Johannesburg — These are tough times for South Africa's black-consciousness movement. Though it was a preeminent black political force a decade ago, black-consciousness today is being eclipsed by other more popular and visible black political movements.
Still, black-consciousness is far from stagnant. Its political ideology is shifting and its adherents claim its popularity in the townships runs deep.
Nkosi Molala, president of the most prominent black-consciousness group, politely but forcefully disputes the view that his movement is taking a back seat to others. Black consciousness, he contends, is stronger than it appears.
The Azanian People's Organization (Azapo), says Mr. Molala, has 86 branches throughout South Africa - the Azapo constitution mandates a minimum of 20 members to form a branch. Although Molala declined to number his group's membership, recent estimates made by his predecessor indicate that the organization has 110,000 enrolled members.
The ideological components of black consciousness, explains Molala, have been rearranged extensively. Originally a philosophy seeking to help blacks overcome ``psychological oppression'' - to eradicate feelings of inferiority and the associated slave mentality of the apartheid system of race segregation - black consciousness has become a political movement championing socialism.
``The emphasis has changed,'' Molala explains. ``Today the emphasis is on the economic structure. The objective is to consolidate and understand what socialism is all about, to expose the iniquities of capitalism, and to bring socialism into sharp focus as the only relevant solution.''
The majority of blacks earn their living from the sale of their labor, he says. ``Abolition of apartheid will not constitute a solution to their situation. If apartheid is abolished, black people will still have to contend with the problems of staff reductions, rising prices, and falling wages.''
The ideological changes have seen the introduction of class as an important factor in the black-consciousness movement. But ``class analysis'' in black consciousness does not stray too far from race. Race determines class, says Molala. ``In our situation, blacks represent the working class,'' he says. White workers and the black middle class are anomalies, he adds.
But, says Molala, white workers are the beneficiaries of white rule: They have become a reactionary labor aristocracy. The black middle class, he adds, is in a state of flux. It can identify with the black working class or turn its back on them and become co-optees of South Africa's white rulers. Black consciousness has not reached the point where it will accept white members.
Whites, Molala says, do have a role to play in the ``liberation struggle.'' But it is within their own societies. They should concentrate on changing white attitudes, on making their fellow whites aware of the degree to which blacks are ``oppressed.'' Suspicion of whites who parade their sympathy for blacks - and who often end up trying to assume leadership of black protest movements - remains prevalent, says Molala.
Still, to many people, the black-consciousness movement faces a serious challenge from the multiracial United Democratic Front. Founded as recently as 1983, the UDF, which has more than 700 affiliated organizations, espouses the philosophy of nonracialism as defined in the outlawed African National Congress's Freedom Charter of 1955. The ideology of black consciousness, on the other hand, promotes solidarity among all nonwhites, and maintains that they must free themselves without the aid of whites.
At times rivalry between Azapo and the UDF has erupted into open - and deadly - violence, notably in the Soweto and Alexandra townships and in the eastern Cape Province.
Molala, who spent from 1976 to 1983 in jail on charges of sabotage and last year lost the sight in one of his eyes when he was hit by a tear-gas canister during a skirmish at a banned funeral, says he is not intimidated by his current role in the black-consciousness movement.
In pursuit of their aims, says Molala, Azapo leaders are handicapped by an acute shortage of funds. Azapo obtains virtually no money from overseas. Membership subscriptions yield ``very little.'' Few of its 110,000 signed-up members are paid-up members. And attempts to persuade black businessmen to contribute funds provide only small sums, Molala admits. Azapo is largely dependent on a once-yearly donation from the South African Council of Churches.
But, driven by the same convictions Biko held, Molala says he and his lieutenants believe that one day the black-consciousness movement will regain the dominant position it held a decade ago.
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.