Biko and the Durban Moment

This edited extract from Ian Macqueen’s ‘Black Consciousness and Progressive Movements under Apartheid’ looks at dissident politics in Durban in the 1970s.

In the early 1970s, Durban was an important political site in South Africa and generated a burst of creative intellectual production from black and white intellectuals. It was this combination of a gifted group of people, together with small political spaces, which served as the foundation of what would become known as the “Durban Moment”.

As a historically colonial city, Durban subtly set limits to the rigorous extremes of the Group Areas Act, comparable to the case of Cape Town and the American South, where segregation made notably slower inroads into the residential segregation of more established cities such as New Orleans, which “possessed pre-existing racial patterns that altered more slowly”. Durban also historically had fewer Afrikaans speakers, and thus the peculiar and complex identities of English-speaking South Africans, where feelings of social dislocation and cultural distance were particularly prominent, provided some critical perspective on South African society, more attuned to the burgeoning international counterculture of the time. Durban offered a space for interaction and dialogue, especially since parts of the city had proved more resistant to apartheid zoning than other cities in the country.

The city was also home to South Africa’s largest population of Indians, including a substantial, educated middle class, functioning as an intermediary between whites and Africans. Durban was thus unique in its racial composition, with whites forming a relatively smaller part of the total population than in other South African cities and Indians filling white-collar positions where the possibility existed. There were long histories of struggle. 

Durban was also a haven for hippies and a counterculture movement, with runaway school pupils drawn by its reputation. The Furness Avenue area became a focus for alternative lifestyles and developed countrywide notoriety for its defiance of South African norms. The city drew a group of people who were attuned to the protest decade of the 1960s, listening to Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa, sensitive to currents of thought emerging from Europe and the US.

The medical school at the University of Natal, in particular, offered a political space for the discussion of ideas. It offered the only facility for the training of black medical doctors in South Africa and at a ‘white’ English-speaking university. The University of Natal non-European section, or the University of Natal black (UNB) section, as it was later known, attracted a cohort of ambitious and articulate African students, many of whom had been through the politicising effects of bantu education at the ‘bush’ universities, or had been expelled during the 1968 and 1972 university strikes. The students were able to cast a critical eye back on both inherited patterns of thinking, as well as the propaganda of the state in their ‘homelands’.

Saso in Durban

By 1970, Durban had become the de facto headquarters of the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso), with Steve Biko’s room in the Alan Taylor Residence functioning for a time as the national office. In spite of this, the University of Natal medical school, along with the University of Fort Hare, proved to be most resistant to the new ‘go it alone’ approach advocated by Saso.

The tradition of liberal non-racialism was entrenched particularly strong among some of the black student leaders at both centres. Ben Ngubane was a notable leader at UNB who was extremely resistant to the new type of thinking. After being forced by the University of Natal to cease operating from the university, Saso set up an office at 86 Beatrice Street, in downtown Durban. Howard Trumbull, a missionary with the American Board Mission who served as treasurer for the Congregational Church of Southern Africa, rented Saso the empty upstairs room in the church offices, which he was able to do as treasurer without permission from the church authorities. He had been involved with Alan Paton and the Defence and Aid Fund in Natal since 1966. 

Although Biko denied there was any reason for locating the Saso headquarters in Durban, brushing the fact aside as “a historical aberration”, he acknowledged that Durban was not a typical South African city, zoned with a white central business district and the outskirts for ‘non-whites’. In Durban, Biko acknowledged, “there is this whole meeting ground of this half of town. It is supposed to be an Indian area, and it is accessible therefore to all groups. There are no restrictions attached to Africans regarding Indian areas.”


From this office, Saso published a regular newsletter, with the aim of introducing ideas and generating debate on black campuses. The newsletter was a central medium of communication. Saso’s attention to its national image and its investment in circulating reading material allowed critical observers to actively monitor the development of its discourse. The aims of Saso’s newsletter were given as: establishing “proper contact among the various black campuses” and the black community; stimulating debate on “current matters of topical interest”; foregrounding “black opinion on matters affecting blacks in South Africa”; making “known the stand taken by students in matters affecting their lives on and off campus”; examining “relevant philosophical approaches to South Africa’s problems”; and, centrally, contributing to “the formulation of a viable and strong feeling of self-reliance and consciousness among the black people of South Africa”.

Although these aims were targeted at generating black solidarity, the Saso Newsletter also created a national profile that was accessible to both white and black observers. The newsletter provided a medium for the crystallisation and translation of the Black Consciousness message. As scholars Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane and David R Howarth observe: “Black Consciousness intellectuals made use of the Saso Newsletter, which was the major means of communicating the Black Consciousness message from 1970 until mid-1973.” At its peak, they note that the newsletter appeared four or five times a year, and its circulation reached 4 000 copies, not counting its hand-to-hand circulation.

Lindy Wilson also notes that “Saso became a sub-culture of the university”. Malusi Mpumlwana emphasised how when he arrived at UNB, it was the warmth and camaraderie of the Saso group that attracted him. They read widely outside of their curriculum and this intellectual searching “provided the essence of the debates and the discussions that made the future have some kind of meaningful possibility”. 

The intense dialogue, reading and distillation of ideas that occurred at the Alan Taylor Residence and further afield were crucial in redressing the floundering intellectual self-confidence in black students. Biko had noted, after his tour of black campuses in 1971, that “most of the students, while very sure of what they did not like … lacked a depth of insight into what can be done. One found wherever he went the question being asked repeatedly, ‘Where do we go from here?’” Biko considered the situation a “tragic result” of “the old approach, where the blacks were made to fit into a pattern largely and often wholly determined by white students”. As a result, “our originality and imagination have been dulled to the point where it takes a supreme effort to act logically even in order to follow one’s beliefs and convictions”.

Seeking to redress this situation involved an active search for intellectual resources, as mentioned by Mosibudi Mangena, from thinkers from the African diaspora, such as Amílcar Cabral, Léopold Senghor and Frantz Fanon. In response to Gail Gerhart’s question about the intellectual origins of the Black Consciousness movement, Biko asserted that “it wasn’t a question of one thing out of a book and discovering that it’s interesting”. Rather, it was “also an active search for that type of book, for the kind of thing that will say things to you, that was bound to evoke a response”.

A charismatic intellectual

Having Biko in Durban was critical. Barney Pityana recalled of “long hours of interaction and debate among friends” at the residence, it was Biko who was the central participant: “He listened and challenged ideas as they emerged, concretised them, and brought them back for further development.” Although the refining of ideas was a collaborative effort and the product of consensus, it was Biko who translated that common idea into essays that went into his columns as Frank Talk, I Write What I Like , and as memoranda to the student representative councils and Saso local branches. It was Biko, ultimately, who concretised and articulated the ideas. He captured the common mind.

It was this ability to formalise and systematise a mood and general consensus that made Biko’s role so central. His facility for communication was put to full use when at the July 1970 Saso student council meeting in Wentworth, Pityana replaced him as president and Biko was elected chair of Saso publications. As Mzamane and Howarth note, this was “a crucial post because the early to mid-1970s witnessed an outpouring of scholarship (on subjects such as poetry, aesthetics, culture, politics, economics and theology) within the movement”. Notable publications were the Saso Newsletter, Creativity and Black Development, Black Review and Black Viewpoint

Mamphela Ramphele remembers how Biko spent more than a year working on the first Black Review: “Single-handedly, Steve designed the first edition … The data was derived from newspaper cuttings, visits to newspaper libraries, and Hansard reports on parliamentary proceedings.” With editorial assistants Malusi Mpumlwana, Tomeka Mafole and Welile Nhlapo, Biko worked from “the second half of 1971 and the whole of 1972”. As a result of Biko’s banning, on completion and before the printing of the first Black Review in 1973, his name had to be omitted and Bennie Khoapa was instead named as editor. 

Biko also had an impact on white students in Durban. As National Union of South African Students activist Paula Ensor, who dated Biko for a time, recalls: “We found in Steve an energetic, articulate and tireless interlocutor: patient, kind, humorous and always razor sharp. He didn’t try to convert, but to challenge us with the imperatives of his political programme and oblige us to take a position of our own. The debates were always serious, but we also found time to drink, dance, listen to music, and for those who qualified, play rugby. Durban in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a hub of intense political debate and activity, involving many brilliant young minds. Dominating that space with the dazzling power of his intellect and political courage was Steve Biko.”

‘Black Consciousness and Progressive Movements under Apartheid’ is published by UKZN Press.

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