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Acting out ideas: Performative citizenship in the Black Consciousness Movement

people more frequently act their way into a new way of thinking than think their way into a new way of acting

SASO Leadership Training Programme, 1972


This paper introduces the concept of ‘performative citizenship’ to account for the manner in which the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), and in particular its charismatic leader Steve Biko, transformed a collection of relatively abstract philosophical ideas into concrete political praxis. We outline how the BCM challenged the psychological internalisation of white supremacy and asserted citizenship claims through a variety of performative techniques, many of which explicitly and implicitly reiterated earlier rights-based claims both in South Africa and abroad. We show how this took place within a remarkably restrictive context, which on the one hand constrained performances, but on the other augmented their dramatic efficacy. The paper makes an argument about the performance of counter-power, showing how whilst the apartheid complex retained its command over economic, military, and political power, it struggled to control the social drama that was unfolding on the cultural plane, therefore losing its grip on one key element of ideological power. Finally, the paper also makes a methodological contribution to reception studies by showing how researching the reception of ideas exclusively through the spoken or written word neglects other modes through which ideas might find expression, especially in contexts of pervasive censorship and political repression.

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  1. The ANC’s 1943 proposed Bill of Rights demonstrates how citizenship demands had become the key focus of resistance even before apartheid became official policy.

  2. This is not to suggest that the state was unwilling to continually introduce new legislation as and when repression demanded it. Indeed, as the so-called ‘Sobukwe Clause’ (a clause in the General Law Amendment Act no. 37 of 1963) makes clear, the government were prepared to change legislation simply to suppress a lone individual identified as posing a threat. This specific clause was contrived with the sole purpose of extending the Pan Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe’s prison sentence indefinitely, whilst the broader detention law of which it was a part was introduced in order to, in the infamous words of B J Vorster – then Minister of Justice, later Prime Minister – keep dissidents locked up until ‘this side of eternity’.

  3. This is partly a consequence of the fact that the dominant Anglophone approach to the kinds of insurgent social movements that might embody counter-power was originally formed in a relatively structuralist mould (Goodwin and Jasper, 1999), even if some of its most celebrated proponents did eventually come to accept the centrality of performance to gaining social legitimacy (e.g. Tilly, 2008).

  4. Blee and McDowell (2012) stress the need for more research not only on social movements’ identification, construction, and assessment of their audiences, but also on the manner in which projected messages are received by these audiences. This is an area we do not cover in this paper, but the implication of Blee and McDowell’s intervention is that since social movement activity is fundamentally dynamic and relational (e.g. McAdam et al, 2001), we would expect the perceived success or failure of this reception to have an iterative effect upon the social movements’ own ongoing performances.

  5. Obvious important secondary audiences whose significance was identified by the BCM (e.g. Black Community Programmes, 1973, 1974) included the governments and citizens of other states within the international system, especially those that had investment or trade interests in the country or diplomatic relations with it and who could therefore exert pressure by placing economic or arms embargoes on South Africa, boycotting its products, or isolating it politically. Eventually, due to a compound of forces well beyond the BCM’s sole influence, all such external pressures were exercised.

  6. A disproportionate number of the illustrations in this paper come from the undoubtedly exceptional character of Biko, posing a problem in terms of how far his example was replicated throughout the BCM in general. This problem arises in part as a consequence of the historical and documentary record inevitably including far more material on Biko than other BC proponents. Nevertheless, Biko was extraordinarily influential in both the founding and subsequent development of the movement, and whilst in reality he may have done so imperfectly, his public persona symbolically personified (both at the time, and certainly in memory and myth) the principles of BC more fully than any other individual activist. We suggest therefore, that the image of his character and the stories from which this image was built, can, if handled with care, be taken as embodying as good a model as any of the Black Consciousness Movement as an all-encompassing ‘way of life’ (SASO, 1971, p. 1).

  7. Although literacy rates appear to have risen rapidly during the preceding two decades (Charney, 1993; Lodge, 1983, p. 324), hard data on actual literacy amongst Blacks in South Africa during the 1970s are unreliable (Fuller et al, 1996). However, the highly unequal government spending per capita on Black education, combined with the legacy of an oral tradition in rural areas which, according to Ramphele, ‘did not lay a firm foundation for respect for the written word’ (1995, p. 67), suggests that illiteracy and semiliteracy rates were still high in absolute terms, even if they may have improved to some extent in relative terms. If this were not the case, it seems unlikely that the University Christian Movement – an organisation that played a key part in giving birth to the BCM – would have considered the provision of Black literacy programmes a key strategic priority (e.g. Magaziner, 2010, p. 128), programmes that were later to be taken over by SASO itself (Hirson, 1979, p. 73; Khoapa, 2017a).

  8. Shebeens were illicit drinking establishments that sprung up in the townships of South Africa in response to the banning of Blacks from entering officially licensed bars under the 1927 Liquor Act.

  9. In general, treating court testimony as reflective of underlying realities should of course be conducted with care, since in a trial situation immediate tactical concerns often trump transparency. On this particular point, for instance, it should be noted that Biko was occupied with the tactical concern of proving that BC was merely amplifying the pre-existent concerns of Black people, rather than manufacturing grievances and inciting them to action. Nevertheless, conducting research of this kind was a well-established element of the Freirean method (e.g. Freire, 1973), and one which BC certainly adopted (Hadfield, 2016).

  10. Whilst the simple raised fist was strongly associated with international socialism from at least the turn of the 19th Century, and when black, with American Black Power by the late 1960s, the ANC had formally adopted the clenched right fist with an extended thumb as their sign in 1949 – a signal that was never adopted by the BCM, even popularly.

  11. During his banning order, Biko had been writing illegally for the SASO newsletter under the pseudonym of ‘Frank Talk’, a revelation he made within the courtroom to the surprise not only of the legal officials, but also even to some of the onlooking activists who had enthusiastically read the columns.

  12. Section 6 (1) of The Terrorism Act permitted indefinite incommunicado detention without trial, during which torture was common and a large number of detainees lost their lives. When official explanations for these deaths were forthcoming (often there was no explanation at all), they involved such claims as the detainee had committed ‘suicide by hanging’, ‘slipped in the shower’, or ‘fallen down the stairwell’. In one case, the detainee was said to have accidentally fallen from a tenth floor window.

  13. The Freirean method also disrupted common assumptions about the power relationships necessary for establishing effective learning between teachers and their students, demonstrating how teaching was always itself a form of learning, which when conducted effectively, should open the teacher up to being taught. More practically, the leadership seminars and ‘formation schools’ were also significant in training up new layers of leadership that could take over when necessary, allowing the movement to continue to function in the context of successive waves of banning orders, arrests, and assassinations.

  14. The term ‘formation school’ came to SASO from the University Christian Movement, which itself had borrowed it from Catholic theological training aimed at forming new generations of church disciples and leaders (Karis and Gerhart, 1997, p. 75).

  15. Rhetoric’s most enthusiastic Roman champion, Cicero, argued that ‘there is nothing that has so potent an effect on upon human emotions as well-ordered and embellished speech’ (1939, p. 193), and since rhetoric is fundamentally aimed towards shaping the judgement of an audience, alongside the public assembly, the courtroom has – from its earliest days with the Sophists – been its model setting.

  16. Smith and Howe (2015) provide an excellent cultural sociological analysis of the social drama of climate change in part through returning to this Aristotelean conception of rhetoric.

  17. His interrogators concealed and twisted the truth both at the original inquest into his death, and at the later TRC hearings (Bernstein, 1978; Bizos, 1998; Kentridge, 2012; Wilson, 2011; Woods, 1978).

  18. Wilson reminds us that whether ‘Biko defended himself with the chair on which he sat without permission—if this was not itself a fabrication […] is not of major significance in the face of the violence of his death’ (Wilson, 2011, pp. 139–140).

  19. Bizos understands this account as ‘fanciful’ (1998, p. 70).

  20. The ongoing lack of such resources for much of the population arguably constitutes the biggest challenge to the realisation of substantive citizenship in today’s democratic South Africa.

  21. This leather working factory was callously destroyed as part of the major wave of BCM banning and repression that took place in 1977.

  22. These included Black Perspectives and Black Viewpoint, and most importantly the Black Review, which ran from 1972 to 1976, covered cultural and political issues relevant to the Black community that failed to find voice elsewhere, and surveyed Black organisations throughout the country.

  23. Ramphele describes how this psychological role of the BCP initiatives in fact helped Biko’s own mental state too, offering him a psychological crutch during his period of enforced isolation (1995, p. 92).

  24. Much of this same apartheid-era racial schema, which came into law through the Population Registration Act of 1950, continues to operate through both official and unofficial means in South African society today.

  25. cf. Sartre’s (1964) critique of Negritude, and Fanon’s ([1961] 1967) response.

  26. Even the collective official term ‘Bantu’ was replete with tribal connotations (Halisi, 1999, p. 133).

  27. Hence, of course, the African National Congress.

  28. Internationally, no country (other than South Africa itself) recognised their legitimacy as independent states.

  29. This deeper kind of citizenship is distinct from Tilly’s (1996) transactionally focussed notion of ‘thick citizenship’.

  30. Some white members were in fact admitted, such as, in 1963, the formerly liberal activist, Patrick Duncan (Driver, 2000).

  31. Rik Turner’s suggestion in reference to this exchange that ‘human consciousness’ was the ‘synthesis which both Steve Biko and Alan Paton were looking for’ (1972, p. 22) seems not to acknowledge that this was precisely Biko’s own original position, not an innovation of Turner’s own.

  32. Biko wrote that ‘Not only have they kicked the black but they have also told him how to react to the kick. For a long time the black has been listening with patience to the advice he had been receiving on how best to respond to the kick. With painful slowness he is now beginning to show signs that it is his right and duty to respond to the kick in the way he sees fit’ (Biko, 1978, p. 66).

  33. Hegel wrote of the African as exhibiting, ‘the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state … there is nothing harmonious with humanity in this type of character … Africa is no historical part of the world. What we properly understand by Africa is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature’ (Hegel, 1956, pp. 93, 99).

  34. It is this phenomenological point that Modisane is drawing attention to in the title of his (1963) autobiography, ‘Blame me on History’.

  35. Patricia J. Williams’s 1997 Reith lectures offer an eloquent elaboration of such critiques of liberal ‘colour-blind’ anti-racism (Williams, 1998).

  36. Biko’s own father, who had died when Biko was four years old, had been a policeman.

  37. The intellectual context in Durban between 1970 and 1974 – a period Tony Morphet (1989, p. 92) has dubbed the ‘Durban Moment’ – was informed by existentialist thinking, in particular through the influence of the white philosopher and activist, Rick Turner, an associate of Biko, who was later assassinated by the security police. Turner had written a doctoral dissertation on Sartre in Paris, studying under Henri Lefebvre, and went on to publish a highly influential book that discussed the role that radical White activists, sympathetic to BC thinking, and critical of the liberal approach, might play within the struggle (Turner, [1972] 2015).

  38. Gordon (1995) offers an extended analysis of the relevance of the Sartrean category of ‘bad faith’ to anti-black racism more broadly.

  39. Additional formal similarities with Sartre are found at in the relationship between self and Other. For Sartre (1943) this relationship is always problematic and potentially conflictual. The Other attempts to define and limit the self; so the self struggles to avoid being defined or restricted by the Other. Whilst Sartre’s case remains primarily philosophical, the BCM, following Du Bois’s earlier innovations ([1903] 1996), translated this relationship into the psychological mode: the oppressed internalising the white supremacist representations of the oppressor, therefore cementing their oppression by granting it legitimacy.

  40. Jasper (1999) draws a distinction between protest movements conducted by outsider groups aimed at winning citizenship rights from the state, and those conducted by rights-bearing citizens aimed primarily at protecting or extending such rights, defending the rights of others, or changing the behaviour of other integrated groups in society. Our point here is that whilst the enactment of citizenship by rights-bearing citizens can be a form of protest, the same activity conducted by those excluded from citizenship status becomes a form of protest by definition.

  41. Alexander notes that the ‘iterative performances of the mid-century civil rights movement left a deeply ingrained culture structure, an intensely redolent set of background representations upon which later black protests felt compelled to draw’ (Alexander, 2017, p. 35). Clearly the North American Black Power Movement did much the same.

  42. In some instance this is more explicit than in others. The Mission Statement of the UCT Rhodes Must Fall campaign, for instance, quotes directly from Biko.


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Thank you to all the interviewees, the anonymous reviewers, and Philip Smith for his kind and helpful advice.


The research leading to these results has received funding from a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, the Isaac Newton Trust, and the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under Grant Agreement no. 319974 (INTERCO-SSH).

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Morgan, M., Baert, P. Acting out ideas: Performative citizenship in the Black Consciousness Movement. Am J Cult Sociol 6, 455–498 (2018).

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  • citizenship
  • social movements
  • apartheid
  • performativity
  • South Africa
  • Steve Biko