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Conspiracy of silence circles Sobukwe

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Truth about many sacrifices made by great pan-Africanist needs to be known

An undated photo of the late PAC stalwart Robert Sobukwe.Picture: Unknown

FOrty years since the death of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe on February 27, 1978, his selfless contributions to change the nature of the struggle, from weak-willed one-day protests to a rolling multi-frontal challenge, can never be forgotten.

Sobukwe is credited for the paradigm shift that made the apartheid government a pariah of the world when its reactionary violence and brute force were used against peaceful protesters on March 21, 1960 in the Sharpeville and Langa townships.

Before that, Thekiso Sol Plaatje, the first secretary-general of the ANC, had said that the 1913 Land Act had made the black man “a pariah in his land of birth”.

Sharpeville intensified the struggle internationally, spurred the oppressed to have nothing to do with divisive programmes of the government, and enabled the just war platform to intensify.

This outcome is synonymous with Mangaliso Sobukwe’s leadership.

Born on December 5, 1924 in Graaff-Reinet, his ordinary working parents wished that their son could acquire higher education and live a fulfilling and rewarding life.

He was a typical A-grade pupil working his way up with good results. Healdtown College gave him a bursary when he qualified for a teaching certificate.

He studied for a public administration degree at the University College of Fort Hare in 1945, a time when restive young Turks were uncomfortable with the slow pace taken by the old guard in the ANC leadership.

The leadership preferred a gradualist approach, patience with the establishment, as they worked towards the end goal of freedom.

But a young medical doctor, Lionel Mxolisi Majombozi, pushed for the quick establishment of the Congress Youth League. He died soon thereafter in a car crash, but the message for freedom in our lifetime had already gained currency among militant young people who favoured African nationalism as their credo.

ANC president AB Xuma criticised the concept of “a party within the party” for its potential to send mixed messages to followers. His grave concerns over this strategy were dismissed.

When the tsunami of impatience reached its height, Xuma was eventually defeated at the 1949 Bloemfontein conference, and a programme of action was adopted – sponsored by the Congress Youth League.

Sobukwe had played his bit part in these developments. He was the president of the Student Representative Council at Fort Hare and AP Mda, of the Congress Youth League, had taken him under his fold for further mentorship. His basic drafting skills were utilised in the programme of action proposal document.

In Standerton, where Sobukwe taught at a high school, he was expelled for taking part in the Defiance Campaign in 1952. The students and community staged protests demanding his comeback. He then took a tutor’s position in African languages at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Senior leaders who were concerned with the downward slide of struggle morale with Dr James Sebe Moroka in the ANC presidency, and with his sudden decision to terminate the Defiance Campaign, asked Sobukwe to edit The Africanist, a political journal, in his spare time.

Mass action

The Africanists held fierce internal policy debates with the Charterists – who promoted the Kliptown Charter – from 1955 until the breakaway in November 1958. In April 1959, Sobukwe became the founding president of the Pan Africanist Congress.

He lifted the bar and raised the standards in quality leadership of the liberation movement.

He spoke of mass action to push for transformation and explained that mere demonstrations and pickets were ineffectual. Positive action of peaceful civil disobedience to make the system of oppression unworkable was the route to take. He said the leaders must be at the forefront of that mass action and lead by example.

At the 1958 All Africa Conference, hosted by Ghana’s then-new president and a leading pan-Africanist, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, a target was set to free Africa from the vice-grip of settler colonialism and foreign domination by 1963.

Sobukwe built his rolling campaign of positive action against the pass laws, to fill up the jails and cripple the economy, with the 1963 target as a momentum to fuel mass participation in the struggle.

The Sharpeville Massacre on March 1960 then happened. South Africa and its resistance movement was never going to be the same again. The paradigm shift was planned, implemented and led by Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and his able leadership in the PAC.

On March 30, Albert Luthuli, president of the ANC; Duma Nokwe, secretary-general, and a host of others took pictures of themselves burning their pass books.

They posed for photos like modern-day celebrities. This hypocrisy incensed Sobukwe – then in prison and facing charges of incitement and treason – for they had earlier attacked his strategy for March 21, where PAC branch leaders, with the backing of their communities, would demand imprisonment at police stations for not carrying their pass books.

The ANC leaders had seen this as amateurish and that it was doomed to fail before it even started.

They were now stealing the thunder. This small matter drove a wedge between the leaders of the struggle. It was exploited by outsiders observing the developments of the struggle. Sobukwe was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. In May 1963, through the special “Sobukwe Clause” attached to the General Law Amendment Act, which allowed for indefinite detention without trial, the whites-only parliament kept him, in particular, in detention and solitary confinement on the Robben Island maximum security prison.

Sobukwe was the only known persona non grata. He was kept apart from other prisoners, in isolation, and allowed to wear his own civilian clothes. He studied for an economics degree with the London University. Other political prisoners were serving terms on Robben Island prison.

An insurrection of poor peasants and working people identified as followers of Sobukwe had armed themselves with rudimentary weapons and started attacks on sell-outs and targets in white communities.

The country was very tense and on the brink of collapse as a result of this mass-based conflict.

In October 1964, Chief Albert Luthuli was conferred with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. He was an advocate of Christian principles and non-violence. The Western world was endorsing his stance.

In May 1969, Sobukwe was released from prison and banished to the Kimberley magisterial district, where he faced a 24-hour house arrest.

His widow, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, a trained nursing sister, testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 that her husband had been poisoned while on Robben Island and was released suddenly when his health was going south fast. She demanded answers on what had been truthfully done to him during the two-week period when she could not locate him on Robben Island prison.

The classified files on Sobukwe have not been opened up by the state security and intelligence authorities in the democratic dispensation – 40 years since his death.

The public needs to know who comprised the network of informants on his every move when he was restricted. There is a need to access their handlers’ reports.

Seasoned journalists from abroad interviewed Sobukwe at his No 6 Naledi Street, Galeshewe township house. Research fellows from prestigious universities in the US did extensive exploration of his ideas between 1969 and 1978, in which their source had to be authentic.

Even foreign diplomats, such as US congressman Andrew Young – who took interest in his personal circumstances – held discussions with Sobukwe in person and via long-distance telephone.

They all should have recorded their interviews with Sobukwe.

Yet, there are no visuals of recorded motion and voice of Sobukwe made out for public consumption.

Is the conspiracy of silence on Sobukwe maintained even when there is no known threat that would come out of his historical messages?

We have to ask, are South African authorities and citizens ungrateful for the selfless contribution and firm leadership that their noble son – Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe – has rendered?

* Seroke is secretary for political and Pan-African affairs in the PAC, and editor of Sobukwe – A Pictorial Biography.