Sobukwe: a man who stood alone

Published Feb 27, 2008


Z B Molete, the then publicity secretary of the PAC, had this to say about Robert Sobukwe: "Sobukwe belongs to a generation of popular but lonely leaders of men who are distinguishable by their devotion, dedication and determination.

"His ability as a leader did not merely lie in seeing what needs to be done but in setting his mind to doing it thoroughly, regardless of the consequences to himself. He was not afraid of isolation or suffering. He was not afraid to stand alone on principle."

The life story of Sobukwe is a history of service, suffering and sacrifice.

He provided principled, consistent, committed, decisive and selfless leadership to the cause of African liberation.

He could have simply not bothered.

He was a university lecturer and his wife was a qualified nurse.

He could have lived a comfortable middle-class life with his family. But Sobukwe chose to "starve in freedom rather than to live in opulence in bondage".

He was a courageous and fearless leader.

He did not mind being ostracised or victimised for "speaking truth to power".

At Healdtown, his white teachers, especially the principal, Mr Caley, had promised him that, upon completion of his Fort Hare studies, they would employ him as a teacher.

But Sobukwe became a radical and militant student leader.

Sobukwe criticised a governor of Healdtown, the Rev C W Grant, claiming the Methodist church paid smaller stipends to black priests than white priests. Grant refused to recommend Sobukwe for a position and so he got a job in Standerton instead.

In his farewell address at Fort Hare, Sobukwe was openly critical of apartheid rulers and the university administration and expounded an alternative philosophy of Pan Africanism.

He said he did this knowing that he would be branded an agitator, but felt that it was important that "we speak the truth before we die".

When he accepted the leadership of the PAC and launched the 1960 anti-pass campaign, he knew he could not retain his position as a lecturer at Wits and would be arrested and separated from his family.


When he was in prison from 1960 to 1969, apartheid officials interviewed him every three years to see if he had changed his views.

They returned to their superiors stating that Sobukwe "has a divine sense of mission" and should not be released".

Sobukwe has left us a clear, consistent ideology.

To quote Molete once more, Sobukwe's political writings were "characterised by the spontaneity of thought, lucidity of expression and felicity of diction" but their "most outstanding feature is the human touch".

He was clear on the fundamental features that formed his view on Pan Africanism.

Sobukwe and his followers were often accused of being anti-white and thereby racist because of standing for African interests.

His standpoint was that Africanists believed in only one race - the human race.

He argued that Africans were the key and cornerstone of the struggle, as they were the most exploited and oppressed people in South Africa.

For Sobukwe, Africans, including the coloured people, were South Africa's indigenous populace.

He felt whites could not be part of the liberation movement at the time because they were oppressors and materially benefited from the oppression of Africans.

Sobukwe accepted that there were whites who were intellectually committed to the struggle but felt they should organise and fight within their communities.

Regarding Indian people, he felt that they were an oppressed group and not the oppressor.

However, he felt that their leadership was drawn from the merchant class, which - to protect its material interests - had sided with the oppressor against the African people.

In a 1970 interview, he acknowledged that friends such as Benjamin Pogrund and Patrick Duncan criticised him for excluding whites in the national liberation movement.

He maintained that the factual situation of their material conditions and the negative psychological effect of white leadership over Africans dictated this, not colour.

He believed it was important psychologically that the struggle must be led by Africans.

The second tier of his Pan Africanism was the economic policy.

He firmly preferred socialism to capitalism.

He emphasised that the Africanists should support a system that had the following features:

- Equitable distribution of wealth, especially land.

- Equal opportunities, especially equality of incomes.

- The system should seek to address the needs of the African majority. It should also be relevant to the African to create concrete improvements to the condition of their lives.

- It should be democratic. He rejected the totalitarian rule that China and Russia had imbedded into socialism. He insisted that the people be allowed to actively participate in decision-making.

He called this system Africanist Socialist Democracy.

As his colleague Peter Raboroko articulated, Africanists could not be racists or chauvinists because "politics for them is something much more than a mere love of their country".

"Politics for them is a struggle for the effective control of interests.

"Recognised social theory and the dictate of the cause of history alone determine where such control should reside.

"Nationalism postulates that such control vests in the majority and socialism that it vests in the workers."

Raboroko concluded that the Pan Africanist Congress, "the latest concrete expression of the liberation movement in South Africa, is therefore a national front with a Pan Africanist orientation, a socialist basis and an Africanist outlook".

Sobukwe, in the 1970 interview, also addressed the accusation that Africanists were anti-communist. He contended that they were not anti-communist - they simply differed with communists on the following grounds:

- Communists rejected African nationalism and, by implication, the concept of African rule and government.

- They rejected the principle of non-collaboration.

- They were also too attached to the Soviet Union and ignored its totalitarian and undemocratic nature.

Otherwise, Sobukwe conceded that nobody could be against the philosophy of communism with its strong pro-poor and pro-equality features.

He also felt that the white communists were not racist.

They argued on an equal footing with Africans and openly disagreed with them where necessary.

Sobukwe saw the freedom of the African states as a first step in the establishment of a unitary, socialist, democratic United States of Africa, including Africans from the diaspora.

He opposed a federal Africa, as federalism led to a weak state that might have to compromise on key issues.

He expelled the Madzunya group, on the eve of the launch of the anti-pass campaign in 1960, because he felt they wanted a loose federal relationship with the PAC.

Yet another example of his decisive leadership.

Even in the context of South Africa, he stood for a unitary state that would centrally control resources and drive development without being undemocratic.

He cared for, and respected, the African people.

Sobukwe, like all Pan Africanists, believed that a united Africa must project an African personality by making a positive contribution to the affairs of humankind.

Pan Africanists believed that they should have a policy of positive neutrality or non-alignment in relation to east and west hegemonies.

Sobukwe was arrested and sentenced on May 3 1960 to three years imprisonment on Robben Island.

On completion of his sentence, he was kept on Robben Island for a further six years under a special law called "the Sobukwe clause".

He was released in May, 1969 and banished to Kimberley, where he had to live under severe restrictions.

He died of lung cancer on February 27 1978.

- Advocate R K Sizani is the director-general of KwaZulu-Natal.

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