Who is afraid of Robert Sobukwe?

AIAC Talk explores the life, thought and legacy of the pan-Africanist and anti-apartheid revolutionary, Robert Sobukwe.

Robert Sobukwe. Image via Twitter.

The 2011 documentary Sobukwe: A Great Soul (dir. Mickey Madoda Dube), features in its opening moments some reflections by the radical American philosopher and activist, Dr. Cornel West. Dr. West recalls a conversation he once had with South Africa’s most iconic political figure, Nelson Mandela (whose release from prison after 27 years in 1990 was recently commemorated). He asks Mandela how come he was widely celebrated (and by extension the liberation movement-turned party he represented, the still-ruling African National Congress), yet the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, was not. For Dr. West, “There were two great men in apartheid South Africa. The first one was the architect of the apartheid system, Hendrik Verwoerd, and the other great figure was his prisoner, Robert Sobukwe.”

On the 27th of February 1978, Sobukwe died at the age of 53 from lung cancer. At the time he had been languishing in Kimberley for a while, where the apartheid government banished him after being jailed on Robben Island. On Robben Island, Sobukwe was initially sentenced to three years—but Pretoria infamously invented a law with broad powers to maintain his arbitrary detention. Under the “Sobukwe clause” of the 1963 General Laws Amendment Act, he was kept in prison for six more years in solitary confinement. Sobukwe’s original “crime” provoked one of the apartheid government’s greatest, after the PAC-led, nationwide protest against the Pass Laws on 21 March 1960 resulted in the Sharpeville Massacre. Sobukwe was feared then, and today he is still feared. But by whom, and why?

In a letter comforting Nell Marquard after the passing of her husband, Leo Marquard (a liberal anti-apartheid activist that helped found the National Union of South African Students), Sobukwe concludes by saying: “The Xhosa have standard words of condolence. They say Akuhlanga lungehlanga lala ngenxeba (There has not occurred what has not occurred before … lie on your wound). God bless you. Affectionately, Robert.” Reading that, one cannot help but wonder if Sobukwe sensed that what became of his life—its isolation, its decline—would also become of the ideas that outlived him. This week on AIAC Talk, we’d like to help avoid that.

So first, we’re joined first by Derek Hook, a South African-born professor of psychology at Duquesne University, and the editor of a recent collection of over 300 of Sobukwe’s letters (of which the letter cited above is one), called Lie on your wounds: the prison correspondence of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (Wits University Press, 2019). Given the general disarray of Sobukwe’s body of work (speeches and writings scattered all over the place), we want to investigate if his letters reveal any connection between Sobukwe in private, and Sobukwe in public. Sobukwe is usually stereotyped (by followers and detractors alike) as a hard-nosed Africanist, hostile to any and all whites. But as Hook points out, he is warm rather than cold in the letter to Mrs. Marquard, a white liberal, and Sobukwe addresses a lot of his letters to his life-long friend Benjamin Pogrund, a white man (and his eventual biographer). For a man denied the chance to fully develop his political philosophy, might his personal character serve as a further insight to it?

And then, we turn to Sobukwe’s modern interpreters, those ensuring that his ideas and legacy are not in decline. The generation of students who spearheaded #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall drew from Sobukwe to critique the racialized inequality of post-apartheid South Africa, but also blended it with the Black Consciousness tradition he never lived long enough to engage, and stretched it to contemporary theories like intersectionality. We are then joined by Precious Bikitsha and returning guest Phethani Madzivhandila to explore Sobukwe’s influence today, and what has become of the PAC, the organization he founded (they currently have only one seat in South Africa’s parliament). Precious is a history graduate student at the University of Cape Town, researching the writings and contributions of black women to South Africa’s political history, and Phethani is pan-Africanist historian, activist and AIAC contributor.

The show streams on Tuesdays on YouTubeFacebook, and Twitter.

Last week’s AIAC Talk was on telling stories about Africa. We spoke to Dana Ballout and Adam Sjöberg about The Messenger, a new podcast they produce about the Ugandan musician-turned politician Bobi Wine; and then we spoke to Aimée Bessire and Erin Hyde Nolan about Todd Webb in Africa, a book they put together which collects the photographs taken in Africa by the renowned American photographer Todd Webb.

The episode is available on our YouTube channel or our Patreon along with all the episodes from the show’s archive.

Further Reading