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  • The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977
  • Hlonipha Mokoena
The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977. By Daniel R. Magaziner (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2010) 283 pp. $47.96 cloth $21.56 paperback

Stephen Bantu Biko is immensely popular in South Africa at the moment. Part of the explanation for this popularity is that since his death in September 1977, his name has become synonymous with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). This conflation of personality and politics, icon and iconography, and ideas and ideology is one set of assumptions that Magaziner undermines in The Law and the Prophets. Although he does not explicitly state the point, Magaziner is aware that Biko and BCM have generated a substantial literature and an equally intense popular appeal. To justify his work as different from these popular expositions, Magaziner eschews the personality of Biko, exploring instead the intellectual foundations of BCM. In his argument, BCM was a student movement, because university students who launched an attack on the extant and pejoratively liberal student organizations articulated its tenets, and a youth movement because, like other student-led revolts of 1968, it was inspired by intergenerational disputes. Young people were not just challenging the status quo; they were also challenging the leadership, or lack thereof, of an older generation. By giving equal weight to the youth aspect and the university context of BCM's emergence, Magaziner reveals the many ways in which the movement was part of a global shift in, and rearranging of, campus politics while also emphasizing how apartheid South Africa and its educational system defined the kinds of themes and debates on which the movement focused.

What makes Magaziner's intellectual history of BCM refreshing is his circumspection about the narratives and testimonies of those who were involved in the movement. He unearths the longer and enduring connections that made BCM both radical and conventional. Unlike, for example, the edited volume titled We Write What We Like, Magaziner's book does not even have one of Biko's best-known sayings or statements as its title.1 Instead, Magaziner chose a phrase from the enigmatic "Golden Rule" that Jesus pronounced in his Sermon on the Mount, "So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets" (14). This reference to prophets and prophecy points to Magaziner's discussion of BCM as a Christological movement. Whether it be the suffering, the crucified, or the fighting Christ, BCM borrowed from, and incorporated into its philosophy, theological concepts that were fuelling debates about secular, black, and African theologies. This religious imagery is not, Magaziner argues, mere metaphor or hyperbole; it is the very intellectual, sometimes inchoate, underpinning of BCM.

In this regard, Magaziner again departs from the accepted explanations of the movement. Conventionally, BCM is often contrasted to the [End Page 493] Africanism of the earlier African National Congress' Youth League (ANCYL) or derided as lacking in class consciousness or ideology by those who understood apartheid as essentially legalized capitalist exploitation of the black majority. Since Magaziner avoids restating these perspectives, his The Law and the Prophets marks a shift away from definitions of the anti-apartheid struggle that foreground the ANC as a vanguard anticolonial movement. His is a study of minor actors and activists who were surprised by their unexpected emergence within national politics as the apartheid state swooped down on a movement that perceived itself in modest terms as mainly attempting to revitalize the collective identity of the black population of South Africa.

Hlonipha Mokoena
Columbia University


1. Chris Van Wyk, Celebrating Steve Biko: We Write What We Like (Johannesburg, 2007).



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