Ma Veronica Sobukwe captured the essence of her late husband’s core mission in life when she chose the apt inscription for his gravestone: “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.”
Using a political lens, the kernel of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe’s contribution to public discourse in South Africa may best be understood as revolutionary thought leadership.
He noted early on, that in African history some chiefs and traditional leaders had, of their own free will, participated in the sale of their subjects to slave traders. They had showed no care for the well-being of their own people, and gleefully focused on self-enrichment. They collaborated with foreign invaders to entrap African people and turn them into beasts of burden. They were invariably used as pacifiers to help get little or no resistance. This anomaly could replicate itself in the modern age if trusting Africans were not consciously aware of their history.
In the Americas, for instance, the indigenous people fought vigorously against the white man’s slavery system. Once captured, they preferred to commit suicide rather than live as slaves. The slave traders then went across the Atlantic sea to fetch cowed products. Sobukwe extolled the revolutionary deeds of Toussaint L’Overture, who led the San Domingo (Haiti) slave rebellion to victory.
A SCHOLAR AND A FREEDOM FIGHTER
Sobukwe developed into a formidable intellectual and acquired academic honours in the languages, economics, law and political science.
His outstanding leadership of the liberation movement was infused with revolutionary ideas which marked a radical departure from conformity, compromise and careless submission to the whims of the powers that be. He acknowledged the influence of intellectuals from the All Africa Convention (AAC) in his initial development. The AAC was marginalised from the mainstream of public discussions due to their non-conformist approach. Sobukwe took the popular platform in the schools, tertiary institutions and the press and tamed it.
His Completers’ Speech at the University of Fort Hare was a game changer in student politics – influencing southern Africa’s burgeoning intellectuals. The historical impact of his speech can only be regarded as a forerunner to Onkgopotse Abram Tiro’s graduation address at Turfloop University in 1972.
Mainstream thought leaders like ZK Matthews, Chief Albert Luthuli and their protégés, Nelson Mandela and OR Tambo, subscribed to the concept of “exceptional-ism” for South Africa. In their prognosis, the country’s colonialism was complex and of a special kind – after the Act of Union of 1909 – and could not be easily likened to the rest of the African continent. They believed that a national convention by all the race groups was best placed to chart a peaceful settlement suitable to all.
The old guard leadership were influenced by Booker T Washington’s Up from Slavery, which advocated moderation and gradualism in winning changes from the authorities. They vouched for steady reforms, the build up of an African bourgeoisie and cooperation of the racial groups under multi-racialism.
Sobukwe on the other hand read the works of WEB Du Bois, George Padmore and other militant revolutionaries in the worldwide Pan African movement. He stated that national politics in South Africa could only be understood from an international perspective.
REVOLUTIONARY THOUGHT LEADER
As a thought leader, Sobukwe interpreted abstract concepts of political theory into concrete ideas which could be understood by ordinary folk. His entire writings do not carry a single exclamation mark. There is no anger and rancour in the way in which he expresses strongly-held ideas against land dispossession, exploitation and racial bigotry. He consciously exercised intellectual rigour and discipline.
Under his watch, the PAC’s eco-system blended various intellectual disciplines – including those who were seemingly in opposition and contradiction to each other – to work seamlessly together in a united front, under the banner of African Nationalism. The church, business, youth, students, rural farmers and traditional communities, the proletariat, and professionals found space to air their views and be heard. He linked the PAC with the 1949 Programme of Action – which he drafted. The PAC was also part of the continent-wide winds of change.
The national executive committee of the Pan Africanist Congress was referred to in the newspapers as Sobukwe’s cabinet ministry, acting as a shadow government to the ruling settler regime. It had luminaries like Nkutsuoe Peter Raboroko, a premier political theorist; Lekoane Zephania Mothopeng, a leading educationist who campaigned against the Bantu Education bills; PK Leballo, a second world war veteran; Jacob Nyaose, labour federation unionist; and a host of other rising revolutionary intellectuals. Founder of the congress youth league, AP Mda, served in the backroom as a spiritual leader.
The policies of the PAC were Africanist in orientation, original in conception, creative in purpose, socialist in content, democratic in form, and non-racial in approach. They recognised the primacy of the material, spiritual and intellectual interests of the individual. They guaranteed human rights and basic freedoms to the individual – not minority group rights, which would transport apartheid into a free world.
His comrades fondly referred to Sobukwe as ‘the Prof’ – a term of endearment for his charismatic leadership and recognition of his intellectual prowess. They were however all required to return to the source – the masses – and show the light, in biblical simplicity. They formed unity between workers, poor peasants, and revolutionary intellectuals. Robert Sobukwe’s team went on to set the pace for the national liberation struggle from 1960 onwards by putting South Africa (Azania)as a troubled spot on the world map.
Sobukwe’s abiding concern has been that Africa as a unified whole could participate as an equal in world affairs. The patchwork of colonial borders drafted at the 1884 Berlin Conference had to be ultimately done away with. A united Africa, under a single government, could spread its humanising influence to resolve conflicts among nations – after the League of Nations had dismally failed to contain and control Nazi Germany’s aggression – and to having its civilisation appreciated and understood.
Sobukwe’s own lifestyle was an expression of his ideas on mass-based leadership. He adopted the political standpoint of ordinary folks in the rural areas and in the urban cities. He led a humble life, and could relate to the poor and ‘the unwashed’, engaging them in genuine dialogue on matters of national importance, even though he had held a ‘prestigious position’ as a senior tutor of languages at Witwatersrand University. He knew that positions like his, shorn of the frills and trappings, were dominated by right-wingers, liberals and leftists from minority groupings “who arrogantly appropriate to themselves the right to plan and think for the Africans.” If he conformed to the status quo, he would be domesticated with a dog-collar mark as in the fable of the Jackal and the Dog.
Sobukwe loved and glorified God. He believed in the power of prayer and called his family and comrades to do likewise. He became a lay preacher in the Methodist church. The PAC followed his path – initiated by the slogan first coined by AP Mda – of making Christianity and other religious beliefs relevant to the continent by stating that “African is for Africans, Africans for Humanity, and Humanity for God.”
POLITICAL OPPONENTS AND RIVALS
After the Sharpeville and Langa massacres, Sobukwe was singled out for severe punishment by the National Party administration. He was imprisoned for three years in hard labour. The whites-only parliament extended his imprisonment by enacting the Sobukwe Clause to keep him in solitary confinement without trial for six more years. They fed him pieces of broken glass in his food, poisoned him in secret, and when he developed traces of lung cancer they banished him to Galeshewe township in Kimberley. He died a banned person in February 1978.
He served the African people selflessly. He suffered under the yoke of oppressive laws like the majority of the people. More than anything else, Mangaliso Sobukwe sacrificed himself and his family for the national liberation of African people.
His detractors who supported the Bantustan system paired him with Stephen Bantu Biko and said as ‘commoners’ they were without a traditional mandate to lead the collective of black people.
The Accra Conference of liberation movement leaders in Africa resolved to target 1963 for complete independence of the entire continent. The PAC mobilised its supporters into an unfolding programme of mass action until freedom is attained – by 1963. Critics oblivious of this background information said Sobukwe’s target date was naive and unrealistic. They claimed the masses were not ready for mass action.
For Sobukwe, the masses needed to assert their African personality and overcome their fear of prison, then overcome their fear of death, in order to overthrow white domination.
In the acclaimed autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, the author condescendingly remarks that Sobukwe was a clever man. He then juxtaposes Sobukwe’s frustrations in handling difficult leadership merit questions from an awkward personality at the Pretoria Central Prison when he served three years for the consequences of the Positive Action Campaign. This literary device is disingenuous and silly, because the parties treated with disdain are not alive to corroborate the anecdotes or to tell their side of the story. It is a cheap propaganda tactic.
HIS WIFE’S CONSUMING LOVE
They met in the heat of a nurse’s strike in the Eastern Cape and sparks of love ignited. When they became soul-mates in matrimony, they also understood that their union was an everlasting bond. Ma Sobukwe grew up partly in rural Kwa-Zulu and partly in the dark city of Alexandra township. She has endured hardships – but was prepared beforehand for the long road ahead of them. When she drafted the inscription on the gravestone as a quote from his Completers Speech in 1949 she was transmitting the message on true leadership as a consuming gift to the Azanian masses.
By Jaki Seroke
The writer is a strategic management consultant. He is a member of the National Executive Committee of SANMVA, the newly established statutory umbrella body of military veteran’s organisations. He is the chairperson of the Pan Africanist Research Institute (PARI).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING:
1. GXabe, Zamikhaya (2008): Serve, Suffer, Sacrifice – The Story of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Limacocobela. East London.
2. Mapanje, Jack – editor (2002): Gathering Seaweed – African prison Writings. HEB. London.
3. Pheko, Motsoko (1984): The Political Legacy of Mangaliso Sobukwe. London.
4. Pogrund, Benjamin (1990): How Can Man Die Better – The Life of Robert Sobukwe. Jonathan Ball. Johannesburg.
5. Raboroko, P Nkutsoeu (undated): Congress and the Africanists – the Africanists’ Case. PAC Publication. London.
6. Veronica Sobukwe (1997): http://www.justice.gov.za/trc/hrvtrans%5Ckwtown/sobukwe.htm