Black Consciousness in Dialogue: Richard Turner, Steve Biko and the 'Durban Moment', 1970 – 1974

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Seminar Date
May 5, 2010
This paper looks to suggest that the Durban Moment concretised the hiatus in the gradualism and moderate political reform envisioned by South African liberalism, which had initially been sparked by the breakaway of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) from the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in 1968. The Durban Moment confronted the need for radical change and in so doing entailed questioning the previously secure paradigm of paternalist custodianship of African grievances. The moment opened up the terrain of political thinking in South Africa and forced recourse to the demand for radical political change. It was this problem of change that formed the central theme in the contestations, debate and dialogue that were central aspects of the moment. Although the emergence of Black Consciousness in South Africa played a central causative role in challenging the white liberal world view, it was a moment that was mediated in part through interpersonal dialogue and friendship, in a few but significant instances, and through a refining of a political strategy, in the form of class theory.1 Historicising the collaboration that persisted after the formation of SASO is therefore a central concern of the paper. One of Biko’s contentions with the artificial interracial meetings organised by liberals was the way in which they acted as a panacea for both white and black, soothing the guilty conscience of the white liberal and encouraging the black person that they were in fact worthwhile and equal, but producing no tangible fruit. The paper suggests that the critique of such artificial integration, stimulated the beginning of meaningful dialogue, provided the white liberal was strong and committed enough to re-evaluate their moral and political standpoint, and the black party was frank and willing to assert their point of view. The risk in viewing the 1970s through the lens of the polarised rhetoric of Black Consciousness is that it obscures moments where meaningful interaction did take place, the consequences for both parties involved, and the relevance of these moments of dialogue and communication for subsequent political thinking in South Africa in general. The paper argues that a significant function of the rhetorical radicalism of Black Consciousness was to stimulate the search for a new model of what was politically possible in South Africa in the 1970s.
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