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Black Consciousness: The spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa

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File photos: African News Agency (ANA) Independent Archives (Original hard copy stamped 26 Sep 1977).

By Saths Cooper

On October 13, 1974, I and a few score activists of the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) and the Black People’s Convention (BPC) were arrested under the feared Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.

This was a direct consequence of the Viva Frelimo Rallies intended to celebrate Mozambican independence, but which were banned the day before, on September 24, 1974.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, then a student at what is now the University of Limpopo, was among those detained from throughout South Africa without access to lawyers or anybody besides the notorious security police.

The Vorster regime, taken aback by the open identification with the terrorist Frelimo, had soldiers in Angola. While it was making forays into other parts of the continent, it saw its power reducing. The mood in the country was pregnant with expectation.

Steve Biko, the founder of Saso and the éminence grise of Black Consciousness (BC), was not detained. Being banned and restricted to far-flung King William’s Town from February 1973, the system thought that they had forced Biko out of leadership. When arrested, we acknowledged what we were responsible for. We just did not volunteer the names of others who either were not on the security police radar or who they did not interrogate us about.

We tried our level best to diminish the roles and actions of others, to preclude them from unwarranted scrutiny and detention. Even worse, we wished to avoid them from enduring the horrible beatings and torture that inevitably ensued.

Despite indescribable torture – I suffered a grand mal seizure days after being charged – we played down the signal role of Biko.

The editor of the Saso newsletter, Strini Moodley, claimed that he wrote what was Biko’s articles. Biko was the chief defence witness in the seminal Saso/BPC (Die Staat teen S Cooper en anders) trial that ran from January 31, 1975 to December 21, 1976, which saw Dr Rick Turner, Bishop Manas Buthelezi, Prof Fatima Meer, Prof Adam Small, Prof Gessler Nkondo, Rev Frank Chikane, advocate Vas Soni and various other eminent South Africans testify on our behalf.

It is significant the that on October 19, 1977, 19 BC organisations were banned, comprising more than half of all the 33 organisations to be banned by the apartheid regime. This was apartheid’s major response to the national and international outcry over the murder of Biko by the security police on September 12 that year.

However, the media and prevailing liberal narrative continues to mark what they termed as “Black Wednesday” as just an assault on press freedom. True, the daily World, the Sunday World and the Christian newsletter Pro Veritate were banned. But, all BC organisations were banned, hundreds of leaders and activists were arrested, especially at Modderbee Prison, including a slew of journalists, mainly those associated with the World newspapers. On release from months under such detention in 1978, many were banned and restricted to certain magisterial districts.

What apartheid was terrified of was our unwavering commitment to self and community liberation from our physical oppressive conditions, and importantly, freeing our minds from the horror of indignity, diminution and invisibility in the land of our birth.

BC acknowledges our common humanity, believing that there is only one race: the human race, which we need to restore.

The death-knell of BC, occasioned by the bannings of all BC organisations, was sounded by the Vorster-Kruger strongmen and successively entrenched by the liberal media, which till today refuses to give credence to what is now generally and freely recognised: that BC filled the vacuum created by the April 1960 ANC and PAC bannings, and produced a cadre of activists that were instrumental in taking the liberation Struggle to a new height, playing key roles in the advent of democracy. What Mandela called “the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa”.

While it took almost a decade for BC to fill the vacuum left by the ANC and PAC bannings, it took just two years for the ANC to re-emerge inside the country. The warnings of being banned – which we well knew, but felt we could not allow ourselves to be silent – the mass detentions, the June 16 uprisings and its aftermath, and the October 19, 1977 bannings dealt a severe body blow to BC, which did not bruit an army, but which organised people to resist bantustanisation, ethnicity and the other apartheid outrages, while working steadfastly to develop communities with the little know-how and resources at our disposal.

Importantly, the “Formation Schools”, where leadership training for activists was a must, died 44 years ago, with ignoramuses by the dozens standing for local government elections on November 1 this year.

Not for us the salaries and flashy accoutrements that we see around us from those in power.

The utter sadness is the terrible decline of our democratic ideals in the hands of self-serving individuals hell-bent on helping themselves to public wealth at all our expense, degrading the liberation Struggle that countless gave their lives for. Most of those who truly struggled live very modestly, with many living in penury. Not all who struggled did so for selfish personal aggrandisement.

As Mandela said: “We know today that when in the life of a nation the time comes for an idea, nothing, not even murder, can kill that idea.”

Today, more than ever before, we need to claim our common humanity and a joint quest to restore pride, compassion and caring for one another to survive as a nation, which is struggling to be born.

Cooper is a former political prisoner who was jailed with late former president Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He was a member of the 1970s group of activists. He is now president of the Pan-African Psychology Union.