Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was a seminal voice in South Africa’s struggle for liberation. He belonged to a generation of leadership which set the highest standards of character, conduct and commitment and placed love of Africa and her people, above all.
The youngest child of a working class family in the small town of Graaff-Reinet, Sobukwe rose to become the first President of the Pan Africanist Congress and the apartheid system’s most feared adversary in the 1960s. Although in solitary confinement on Robben Island for most of the1960s, he had a profound influence on the Black Consciousness Movement and on the generation of 1976 that rose up against the apartheid state.
Study, reflection and activism forged Sobukwe’s philosophy of struggle. Methodist Christianity, African Nationalism, socialism, pan-Africanism, and his political nurturing within structures of the African National Congress were enduring influences.
Sobukwe’s watchword was “Africa for the Africans”, with “Africans” being understood as everyone who embraced Africa as home. He believed passionately in democracy, an equitable distribution of wealth, and the full development of individual human potential.
British colonialism ended in South Africa in 1910. It was replaced by a state, the Union of South Africa, in which whites exercised power through segregation. Under successive white governments, white people enjoyed privileged access to rights and resources while the rights of black South Africans were steadily eroded.
The South African Native National Congress (later renamed the African National Congress) was established in 1912 to fight segregation and promote the interests of the black majority. It used strategies of dialogue, representation and public education to press for change.
This was the world into which Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was born on 5 December 1924 to Hubert Mzayifani Sobukwe and Angelina “Nenti” Sobukwe. He was the youngest of their seven children, three of whom died at an early age. His clan name was Hlathi.
Like the rest of South Africa, Graaff-Reinet was segregated on the basis of race. The family lived in the small township on the outskirts of the town centre. His father worked for the local municipality and did part-time work as a wood-cutter. His mother worked as a cook in the local hospital and then as a domestic worker.
The family was Methodist, with church attendance and schooling in the local Methodist school shaping daily life. Sobukwe’s parents were committed to education and despite their limited means they ensured the books were available to their children.
In exploring the surrounding Karoo landscape with siblings and friends, Sobukwe developed an enduring love for the area. Later, his belief in the restoration of land to South Africa’s black population was underpinned by these early formative experiences.
During his teens Sobukwe passed through the isiXhosa circumcision rituals marking his transition from boyhood to manhood.
From a young age Sobukwe excelled at his studies. In 1947 he was able to win a place at the prestigious Methodist-run Healdtown, 225 kilometres from Graaff-Reinet. There he achieved outstanding results, rose to be a prefect in his final year, shone at tennis, suffered a bout of tuberculosis. At Healdtown he made lifelong friends, in particular Dennis Siwisa. He secured acceptance to the University of Fort Hare, the premier tertiary institution in South Africa for black students. Sobukwe arrived at Fort Hare from 1947.
Sobukwe’s political awareness grew quickly through his studies, his reading and exposure to thinkers and activists like Professor Z.K. Matthews, Professor CS Ntloko and Godfrey Pitje. He joined the African National Congress (ANC), and in 1948 became a founding member of the ANC Youth League’s Fort Hare branch and chairman in 1949. In 1949 he co-autored with Godfrey Pitje the Programme of Action, a version of which was adopted at the ANC conference in Bloemfontein. The Progamme of Action called for: a strategy to expand mass mobilisation of the people and seize the initiative in the struggle for liberation. Also in that year he was elected National Secretary of the Youth League under the Presidentship of Godfrey Pitje. In his final year Sobukwe was elected president of the University’s Students’ Representative Council.
Also in 1949, Sobukwe met Veronica Mathe, a nurse at the Victoria Hospital in the nearby town of Alice, during a strike by hospital staff. They were to become life partners.
Shortly after his graduation from Fort Hare, Sobukwe began teaching at Jandrell Secondary School in Standerton. With his passion for education and a resolute sense of discipline, Robert was respected by students and staff alike. He identified himself always as a teacher.
When he moved to Standerton in 1950, Sobukwe became Secretary of the ANC branch. But he was already becoming disaffected by the direction taken by the ANC leadership. Along with other Africanists within the ANC, Sobukwe was dissatitisfied with the abandonment of the Progamme of Action and uncomfortable with the 1952 Defiance Campaign, during which the ANC and the Indian Congresses defied apartheid laws and courted arrest. He was uncomfortable with the ANC’s close working relationships with the Communist Party and organisations representing whites, Indians and Coloureds. He typified the non-racialism being adopted by the ANC as a stultifying “multi-racialism” AFRICANISTS
Between 1954 and 1960 he filled the position of lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, one of the most prestigious tertiary institutions for whites in the country. Only a handful of black academics taught at the institution. His position was in the Department of Bantu Languages, where he taught Zulu.
With his move to the University of the Witwatersrand in 1954 came another important moment in his life; he and Veronica Mathe married. Initially the couple lived in Veronica’s family home, then found their own house in Mofolo, Soweto. The years that followed were ones of relative prosperity for the family, with Sobukwe’s lecturer’s position and Veronica working as a nurse at Jabavu Clinic. The couple had four children – Miliswa, Dinilesizwe, Dalindyebo and Dedanizizwe.
It was during these years that he became known affectionately as “Prof” by friends and community members in Soweto, where he lived.
The warmth and intimacy of domestic life unfolded within dynamic social and political contexts. Soweto was vibrant with energy, a hub of both resistance cultures and mass political mobilisation. Hope was palpable. Surely an end to white rule and oppression was at hand?
The Africanists distanced themselves from the 1955 Congress of the People, which adopted the Freedom Charter and called for South Africans of all racial “groups” to work together for liberation. The Africanists believed that the racial “group” defined by the apartheid system as African should first mobilise its own resources and empower itself in order to participate effectively in the realisation of a future where race was irrelevant.
With each ANC-led campaign the Africanists became more alienated. During 1958 tensions within the ANC came to a head as Africanists pressed for ascendancy within the organisational structures of the party. This came to a head at a conference of the Transvaal ANC,designed to address the crisis. Sobukwe and other Africanist leaders decided to leave the ANC and set up a separate organisation.
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The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) was launched at a conference in Soweto in April 1959. Sobukwe was elected its first President. In the first National executive were: Potlako Leballo, Abdnego Ngcobo,Elliot Mfaxa,Peter Molotsi, Selby Ngendane,ZB Molete, Peter Raboroko, Nana Mahomo, JD Nyaose, Hughes Hlatswayo, Zephaniah Mothopeng,Howard Ngcobo, CJ Fazzie and MG Maboza. Over the next twelve months Sobukwe and the rest of the PAC national leadership focused on developing policy, strengthening organisation, and expanding membership.
In the first months of 1960 both the ANC and the PAC planned campaigns against the hated pass laws. The PAC launched its campaign on 21 March, ten days before the planned ANC launch. Their call was for Africans to present themselves at police stations without their passes and to invite arrest for defying the law.
As in many other parts of the country, on 21 March a large crowd gathered at the Sharpeville police station in peaceful protest. But in Sharpeville the police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 and wounding nearly 200. It was a massacre. This day and the events that followed were to change the landscape of struggle in South Africa irrevocably.
International outrage was intense. Within the country protest action spiralled. The ANC embarked on a pass-burning campaign and led a massive stayaway and day of mourning on 28 March. Police brutality gathered momentum. On 30 March a young PAC leader, Philip Kgosana, led a march of an estimated 30 000 people from the Cape Town township of Langa into the city centre. The next day a State of Emergency was declared, giving the government sweeping powers to crush all forms of resistance. Thousands of people were arrested across the country.
On 8 April 1960 the ANC and the PAC were banned. A new era of struggle had dawned. Both organisations sent certain leaders out of the country and reorganised for underground activity within the country. Both began planning for armed struggle.
Sobukwe was arrested on 21 March 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre. He had led a group of PAC members who presented themselves at the Orlando police station to be arrested for refusing to carry their passes. Thus began nine years of incarceration in apartheid prisons.
PAC and ANC supporters filled the country’s police station cells and prisons in the months after Sharpeville.
Sobukwe became accused number one in the trial of 23 PAC members charged under the Criminal Law Amendment Act with incitement to commit a crime. He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. These years were spent in Pretoria Central, Stoneyard, Cinderella, Stofberg and Witbank prisons.
From the outset, Sobukwe refused to accept the identity of a prisoner: “I may be in prison, but they will never make a prisoner of me.” The challenge this posed became more daunting when the state revealed its plans to incarcerate him beyond the three-year sentence. Shortly before the completion of his sentence the SA parliament passed the new General Law Amendment Act, the so-called Sobukwe clause. This Act allowed the state to detain Sobukwe without a charge under the Suppression of Communism Act for a period of twelve months, a detention which could be renewed repeatedly.
Sobukwe was moved to Robben Island to serve his “sentence”. He was incarcerated in a small fenced-off bungalow on his own, effectively in solitary confinement. No contact with other prisoners was allowed. His guards were under instruction not to talk to him. For the next five years, as each twelve-month detention period neared its end the state simply renewed his detention for another twelve months, with the clear intention of breaking Robert’s spirit.
Sobukwe found sustenance where he could. He read as much as possible in the circumstances. He registered with the University of London for a degree in economics. He corresponded with friends and family. The occasional visits of family and ministers of religion gave critical support. He explored his own spirituality and implemented a regimen of daily routine and discipline, encouraged by the messages signalled to him by the occasional groups of passing prisoners.
But the years of isolation took their toll and his health began to fail. The authorities allowed more family visits. The prison authorities allowed more family visits, eventually allowing Veronica and the children to stay overnight on the Island. Finally, in 1969 he was released into a new form of confinement – banishment to the small town of Kimberley.
Banishment was yet another weapon in the apartheid regime’s oppressive arsenal. On his release from Robben Island, Sobukwe was taken to Kimberley, a town which he had only visited fleetingly once before in his life. He was placed under a punishing banning order which inter alia prevented him from travelling out of Kimberley, being out of his house at night, receiving visits from anyone except doctors and family members, having any communication with any other banned person or person listed as having been a member of a proscribed organisation, speaking publicly, teaching in any form whatsoever, or being quoted. Any form of political activity was clearly out of the question.
The family moved in to a government owned house in the township of Galeshewe. Sobukwe was offered a job by the state as a clerk in the municipal Department of Bantu Affairs, a job he refused to accept. Instead he enrolled for law studies and began his articles in a local law firm. He completed his final examinations in 1975 and was admitted as a lawyer. Through his law practice he was able, indirectly, to pursue political work, acting for local activists involved in continuing struggles for justice. He also found ways of engaging with a younger generation of political leaders aligned with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). He was friends and mentor to many of the leaders of SASO, notably: Sabelo Ntwasa. He conveyed his views through trusted messengers to the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO). In 1975 he was able to meet secretly with Steve Biko.
In 1977 Sobukwe was diagnosed with lung cancer. Restrictions imposed by his banning order meant that the diagnosis was delayed. His doctors requested the authorities to allow him freedom of movement on humanitarian grounds. The request was refused. He died on 27 February 1978.
Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was laid to rest in Graaff-Reinet on 11 March 1978. The funeral, organised by AZAPO, was attended by a crowd estimated at 5 000 people. The anger was palpable. Energies from the Soweto uprising of 1976 and its aftermath flowed strongly. While there were no clashes with security forces, there were other tensions. Several designated speakers were withdrawn. Speakers at the funeral were friends, colleagues and mentors:
The funeral presaged in microcosm some of the political conflicts which would unfold in the 1980s. It also provided a glimpse of some of the dynamics which would inform attempts to promote his legacy.
From 1960 until his death Sobukwe’s voice was silenced by the apartheid regime. The censure has proved resilient. In post-apartheid South Africa the footprint of his life and work is feint. Public representations of him, in books, documentaries, exhibitions and memorials, are scarce. Very few public honours have been accorded him. The influence of his ideas remains largely unacknowledged. Attempts to access his official prison archive and other public records using the Promotion of Access to Information Act have been unsuccessful.
His voice still speaks strongly. A united Africa which belongs to all who embrace Africa as home. A society based on egalitarian principles and the sharing of resources, especially land. The importance of education, of reading and of continued learning. The full development of individual human potential. The highest standards of character, conduct, and commitment. His legacy endures