Johannesburg — There is a flicker of new life in South Africa's black consciousness movement. It is but a dim reminder of the prominence the movement achieved in the mid- 1970s, when its ideology of black self-assertion led to clashes with the white-minority government, including riots in Soweto in 1976.
However, the flickering is discernible and probably significant, say close observers of black politics in this country. And the resurgence of black consciousness is an aspect of deeper trends here that are forcing internal black political movements to define themselves more clearly.
The pressure for these groups to define and assert themselves comes from two sources.
One is the white government's perceived strategy of trying to break the black solidarity that would unite all ''nonwhites'' against the government. The vehicle for this government strategy is the so-called ''reform'' plan to bring Coloreds (persons of mixed race background) and Indians into a three-chamber parliament, while still excluding blacks.
Another pressure comes from mounting evidence that the initiative in black politics is slipping to the outlawed and externally based African National Congress. The ANC's rising sabotage campaign is not only alarming whites, but is forcing internal black groups to reassess their own positions in the ''liberation struggle.'' Some groups are happy to play a supporting role to the ANC, others are not.
The Azanian People's Organization (AZAPO), formed in 1979, is the main black consciousness group in South Africa today. In essence it is the successor to the black consciousness drive led by Steve Biko, who became a martyr for the black cause through his death in police custody in 1977.
New leadership may project AZAPO back into the forefront of black politics here. It will be an uphill battle, but black activists recently released from prison on Robben Island -and others just come out from banning orders - have made an auspicious start on this front over the past six months or so.
Black political loyalties in South Africa are splintered, with the broadest black support being registered for the ANC - an ideological rival of AZAPO and the black consciousness movement.
AZAPO is also sharply at odds with Zulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi's political-cultural Inkatha movement, which now boasts a membership of some 750, 000.
AZAPO says it does not disclose membership data because it worries about surveillance of members. Its strength is difficult to gauge.
However, analysts do see signs of new life in the group and subtle shifts in the black consciousness ideology it espouses, largely stemming from an infusion of new leadership.
The new AZAPO leadership includes: President Lybon Mabasa, whose banning order was lifted last year; and Vice-President Saths Cooper and General Secretary Muntu Myeza, both released from Robben Island last December. Cooper and Myeza were found guilty in the ''black consciousness trial'' in 1975-76 of conspiring to commit acts that could have endangered law and order. All three were active with Biko in the black consciousness movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The way Mr. Cooper sees it, there has been a ''tremendous degree of ideological ferment and confusion'' in black politics in the past several years. In the black political sphere ''no single group has the ability to usher in total change,'' he said in an interview. ''We think we need mature, sober consideration of all the issues in the liberation struggle; and while principles should not be sacrificed, partisan approaches should take a back seat.''
AZAPO recently convened a conference, dubbed the National Forum, to try to narrow some of the differences separating adherents of black consciousness and those loyal to the tradition of the ANC.
The meeting was a significant event in black politics here. But the gulf between groups like AZAPO and those loyal to the tradition of the ANC remains wide.
One of the main issues is the role of whites. Those aligned with the nonracial tradition of the ANC accept whites in the ''struggle,'' while black consciousness has tended to exclude them.
''Whites have a role to play and that role is not to lead or control the political direction of blacks. It is to prepare the white community for change, '' says Cooper.
While those aligned with the ANC view oppression in South Africa as a class phenomenon - the ''haves'' vs. the ''have nots'' - black consciousness sees it more in racial terms. ''We have to identify the oppressor. . . . The oppressor is white.''
However, Cooper concedes, a subtle shift in black consciousness ideology today is greater emphasis on ''class'' and economic stratification in South Africa. ''We believe the capitalist base is now fueling and bolstering racism,'' says Cooper.
The challenge for black consciousness, say a number of analysts, will be to gain a more popular, grass-roots following and break away from a reputation as rather elitist.
Cooper says he recognizes that need. After a number of years in prison, he says he finds blacks politically more discerning. ''They are more questioning,'' he says.
Some consider it surprising that the government has not acted against AZAPO. Others say waning support for black consciousness in the past few years has made the government less concerned about the group.
How the government would respond to an expanding AZAPO remains to be seen. Cooper assumes his actions are closely watched. Indeed, he was arrested June 16 at a service in Soweto commemorating the 1976 upheaval for being in the township without a permit. He says he was questioned about his motives in forming the National Forum.