During the height of the anti-apartheid student protests at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1980s, there was a question that would often arise among different political groups: Would Steve Biko, the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, have supported a nonracial struggle against apartheid, or would he have preferred the struggle to exclude the participation of white people?
The dominant political group on campus at that time held the view that participation in the struggle should not be based on skin colour and that all people who shared the vision of a nonracial, nonsexist and democratic South Africa should make their contribution to the realisation of this vision.
This view found its expression in the political programme of the Wits Black Students’ Society, which, at different times, was led by David Johnson, Tiego Moseneke and Dali Mpofu, to mention just a few.
The political group that adhered to the belief that the struggle was best conducted by black people alone had Xolela Mangcu as its vocal leader.
The nonracial group were mockingly referred to as the Mavarara but their political stance on campus received a major boost with the emergence of the United Democratic Front.
Mangcu’s group were dubbed the Zmzm.
Their ideological differences reflected the broader ideological battles being fought in the townships, which resulted in the ’Vararas and Zmzms openly attacking each other and leading to the unnecessary deaths of anti-apartheid activists in the townships of Soweto, the East Rand and the Vaal.
The ideological political battles between the ’Vararas and the Zmzms in the townships was well articulated by the Afrikaner author Riaan Malan in his politically eye-opening bestseller titled My Traitor’s Heart.
Fast forward 30 years or so and the issues of black identity and the struggles of black people have once more resurfaced. This was recently demonstrated by pupils of Pretoria High School for Girls, who protested against being forced to straighten their hair and being ridiculed by white teachers when speaking in their own language.
The #FeesMustFall student movement has positioned itself as the vanguard of black student struggles against university fees, and the core elements of black consciousness can be found in the political discourse of the movement’s leadership.
But the political realities of the black experience in post-apartheid South Africa require a universal response that does not prescribe race as a determinant for participation in the struggle for equality.