Spare a thought, and a place name, for Mangaliso Sobukwe

Amid all the agitation for a ‘second transition”, which mainly entails economic reconfigurations, someone should utter a cry for the culture, knowledge systems and heritage of the country.

One hopes the ANC talks about the ‘second transition” of our society on the assumption that it is the ruling party and not, hopefully, because it believes that all the intellectual history and liberation credentials reside with it.

Voting patterns since 1994 have shown that the ANC is undoubtedly the most popular movement. It was fitting that the first commander of Umkhonto weSizwe, Nelson Mandela, became South Africa’s first president under the democratic dispensation.

But as the ANC’s leaders engage in these deep discussions about our future in Mangaung, someone should tap them on the shoulder and ask: Do you recall one Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe?

As the party’s members deliberate about where this country came from and where it should be going, does he matter? Has anyone heard of him? Is it correct that he is not acknowledged in any way, or not in the way that other liberation heroes have been commemorated—through institutions being named after them?

Do they remember that Sobukwe was the only prisoner so feared by the National Party regime that a special parliamentary law was created to keep him and only him in jail without any charge?

I have no issue with people who laugh at the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania as it is currently constituted. The party deserves it. In fact, I chuckle along. I mean, really, which party pleads to be recognised as the leading liberation movement just because it had more people arrested or more people hanged?

The facts in terms of whether or not the PAC had more people in jail—and why those people ended up in prison—are contested. There are people in the party who have said that those incarcerations resulted from acts of indiscipline, rather than from principled and organised struggles meant to topple the apartheid government.

But let my observations not take away from the role and sacrifice played by the PAC membership during those tough years. And my comments are not meant to isolate Sobukwe from the PAC, of which he was founding president and to which he provided much of its rich theoretical perspective.

The ANC should be careful not to confirm the maxim that the victors write the history. The party’s members were victors only in the sense that it was the most popular liberation movement, but the victory against apartheid belongs to all South Africans, black and white, who took up the cudgels against the illegitimate regime.

During the failed 1990s talks about the formation of a ‘patriotic front” that would have included the ANC, Azapo and PAC, intellectuals in Azapo used to mock the ANC, saying it found it easier to reconcile with Afrikaners than with fellow liberation fighters.

They must be having a good laugh now, looking at one of the beneficiaries of that reconciliation, Pieter Mulder, abusing the privilege of it and questioning the origins of black people in this country.

In its discussion documents the ruling party refers glibly to ‘developing and preserving South African arts, culture and heritage to promote social cohesion and nation-building”, but we see little of that in practice.

In a related paragraph on the subject, the ANC refers to the promotion of nation-building through inclusivity—but the only example it can give is the facilitation of merger talks between religious groups.

The ANC government renamed the former HF Verwoerd Hospital in Pretoria after Steve Biko, acknow-ledging the young intellectual who kept the liberation consciousness alive in the 1970s when the main political parties were banned.

Why, then, are there not even crumbs for Sobukwe? Why should we still have a town called Graaff-Reinet and not Mangaliso Sobukwe? Who was this Graaff Reinet anyway? Sobukwe is, after all, probably the finest son of the soil to come out of that town.

And what about Fort Hare University, where he was a student and where his intellectual prowess first came to light?

Nelson Mandela is a hero to many of us, but it honestly makes no sense that almost everything gets named after him, yet the likes of Sobukwe—and Jeff Masemola, who also spent more than 27 years in jail for anti-apartheid activities—should be culled from our history.

The ANC has an opportunity to write South Africa’s national history in a manner that is as fair and satisfactory as possible and, although it can never quite please everyone, it must use it.

As a country, we do not want people angling on the side, itching for the day when they also have access to power, when they can also embark on a wholesale exercise to rewrite our history according to them. We could be dismissive and say the ANC will rule until Jesus comes, but what if he comes back and finds the PAC in charge of South Africa?

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane


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