Once there were two African men with a divine sense of their mission, called on by history to the service of African selfhood.
They are Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and Steven Bantu Biko.
I’m reaching out to their memory this week to shore up a much-needed remembrance of that historic blood stain, the Sharpeville massacre, and the resilience it was meant to extinguish.
Conversations with some friends have led me to a conclusion that a deeper reading of the relationship of the ideas of the two is necessary.
If anything, in order to better shape the memory of how South Africa got to where it is today, as opposed to where it was meant to be.
Both men represented a strategic trans-generational dialogue in the evolution of ideas of dignity and African selfhood.
It was first Sobukwe’s remarkable Pan-Africanist break with the apologist mould of the ANC’s black Englishman-ism, a political posturing marked by a mimicking of all things British as a way of showing the then coloniser that they were like him.
This apologist politics were defined by pliable deputations but hardly any real challenge to the oppressor.
I contend that Sobukwe’s break helped birth Biko’s generation’s intellectual project in the struggle to humanise the world, the Black Consciousness Movement.
It was Sobukwe, the senior of the two, who first built a discourse of self-assertion and regard through the Positive Action Campaign.
He provided the wellsprings that inspired African working class people to start demanding that they be addressed by their names, as opposed to being called “boy” or “girl” by their white employers.
Once the people showed signs of the required confidence in their capacity to speak their minds, Sobukwe led them toward the anti-pass efforts.
It was a fundamental challenge to apartheid.
Sobukwe’s programme of action culminated in the Sharpeville massacre on March 21 1960, followed by his subsequent arrest and banishment.
We know what Biko thought of Sobukwe, in part from the 1972 interview he gave Gail Gerhart, an American journalist. Biko observed that “unlike ANC ranks and other ranks, Sobukwe’s major concern is about continued opposition to the system, and continued direction being given to the people.
And from that angle he sees the whole new move, Black Consciousness, as being important and valuable”.
This shared understanding of the singularity of struggle lays a foundation for further cross-pollinations.
So that when they start meeting clandestinely around 1974, they are cutting their dashiki cloth from the same dialogue.
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