The Poets of the Black Consciousness Era

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. Mwelela Cele looks at the role this movement played in shaping South Africa’s literary history.

It all began with the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960 when white police gunned down unarmed black demonstrators: killing 69 people and injuring 180.

The subsequent banning of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) effectively suppressed legal black political activity while a spate of bannings, detentions and the exile of not only political activists but also of cultural leaders halted the black literary upsurge that had been under way.

A tightening of censorship laws in 1963, and periodically thereafter, put the work of black writers of the 1950s beyond the reach of readers inside the country.

But, just when it seemed the apartheid establishment had won an overwhelming victory over its opponents, a group of poets appeared bent on writing poetry of resistance and proclaiming their alternative philosophy against the dominant regime.

According to Mbulelo Mzamane, in Bounds of Possibility: The Legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness, Black Consciousness and the literature it inspired emerged in the midst of the political and cultural repression of the Sixties. Before the rise of the writers and artists of the Black Consciousness era, most of whom had been teens during the Sharpeville crisis, there was as much stagnation on the cultural scene in South Africa as there was on the political front.

In Black Man You Are On Your Own Saleem Badat recalls the 1971 General Students’ Council (GSC) resolution which called for a “‘cultural orientation’ that made blacks realise they were united by a common experience of political and economic oppression and ‘insult to human dignity’.”

Subsequently, according to Badat, the South African Students Association (SASO) and Black Consciousness played a major role in stimulating and facilitating black cultural production during the 1970s. This included art exhibitions, poetry readings, and various other cultural activities while SASO publications carried numerous articles on culture and also featured black poetry. “SASO members were instrumental in establishing a number of cultural formations, played an active role in various theatre, art and music bodies, and a number of them were to go on to establish national and international reputations as novelist, poets and playwrights.”

In addition, as Mzamane writes: “In a climate where overt extra-parliamentary opposition attracted swift and brutal retribution, the need for less overtly political expression meant that Black Consciousness paid more attention to historical, cultural and artistic issues… It was active in all the arts, but in none more effectively than theatre, which included poetry performances.”

In his introduction to the short story collection Hungry Flames and other Black South African Short Stories, Mzamane described the emerging cultural renaissance in black South African writing: “The new wave of writers who emerged in South Africa after 1967 appeared to shy away at first from the more explicit medium of prose and took up poetry, after the manner of established literary figures such as James Matthews.”

“Between 1967 and 1974 the cultural renaissance which accompanied the rise of Black Consciousness produced, at an unprecedented rate in the literary history of South Africa, many outstanding poets of the calibre of Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Mafika Gwala, Mafika Mbuli, Mandlenkosi Langa and Njabulo Ndebele.”

However, the Nationalist government did not stand idly by. According to Peter Randall in The Beginnings of Ravan Press: a memoir the state regarded Black Consciousness as one of its prime internal targets in the early 1970s, and any manifestations of it were suppressed with varying degrees of severity. This included not only organizations, like the Black People’s Convention, and individuals like Steve Biko, but also the written and the spoken, word.

In the mid-seventies the influence of Black Consciousness, advocated by SASO, influenced many black poets to move away from “protest” to “resistance’ poetry”. In Voices from Within: Black Poetry from southern Africa Michael Chapman describes “resistance poetry” as poetry which challenges the oppressor and demands change, but another characteristic was that it moved away from addressing a white liberal audience, and addressed a far wider black audience instead.

Resistance poetry also set out to create “authentically African” poetry, and often emulated the patterns, rhythms and conventions of African oral poetry.  According to Mzamane the rhythm of the new poetry derived as much from jazz as from the African beat which was resuscitated and made popular by the Malombo Jazzmakers, Dollar Brand and others. The African drum-beat became a prominent feature in the poetry recitals organised by Black Consciousness cultural activists such as Dashiki, Mdali, Mihloti, TECON (Theatre Council of Natal) and Joinery.

Writing came to be seen as a form of political activism, serving as a consciousness-raising force to facilitate change. The function of literature was to reflect the black experience truthfully and thus promote a positive image of black aspirations. In order to represent the authentic voice of the people, writers were urged by Black Consciousness ideologues, many of them cultural activists or writers themselves, to assume the role of spokesperson for all black people, and to embody their collective conscience.

Despite the risks associated with defiance of the state, Staffrider magazine was established in 1978, under the editorship of Michael Kirkwood. The purpose of the magazine was to provide a forum and an outlet for aspirant writers who did not have access to other established or mainstream literary magazines.

When Kirkwood was hired by Ravan Press in 1978 he got in touch with writers like Mothobi Mutloatse and Matsemela Manaka, who had links with many writers’ groups: they in turn facilitated the creation of a working relationship between Kirkwood and the poets and writers.

Previously black poets had featured in Classic, which ceased publication in 1971 and was replaced by New Classic in 1975. Donga appeared in July 1976 but was banned in March 1978, after eight issues, and replaced by Inspan. In addition there was Wietie published in 1980.

Thus, within the context of increasing injustice and repression on the part of the authorities, a cultural movement came into existence, which was characterised by the determination of its protagonists to maintain a tradition of poetry and oral communication, even though their creativity and the expression of their ideals might lead to harsh sanctions.

The Black Consciousness Movement ignited the creativity of the literary activists of the succeeding decades and, concludes Mzamane, the legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness lies in the way culture came to take on the burden of articulating African political aspirations after the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress had been outlawed in 1960 and literary culture became an integral part of the liberation struggle.

• Mwelela Cele is a historian and librarian at the Steve Biko Centre, Ginsberg, King William’s Town (eQonce)

Picture: The University of Natal SRC 1966/67 including Bantu Steve Biko in the back row, third from left. From the Collection of the Steve Biko Foundation

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