko here proposes a flexible definition of ‘complicity’ that arguably allows one to distinguish political complacency among whites from knowingly pursuing a vested interest in perpetuating white supremacy. In other words, the complicity of dissident whites in Apartheid injustices could be understood as having allowed the regime to ‘misuse’ them, in which case Biko’s ‘inward-looking process’ would compel them to resist their appropriation in this manner. The radicalisation among various liberal movements in the early 1970s – as documented by Maimela and MacQueen – can be approached as a form of such resistance, insofar as they sought to render themselves more useful to SASO’s efforts to rejuvenate organised political activism among non-whites.  Nevertheless, from the evidence Maimela provides, this radicalisation still appears to have sought to contribute to non-white liberation, by contributing more effectively to initiatives led by SASO. Subsequently, it remains unclear whether such organisations as the Christian Institute, the University Christian Movement and NUSAS itself addressed the question of whether it was necessary to liberate whites as well as non-whites from Apartheid.

‘It is also bad for whites “to be like the whites”’

In 1972, the Christian Institute – a South African ecumenical organisation founded in 1963 by English and Afrikaans clergymen opposed to Apartheid – launched the Special Programme for Christian Action in Society (Spro-cas 2), which sought to implement the conclusions of the Institute’s prior initiative, the Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society (Spro-cas 1) which ran between 1969 and 1971. A key initiative of Spro-cas 2 was the Black Community Programmes (BCP), through which the Christian Institute – in co-operation with SASO – sought to directly engage with non-white communities and to contribute to their development. According to MacQueen, Spro-cas 2 simultaneously launched a parallel initiative which MacQueen refers to as the White Conscientisation programme. However, MacQueen provides very little information on this project beyond the names of some of its key organisers. Nevertheless, in the same year, a collection of essays appeared entitled White Liberation. The collection contains no explicit reference to a White Conscientisation programme: however, it was published by Spro-cas 2, and edited by Horst Kleinschmidt, who according to MacQueen, had a leading role in the White Conscientisation programme.[37] Many of the essays outline potential strategies for community engagement, including case studies of similar projects undertaken in the United States of America. As such, although its connection to the project remains conjectural at best, White Liberation would appear to be a substantial source of information on the aims of the White Conscientisation programme.

For the most part, the essays included in White Liberation explore ways in which community programmes may promote consciousness among whites of their complicity in the denial of non-whites’ basic human rights under Apartheid’s white-supremacist regime. In this respect, SASO’s critique of ‘white liberals’ has a palpable influence upon how the contributors to White Liberation envisage strategies for engaging with white communities. In his introduction, Kleinschmidt, concedes that ‘[w]hite chauvinism, white paternalism, white decisions and white control are the pattern repeated by white liberals in the organisations and functions they are concerned with. Because of this, separate action has become a necessary reality.’[38] Such a realisation appears to be the basis of ‘a new white consciousness’ envisaged by Kleinschmidt, one that ‘promotes awareness of [whites’] whiteness and its role in race problems’, as opposed to the ‘colour blind[ness]’ advocated by liberalism. After all – according to Kleinschmidt – ‘to deny one’s whiteness eliminates neither the fact nor the problem of white privilege. As our entire society is colour conscious, the liberal assertion that colour consciousness only serves to perpetuate division, is simply not valid.’[39] Furthermore, Kleinschmidt echoes Biko’s derision towards so-called ‘black souls wrapped up in white skins’ when remarking that, ‘in being aware, whites cannot be assimilated into black society’, that ‘[w]hiteness cannot be denied through efforts to be black.’[40] Kleinschmidt therefore outlines an alternative response to the provocations of SASO and Black Consciousness, one that proposes a novel ‘concept of white consciousness [through which] we want to point to new possibilities, and a new appreciation of what it means to be white in this country.’ This new appreciation entails a qualified acceptance of SASO’s contention that whites ‘cannot be racially neutral as by the very fact of [their] whiteness [they] participate in racist institutions.’ Nevertheless, Kleinschmidt contends that:

[a]t the same time we want to accept the positive aspects of white society and be affirmative of these. We do not seek to live in guilt, nor do we want to apologise for our being. We are white and are aware of it and that is a given and cannot be changed and we need not be ashamed of it.[41]

As yet, there is little here that articulates the South African experience of whiteness as one of oppression. Indeed, Kleinschmidt here reiterates the persistent manner in which Biko addressed whites as oppressors. As with Biko’s uncompromisingly ‘polarised rhetoric’, Kleinschmidt’s analysis initially allows for little ambiguity in whites’ socio-political circumstances. Whites must become aware of how they are implicated in non-whites’ oppression by simply being white, but it remains unclear whether this scenario is specifically one of oppression for whites.

Towards the end of his introduction, though, Kleinschmidt compares racialism to incarceration, contending that ‘whites have placed the black man in bondage, in a prison of race.’[42] So much is obvious: however, for Kleinschmidt, there is a subtle corollary for ‘the white man’ here, who by placing non-whites into a ‘prison of race’ has simultaneously ‘placed himself in a racial jail – his own racial jail. This jail has become so much part of him that he is no longer aware of it, or aware of the need to free himself of it.’[43] Whiteness suddenly becomes a burden upon both whites and non-whites, preventing ‘oppressed people [from] becom[ing] one with’ their oppressors as long as it persists. Neither does it ‘allow us [whites] to free ourselves’, which for Kleinschmidt is a prerequisite for liberating non-whites, with whom whites ‘can only meet in freedom, not by invitation to enter each other’s jails. This leaves us with the obligation of setting our own people free.’[44] Kleinschmidt reiterates here the futility of disavowing one’s whiteness by seeking acceptance by non-whites as ‘Black’. As with Biko, ‘Black’ identity simply does not and will not extend to whites, no matter how oppressed they feel under Apartheid. Nevertheless, unlike Biko, Kleinschmidt attempts to resolve the ensuing tension between acknowledging whites both as oppressor and as oppressed under Apartheid, in order to rearticulate whiteness as in itself an oppressive social structure. In advocating a programme of ‘white consciousness’, Kleinschmidt aspires towards a state of freedom for whites that entails no longer being ‘manipulative, exploitative and racist.’[45] Nevertheless, realising this freedom involves ‘investigat[ing] to what extent the society in which we live manipulates and uses even whites and makes us pawns of those who possess power’[46] Kleinschmidt once again echoes Biko here: namely, Biko’s account of how the ‘first step’ towards black consciousness is ‘to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.’[47] In other words, for Kleinschmidt, Apartheid ‘oppressed’ whites simply by forcibly denying them the right to self-determination. Under Apartheid, whites were as vulnerable to violent persecution if they refused to conform to the narrow, white-supremacist definition of ‘whiteness’ imposed by the regime. However, according to Kleinschmidt, even whites who escaped such persecution by conforming to this definition were still denied their right to self-determination, and so were oppressed. Furthermore, Apartheid oppressed whites by denying them the opportunity to encounter non-whites as anything other than the latter’s oppressors, and particularly not on a basis of equality. As such, whites were oppressed insofar as the regime forcibly used them as vehicles of its oppression of non-whites. In order to encounter one another as equals, therefore, whites and non-whites first needed ‘to deal separately with [their] racial prisons.’[48] For whites, this entailed acknowledging their implication – no matter how inadvertently – in white supremacism.

Thus, Kleinschmidt rearticulated whites’ implication in white-supremacism as itself a form of oppression, of being bound to an unjust regime against one’s will. In this manner, Kleinschmidt appears to have reconciled the validity of SASO’s claim that whites were invariably oppressors under Apartheid, with the contention that – in some way – the regime oppressed whites, albeit in a much different manner from how it oppressed non-whites. Whereas Biko seems to have been unable to – or perhaps unconcerned with – resolving the tension between these two claims, Kleinschmidt approached the first claim as itself the basis for the second. Furthermore, insofar as Apartheid oppressed whites by ‘manipulat[ing] and us[ing]’ them as its ‘pawns’, Kleinschmidt postulated an experience of oppression shared by both whites and non-whites, an experience that Biko described in similar terms. Turner postulated a similar common experience, when remarking that Black Consciousness’s ‘rejection of the idea that the ideal for human kind is “to be like the whites” […] should lead to the recognition that it is also bad for whites “to be like the whites”. That is, the whites themselves are oppressed in South Africa.’[49] Subsequently, in order to liberate themselves from this ‘oppression’, whites had to avoid scenarios that risked ‘creating white lords and black slaves, and not full human beings.’[50] Doing so entailed acknowledging how ‘the behaviour and beliefs of “white liberals” often constitute a striking example of precisely how deep the assumptions of white supremacy run.’[51] The time had now come, therefore, for ‘white critics of whiteness’ to begin ‘changing white consciousness’, to ‘analyse the ways in which whites oppress themselves, and to devise ways of bringing home to them the extent to which the pursuit of material self-interest empties their lives of meaning.’[52] Turner may well be referring to Spro-cas 2’s White Conscientisation programme here: indeed, he was set to contribute an essay to White Liberation, which was not included on account of a governmental banning order issued against him.[53] Instead, Turner published an essay in the July 1972 issue of Reality, South African liberalism’s leading periodical at the time.

In any case, it remains unclear whether these efforts to enlighten white communities of their ‘oppression-as-oppressors’ were ever realised, considering that – apart from MacQueen – I have been unable to find any substantial information on Spro-cas 2’s White Conscientisation programme. In contrast, many historical accounts of Black Consciousness in South Africa provide information on BCP, including Biko’s role in establishing the project’s Eastern Cape branch after being banned in 1973. The task of ‘changing white consciousness’ does appear to have been undertaken by NUSAS after 1971, when it radically transformed itself – according to MacQueen – ‘into three separate affiliate bodies, concerned with social, educational and welfare matters’ as part of ‘a change of emphasis […] from talk to action’ as well as marking a withdrawal from black politics and instead a direct engagement with white society.’[54] These initiatives sought to ‘influence and spread progressive ideas in the country’:

Aquarius rejected ‘moribund materialism’ and the consumer culture of the previous generation, rather seeking to reflect ‘more humane moral beliefs’ which they sought to spread through popular culture, using song, poetry and drama. NUSED, mirroring student protests in Britain, protested against the ‘tyranny of examinations’ and called for an ‘education that liberates rather than oppresses’ and which opened new ways of thinking. NUSWEL looked to engage students by bringing them into a closer relationship with the wider community, and took on the radical impulse to ‘tackle problems at their roots, not just their symptoms’.[55]

The extent to which these attempts to engage with white communities were successful remains unclear. According to MacQueen, ‘[g]overnment bannings significantly curtailed the activities of NUSAS. In June 1973 the government outlawed all outdoor gatherings in the centre of Cape Town, an action which, together with restrictions on its national leadership, placed NUSAS on the back-foot until the outbreak of the student uprisings in Soweto.’[56] Furthermore, according to Maimela, NUSAS’s leaders struggled to garner interest in these initiatives among its grass-roots members, who ‘were becoming apathetic as they lost interest in NUSAS or succumbed to the blandishments of the widespread and coordinated propaganda onslaught which the government waged against NUSAS.’[57] It therefore seems that NUSAS struggled to engage even with white student communities, long before it became a target of governmental repression. Subsequently, we might conclude that the most that Kleinschmidt, Turner and the other contributors to White Liberation achieved was to qualify SASO’s bipolar analysis of South African socio-politics, reconciling in the process the tension that marks Biko’s ambiguous stance towards white claims to oppressed status. The radical potential of this intellectual manoeuvre is ultimately unclear, albeit largely due to a paucity of information on the initiatives – such as Spro-cas 2’s White Conscientisation programme – that these figures were involved with. As a result, it is also unclear whether Kleinschmidt and Turner’s claims concerning Apartheid’s oppression of whites had much sociological validity, even if they maintained that such oppression was ultimately incomparable with how the regime oppressed non-whites. Nevertheless, Maimela concludes by remarking that:

[a]lthough the corrupting and degrading moral, spiritual, intellectual and psychological effects of centuries of state-sanctioned racism and racist applications on white South Africans would provide a fertile matrix for any number of studies, this is a field of research that has understandably been neglected as we still struggle to comprehend the depths of suffering and deprivation to which blacks have been condemned by white racist ideologies.[58]

Further research into the malign effects of Apartheid upon white South Africans may well corroborate the common experience of oppression between whites and non-whites that Kleinschmidt and Turner variously articulate. For now, though, it remains just as likely that this claim to common experience was merely a relatively sophisticated attempt at claiming to ‘have black souls wrapped up in white skins’.

Edward Powell is a PhD student in the School of English at the University of Leeds, working on a thesis on 'Postcolonial Critical Perspectives on 'the West', Social Hegemony and Political Participation'.


Biko, Steve, I Write What I Like, ed. by Aeldred Stubbs (Oxford: Heinemann, 1978

Gerhart, Gail M., Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1978

Kleinschmidt, Horst, ‘Introduction’, in White Liberation, ed. by Horst Kleinscmidt (Johannesburg: Spro-cas 2, 1972

MacQueen, Ian, Re-Imagining South Africa: Black Consciousness, Radical Christianity and the New Left, 1967-1977, University of Sussex, PhD Thesis, 201

Magaziner, Daniel R., The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977 (Athens, Jacana, Johannesburg: University of Ohio Press, 2010

Maimela, Mabel Raisibe, Black Consciousness and White Liberals in South Africa: Paradoxical Anti-Apartheid Politics, University of South Africa, PhD Thesis, 1999

Mouffe, Chantal, The Return of the Political (London, New York: Verso, 1993)

Turner, Richard, ‘Black Consciousness and White Liberals’, in Reality: A Journal of Liberal Opinion, 4, 3 (July 1972), 20-22


[1] This essay will not address SASO’s objection that the term ‘non-white’ predicated ‘white’ as a social norm or ideal – thus reinforcing non-whites’ supposed inferiority to whites – in response to which they promoted the more affirmative category of ‘Black’. However, I should clarify that I will use this term in a purely demographic sense, to refer to those social groups – officially identified as ‘African’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’ – who were subjected to underdevelopment and proletarianisation under Apartheid, simply because they were not of entirely European descent. I will use the term ‘Black’ to refer specifically to SASO’s alternative category.

[2] Magaziner, Daniel R., The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977 (Athens, Jacana, Johannesburg: University of Ohio Press, 2010), p21

[3] Gerhart, Gail M., Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1978), p257; the terminology used in reference to Apartheid’s four official racial profiles – ‘White’, ‘Indian’, ‘Coloured’ (i.e. mixed race) and ‘Bantu’, ‘African’ or ‘Native’ – is often variable, partly because of SASO’s efforts to discredit the term ‘non-white’ in favour of the more affirmative ‘Black’. This essay will use the term ‘non-white’ to refer to Indians, Coloureds and Africans collectively, and ‘African’ to refer to non-mixed-race Africans specifically.

[4] Magaziner, op. cit. pp19-20

[5] ibid. p19

[6] Gerhart, op. cit. p258

[7] MacQueen, Ian, Re-Imagining South Africa: Black Consciousness, Radical Christianity and the New Left, 1967-1977, University of Sussex, PhD Thesis, 2011, p63

[8] Gerhart, op. cit. p260

[9] Magaziner, op. cit. p27

[10] Gerhart, op. cit. p267-68

[11] Biko, Steve, ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, in I Write What I Like, ed. by Aeldred Stubbs (Oxford: Heinemann, 1978), p22

[12] Maimela, Mabel Raisibe, Black Consciousness and White Liberals in South Africa: Paradoxical Anti-Apartheid Politics, University of South Africa, PhD Thesis, 1999, p3

[13] Biko, ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, op. cit. p22

[14] Maimela, op. cit. p 9

[15] ibid. p7

[16] ibid. pp 3-4

[17] MacQueen, op. cit. p12

[18] Maimela, op. cit. p3

[19] MacQueen, op. cit. p3

[20] Biko, ‘White Racism and Black Consciousness’, in I Write What I Like, p66

[21] Biko, ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, op. cit. p25

[22] Maimela, op. cit. p157

[23] Biko, ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, op. cit. p20

[24] Biko, op. cit. p20; Biko sardonically refers here to Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks, in which Fanon explores how non-European subjects of European colonial rule interiorised the colonisers’ Eurocentric worldview, including a racial and cultural hierarchy between (superior) European and (inferior) non-European.

[25] Maimela, op. cit. pp183-84

[26] Biko, ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, op. cit. p24

[27] Biko, ‘White Racism and Black Consciousness’, op. cit. p66

[28] MacQueen, op. cit. p91

[29] MacQueen, op. cit. p94

[30] ibid. p76

[31] Magaziner, op. cit. p43

[32] MacQueen, op. cit. p168

[33] Mouffe, Chantal, The Return of the Political (London, New York: Verso, 1993), p114

[34] Biko, ‘We Blacks’, in I Write What I Like, op. cit. p29

[35] ibid. p29

[36] MacQueen, op. cit. p3

[37] MacQueen, op. cit. p138; this role, though, is unclear. MacQueen states that the Christian Institutes ‘launched Spro-cas 2 as the Black Community Programmes under the directorship of Benny Khoapa and Steve Biko, with a separate, white conscientisation project, under Horst Kleinschmidt’ (my emphasis). However, when identifying the project’s key staff, MacQueen does not mention Kleinschmidt at all (MacQueen, op. cit. pp128-29).

[38] Kleinschmidt, Horst, ‘Introduction’, in White Liberation, ed. by Horst Kleinscmidt (Johannesburg: Spro-cas 2, 1972), p1

[39] ibid. p2

[40] ibid. p2

[41] ibid. p2

[42] ibid. p2

[43] ibid. pp2-3

[44] ibid. pp2-3

[45] ibid. p3

[46] ibid. p3

[47] Biko, ‘We Blacks’, op. cit. p29 (my emphasis)

[48] Kleinschmidt, op. cit. p3

[49] Turner, Richard, ‘Black Consciousness and White Liberals’, in Reality: A Journal of Liberal Opinion, 4, 3 (July 1972), p22

[50] ibid. p22

[51] ibid. p20

[52] ibid. p22

[53] Turner’s omission from White Liberation is a mystery, however, considering that the volume was first published in 1972, and his banning order was issued in 1973. In place of Turner’s essay – which was to be entitled ‘Teaching Social Justice – the volume simply includes blank pages with an explanation that attributes his omission to his banning order (Kleinschmidt ed.,p65). I can only explain this apparent chronological error by assuming that copies of White Liberation continued to be published several years after its initial appearance.

[54] MacQueen, op. cit. p71

[55] ibid. p71

[56] MacQueen, op. cit. pp72-73

[57] Maimela, op. cit. p164

[58] ibid. p366

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