Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA) – Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa of the ANC-led government partners with the Robert Sobukwe Trust to open the Robert Sobukwe Exhibition at Kgosi Mampuru prison, March 7, 2022 in Pretoria, South Africa.
By Kim Heller
The very existence of Robert Sobukwe, a black man who did not cower with fear, before the white oppressor, but rather stood tall and proud, was as alarming as it was dangerous to the apartheid masters.
Sobukwe, a tower of Pan Africanism, and the PAC’s first President was to become, for the apartheid regime, the most feared political leader. The wave of black consciousness and pan-Africanist political ideology, that Sobukwe represented had to be stopped, before it sunk white rule and power.
Sobukwe spoke of the Pan Africanist Congress, which was launched in April 1959, as the “ship of freedom”. He spoke of how the PAC had “entered into the maelstrom of South African politics” dedicated to the cause of African emancipation and independence. He also spoke of the organisation’s commitment to overthrow white supremacy.
In a speech, delivered in August of 1959, just three months after the launch of the organisation, he said: “The Pan-Africanist Congress has done away with equivocation and clever talk. The decks are cleared, and in the arena of South African politics there are today only two adversaries: the oppressor and the oppressed; the master and the slave.”
This clarity of political ideology and uncompromising posture posed a grave threat to the longevity of white political rule and economic domination. So too did Sobukwe’s unambiguous and insistent call for a unified Africa. “The struggle in South Africa is part of the greater struggle throughout the Continent for the restoration to the African people of the effective control of their land.”
Sobukwe recognised that a wave of African unity was vital in what he described as an impending “continental showdown between the forces of evil and the forces of righteousness; the champions of oppression and the champions of freedom”.
In this same address, Sobukwe spoke of how the “oppressor is panic-stricken and is making feverish preparations for a last-ditch stand in defence of white supremacy”.
Sobukwe continued: “On the other hand, the forces of freedom are gathering strength from day to day, disciplining, nerving and steeling themselves for the imminent struggle.”
Sobukwe and the philosophy of Pan-Africanism, was a lighthouse of strength, hope and direction, to black South Africans, in the dark shore of racial tyranny and oppression.
Sobukwe refused to bend to the will of white rule or perish through fear, even though fear was the only inhale and exhale for black people in apartheid South Africa.
Fear was apartheid’s most potent weapon. It submarined and sunk the black majority, day after day, year after year, generation after generation. Steve Biko wrote on the all-encompassing power of the politics of fear, used in abundance by the apartheid regime: “From the attitude of a servant to his employer, to that of a black man being served by a white attendant at a shop, one sees this fear clearly showing through.”
Biko wrote how this fear eroded the soul of black people in South Africa. It was a fear that rendered black South Africans powerless. But Sobukwe confronted and conquered fear, with courage and conviction. He moved towards the gorge of fear itself, not away from it. Unlike many politicians, he walked his talk. In doing so, he inspired and emboldened the black masses to confront their own fears.
In just a year after the formation of the PAC, Sobukwe led a mass march against the apartheid pass laws, which restricted the movements of black South Africans in their own land. The PAC President called for black South Africans to hand themselves over at their police station and demand arrest, in a legitimate gesture against an illegitimate law.
Sobukwe’s biographer Ben Pogrund writes: “As the sky began to lighten on a late summer’s morning in South Africa, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe left his home in Soweto to walk to the nearest police station. He was going to demand that he be arrested.”
In an exquisitely beautiful tribute to Robert Sobukwe, entitled Lay him down on a high mountain, by pan Africanist scholar and activist, Phethani Madzivhandila wrote: “Sobukwe was a man on a divine mission, one whose uncompromising dedication to the liberation of the African people shook the racist state of apartheid South Africa to the core in March 1960.”
Despite the peaceful nature of the march, apartheid police fired on and killed 69 people in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960. Sobukwe was arrested, charged, and convicted of incitement. Addressing the judge at his trial Sobukwe was clear that he “felt no moral obligation to obey the laws that have been made by a minority in this country”. Sobukwe said: “An unjust law cannot be justly applied.”
Sobukwe was to suffer dearly, he was kept isolated from other prisoners and served double the time he was sentenced to serve due to a special one-time law “the Sobukwe Clause”. Such was the fear that his potent ideas would infuse and excite others. He fully embodied and lived the PAC’s motto, “Serve, Suffer, and Sacrifice”.
The great Tower died on February 27, 1978, at the age of just 53 from lung cancer.
By isolating Sobukwe in Robben Island, the apartheid regime sought to quarantine others from his superior and revolutionary thinking. It is ironic, although not altogether surprising that the ANC regime has painstakingly tried to do the same to Sobukwe, by trying to dim out his giant beacon of liberatory light.
But his ideas will rise in the end. For such ideas will liberate South Africa. Sobukwe spoke of how the white minority government had educated black South Africans to accept the status quo of white supremacy and black inferiority as a normal phenomenon.
“It is our task,” Sobukwe said, “to exorcise this slave mentality, and to impart to the African masses that sense of self-reliance which will make them prefer self-government to the good government preferred by the ANC’s leaders.”
This is something the ANC has failed to implement, let alone imagine. But there is hope if the ideas of Sobukwe are the lighthouse of a liberatory course for the country.
Way back in 1959, Sobukwe said: “We are the glimmers of a new dawn. And if we are persecuted for our views, we should remember that it is darkest before dawn.”
The great Tower believed that white supremacy was in its twilight and the dawn of African liberation would set in. One day is one day. It will be so.
Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’