Former PAC secretary-general Thami ka Plaatjie has written a new book on former PAC president Robert Sobukwe, in order to “overthrow” the silence around the Pan-Africanist.
Titled Sobukwe: The Making of a Pan Africanist Leader, the book seeks to address the “travesty of justice in relation to public memorialisation” of Sobukwe.
Sobukwe famously led the breakaway from the ANC in 1958, leading to the formation of the PAC, of which he became founder president.
Although politically Sobukwe is recognised as a leading figure in the struggle for liberation, Ka Plaatjie feels he has not been accorded the necessary acknowledgment and respect he deserves.
“Of all the leaders of liberation movements, Sobukwe is the one eternally neglected and silenced beyond the grave. The intention [with the book] was to bring to light the illustrious history of an unsung hero. He was a scholar, freedom fighter, intellectual, caring father and a humanist.”
Before Ka Plaatjie’s book, former journalist Benjamin Pogrund had written the most authoritative biography on the leader – How Can Man Die Better: The life of Robert Sobukwe, which was updated in 2015.
Pogrund worked for the Rand Daily Mail at the time of Sobukwe’s activism, and later developed a close bond with him and his family.
Ka Plaatjie said: “I felt that, inasmuch as Benjamin Pogrund did a good job, he was not writing from an African perspective and therefore missed out on a number of issues about Sobukwe’s character, growth and political evolution.
“I am talking about the influence of his family, his Xhosa culture, folklores and idioms he grew up with, Xhosa history, poetry prevalent during Sobukwe’s time. All the things that inspired him and were formative to his development.”
Ka Plaatjie therefore believes that there is a gap that Pogrund, however close he was to Sobukwe, could not fill, given the apartheid laws that made interaction difficult.
The book also delves deeply into the influence of his teachers in his life, his brother, how he underwent circumcision as a young man and how he started gravitating towards the ANC Youth League.
With research conducted over a period of 12 years, the book has uncovered much that was not known about Sobukwe, including that his family were originally Sesotho speakers with roots in Lesotho, and that Sobukwe was a name they adopted along the way, away from their Sesotho surname.
But in the final analysis, it never really mattered, as Sobukwe considered himself a humanist and spoke many languages including Afrikaans, English, Sesotho, isiXhosa and isiZulu.
He actually lectured in isiZulu at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Like many politicians of his time, Sobukwe was also deeply religious and in fact wanted to be a preacher when he finished high school.
Ka Plaatjie says the reason for the neglect of Sobukwe’s legacy could be that his own party, the PAC, is in so much disarray, and therefore cannot be his voice.
“There is not much literature to draw from to put a picture of Sobukwe in the public mind. More can still be done to sponsor research around him. We want to write four volumes on him. We want to create a Sobukwe encyclopaedia, which will be a composite collection of the works of Sobukwe.”
The University of Johannesburg was the first institution to order 120 copies of his book, which they gave to students who were graduating in leadership and transformation, a fact that heartened the author.
Asked why the governing ANC, which has been in power for the past 25 years, had not done much to honour the leader of a fellow liberation movement, Ka Plaatjie said many in the ANC, including at the highest echelons, had misinformed perceptions about Sobukwe.
“For example, remember the statements by SACP leader Solly Mapaila that Sobukwe was a sell-out and was given privileged treatment in prison. If people in leadership can make such comments, it tells you that clearly there’s misinformation that influences the lack of acknowledgment.”
Mapaila later retracted and apologised for the comments.
Ka Plaatjie added that the same lack of acknowledgment had happened to other black leaders.
“The same applies to Steve Biko. I don’t think he has been embraced the way he deserves. But even with some ANC leaders ... OR Tambo for example, has not been honoured properly. Or even Walter Sisulu.
“I think, because of the influence of big capital and other interests, the ANC embraced Nelson Mandela to the exclusion of others. And this is what has to change. But it can be changed if there is more literature about the other guys.”
This book by Ka Plaatjie is the first of four volumes that will be published on Sobukwe.
Volume 1 is from 1924 when he was born, to 1959 when the PAC was formed.
Volume 2 is from 1959 to his death in 1978.
Volume 3 is a collection of his writings and testimonies from colleagues and friends.
And volume 4 is an interpretation and analysis of his intellectual legacy.