Something about Sobukwe

A few months ago, my wife and I visited Robben Island in South Africa. The island is less than 7 kilometers away from the coast of Cape Town, and is only about 5 square kilometer in area. Its fame comes from being the notorious prison island where the racist apartheid system used to hold political prisoners. The most famous person who has been held in that prison island for over a decade is Nelson Mandela, who later became the first president of a democratic South Africa. The island prison now is renamed ‘Robben Island Museum’, and tours take visitors around the island, by bus and on feet, to show the conditions in which the political prisoners of the apartheid system have been held. Also, visitors get to take a tour with one of the ex-prisoners themselves around the cells and grounds of the main prison. In that tour, they will tell stories from their memory of the place—how they managed to continue political radicalization in such difficult conditions; how they utilized the time in prison to upgrade themselves in education and skills to further serve the struggle; how they communicated with each other on political matters despite the watchful eyes of the prison guards; how they smuggled manuscripts to and from the place; and also how did Mandela and high-ranking leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) mange to endure the repression and isolation and continue to lead. The highlight of the tour is when the tour guide, the ex-prisoner, takes the visitors to Mandela’s jail cell. Everybody in the tour sees this as the highlight of the tour… almost everybody.

I was more interested in another scene from the island, and regarding another prisoner, who was apparently not as famous as Mandela—not even close. On the bus tour, we stopped at some point, and the tour guide asked us to look on the side at a stand-alone housing unit, looking a lot like a separate room from the rest of the facility buildings. The bus tour guide then asked if anybody in the bus have heard about the special prisoner of this isolated room. He explained that he was a man deemed so dangerous by the apartheid system that the authorities decided to keep him in permanent solitary confinement. They feared his influence so much, they decided to keep him “out of sight and out of mind” as much as possible, even from his fellow prisoners—a treatment that was reserved only for him. The tour guide then waited for a response from the bus crowd (which was packed by the way). There were people from different nationalities in that bus, and some of them were from South Africa, but almost nobody responded to the question. For me, I was waiting for that moment as the highlight of the tour, and I was very eager to see that room specifically. I was very sentimental about the whole thing (still I am), and I responded: ‘Sobukwe’. The name was new to almost everybody in the bus, except for me, my wife, the bus tour guide, and perhaps the bus driver. The apartheid system sought to keep Sobukwe out of sight and out of mind; they apparently succeeded.

Even most South Africans don’t know much, or know very little, about Sobukwe. I myself did not know about Sobukwe long before that day. I had my first education about Sobukwe just a few months before that visit. Yet, I have been particularly looking at Sobukwe with a persistent mix of intellectual and sentimental affiliation. Something about Sobukwe hits a deep place in my psyche. His story instigates intense reflections in me, and I would not have it any other way.

‘Who is Sobukwe?’ you may ask. Well, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (1924 – 1978) was a prominent figure of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He remained a symbol of resistance to the people of Azania (South Africa) for a while, especially in the 1960s, before he was carefully isolated from his people for the rest of his life. He was not executed or murdered, for that would have made him an instant martyr and a permanent charge for revolution. He was deemed ‘too influential’ by the ruling a regime—a ‘deadly’ combination of intelligence, discipline, and passion for freedom. In formal definitions, Sobukwe was a “Teacher, lecturer, lawyer,  Fort Hare University SRC [Students’ Representative Council] President, secretary of the ANC branch in Standerton, founding member and first president of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and Robben Island prisoner.”[1].

When Sobukwe and a number of comrades initiated the PAC, he was unanimously elected as its first president. It was a party that was started by a number of former ANC members who grew dissatisfied with the ANC’s politics that they saw as compromising on critical points of the struggle (at the time, the ANC was participating in the Native Representative Council and the township Advisory Boards; bodies authorized by the apartheid government). Sobukwe was a strong ‘Africanist’ who believed that the future of South Africa, and Africa in general, should be solely determined by Africans. However it was not a call of racial discrimination against the statistical minorities, because an ‘African’ in Sobukwe’s view was not defined by race, but by two criteria only: (1) to have allegiance only to Africa (i.e. no dual or multi- allegiances to geopolitical domains that may very well have interests in Africa conflicting with the interests of Africans themselves; a pretty decent demand, one may add, in its times), and (2) to adhere to abiding by governing systems that represent the will of the majority in Africa—i.e. democracy!. Those two clear criteria that define what an ‘Africanist’ is, to Sobukwe, carry no racial tag whatsoever, but it was portrayed as ‘racist’ by enemies of the pan-Africanist vision who proved ,in practice, to have their own, clearly racist, agenda.

The Sahrpville Massacre:
Sobukwe has proven himself to be quite a promising leader since he was a student at Fort Hare University, and a member the ANC Yough League (ANCYL). However, the Sharpville incident was the one that brought him strongly to the radar of the Azanian people, as well as the radar of the apartheid government. The Sharpville incident was a response to a nation-wide call from the PAC to black South Africans to resist the pass laws in civil disobedience style. “Pass laws were designed to segregate the population and severely limit the movements of [non-whites]. This legislation was one of the dominant features of the apartheid system. The Black population was required to carry these pass books with them when outside their homelands or designated areas. Failure to produce a pass often resulted in the person being arrested. Any white person could ask a black African to produce his or her pass.”[2] In 1960, both the ANC and the PAC announced to take on a nation-wide campaign to abolish the pass laws.

“The PAC called on its supporters to leave their passes at home on the appointed date and gather at police stations around the country, making themselves available for arrest. The campaign slogan was “NO BAIL! NO DEFENCE! NO FINE!” The PAC argued that if thousands of people were arrested, then the jails would be filled and the economy would come to a standstill.”[3] Sobukwe emphasized the non-violent nature of the campaign in clear words: “African people have entrusted their whole future to us. And we have sworn that we are leading them, not to death, but to life abundant. My instructions, therefore, are that our people must be taught now and continuously that in this campaign we are going to observe absolute non-violence.”

While the preparation for that day was publically announced, no one apparently expected the degree of violent reaction by the apartheid regime. Long story short, on that announced date, the 21st of March 1960, black Azanian crowds responded enthusiastically to the nation-wide call, and on the township of Sharpville, in the Transvaal province, a very large crowd came to the local police station without their pass books, with chants and slogans which included “Izwe lethu” (Our land) and “Sobukwe Sikhokhele” (Lead us Sobukwe). The PAC leaders, including Sobukwe, were at the forefront of the campaign. 300 armed policemen faced a crowd of about 5000 people, and at some point the police started shooting, killing 69 people (according to official records) and leaving 180 people seriously wounded. Sobukwe and others, who did their march to the nearest police station to their homes (which for Sobukwe was Soweto) were not arrested on the day, and the police simply recorded down their names. Four days later, however, and after the news of the Sharpville massacre reached everywhere, an order for the banishment of Sobukwe was issued, and was quickly turned into imprisonment for the charge of incitement.

The Sharpville massacre marked a seminal point in the history of the anti-apartheid movement, and it was effectively the event that ‘opened the eyes of the world’ and initiated the global campaign against the apartheid system and in support of the anti-apartheid movement.

Sobukwe’s fate:
The ‘special’ treatment Sobukwe received afterwards, by the apartheid government, can be summarized like this [1]:

  1. “On 4 May 1960 Sobukwe was sentenced to three years in prison for inciting Africans to demand the repeal of the pass laws. He refused to appeal against the sentence, as well as the aid of an attorney, on the grounds that the court had no jurisdiction over him as it could not be considered either a court of law or a court of justice.”
  2. “At the end of his three-year sentence on 3 May 1963, Parliament enacted a General Law Amendment Act. The Act included what was termed the ‘Sobukwe Clause’, which empowered the Minister of Justice to prolong the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely.” This clause was never used to detain anyone else other than Sobukwe, and it was renewed for Sobukwe’s case every year. Subsequently, Sobukwe was sent to the Robben Island prison, where he stayed there for additional six years, in solitary confinement, in complete isolation from the rest of the island prison population. “He was, however, allowed access to books and civilian clothes. As a result, Sobukwe spent much of his time studying, and he obtained a degree in Economics from the University of London.”
  3. In 1964 and 1970, Sobukwe was offered research and teaching positions in the USA, by the NAACP and the University of Wisconsin, consequently, but he was denied permit to leave the country. In 1971, that denial was repeated for him and his family to leave the country.
  4. Since he was released from prison in 1969, and until his death in 1978, Sobukwe was banished and put under strict house-arrest. Also he was prohibited from participating in any political activity. He was permitted to work within the small town he was banished in, and was sometimes given permit to attend family matters outside the town (with prior consent from the authorities and under strict time and movement conditions).
  5. “Sobukwe began studying Law while he was under house arrest. He completed his articles in Kimberley, and established his own law firm in 1975. The government’s Department of Justice initially denied him permission to enter the courts, but reversed the decision and withdrew the prohibition after the government relaxed a clause that banned Sobukwe from entering a court of law except as an accused or as a witness. However, newspapers were not allowed to quote him when he argued in court.”
  6. Soon after he started his law practice, Sobukwe’s health started deteriorating. “The government deliberately made it harder for Sobukwe to receive treatment by insisting that he should comply with the conditions of his restrictions, despite his evidently failing health. On 27 February 1978 Sobukwe died from lung complications at Kimberley General Hospital.”

Remembering the ‘Sobukwes’:
I have no doubt that the Sobukwes in our world are not only one. Perhaps every nation has one or two Sobukwes in its own history, if not more.. those heroes and heroines who ‘fade away’, not even sufficiently remembered by their own people.

I cannot help but be sentimental when it comes to Sobukwe, for his story represents to me a manifestation of a noble sadness of a special kind. Make no mistake: being sentimental does not necessarily imply the absence of critical thought. Yet, that thought may go to uncomfortable places, such as contemplating on the unjust attitude of history. We like to comfort ourselves that righteousness eventually will prevail, that history will eventually be re-written, and that the unsung heroines and heroes of our struggles will eventually be ‘sung’. One should look around, however, and sometimes wonder: when? In Azania, long after the official end of the Apartheid system, the attempt of apartheid to delete Sobukwe from the collective memory of his people proves to have been a great success. I am also sure that many similar historical examples from around the world may come to different people’s minds. It is a justified demand – if expressed – to be resurrected in the minds and hearts of those you laid down your life and more for.

The legacy Sobukwe left behind, in his writings and speeches, in his record of action, and in his personal example of dignity, decency and commitment, still has much to contribute to modern day’s Azania, and to Africa at large.

“These things shall be, says the Psalmist: Africa will be free. The wheel of progress revolves relentlessly. And all the nations of the world take their turn at the field-glass of human destiny. Africa will not retreat; Africa will not compromise; Africa will not relent; Africa will not equivocate; and she will be heard. Remember Africa.”
– Sobukwe, 1949

Notes:[1] “Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe”. South African History Online: towards a people’s history. (website page).[2] See Wikipedia: “Pass laws”.[3] “Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960”. South African History Online: towards a people’s history. (website page).

Gussai H. Sheikheldin
(published in the Citizen Newspaper, Sudan, September 10, 2013)

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