/ 20 March 2020

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

Politically spiritual: Robert Sobukwe believed that politics is an ethical duty and that personal transformation is required to produce ethical leaders.
Politically spiritual: Robert Sobukwe believed that politics is an ethical duty and that personal transformation is required to produce ethical leaders. (Robben Island/Mayibuye Archives)

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