Sobukwe: Picture of an icon

The opening scene of Sobukwe: A Great Soul encapsulates what the film is about. The scene features American scholar Cornel West remembering, in the preacher’s measured and deliberate intonations, a conversation he once had with Nelson Mandela. The scholar, sporting his distinctive mop of overgrown hair sprinkled with grey ash, asks Madiba why Robert Sobukwe, the founding leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, has been forgotten “yet you are remembered”.

It is exactly what the Mail & Guardian‘s deputy editor, Rapule Tabane, wrote about last week. In his column, Tabane pointed out that, at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung later this year, someone should ask the delegates: “Has anyone heard of him [Sobukwe]? 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?”

Said Tabane: “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?”

Even if we do not remember him in South Africa, Sobukwe’s name continues to resonate in black scholarly thought.

Manning Marables, in his seminal biography of black leader Malcolm X that came out last year, writes about how crucial Sobukwe and Mandela were to the South African struggle, according to the American radical. Malcolm X argued in the 1960s that Mandela and Sobukwe were the “real leaders” of the black struggle. He dismissed Chief Albert Luthuli as “just another Martin Luther King used to keep the oppressed people in check”.

The 100-minute-long film is directed by Mickey Madoda Dube and features Luthuli Dlamini (Coconuts, Scandal) as the older Sobukwe. The drama documentary traces Sobukwe’s roots back to his home town, Graaff-Reinet, and his time at Fort Hare where he studied something called “native administration”. His characteristic resolve, which resulted in him spending six years in solitary confinement on Robben Island, and being a stickler for principle were already evident when he was locked in a toilet after upsetting the institution’s senior students.

Others featured in the film include apartheid foreign minister Pik Botha, roped in to give the other side; journalist Benjamin Pogrund, who maintained an epistolary relationship with Sobukwe; anti-apartheid hero and ex-Robben Islander Ahmed Kathrada; American scholar Molefi Kete Asante; Meshack Sishangwe, Sobukwe’s former pupil in Standerton, where he taught after his studies at Fort Hare; and others.

Using archival footage from the dark days and Dlamini’s large presence, the film tries to sum up the phenomenal life of the icon for whom, after he died in 1978, the United Nations held a special session. At the end of the film, the drama-documentary shows Steve Biko reaching out to Sobukwe in trysts in which they have sidetracked intelligence agents.

Sobukwe’s legacy is visible in two of the most crucial moments of South Africa’s struggle: the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the June 1976 youth uprisings.

In the Sharpeville Massacre, now commemorated as Human Rights Day, 69 were killed and hundreds more injured. The movement, led by Biko, who was in some ways Sobukwe’s disciple and descendant, was a pivotal moment in the struggle to dismantle apartheid’s hegemony.

Sobukwe: A Great Soul will be shown on SABC 1 on March 20 and 27 at 9pm

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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