When we sanitise history we forget our heroes

2011-04-02 11:25

Why do we pretend that Human Rights Day fell out of the sky or was just divined into ­being?

Why do we deliberately omit Robert ­Mangaliso Sobukwe from ­celebrations on the day?

After all, he is the man who issued the call to ­Africans everywhere to surrender themselves at ­police stations across the country under the motto “no bail, no defence, no fine”.

In my forthcoming book, I describe this erasure of historical figures, like Sobukwe and others, from memory as a form of “evidentiary genocide”.

Sobukwe’s oratory was legendary, going back to the Freshers’ Ball address he delivered as president of the Student Representative Council at the ­University of Fort Hare in 1948.

On Robben Island he was kept alone because he was considered the most dangerous black man in the country.

In Kimberley, he became the spiritual guide to the emerging black consciousness movement and an inspiration to a young Steve Biko.

Sobukwe’s life was an embodiment of his description of leadership.

He said: “True leadership ­demands complete subjugation of self, absolute ­honesty, integrity and uprightness of character, courage and fearlessness and, above all, a ­consuming love for one’s people.”

Sobukwe’s second death has been in the form of the continued silence about his political and intellectual contribution to our struggle.

It would be tempting to put the blame squarely on the ANC government but the media is no less responsible.

Two dates associated with him have recently passed by without any mention in our media – the ­anniversary of his death on February?27, and ­Human Rights Day.

In the soap opera Generations, Human Rights Day was described as the day that black people stood up in defiance of the government, without nary a ­mention of their leader Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

By the way, I was never entirely happy with Sharpeville Day being changed to Human Rights Day, precisely because I feared that the historical specificity of the day would be so generalised and sanitised that its leading actors would be written out of history.

Our children now draw a blank when we mention Robert Sobukwe.

“Who is that?” they ask without any sense of embarrassment.

No other nation does this to its heroes or its children, leaving them with no past to guide them.

I remember taking the famed African-American scholar Cornel West to Wits University’s ­historical papers archive where we read Sobukwe’s letters.

West could not believe the man’s prescience.

Sobukwe was speaking about a united Africa long before it became fashionable, of non-racialism when everyone was talking about multiracialism, of the dangers of nuclear proliferation when everyone ­assumed it was the West’s rightful prerogative to own such weapons.

The challenge of our generation is to do what Sobukwe said in his Freshers’ Ball address: “It is meet we speak the truth before we die.”

The truth we have to tell is as simple as it is ­undeniable: were it not for Robert Mangaliso ­Sobukwe, we would not have had Human Rights Day-Sharpeville Day.

No celebration of this day can be complete without his mention.

We collude in ­denial of this historical fact at the risk to our ­collective integrity as a people and a ­nation.

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