Greatest African Leaders: Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe

By Katlego Mereko & Musa Mdunge

“We take our stand on the principle that Afrika is one and desires to be one and nobody, I repeat, nobody has the right to balkanise our land.”

Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe

Early years and education
Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe was born on the 05 December 1924, in Graaff-Reinet, Eastern Cape (then known as the Cape Province). His father was worked as a municipal labourer and a part-time woodcutter, his mother as a domestic worker and cook at a local hospital. 

From a very young age, Sobukwe was exposed to a vast wealth of the literature that informed his academic prowess. This was evident by the end of his completion of Standard 6, he enrolled for a Primary Teachers’ Training Course for two years, but he was not given a teaching post. He then went back to high school, enrolling at the Healdtown Institute, where he spent six years studying with financial assistance provided by George Caley, the school’s headmaster and completed his Junior Certificate (JC) and matric. Sobukwe’s schooling was briefly interrupted in 1943 when he was admitted to a hospital suffering from tuberculosis.

After completing his schooling, he received a bursary from the Department of Education and an additional loan from the Bantu Welfare Trust, which enabled him to enrol at Fort Hare University for tertiary education in 1947. Sobukwe registered for a BA majoring in English, Xhosa and Native Administration. His keen interest in literature continued and became more focused on poetry and drama.

Sobukwe noted that before going to Fort Hare, he was not very interested in politics. It was his study of Native Administration that aroused his interest in politics. This new focus was fuelled by the influence of one of his lecturers, Cecil Ntloko, a follower of the All African Convention (AAC). Fort Hare was also the institution in which generations of young Black South Africans and Black students from other African countries were exposed to politics. These influences combined to make Sobukwe more politically active.

Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960

The political animal
As a result, of his years in Fort Hare, the political bug bit the young African and along three other friends, he established a daily publication called Beware. Topics appearing in the paper included non-collaboration and critiques of Native Representative Councils and Native Advisory Boards. That same year Sobukwe joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), which was established on the university campus by Godfrey Pitje, a lecturer in the Department of African Studies who later became the league’s president. It is from here and his involvement in the Defiance campaign that Sobukwe stature within the ANC until the decision by Sobukwe and the Africanist bloc of the ANC to break away from the ANC and form the PAC on 6 April 1959. 

“At the age of 36, Sobukwe has a rare distinction of having scared the South African government out of its wits. As anybody knows by now, the South African government does not scare easy.” One who is not well in the know may be tempted to accuse legendary writer and journalist Lewis Nkosi’s meditations on Managaliso Robert Sobukwe of being affected by a breath of hyperbole. The truth is, the glowing review above falls short of encapsulating Sobukwe’s gift as one of Africa’s finest leaders, but admittedly does come close to fully documenting the effect the latter had on the Apartheid government - at its height – after coordinating a series of countrywide protests including the Sharpeville Uprising on 21 March 1960.

There is no shortage of literature documenting South Africa under apartheid rule where black people’s right to political and economic self-determination, through their dispossession of land and anti-black racism, was impeded on with the most savage brutality. A constant reminder of black people’s position as subhuman and societal prisoners in Apartheid was the mandatory carrying of ‘passes’ or the ‘dompas’ as it was notoriously known, under the Pass Laws. These were used to severely limit and violently control the movement of black people in the country and were, for this reason, a constant subject of engagement in virtually all black conferences and political gatherings in the country. What would distinguish black political parties unanimous detest of the pass laws qua the apartheid government would be the method to apply in combating the pass system and achieving ultimate liberation for black people. Sobukwe, and his liberation movement, the Pan Africanist Congress, got in ahead of other liberation movements with a countrywide call to ‘Positive Action against Pass Laws’ on the 21st March 1960.

Sobukwe, as president of the PAC, called for non-violent protest action against the pass laws where the African masses affected by the heinous pass system were to be led from the front by the movement’s leaders in a campaign that was intended to ‘last until… demands are met’. “Prof”, as Sobukwe was fondly known in political circles, is said to have been steadfast in his conviction that true leaders are to lead from the front, thereby inspiring the masses to follow. The program of action for the anti-pass campaign would be as follows; the black people under the leadership of the PAC leaders were to leave their passes at home, stay away from work and instead embark on a march to every police station and demand to be arrested for contravention of the pass laws. All were to accept jail time under the slogan ‘no bail, no defence, no fine’. The goal was to force the apartheid government’s hand by overloading prisons and simultaneously halting economic production by staying away from work, thereby bankrupting the state and precipitating a shift in power where the blacks as the majority group would be in a position to reclaim their sovereignty through land expropriation and therefore attain independence at the backdrop of the wave of Independent states achieved elsewhere in Africa through the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and his Ghana nation.

Non-violence was an important platform upon which the campaign was to be run, and Sobukwe never failed to stress it. “My instructions, therefore, are that our people must be taught now and continuously that in this campaign we are going to observe absolute non-violence.”, the astute leader said. He also went through other lengths such as writing a letter to the then Commissioner of South African Police, Major-General C.I. Rademeyer, eloquently stating the nature of the anti-pass campaign as non-violent and also pleading with the police to refrain from initiating or provoking any violence. “…I, therefore, appeal to you to instruct your men not to give impossible demands to my people. The usual mumbling by a police officer of an order requiring the people to disperse within three minutes, and almost immediately ordering a baton charge, deceives nobody and shows the police up as sadistic bullies. I sincerely hope that such actions will not occur this time. If the police are interested in maintaining law and order, they will have no difficulty at all. We will surrender ourselves to the police for arrest. If told to disperse, we will. But we cannot be expected to run helter-skelter because a trigger-happy, African-hating young white police officer has given thousands or hundreds of people three minutes to remove their bodies from his immediate environment. Hoping you will co-operate to try and make this a most peaceful and disciple campaign.”

On the Monday morning of 21 March 1960, Sobukwe led a few hundred Africans to their nearest police station in Orlando. Similar events were taking place at even larger scales in terms of numbers at other parts of the country under the leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress. Sobukwe and scores of other Africans were jailed on the day, but his plea for peaceful demonstration by eschewing violence and/or the provocation thereof evidently fell on deaf ears with regards to the apartheid police, as at places like Sharpeville, Langa, Uitenhage and others, a hail of bullets was opened towards the black people who were peacefully contesting their right to life, killing no less than 83 black people, leaving 365 wounded at the end of that day. The whimsical nature with which the apartheid police opened fire on the black protestors revealed the cheapness with which black life was generally associated. It is the events of this day that, under a democratic South Africa, is celebrated as Human Rights Day.

After initial reluctance, the African National Congress joined in on the ongoing campaign, but the Government was to apply severe measures to contain the situation, and subsequently banned both the PAC and ANC, although the passes were provisionally suspended. Mangaliso Sobukwe had precipitated events which left the apartheid state in a serious economic crisis and even had to resort to loaning funds from the United States to sustain its programs. When his jail term of three years was up, laws were amended in by the apartheid government at parliament to keep Sobukwe in particular under indefinite incarceration. This law became famous as the ‘Sobukwe clause’, which allowed for the arbitrary extension of Sobukwe’s incarceration in jail by a year, each year, without trial, from 1963 until 69, and thenceforth subjecting him to house arrest until his death in 1978 in Kimberly. This totalled his incarceration to 18 years from 1960. 

It is this giant historical figure, along with the courageous masses of Sharpeville, Langa and the like, that the country could ill-forget for putting up arguably the most valiant action against the apartheid government. 

Sobukwe rightly belongs in the top echelon of political figures in African history, and should have his history actively illuminated upon the South African historical landscape, not in the least for helping “…to orchestrate a crisis that panicked the South African (Apartheid) government and nearly brought about the kind of political situation which too often makes for the transfer of power overnight.” Moreover, Sobukwe’s ideas around the need for Africans to be the masters of their own liberation would inform the formation of the Black Consciousness Movement by another great African leader, Bantu Steve Biko. As a result, Sobukwe and formation of the PAC and that fateful day led to winds of change that would blow through South Africa. We owe so much to a man whose legacy has often been shunned away in the abyss of history by the ruling ANC. However, the eventual banning of the ANC, the rise of the class of 1976 and the mass resistance of the 80s are firmly rooted in the maverick, Sobukwe. 

Sobukwe is arguably the greatest African leader who never assumed the presidency of his country. Yet he left an impact on the struggle and highlighted the importance of African realisation that will never be forgotten. His moral leadership must again inform our own resolve as Africans to ensure that we too become equals in the ordering of human affairs. So, as we celebrate human rights days, let us take time to remember a titan of African liberation!

- JP

1. The Land Is Ours, Motsoko Pheko
2. How Can Man Die Better, Benjamin Pogrund

Article Tags


    Most Read