Sobukwe: Forgotten But Not Irrelevant

As I was reading the daily papers over the past week I came I across a story that reminded me of one of South Africa’s finest sons, a true patriot, a genuine revolutionary, a visionary leader and an exemplary intellectual: the founder-president of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. The story in question was about a call by the ruling party in South Africa for more people to volunteer in order to ensure better delivery of services. Whilst reading that story I came across a comment from a member of the public who said, “I wish that the politicians themselves would lead the way by volunteering first, setting the example for the public to follow.” This immediately reminded me of the words of Benjamin Pogrund, Robert Sobukwe’s close friend and personal biographer, commenting on Sobukwe in his brilliant biography, How Can Man Die Better, “He asked people to do only what he himself was prepared to do.”  As I reflected on these words and the calibre of leader that Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was, it struck me that the legacy of Sobukwe is almost completely forgotten in contemporary South Africa and that his life and his message still holds many valuable lessons for us today. I have always held that South Africa’s three greatest political leaders of the last century are: Anton Muziwakhe Lembede, Steven Bantu Biko and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Sadly these three leaders are almost completely forgotten in a country that has no regard for its history and its rich legacy of leadership. Of these three Sobukwe undoubtedly stood head and shoulders above, and it saddened me that he is so little remembered in a country that he loved so deeply and sacrificed so much for. I remembered Sobukwe’s own words, uttered as a young student in the 1940s, with deep sadness, “this consolation I have, however, that Africa never forgets, and these martyrs of freedom, these young and budding men and women, will be remembered and honoured when Africa comes into her own.”  Sadly we have forgotten. We have forgotten to honour the immense contribution made by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe to our liberation and the great vision that inspired so many in the darkest days of our liberation struggle. I began to think of what Sobukwe has to say to us as contemporary South Africans committed to building a prosperous, successful nation. I decided to write a series of columns consisting of a few quotes from Sobukwe and the message that they carry for us in the here and now.
  • “Take away all bitterness from us and help us to work for a country where we will all love each other, and not hate each other because hate will destroy us all.” (Prayer by Sobukwe when being visited by Alex Borraine while at Groote Schuur hospital)
  In a country where so much of the discourse seems to be overshadowed by bitterness, this is a pertinent message for us to embrace. Some in this country are still holding on to the bitterness of the past, always using that as an excuse for their current plight and refusing to work together towards a better South Africa with those whom they perceive as their past oppressors. Sobukwe says to those people, ‘It’s time to move on, get over your bitterness from the past and work towards a better South Africa for all.” Some in South Africa are bitter over the post-94 policies that have been employed by government in order to redress the imbalances of the past and use that as an excuse for their current plight and lack of progress. Sobukwe says to these people, “time to get over your bitterness and come up with creative and constructive ways of redressing the imbalances of the past instead of just moaning and complaining without bringing to the fore any viable alternatives.”
  • “A doctrine of hate can never take people anywhere. It is too exacting. It warps the mind. That is why we preach the doctrine of love, love for Africa. We can never do enough for Africa, nor can we love her enough. The more we do for her, the more we wish to do. I am sure that I am speaking for the whole of young Africa when I say that we are prepared to work with any man who is fighting for the liberation of Africa within our lifetime.”
“I wish to make it clear again that we are anti-nobody, we are pro-Africa. We breathe, we dream, we live Africa, because Africa and humanity are inseparable. It is only doing the same that the minorities in this land, the European, Coloured and Indian can secure mental and spiritual freedom.” In a country that is prone to polarisation of all sorts, Sobukwe’s message is critical. For a country that is wrought with xenophobia, it is important to remember Sobukwe’s Pan Africanism.  Our liberation struggle was not just about political and economic liberation for South Africa alone. It was a Pan African struggle. It was driven by a love for Africa. It was motivated by a desire to see Africa as a whole advance and progress. It was inclusive of all people who loved Africa and were committed to its political and economic emancipation. There was no place for xenophobia in this Pan Africanist vision. It was the vision that united Sobukwe. Lembede, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe and a host of other liberation era African leaders. It was a common vision for the whole continent. This is the vision that contemporary South Africa needs to embrace. It is time we moved away from polarisation and moved towards inclusiveness. It’s time that we also had a passion for Africa as a whole and for African developmental issues. Pan Africanism was a vision that drove Sobukwe and his ilk to self-sacrifice and service. For contemporary South Africa where the majority is more concerned with what can be done for them instead of what they can do for their country, Sobukwe has something important to say. It is about what we do for South Africa, for Africa, not just about what can be done for us. It is not just about what we can take from Africa, it is about what we can give to Africa, what we have to offer.
  • “Let me plead with you, lovers of my Africa, to carry with you into the world the vision of a new Africa, an Africa reborn, an Africa rejuvenated, an Africa re-created, young Africa. We are the first glimmers of a new dawn.” (speech at the Fort Hare Completer’s Social in 1949)
  “The wheel of progress revolves relentlessly and all the nations of the world take their turn at the field-glass of human destiny. Africa will not retreat! Africa will not compromise! Africa will not relent! Africa will not equivocate! And she will be heard! Remember Africa!” In a nation and a continent that is often filled with negative stories of violence, poverty, disease, devastation and destruction, Sobukwe has an important message to relay. It is time for us to have a new vision, to go beyond just looking at our current reality (without shifting into denialism of course) and to paint a picture of a new, transformed Africa. It is time for us as South African and African citizens to embrace this picture, this vision of a new, developed, modernised Africa and to actively play our part in bringing it to pass. It is time to get beyond all the negativism and to embrace a positive vision for Africa. If a young man like Sobukwe, living under an oppressive system like Apartheid, with limited opportunities, could find it within himself to embrace a positive vision for Africa despite adverse circumstances, how much more should we do the same in a new, democratic South Africa? We have more opportunities than he did, more freedoms than he enjoyed. We thus have no reason for being pessimists when he could find it within himself to be optimistic despite his adverse reality. We can paint a picture of a new Africa and we can all work towards it.
  • “I believe it was God’s will that I should come here to realise how much love there is in the world and to get my sense of values right. Above all else I have had a chance to know myself-neither saint nor devil: just a bundle of capabilities in the hands of God.” (Sobukwe on 20 November 1963 talking about life in prison)
  In a nation and a continent where people often blame adverse circumstances and an unco-operative environment for their negative attitudes and inability to be better people and hence better citizens, Sobukwe has a message for us from his prison cell on Robben Island where he suffered more than all  the other prisoners. The message is that we can all commit to growing and becoming better citizens irrespective of our external circumstances. As a wise man once said, “your circumstances are as responsible for your character as a mirror is for your looks.” Sobukwe also reminds us as Africans, where the tendency is to deify our leaders, that they are not some mythical figures who can solve all our problems and bring to pass all our dreams. They are just ordinary, fallible human beings who have committed to making a difference. They are neither more saintly nor more evil than any of us. This perspective should affect our ordering and structuring of society in order keep them as accountable as possible instead of treating them as gods who are the answer to all our prayers.
  • “You have seen by now what education means to us: the identification of ourselves with the masses. Education to us means service to Africa. You have a mission; we all have a mission. A nation to build we have, a God to glorify, a contribution clear to make towards the blessing of mankind. We must be the embodiment of our people’s aspirations. And all we are required to do is to show the light and the masses will follow.”
  In a nation and a continent where education often separates the elite from the masses, where the uneducated and illiterate are often treated with contempt, where education is often used as a stepping-stone to pursuing a life of personal enrichment, wealth accumulation and manipulation of opportunities to promote self-advancement at the expense of society at large, Sobukwe has a relevant message to share with us. Education for Sobukwe and his generation was not something that was used to arrogantly separate themselves from the masses, but rather to identify with them and their struggles. It was a responsibility to take what they had learnt and to use it not just for self-enrichment, but to uplift and serve the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. Education was a tool to be used in the pursuit of justice for all, not just for the elite. Sobukwe also reminds us that because of its immense problems, Africa is our mission field and not just our minefield to make money. He reminds us that we all have a role to play in the development and advancement of Africa and that those who have been privileged enough to get educated have a responsibility to point the way forward for those who have not, instead of just living opulently, treating them contemptuously and not caring about their plight. He reminds us that instead of retreating into their comfortable, middle-class, suburban lifestyles, the educated elite have a duty to work towards the upliftment of the impoverished majority, that education is not just a tool to increase our capacity to earn more, but rather to increase our capacity to serve better and give more. The life and message of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe has so much meaning for us as South Africans as we strive to build a prosperous, successful, winning nation and we ignore him to our peril. We need to rediscover the significance of his life and message if we are going to truly attain all the goals and objectives that we aspire to as a nation.
Profile photo of Mugabe Ratshikuni

Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

7 thoughts on “Sobukwe: Forgotten But Not Irrelevant

  • August 28, 2010 at 8:55 pm
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    Thank you for the history lesson. You have given me a starting point. Enjoyed the read 🙂

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  • Profile photo of Mugabe Ratshikuni
    August 29, 2010 at 9:38 pm
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    Hi NIgel. Glad you liked the article. If you want to read up more on Sobukwe I would suggest you get his biography: How Can Man Die Better by Benjamin Pogrund.

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  • September 2, 2010 at 11:39 am
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    Having merely glimpsed at the title of this blog I was reminded of the great displeasure that has grown within me towards the selective manner in which the political history of our nation is constantly reflected on by our government (also read as ANC). Taking cognisance of the fact that most of our known history is politically themed and the truth that lies in the paraphrased proverb that to know your history is to know yourself (or at least a great part of yourself), is our nation’s youth then not being done a great disservice by our ruling party?

    One can think back to the PAC furore over 21 March celebrations earlier this year and then add to this list the renaming of stadiums, airports, municipalities and many other landmarks, all of which evidences the fact that the historic events and their impacts as led by great leaders such as Sobukwe, Biko, Suzman and many more ,not affliated to the ANC, are not effectively relayed or even given the importance they deserve.

    Skewing our history in this manner has had, in my opinion, and may still have grave consequences for the democracy and South Africa we are trying to forge.

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  • Profile photo of Mugabe Ratshikuni
    September 2, 2010 at 12:36 pm
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    I couldn’t agree with you more Andile, but unfortunately as they say,”history belongs to the victors.” We definitely need a more objective, unbiased portrayal of our political history than what we are currently being fed.

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  • May 12, 2011 at 6:39 pm
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    Sobukwe still lives…..each and everyday he gives me hope and power. I am inspired by his words and hope people will understand why these people tried to sabotage him and history. Even the current government of South Africa is still scarced of Sobukwe teaching.

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  • December 10, 2011 at 3:51 am
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    “We are fighting for the noblest cause on earth…the liberation of mankind” – Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe

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  • December 20, 2011 at 11:08 am
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    Dear Lover of Afrika,

    I woulike to add my appreciation for the dedication you have just presented. Indeed, one wonders where have all the men and women who identified with Prof are. One asks such a question because this beloved continent is in search of direction and true leadership. We must come to the realisation that people of Sobukwe’s calibre are no longer there and, if they are there — at all — are engulfed by the shame that we are experiencing daily. It is even saddening that even certain undeserving politicians and political opportunists are using the ideas Sobukwe propounded, his party, the PAC, is silent! The PAC must stand up and make Sobukwe’s words and work. PAC must stand out and make African liberation a reality. PAC’s silence is so audible amidst corruptin and betrayal of the African revolution. PAC must rise up again and reclaim Afrika.

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