Robert Sobukwe: The Forgotten Hero

Published on 1st March 2017

On 27th February, 2017, former President Thabo Mbeki was inaugurated as Chancellor of the University of South Africa (Unisa), a day that coincided with the 39th anniversary of the death of PAC founding President and academic, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe.

I listened to the speech by Unisa’s Principal and Vice Chancellor, Professor Mandla Makhanya. As usual he mentioned those “icons” and “stalwarts” “of the liberation struggle.” He then appropriately mentioned that this year will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko. Because he mentioned Biko, a person who regarded Sobukwe as a God and an exemplary leader to look up to; and also because that day it was the 39th anniversary of Sobukwe’s death, I thought he would mention or pay tribute to Sobukwe. Wasn’t I wrong!

Moreover, Sobukwe was an academic and delivered the best speech at Fort Hare in at the 1949 graduations which nobody to date has delivered. There were also graduations at Unisa on the 27th February. I saw Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor among the guests occupying front row seats. I thought that by seeing Naledi Pandor, Professor Makhanya would be reminded of what Naledi Pandor’s grandmother, Mrs Frieda Matthews, said about Sobukwe’s 1949 graduation speech. Mrs Matthews is quoted as having said that Sobukwe’s graduation speech was quoted for years by students. During that time, Naledi Pandor’s grandfather, Professor ZK Matthews, was a lecturer at Fort Hare. Mkhanya is well aware of Sobukwe’s 1949 Fort Hare graduation speech because in which he said that “To us education means service to Africa.”

After Professor Makhanya’s speech, I stopped watching proceedings on television. When Mbeki spoke, I wasn’t watching television. I wasn’t surprised that he also didn’t pay tribute to Sobukwe. He instead mentioned what Julius Nyerere said 53 years ago which is similar to what Sobukwe said 68 years ago. I am asking Mr Mbeki for the second time: why is he craning his neck and looking for people to quote in faraway countries instead quoting what his fellow countryman said? Mbeki knows very well that the renaissance or rebirth that he spoke about yesterday Sobukwe spoke about in the late 1940’s. All the things that were said about changing this country’s curriculum or decolonising it and making this country’s universities African universities, Sobukwe spoke about in 1949.

The second President of the PAC who was also an academic and a fierce fighter against the Bantu Education system, Zeph Mothopeng graduated from Unisa in 1946 but he was never mentioned. Nothing at Unisa is named after him but there is a building named after the late Sisulu who never attended at Unisa.

This month also marked the 43rd anniversary of the brutal killing by the apartheid government agents of another Black Consciousness Movement leader, Onkgopotse Tiro who in 1972 delivered one of the best graduation speeches attacking the apartheid government and the Bantu Education system. Makhanya and Mbeki didn’t pay tribute this indefatigable freedom fighter and the second martyr of the Black Consciousness Movement.

Makhanya and Mbeki are intellectually dishonest and partisan. This is not how a university should be run. The ideas of Sobukwe, Mothopeng and Tiro must form the kernel of the curriculum of this country’s universities and Sobukwe’s ideas must be acknowledged. It must also be acknowledged that Sobukwe blazed the trail in advocating for the destruction of the colonial or European system of education and its attendant vices of white supremacy, colonialism and imperialism.

By Sam Ditshego, Kagiso.

Sam Ditshego []

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