Sobukwe’s legacy still lives

2012-03-17 09:21

“We are living today. Sons and Daughters of the Soil, fighters in the cause of African freedom, we are living today in an era that is pregnant with untold possibilities for both good and evil. However, in spite of all these rapid advances in the material and physical world, man appears to be either unwilling or unable to solve the problem of social relations between man and man.” Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe

As we prepare to commemorate the sacrifice of the martyrs of Sharpeville and Langa this month, we are provided with a moment to reflect on the life of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe.

He is a man whose legacy still casts a long shadow over thought and politics globally. The quote taken from his speech at the Inaugural Convention of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – 53 years ago – could equally describe today’s political millieu and illustrates the prowess of his social analysis.

Sobukwe read voraciously and as early as the 1940s was articulating the African condition within a broader context of African unity, non-alignment, trade and international relations and new economic models.

His reading traversed W.E.B du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Karl Marx, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, George Orwell, Jean Cocteau and Mao Tse Tung (about whom Sobukwe was critical).

On his death on February 27 1978, tributes poured in from progressive, largely socialist and ecumenical formations from across the globe illustrating the international impact of his political stance.

Despite the best attempts of both the apartheid regime and the anti-historical post 1994 dispensation to curtail Sobukwe’s influence, he remains in death a distinctive emblem of an alternative Azanian narrative and the symbol of an unfinished revolution.

By the time his life was cut short, he had evoked sufficient terror at the heart of the colonial apartheid regime to determine that he must remain in detention until this side of eternity and they even passed the Sobukwe Clause to enable them to do just that.

It is thought to be the only legislation passed in order to detain an individual anywhere in the world.
Unsurprising for a man described by his worst enemies as “no ordinary person”.

Anton Lembede, Ashby Peter Mda and Sobukwe were among the leading revolutionaries who adopted the 1949 Programme of Action and stated that “African people claim the right to ­self-determination.”

It moved far beyond the previously tepid calls for changes to discriminatory legislation but rather demanded political independence and liberation from white domination.

This served as a catalyst for a new phase of liberation strategy and discourse and the Defiance Campaign swelled the membership of the ANC from 7 000 to 100 000. [Ernest Harsch, South Africa White Rule Revolt].

“… Our contention was that a slave and his master could not be brothers, a slave and his master could not be equals … We said that was a dishonest assertion in the Charter.

The Africanists’ standpoint is that the land belongs to the African people.“ Armed with this conviction, the Africanists birthed the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania under Sobukwe’s leadership on April 6 1959.

Sobukwe determined that the Dom Pass represented structural discrimination and systematic oppression of the African majority and decided that this had to be the first target of action.

Thousands of people across the country answered the call on March 21 1960 to claim back the humanity and hand in their passbooks despite attempts by political rivals to undermine the action.

In the frenzied aftermath of the Sharpeville both the PAC and the African National Congress were banned.

Even though elements of the latter argued the PAC alone should be banned, the apartheid regime was taking no chances.

During this period, the PAC went underground and immediately ­re-organised itself into a military wing – POQO. By the end of 1960 they were gathering momentum.

Any illusion the regime nursed that the Defier had been disposed of, were scattered by the emergence of a daring underground force. The regime was alerted to this threat in November 1962 when a POQO battalion invaded a police station and attempted to capture arms.

It was an act of such audacity that by 1963, police were avoiding POQO meetings. Sobukwe himself had long preferred peaceful means of liberation but the Sharpeville and Langa brutality altered his hopes of seizing power through moral high ground and unflinching political resistance alone.

Sobukwe’s lasting legacy can scarcely be better articulated than this eulogy delivered at the time of his untimely death: “We shall mourn him for all time. He is not dead, just fallen, for heroes never die. They continue to live in their deeds.”

» Pheko is executive director at The Trade ­Collective 

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