We have to give Sobukwe the honour he deserves

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Sobukwe. Picture: Supplied
Sobukwe. Picture: Supplied


I have to make a disclaimer that I’m no politician and have never belonged to any political party. The only thing I can attest to is that I’m African.

As retired deputy chief justice and former Wits University chancellor Dikgang Moseneke pointed out in a speech in 2017 at the unveiling of a plaque renaming the university’s Central Block in honour of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe: “Every nation, every people, from time to time, yields from amongst its very own a truly courageous, selfless and visionary patriot who stands tall and apart from the rest.”

Sobukwe was a member of this unique group of leaders who profoundly shaped or provided turning points in the course of human history.

The first political prisoner on Robben Island, he was a searingly intelligent, eloquent, charismatic, fearless and passionate Pan Africanist leader.

What a rare combination of characteristics embodied in one person! No wonder he was so revered and equally feared, but – above all – suppressed, even by his own people.

Read: Re-writing Sobukwe: The importance of telling and archiving our stories

While the apartheid government had reason to try to silence him, the rationale for doing so in today’s African majority-led democratic government remains elusive and difficult to comprehend.


The seminal contributions of Sobukwe to Pan Africanism include his centrality, as secretary-general of the ANC Youth League, in the formation’s 1949 programme of action, which changed the character of the ANC and forced it to adopt a more militant approach to the liberation struggle, his rejection of the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter, his drafting of the founding documents of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and his role in the anti-pass book campaign that led to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, which we now observe as Human Rights Day every March 21.

Sobukwe’s concept of Izwelethu (The land is ours) underpinned his ideology.

The militancy Sobukwe injected into the struggle led to the banning of both the ANC and the PAC, which in turn led to the formation of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army and Umkhonto weSizwe.

The African Renaissance concept, the Black Consciousness Movement founded by Steve Bantu Biko and the “I am an African” concept, championed by former president Thabo Mbeki, are all rooted in Sobukwe’s love for Africa’s people, culture and values.

In any other society, these significant contributions by a single individual, based on profound knowledge, vision and unflinching defiance, would be a source of pride and celebration. Sobukwe was a national liberation leader, rather than a party politician.

He led the struggle for the PAC, but it was a struggle for us all.

He argued that leaders need to set very high standards that others are inspired to emulate.

Yet, in our country today, there are leaders whose names we cannot mention without cringing, let alone go about emulating their actions.


This son of the tiny Eastern Cape town of Graaff-Reinet loved learning and his interpretation of the ebb and flow of history was singular.

He understood that politics and nationalism were intrinsically linked to cultural and geographical circumstances.

Sobukwe was intellectually radical, but civil and tolerant towards others. His style of leadership was based on his passion for sharing knowledge, particularly about the roots of African identity.

Robert Sobukwe died in isolation and poverty in Kimberley 42 years ago

That was always his point of reference and the centre of his vision.

Deeply religious, but equally deeply insightful, he was calm yet pragmatic in matters of national politics.

One of the great defining traits of Sobukwe was his fierce pride in his African heritage, which champions compassion and respect for others. He eschewed racism and was, in his own words, “anti-nobody”.

In an address to his followers in Langa on the eve of the launch of the 1960 positive action campaign (also known as the anti-pass campaign), he likened Africa to a beautiful woman who had endured many years of abuse at the hands of different men and had lost her spark and vitality.

Read: Book Extract: Africanists fail to capture the ANC

He saw it as his mission to restore that beauty and spark to the continent.

Sobukwe’s language veered towards radicalism, as he contended that oppressors could never be shamed into repentance, nor could their prejudices be vanquished by logic.


Veteran journalist Joe Thloloe relates a story of his reunion with Sobukwe at Stoneyard Prison in Boksburg, Gauteng, shortly after the PAC was banned in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre.

“We arrived from Pretoria and Sobukwe and the others came from the Fort in Johannesburg. We were in the courtyard when the prison commander and his entourage arrived for an inspection.

“The commander’s first words were: ‘Wie is Sobukwe? [Who is Sobukwe?]’ When Sobukwe indicated that it was him, the commander instructed one of his staff to give him his prison uniform: a pair of long pants, shoes – yes, shoes – and a jacket. Sobukwe then asked the commander whether the rest of us would be getting the same uniform. When the commander told him he was getting preferential treatment because he was the leader, Sobukwe said he wouldn’t accept preferential treatment. He would wear what everyone else had to wear.”


Sobukwe and his comrades were tried for incitement after the bloody events at Sharpeville and sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour.

When they were released, the minority Parliament passed a law not of general application, but targeting only Sobukwe.

It directed that he be detained indefinitely in a house on Robben Island. The detention lasted for another six years.

In spite of the suppression of his ideas and his role in the liberation struggle, both in South Africa and internationally, Sobukwe’s dynamic leadership has been acknowledged by both his friends and his foes.

Members of the apartheid government later justified his detention by saying: “Sobukwe was a leader, a man who had the whole country in turmoil within a short space of time.”

Read: Mama Sobukwe remembered as a ‘woman of strength’

Let us remember that liberation icons are the treasures of a nation. They are owned by all their people, to whom they imparted their vision of freedom and national identity.

Let us continue to honour Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe in the way we write and teach our history.

May his unique, distinctive and unparalleled vision of Pan Africanism continue to shape our thoughts as we confidently assert ourselves as proud Africans within the global community.

Makgoba is a retired academic and current health ombud. He delivered this Robben Island Memorial Lecture on Thursday night. The speech has been edited


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