​Sobukwe: A giant whose voice endures

POLITICS
It is an odd fluke that these two men arrived on and departed from this Earth on the same date, albeit almost a century apart: Robert Sobukwe was born on December 5 1924 and Nelson Mandela died on December 5 2013.

Initially counterparts in the ANC Youth League, their profound tactical differences and deep ideological and intellectual divides were apparent early on. Their proximity is all the more bizarre given the consistent and deliberate erasure of Sobukwe’s contribution to the Azanian and, indeed, global African lexicon in contrast to the effusive celebration that Mandela enjoyed in both life and death.

The schisms between the two men emerged as early as the 1940s, when the ANC Youth League was formed to respond to what South Africa’s youth believed to be the inertia of the struggle. Sobukwe, Anton Lembede and AP Mda were among the leading lights who galvanised the Defiance Campaign and strongly opposed the policy of multiracialism, which they deemed to be a dangerous mechanism to privilege minority rights.

Sobukwe was dissatisfied with the growing influence of the white-led Communist Party of South Africa and, by 1956, became part of the Africanist group. He diagnosed the colonial question by saying: “The Europeans are a foreign group which has exclusive control of political, economic, social and military power. It is the dominant group. It is the exploiting group, responsible for the pernicious doctrine of white supremacy, which has resulted in the political humiliation and degradation of the indigenous African people.”

In 1959, the Africanists, led by Sobukwe and including the likes of Mda and AB Ngcobo, left to form the Pan Africanist Congress. Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other leading youth league members remained in what Sobukwe considered to be a captured ANC. Capture clearly did not begin in Saxonwold.

In his memoir, Mandela described the actions of the Africanist camp as immature and without any prospect of success. He also conceded that he felt intimidated by the intellectual vigour of his erstwhile friends and comrades Sobukwe and Lembede.

The men differed not only in tactics but also in allies. For Sobukwe and the PAC, the basis of any reconstituted society had to be African because Africans are indigenous to this country, in the majority and form the labour base. The ANC opted to align itself with the Congress Alliance and stressed the importance of a multiracial South Africa.

Much of the leadership at that time was centred on urban mobilisation and on building an educated urban cadreship. The usurpation and distraction of a colonial liberation struggle into a black/white issue remains one of the greatest fissures in the South African liberation narrative. It is this that removed African liberation, decolonisation and land restitution from the centre of the debate. It translated the complexity of land occupation into race relations, with the anti-apartheid movement more in keeping with the United States civil rights movement. The PAC’s armed wing, Poqo, considered itself to have more in common with the Mau Mau in Kenya than the freedom riders in Mississippi.

When Mandela announced that he had fought white domination and would fight black domination, it was clear that the decades of ideological disagreement between him and Sobukwe remained intact.

Of the Sharpeville uprising, Sobukwe said the greatest benefit was the loss of “fear of consequences of disobeying the colonial laws”. He refused to plead for clemency from the settler colonial regime, arguing that it was illegitimate. A year later, Mandela repeated these sentiments and, because officialdom continues to fear Sobukwe’s voice, even in his death, the mythology of these courageous words has been wrongly attributed to Mandela.


Having been imprisoned for the Sharpeville uprising, Sobukwe and other PAC cadres began to mobilise and politicise the hardened criminals they did hard labour with. An Institute of Race Relations survey in 1963 indicated that the Africanist camp had ignited the national imagination: it showed 57% support for the PAC, 39% for the ANC and 31% for the Liberal Party, all within a year of the PAC’s formation.

Perhaps Sobukwe’s most potent contribution lay in his ability to describe an internationalist vision with Africa at the centre. Similar to Amílcar Cabral, he eschewed narrow nationalism and spoke against what he characterised as the fashionable doctrine of exceptionalism. He said South Africa was deeply embedded in the broader African continent and the global African experience and strongly maintained that isolationism — which the Pretoria colonial regime was trying to instil in the African majority — could not be part of the Africanist narrative.

He spoke clearly on economic restitution and articulated how to achieve the equitable distribution of wealth through industrial development. He recognised that rural poverty was causing immense pressure on the urban population and, in anticipation of governing, began to co-create ideas to bring the majority to the centre of economic vibrancy. At the core of his praxis of liberation was land.

The official story of Mandela is of a moderate nationalist who hoped for a peaceful transition until this went up in the flames of the Sharpeville uprising. Although he has been quoted as saying: ‘‘I was bitter and felt ever more strongly that South African whites need another Isandlwana”, these sentiments were laid aside in favour of a negotiated settlement.

Perhaps Sobukwe would have noted that the settlement has displaced more people. In 2015, only 23% of the companies listed on the stock exchange were owned by black people. This stands in some contrast to Sobukwe’s view that rejected “economic exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few”.

In remembering the two men, the irreconcilable schisms in their politics and economic policy require examination. Whereas Mandela had the opportunity to grow and extend his influence globally, the tragedy of Sobukwe is that in life his voice was silenced and feared. The celebration of his birth gives us the possibility of at last hearing his voice loudly pronouncing on the conditions and politics of the current era with profound prescience. Giants, indeed, never die.

Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is a scholar, activist and analyst. She tweets at @Liepollo99

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