The deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Solly Mapaila, has claimed that the founding president of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, was a revolutionary favoured by the apartheid regime.
Mapaila was the main speaker at a dialogue celebrating the Rivonia Trialists held at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, last week. Attended largely by SACP and ANC youth, the dialogue marked 29 years since Nelson Mandela’s release.
Mapaila said he was airing his views on Sobukwe for the first time. “Sobukwe left the ANC on the basis of its acceptance of white people. But the thing that I said I’m going to speak of for the first time is that when our leaders were on Robben Island they [unlike Sobukwe] were incarcerated.”
He said the house in which Sobukwe was jailed in solitary confinement on Robben Island was evidence that he was treated better. It was widely recognised that Sobukwe was jailed alone because the apartheid regime feared him for his intellectual prowess, but Mapaila believes that this was far from the truth.
“The apartheid government decided to treat Robert Sobukwe as the only political prisoner and the others as terrorists. That’s why they built him a house,” said Mapaila. “That’s why, when you go to Robben Island, there’s a [house] there. Others got cells, Sobukwe stayed in a house. He had freedom. He had a full house. He had a radio,” said Mapaila. “He was treated as a political prisoner when our [other] leaders were treated as slaves, terrorists and criminals.”
I am a Robben Island scholar. I worked at the Robben Island Museum, wrote my doctoral degree on this subject and I’m writing a book about the Island, politically and intimately known as Esiqithini! I want to set the Sobukwe record straight for all those who are being miseducated.
The apartheid government sentenced Sobukwe to three years’ imprisonment in Pretoria Central and other jails for inciting the anti-pass protests that led to the Sharpeville Massacre on March 21 1960. When his sentence ended in May 1963, Sobukwe was taken by aircraft to Cape Town, and incarcerated on Robben Island.
It was done under a special law passed suddenly by Parliament — section 4 of the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963 — to empower the minister of justice to impose additional terms of imprisonment after a prisoner had served his sentence.
Introducing the law, the ruthless justice minister, BJ Vorster, who had been interned for pro-Nazi activity during World War II, explained the rationale: “I want to tell honourable members why we are inserting this clause. We may find it necessary. Sobukwe will have served his sentence on 3 May. He was the leader of the PAC and I can tell honourable members that there has been no change of heart in him during the time he has not been in our midst.
“If the government comes to the conclusion that it would be failing in its duty to the peaceful citizenry if it were to set this man free, this clause will be used to keep him there longer. For here, we are dealing with a person — let me say this — who has a strong magnetic personality, a person who can organise, a person who feels that he has a vocation to perform this task, well knowing what methods will be applied.” (Hansard, volume six, column 4 652, April 24 1963).
This clause came to be known as the “Sobukwe clause”.
When Vorster said, “there has been no change of heart in him during the time he has not been in our midst”, this was in reference to Sobukwe’s commitment to the African struggle that is overwhelmingly captured in just two words — “Izwe Lethu!” [The land belongs to us!].
Sobukwe and the PAC spoke about the dispossession of our land as early as 1959 and, regarding the organisation and Sobukwe, Vorster was damn right that “there has been no change of heart”.
In 1963 and 1966, Vorster communicated these sentiments, which today Mapaila misinterprets: “He [Sobukwe] would not be treated as an ordinary prisoner. He would have special food and quarters, more leisure, and freedom of movement within a prescribed area. Newspapers could be supplied to him and he could receive visitors weekly” and “With the possible exception of Mr Sobukwe, South Africa had no political prisoners. Those convicted of serious offences against the public safety and security of the state were allocated to the ordinary grade of sentenced prisoners to which they had been individually classified.”
Note the use of “ordinary” in both Vorster’s statements; Sobukwe was “not an ordinary prisoner” and others “were allocated to the ordinary grade of sentenced prisoners”.
If you highlight the fact that the apartheid government saw Sobukwe as the only political prisoner on Robben Island, then you must appreciate that he would not be treated ordinarily, like all others, Esiqithini!
In Sobukwe the regime knew they were “dealing with a person who has a strong magnetic personality, a person who can organise, a person who feels that he has a vocation to perform this task”.
This revolutionary was different; he spoke directly about the land question and did not flinch on this until his death in 1978.
The irony for me is that every time we celebrate a milestone that relates to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela — the most renowned of our struggle icons — we seem to find a way to distort or ignore the equally important role that Bantu Steve Biko and Sobukwe, among others, played in the liberation of South Africa.
The second irony is that the South African education system, our schools and universities, are only now making a stand on decolonising the pedagogy and curriculum and that an important leader of the SACP is making such shocking statements about a towering personality from our history. It boggles the mind that we are fighting so hard to decolonise.
Dr Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi is a senior history lecturer in the school of education at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is a postdoctoral fellow in the African Humanities programme of the American Council of Learned Societies. He writes in his personal capacity