New ways of seeing Sobukwe

There are a couple of books coming out on the life of struggle icon Robert Sobukwe this year as we mark the 60th anniversary of the Sharpeville (1960) and Langa/Uitenhage (1985)  massacres. The latest offering is a collection of essays by “significant and interesting people” edited by veteran journalist Benjamin Pogrund.

Another new title is Sobukwe: The Making of a Pan Africanist Leader by the former secretary general of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania and now academic, Thami ka Plaatjie. These books are a welcome addition, given the staple diet of partisan history that we have been fed in the “new” South Africa. 

Pogrund, also a biographer of the “Prof”, decries this paucity. “He [Sobukwe] is unknown to the world and is ignored by many, perhaps most, South Africans.” This is strange for a man who was so feared by the apartheid regime after the anti-pass campaign of 1960 that, according to Pogrund, “he was never allowed to be free again until his death 18 years later”.

It is in this context that the editor makes his call clear to contributors to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe: New Reflections, who include Cabinet minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, cleric Paul Verryn, black consciousness icon Barney Pityana and the University of the Witwatersrand’s vice-chancellor, Adam Habib. “We want frank assessments and insights,” he writes in the introduction of the book. “The book is, of course, set within the South African context — past, present and future.” Given Sobukwe’s stature the writers could, “if they wish”, cast their nets wide to include analysis of the African continent.

In his own input to the collection, Pogrund, a former Rand Daily Mail journalist and deputy editor, says that Sobukwe and his PAC came up with something “new to the black struggle within South Africa” — the concept of the United States of Africa. (I would like to add non-racism.) The subtext is clear: Sobukwe was among the more significant leaders of the national liberation movement. 


Before the anti-pass campaign starts, Sobukwe is faced with tough decisions. Should he forfeit his teaching post (he lectured in African Studies at Wits University but was not called a lecturer) for the bitter struggles of his people? To make matters more complex another university comes up with a more lucrative job offer: a full lectureship with benefits at Rhodes University. Instead, he elects to lead the campaign decided by the inaugural conference of the newly-formed PAC. 

As Thami ka Plaatjie writes in his book Sobukwe: The Making of a Pan Africanist Leader, at this time Sobukwe is a newlywed with a newly-acquired abode in Soweto. The Ivory Towers had hitherto closed the doors of teaching and learning to the Africans. By rejecting the new offer Sobukwe was, in effect, rejecting reforms.

Fast-forward to “the fateful Monday of 21 March [1960]”, when “he [Sobukwe] and a small group of men … walked to the Orlando police station … and demanded that they be arrested”, writes Pogrund. 

Sobukwe had called on the men to demand arrest because they would not carrying the hated dompas. In Sharpeville in the Vaal Triangle, south of Johannesburg, the women also responded. It is here that the protesters were mowed down. In Orlando East in Soweto, the protesters (including Sobukwe) were arrested.

Pogrund highlights the shattering effect this campaign had on the powers that be: “Condemnation of apartheid soared in international forums and in popular protests and boycotts.” Because of this mounting pressure, on March 24, the pass restrictions were suspended. No mean feat for an organisation that was barely a year old. For this Sobukwe and his colleagues, and by extension his organisation, paid a heavy price. They were charged with incitement to riot and Sobukwe was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The General Laws Amendment Bill, passed in 1963, enabled detention without trial for 90 days and the re-detention of a political prisoner — “until this side of eternity”, as one minister infamously said. This was applied to the PAC leader and it became known as the Sobukwe Clause

But why would the regime fear the man so much? For Pogrund it boils down to about five attributes: “It feared his personal strength and courage, his commitment to fighting for freedom, his eloquence, his quiet charisma and enunciation of African nationalism.”

For some, like Plaatjie, it is Sobukwe’s gentlemanly character that caused shivers for the prison authorities.

The tone of Pityana’s piece is humorous at first: What if the PAC calls itself the Sobukwe Party? This is, of course, said tongue-in-cheek because the writer suspects that the man himself would disapprove. It is occasioned by the widely-held perception that the demise of Sobukwe spelt the demise of the PAC. But this is where the jocularity ends. 

Pityana proceeds to cite several elements that account for the lay preacher’s endurance: leadership and personality, education and ideology, and what he terms “intersections: Pan-Africanism and Black Consciousness”.

Pityana takes the Christian angle in his analysis of Sobukwe: “In other words, his [Sobukwe’s] Christian faith translated into his political activism.” 

Pityana also writes of the PAC leader’s “ordinariness”, because he could woo a broad spectrum of people, from church-goers to political activists. 

But this chapter suffers the same limitations as that of Pogrund by selectively reading the PAC’s basic documents. Thus, Pityana makes a ludicrous claim that the organisation was anti-communist. 

In an interview with scholar Gail Gerhart the visionary Sobukwe points out: “We Africanists made a point of reading Lenin and Marx to learn the vocabulary of communism.” 

It is disingenuous for Pityana to expunge any trace of class analysis in Sobukwe’s work. For instance, John Nyathi Pokela, a former PAC chairperson and Sobukwe’s comrade-in arms argues in one New Year’s message during the 1980s: “It is important to realise then that in the context of the South African situation, until we ourselves have fully liquidated capitalism and racism, the national and class factor shall remain inextricably interwoven.”

Dlamini-Zuma’s brief reflections are a damp squib. After roll-calling of some International Monetary Fund statistics on the economic growth of the continent she urges Africans to respect one another. Her refrain is from Sobukwe’s speech on October 21 1949, when he was the president of the student representative council at what is now Fort Hare University: “Let me plead with you, lovers of my Africa, to carry with you into the world the vision of a new Africa, an Africa reborn, an Africa rejuvenated, an Africa re-created, young Africa. We are the first glimmers of a new dawn.” At best, Dlamini-Zuma’s take is a stale economist line of the speech and, at worst, a reductionist approach to an essentially all-encompassing humanistic struggle fought by Sobukwe.

By contrast Verryn sketches Sobukwe’s and Pan Africanism’s possible response to xenophobia, or what some commentators have labelled Afrophobia. This is not surprising given the priest’s work with refugees and displaced people in Johannesburg. Verryn tries to make sense of what a United States of Africa would mean today. He concludes that it is nothing but a radical concept for reimagining a new Africa without colonial/imperialist borders.

My mind is baffled by the inclusion of Habib’s and political publicist Alexandra Leisegang’s chapter, Radical Politics, yes, but with Civility and Humanity. Sobukwe is linked with some notion of a politics of civility. I would say this is another misreading of an Africanist who urged positive action in the face of racial onslaught.

For me, New Reflections is important as a historical record and as a catalyst to a debate on the real legacy of Sobukwe. It joins several in the oeuvre on the man, including The Land Is Ours – The Political Legacy of Mangaliso Sobukwe by lawyer, theologian, academic and politician Motsoko Pheko, Here is a Tree: Political Biography of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe by Robben Islander and PAC member Elias Ntloedibe and Pogrund’s biography, How Can Man Die Better: The Life of Robert Sobukwe

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