Of Spiritual Interests: Finding Black Consciousness in Pan Africanism

By Katlego Mereko

The 1950s was an eventful decade in South Africa. The National Party had just come into power after World War II in the late 40s and wasted no time in legislating the most heinous aspects of their Afrikaner Nationalist ideology into the new decade. 

Laws such as the Population Registration Act of 1950 that required every South African be classified under the provided racial groups, the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950 which forbade extramarital sex between white people and people of other races, and the Group Areas Act of 1950 which saw the removal of non-European  people from certain urban areas such as Sophiatown, a multiracial residence, into racially designated pieces of land, mostly townships for black people, were just some of the ludicrous policies entrenched.

Meanwhile, a storm was brewing in the then liberation movement of African people, the African National Congress. The chasm between the two factions within the movement, The Africanists and “The Charterists” was widening and threatened to tear the party asunder. Ultimately the split did happen in 1958 as the Africanist set out to launch their own movement called the Pan Africanist Congress, which they did in April 1959.

A series of debates ensued between members of the two parties thereafter. Defenders of the adoption of the 1955 Kliptown Charter in the ANC hastily charged, among other things, that the breakaway group of Africanists could not grapple with their “broad humanism” enshrined in the new Charter. This “broad humanism” pertains to the opening statement of the Charter which postulates; 

"South Africa belongs to all those who live in it, Black and White.”

The new body, the PAC, retorted through their brilliant theoretician and Secretary for Education, Nkutsoeu Raboroko, suggesting that the statement is an ideological shift from the slogan “Africa for Africans” and that going into an alliance with the descendants of the colonists, who “materially cannot identify with the oppressed camp” – however progressive they are as activists, is problematic insofar as it is an impediment to the ends of historical justice.

“The Charterists allege that the principal target of the Africanist attack upon them is their ‘broad humanism, which claims equality but not domination for the African people’. This statement itself bears out the main Africanist contention that the differences between the Charterists and themselves are mainly ideological. The Charterists have yet to understand is that politics is a matter not of race or colour, but of vital material and spiritual interests,” (Raboroko, The Congress & The Africanist, 1959).

But exactly what are ‘Spiritual Interests’?

The PAC Manifesto and Constitution of 1959 is fraught with clues as to the meaning of spiritual interests, but it is in 1965 that PAC member and Golden City Post journalist, Matthew Nkoana, gives a clearer indication of what is meant by this particular phrase.

“In the long run, however, a denial of truth would be deleterious to man’s spiritual well-being, leading to the development of a stunted personality. Truth, justice and freedom (all of which are not material things) are but a few of man’s spiritual needs necessary for the development of a healthy human personality,” (Nkoana, SOUTHERN AFRICA---THE BIG QUESTION- MARK FOR THE OAU, 1965).

In Pan Africanist literature, much is said about the development of the human personality. This relates to the psychosocial stability of human beings who have/not enjoyed the value of their own history, culture and knowledge as indigenes. These values are fully reaped when the tenets of truth, justice and freedom are properly realised. To this day there are still question marks over whether any of those tenets have been sufficiently fulfilled.

Truth, in our context, refers to the distortion of indigenous history as presided over by European colonists & posterity for over more than a couple of centuries. Justice is best expressed in indigenous thought, which contends that “iCala aliboli” (a crime or injury does not decay with the passage of time). This is an urgent demand to correct the unethical dispossession of land and resources from the indigenous people, and freedom is a culmination of both Truth & Justice sufficiently satisfied.

Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, would take up the same language of ‘spiritual interests’ in the 1970s: “Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills. And this latter effect is probably the one that creates mountains of obstacles in the normal course of emancipation of the black people,” (Biko, We Blacks, I Write What I Like)

In a piece that clearly demonstrates Biko’s immersion in Pan Africanist literature, the BC philosopher-activist writes of black people during apartheid as “empty shells” (no doubt emptied by the violent process of colonisation) who need black consciousness if they are to begin any honest program towards their own emancipation. 

“All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.”


“The first step… is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth. This is what we mean by an inward-looking process. This is the definition of "Black Consciousness," 

he writes in the same essay.

From this submission, not only is it clearer what is referred to by ‘Spiritual Interests’, but revealingly, the phrase becomes the very theoretical basis upon which Steve Biko and his contemporaries would develop the philosophy of Black Consciousness.

This also proves, in spite of how far some contemporary Pan-Africanist thinkers are willing to run in its denial, that Black Consciousness forms an integral part of PAC or Pan Africanism as developed in South Africa. In fact, suggestions that BCM was an ideological extension of PAC are correct in many respects, seeing that they throw much of their weight behind a Pan Africanist analysis of the South African situation - on spiritual interests.


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Freedom Charter


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