The Law and the Prophets: Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977

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Publication: Church History
Author: James, Leslie R
Date published: December 1, 2011
Language: English
PMID: 29101
ISSN: 00096407
Journal code: PCHH

doi:10.1017/S00096407l 1001727 The Law and the Prophets; Black Consciousness in South Africa, 1968-1977. By Daniel R. Magaziner. New African Histories. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010. vii + 283 pp. $59.95 cloth; S26.95 paper.

According to the author. The Law and the Prophets is the story of a generation of South Africans and "what their lives reveal regarding the potential and perils of thinking in time" (3). The "decade opened the intellectual space for a new generation of South African thinkers to explore the possibility that superficially simple statements like, "I am Black," "I am a Man," "I have dignity," and "I am the image of God," "might be profoundly potent" (3). "From the depths of oppression, they argued that change was not impossible but would in fact come when people had faith and hope enough to imagine their way beyond their predicament" (3). Elaborating on his thesis the author argues that "between 1968 and 1977, South African students, clergy, and cultural and other activists donned the prophet's mantle and spoke historical truths to the power of apartheid law" (3). First, "they did so first in students group meetings, in theological seminars, in sermons and newsletters and poetry." Next "came protests, rallies, trials, uprisings, death." The process, the author concludes, led "in time [to] some sort of change" (3). The note of ambiguity at the end of Magaziner's statement does not emphasize that the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) in South Africa was a contextual exemplar of the centraliiy of "consciousness" in South African political discourse from 1968 to 1977, and its spirit of black militancy. Arguably, by 1994 the process led to the "negotiated" settlement that ended South African apartheid and required a shift from "consciousness" to "communication" that significantly affected the future of black consciousness in South Africa.

Magaziner should be commended for his creation of a credible presentation of the BCM in South Africa. In the book, the author "sought to rediscover and explicate the thinking that attended" the BCM's contestation of apartheid between 1968 and 1977 ( 1 3 ). He did "so by mustering both old and new sources" (13), having "interviewed nearly sixty former activists during many months of formal research in South Africa" (13). His informants included prominent and less well-known Black Consciousness and Black Theology activists such as Barney Pityana, Allan Boesak, Anne Hope, and Tau Mokoka (13).

Though Magaziner did not state exactly how many months of formal research he spent in South Africa, he produced a narrative that reads like a documentary script. A major strength of the book is the author's engagement with a segment of black South African experience and its mode of reflection that was significant in the latter part of the twentieth century as a precursor to the historical changes that occurred at the end of the century. The period in which the author situates his text was a watershed moment in modem history. Marked by events such as the civil rights movement, the Cold War, Vatican II, and the assassinations and murders of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Kennedy brothers, and Steve Biko. It was a period of "dreams deferred." It was also a period of intellectual paradigm shifts, in which different currents of thinking interrogated history and the modern world. "A rising tide of racial consciousness" emerged as part of the intellectual landscape as old ways of thinking were retired and replaced by new ones that were felt to be more effective in terms of individual and social transformation. The Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa was part of that global consciousness that sought to transcend the dualism between thought and action, faith and ideology. The book's division reflects this notion. It is divided into three sections: part 1, "Making of Black Consciousness"; part 2, "Emergent Gospel"; and part 3, "The Movement." The division suggests that the BCM was an epistemologìcal revolution in the experience of a segment of black South Africa that impacted South African society. Though African intellectual history is the primary field within which Magaziner sets his book, his attempt to put the BCM in conversation with various European and African American theologies, as well as other intellectual currents, emphasizes the theological dimension of the BCM more than its cultural, aesthetic, and artistic aspects. This orientation is probably the main strength of the book. Deemphasized is the fact that the BCM performed an important intellectual role in South African society when the apartheid government banned the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress.

Magaziner's interpretation of the BCM, dominated by a retrospective gaze at the movement from the perspective of post-apartheid South Africa, detracts from his laudable attempt to retell the story of the BCM's contribution toward the demise of South African apartheid. Consequently, the book's conclusion is off target. Magaziner's claim that his book's title, The Law and the Prophets, resonates with and originates from the Sermon on the Mount (14), theologizes and locks the book into current moods of despair in contemporary South Africa, Consequently, he minimizes the movement's overall contribution to social transformation in South Africa. The author would have done greater justice to his work if his conclusion collated the different dimensions of the BCM identified in his study, used BCM as a hermeneutical principle that interrogated apartheid South African society, in the period under review, and considered the significance of the BCM in post-apartheid South Africa.

The author could have been much better served by the editorial function in a number of respects. A footnote on Harry Oppenheimer, for example, would have been helpful (115). Use of a clear theoretical framework for organization would have given greater coherence to the book's narrative on the BCM in South Africa. Magaziner might not have produced the definitive book on the BCM. Nevertheless, his version adds to the overall understanding of the movement and the relationship between religion, race, and ethnicity in the construction of South African society.

Author affiliation:

Leslie R. James

DePauw University

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