In Memory of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe

Published on 5th December 2017

On the 5th of December 1924, a great leader was born in Graff Reinet, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe. Were he alive on the 5th December 2017, he would be 93 years old. His famous quote, “True leadership demands complete subjugation of self, absolute honesty, integrity and uprightness of character, courage and fearlessness and, above all, a consuming love for one’s people,” bears testimony to the fact that he was truly a great leader.

The greatness of Sobukwe came from the mouths of his enemies. Former apartheid Prime Minister, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd said, “There is only one political prisoner on Robben Island and that is Sobukwe. The rest are criminals.” His successor, John Balthasar Vorster said, “Comparing Luthuli to Sobukwe, Luthuli is a lightweight.” Justifying an unjustifiable law for the indefinite detention of Sobukwe known as the Sobukwe Clause, Vorster told the whites only South African parliament that, “This clause will be used to keep him there longer… For here we are dealing with a person, let me say this, who has a strong magnetic personality, a person who can organise, a person who feels he has a vocation to perform this task, well knowing what methods will be applied.” By this ‘vocation,’ this ‘task,’ Vorster was referring to Sobukwe’s commitment to fighting for the liberation of the African people as he has he said in his speeches, especially his April 6, 1959 inaugural address and the August 1959 State of the Nation speech.

This greatness and fear of Sobukwe was not confined to South Africa alone but reverberated throughout the western world. Five weeks before Robert Sobukwe led the PAC and the people of South Africa in a march against oppressive passbooks, on February 3, 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the all-white parliament in Cape Town that:

 “The most striking of all the impressions I have formed since I left London is of this African national consciousness. In different places it takes different forms, but it is happening everywhere. The wind of change is blowing through this continent…The great issue in this second part of the twentieth century is whether the uncommitted people of Asia and Africa will swing to the East or the West.”

 This is the speech wrongly billed ‘the winds of change’ speech. This is a speech which raised concern about the pervasiveness of African consciousness which took different forms in different places. It should be properly described as the African consciousness speech.

Now we know why after the 21st March, 1960 anti-pass campaign Sobukwe never became a free man until his death on 27 February 1978. White people in this country were never and are not comfortable when Sobukwe said, in no uncertain terms, that white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism must be destroyed. They survive on what Sobukwe described as a vile and anachronistic system of white supremacy. This prevalent anti-Sobukwe, anti-PAC sentiment by white South Africans and the western world explains why Sobukwe’s ideas and legacy have been suppressed. They are aided by the ANC which got the bearings of our struggle for liberation completely wrong with their Freedom Charter and multiracialism as opposed to Sobukwe and the PAC’s Africanist philosophy and non-racialism. The Freedom Charter is a repudiation of the African people’s anti-colonialist stance of Africa for Africans.

There are great leaders, academics and well known people who regarded and still regard Sobukwe as a great leader. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon refers to the Sharpeville massacre. It was Sobukwe and the PAC that organised the anti-pass campaign which culminated in the shooting of innocent protestors in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. In 1968 the United Nations declared March 21 a Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination but has not recognised Sobukwe’s role.

In his 1961/62 tour of Africa and Europe, Nelson Mandela paid courtesy calls to leaders such as former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda and others who told him to wait until Sobukwe was released from jail for him to get their support. Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah flatly refused to meet Mandela. He identified with Sobukwe and the PAC. In Botswana, he supported the Bechuanaland People’s Party. On a visit to Ghana in 1964, Malcolm X told an audience he addressed to Remember Sobukwe and Mandela. One wonders what Malcolm X would say now considering what has happened since the early 1980’s about secret negotiations and the “new” dispensation.

However, African American academic, Professor Cornell West put it aptly when he said he asked Mandela in the 1990’s why the world remembers only him but not Sobukwe. Mandela couldn’t give him an answer. Malcolm X would have asked the same question and perhaps more were he alive. Writing an introduction to great ancient and modern leaders, the late Professor Ivan Van Sertima wrote that Robert Sobukwe was a committed and uncompromising leader.

Professor E’skia Mphahlele (now late) delivered an insightful Sobukwe Memorial Lecture at Fort Hare University in 2003. In his opening address, Professor Mphahlele said he felt elevated by an invitation from men and women who honour and hallow the memory of such historical personalities whose ideas are building blocks in the reconstruction of our history as a mouthpiece of the truths that elevate us an reaffirm us.

Writing in an article for Independent newspapers in 2008, Professor Sipho Seepe pointed out that, while he (Sobukwe) should loom large in history for his ideas and his role in fighting apartheid, his ideas are largely unknown except in certain committed circles.

In Drum magazine of December 1962, Nat Nakasa wrote an article about the imminent release of Sobukwe and described him as one of the most talked about leaders in South Africa. Another well-known journalist and former Archbishop Emeritus Bishop Tutu’s school mate, Stan Motjuwadi wrote a lot about Sobukwe. Tutu himself spoke about Sobukwe’s influence to students and in society. Patrick Lawrence also wrote about Sobukwe and was jailed for writing about Sobukwe, a person who was not supposed to be quoted in South Africa.

PAC leaders such as Sobukwe, Peter Raboroko and Zeph Mothopeng made history although the ANC tries very hard to write them out of history. Sobukwe’s ideas influenced the formation of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Founder member and leading spokesman of the BCM, Steve Biko revered Sobukwe. Currently, the student movement is also imbued by Sobukwe’s philosophy. The corporate media tried without success to conceal this influence despite palpable evidence. The corporate media now resorts to burying its head in the sand like an ostrich. Law schools and other faculty buildings at universities were unofficially renamed after Sobukwe during the fees must fall and decolonising education protests. There is a resurgence of the spirit of Sobukwe’s Pan Africanism and African Nationalism. The Pan Africanist Student Movement is growing in leaps and bounds. In recognition of his intellectual contribution, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) conferred an honourary Doctorate to Sobukwe posthumously less than ten years ago. A few months back, Wits named its Central Block Building after Sobukwe.

 “We want to build a new Africa, and only we can build it…Let me plead with you, lovers of my Africa to carry with you into the world the vision of a new Africa, an Africa reborn, an Africa rejuvenated, an Africa recreated, young Africa. We are the first glimmers of a new dawn,’ Sobukwe said  in 1949.

ANC and Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, are we building a new Africa when there is rampant corruption, racism and uncalled for suspensions, or should I say, purging of senior African staff at the National Health Laboratory Services? Do you know about it and if you do what are you doing about it?

By Sam Ditshego

Sam Ditshego

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