Robert Sobukwe’s dream unrealised, 21 years into democracy

February 27 2015 marks the 37th anniversary of the death of Robert Sobukwe, the first leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and an icon of African nationalism. 

The PAC was founded in 1959, and in 1960 led the campaign against pass laws that ended with the death of 69 people. Sobukwe was arrested the same year and jailed, mostly in solitary confinement, until 1969, when he was released under strict banning orders. He died of lung cancer in 1978.

Sobukwe always emphasised the importance of African people managing their own affairs, developing a sense of self-reliance and self-determination. “We are pro-Africa and anti-nobody,” he said in 1949, during his time as a student leader.

He saw African nationalism as the means to emancipate Africans totally; to liberate them from political oppression, social degradation and economic exploitation. The fact that so many suffer from these conditions today is a sign that Sobukwe’s views are still highly relevant.

He would have argued that political freedom without economic emancipation is of no use; the people will continue to suffer as they suffered under apartheid. 


Today, 21 years into democracy, we still have half of the population, largely African, living in poverty. Millions go to bed with an empty stomach, and others find it impossible to enter institutions of higher learning because of lack of funds. Yet we live in a country very rich in raw materials.

“Prof”, as Sobukwe was affectionately known, put the agrarian question at the centre of his thought, because he believed that African people were robbed off their land by colonialism. Land is still a thorny issue in South Africa.

Sobukwe was also very concerned with education: he wanted education that would respond to the social, political, economic and psychological predicaments of our continent. 

Today we rely on the West, mainly, for the amelioration of knowledge, which then becomes a form of neo-imperialism. The argument here is that Africa is unique and should be treated as such, and be given a chance to determine its destiny without the influence of the West’s self-centred ideologies.

Kenneth Moeng Mokgatlhe works on the PAC media team.

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