Human Rights Day: South Africa continues to neglect the legacy of Robert Sobukwe

Forty-two years after his death under banishment, the legacy of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe – which we remember on this Human Rights Day – remains a haunting shadow in South African historiography, dis-remembered and left to the vultures to feast on his carcass. 

It is now 26 years after the sham of South African democracy and the fraud of rainbow nationalism championed by Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, yet South Africa continues to forget Sobukwe.

Sobukwe’s legacy and memory is a pariah, omitted and ostracised.

His erasure takes many forms; he is left out of discourse, no significant monuments are erected in his name, his landmark contributions are not included in the educational curriculum, his family is not afforded the same benefits as other families of liberation stalwarts, and heritage institutions related to him are undervalued and prone to vandalism.

A case in point is his law offices at the Mayibuye Precinct in Galeshewe township in Kimberley. Declared a national heritage site in 2005, it continues — like other Sobukwe sites — to be a space haunted by ghosts of nothingness and violent spirits. 

In 2018, the Northern Cape department of sport, arts and culture announced that this historic building would be refurbished. This announcement came at a time when the Sobukwe Trust, a nonprofit organisation established by the Sobukwe family to preserve the Sobukwe legacy, was also working on a plan to not only preserve his law office, but also to set up a programme to memorialise his legal work by starting a pro bono community legal resource centre.

After several public outcries over the neglected state of the building, the Northern Cape MEC for sport, arts and culture, Bongiwe Mbinqo-Gigaba, said the dilapidated state of the building called for an intervention from local government.

Rather insultingly, it was announced that the refurbishment would start on March 21 2018 when Mbinqo-Gigaba would launch the revamping of Sobukwe’s law offices under the theme The Year of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: Promoting and Deepening a Human Rights Culture Across Society. 

The choice of the theme raised many questions in that it reinforced the footnoting of Sobukwe to Mandela. I wrote to the Northern Cape government raising my concerns, arguing that Sobukwe deserved to be honoured on his own, for his worth to this nation. 

My concerns fell on deaf ears.

A budget was set aside by the department and work on the project commenced. The department said the site needed security to prevent it being vandalised again.

Newspaper reports also announced that the Kimberley hospital, where Sobukwe took his last breath in February 1978, would be renamed after him. This event was planned to coincide with Heritage Day celebrations in September 2018.

A poster was released without an image of Sobukwe, but with the faces of Albertina Sisulu and Mandela. Another deliberate act of defacing Sobukwe.

I wrote to the department yet again and suggested that not only should the hospital be named after Sobukwe, but that the ward where he died be preserved. My concerns and suggestions fell on deaf ears. 

Since then there have been countless complaints on various social media platforms about the poor state of the services at the hospital that now bears the name of such a noble man.

The work on the Sobukwe law office was completed within two weeks. This raised red flags of a shoddy job. And indeed it was. No programme for the preservation or memorialisation of Sobukwe’s legal work at that building was put in place.

Late last year I was told that Sobukwe’s office had been vandalised yet again. There is a big hole in the wall next to a Sobukwe mural. 

His tombstone in Graaff-Reinet was subjected to constant vandalism. This vandalism and attacks on symbols that represent the memory of “the Prof” signify continued attempts to dis-remember and disfigure, to erase and nullify him, even in death.

The ward in which Sobukwe died remains unknown, unidentified.

Similarly, the University of the Witwatersrand has never cared to locate or memorialise Sobukwe’s office at that institution where he lectured. It was only late last year that journalist Benjamin Pogrund, who had interviewed Sobukwe at his Wits office several times, told me where it was.

He wrote: “The geography of the Wits campus has changed dramatically in the past 60 years. But my memory is that you went in through what was then the main entrance, by foot and by car, in Jan Smuts Avenue and went left, behind the Robert Sobukwe Block (then called the Central Block). A set of single-storey prefab buildings stood there and housed the African languages department; it contained a smallish lecture room where Sobukwe lectured and he also had a small office there. I would park my car close to the prefab buildings, I suppose the site today is where the Senate House stands.”

Through Pogrund I also got in touch with Simon Dagut, the son of Merton Dagut, a student of Sobukwe’s who went on to become a leader in the financial world.

Dagut corroborated Pogrund’s recollection of where Sobukwe’s office once stood. He wrote: “My dad’s memory is very clear on this point, I’m delighted to say! Sobukwe’s office was in the prefabs which stood where Senate House now is, to the south of Central Block. Specifically Prefab B.”

The refurbishment of a Sobukwe’s law office without any programmes to serve the community, the renaming of a hospital after him, which continues to offer deplorable services to the people, and the lack of will to locate and memorialise his offices at Wits are just some of the ways in which Sobukwe’s dis-remembering is ensured.

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville-Langa Massacre on March 21, let us remember Sobukwe and the contributions he made to raising the consciousness and spirit of black people.

Thando Sipuye is a historian and social scientist. He is the programme officer at the Steve Biko Foundation and works closely with the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust and the Sobukwe family. He writes in his personal capacity 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Thando Sipuye
Thando Sipuye is a historian and social scientist. He is the programme officer at the Steve Biko Foundation and works closely with the Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Trust and the Sobukwe family. He writes in his personal capacity

Related stories

‘Prisoner 913’: The long, zigzagging path to Mandela’s release

A new book draws on the secret archive of NP justice minister Kobie Coetsee to paint a detailed picture of the lead-up to Nelson Mandela’s release. Shaun de Waal spoke to co-author Riaan de Villiers

Why it’s crucial to collaborate

We are able to achieve meaningful social change better, and faster, if we act together

EFF MPs to be investigated for disrupting parliamentary proceedings

Under the spotlight will be the Economic Freedom Fighters’ behaviour at the State of the Nation address and during the public enterprise department’s budget speech

Heritage Month leaves much to be desired

Our economy may have doubled since 1994, but this growth has not trickled down to improve the livelihoods of the majority of South Africans

Right of Reply: M&G chose ‘good story’ over truth — Buthelezi

Mangosuthu Buthelezi says the Ingonyama Trust was not created in a secret deal to ensure his participation in the 1994 election

Ubuntu should be at the centre of our response to Covid-19

Demonstrations of common humanity are a powerful tool to help us navigate our way through the pandemic

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Entrepreneurs strike Covid gold

Some enterprising people found ways for their ventures to survive the strictest lockdown levels

Ithala backs its embattled chairperson

Roshan Morar is being investigated in connection with KwaZulu-Natal education department backpack sanitiser tender worth R4-million and a batch of face masks that vanished

Inside the illicit trade in West Africa’s oldest artworks

Nok terracottas are proof that an ancient civilisation once existed in Nigeria. Now they are at the centre of a multimillion-dollar, globe-spanning underground industry — and once again, Nigeria is losing out

Dirty air kills 476 000 newborns

In 2019, two-thirds of infant deaths caused by pollution were in sub-Saharan Africa

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday