Robert Sobukwe

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, founding president of the Pan Africanist Congress, was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1924. His Xhosa first name, 'Mangaliso' means 'man of wonders'. As a student, lay preacher and teacher of the 1940s and 1950s, Sobukwe was an outspoken opponent of apartheid. He lost his student bursaries for speaking out against missionaries and white liberals, who, he said, had sown division among the African people. He also lost his first teaching job because he refused to teach the official apartheid history.

Sobukwe's politics was Africanist. Like him, his biographers have been careful to note that this was not a racist politics, as he defined 'Africans' not by the colour of their skin but by their commitment to Africa. Sobukwe was instrumental in the formation of the Pan Africanist Congress in 1959, a breakaway group from the African National Congress, seeking the establishment and maintenance of an 'Africanist socialist democracy'. The PAC differed from the ANC in its refusal to accept any white liberal or communist leadership. It stood for a complete overthrow of the apartheid system, not equality and power sharing between its proponents and what it called 'true' Africans.

After the Sharpville massacre in March 1960, in which the police shot protesters against the restrictive pass laws, both the PAC and the ANC were banned. Sobukwe was tried for his role in the anti-pass campaign and sentenced to three years in prison. The PAC had a policy of 'no bail, no defence, no fine' as they did not recognise the authority if the apartheid courts, and so he was not defended in court. In 1963, after completion of the three-year sentence, Sobukwe was detained further by a special Act of Parliament, and transferred from Pretoria to what was by then becoming the central political prison of the apartheid system, Robben Island. In justifying this unprecedented step, John Vorster, then minister of the country, said of Sobukwe, 'He is a man with magnetic personality, great organising ability and a divine sense of mission.' Vorster said he intended detaining Sobukwe 'until this side of eternity'. The government was worried that the rising tide of Africanist militancy, represented by an offshoot of the PAC called Ama-afrika Poqo ('The real owners of Africa'), or Poqo for short, Sobukwe's release could trigger a massive uprising among Africans.

The special statute under which Sobukwe was detained on the Island, known as the 'Sobukwe Clause' had to be approved annually, which it was until his release from the Island. On the Island, he enjoyed slightly better conditions than the other political prisoners, but he was completely isolated from them. At first he was kept in a house formerly used by a 'coloured' warder (all black warders were removed from the Island in 1963), but later in 1963 he was transferred to a small bungalow which had been part of the 'coloured' school. In this place he grew a small garden, with seeds donated by the Defence and Aid Fund in Cape Town. His pumpkins, squashes and cucumbers grew well, except when water shortages on the Island forced him to stop watering them. He studied by correspondence with the University of London for an economics degree, which he passed in 1968. But his time on the Island was profoundly lonely, its monotony broken only by the occasional visits from his wife Veronica and their children, and by the silent salutes of passing prisoners from the main prison. When the other prisoners were marched by, Sobukwe used to go outside and take a handful of the soil from his garden, allowing the sand to run through his fingers, as if to say that nothing mattered more than the recovery of their land.

After Sobukwe's release from the Island - prompted by official fears that years of solitary confinement might permanently damage him psychologically - he was sent to Kimberley, a place where he had never lived before, and kept under house arrest until his death in 1978.

Text adapted from The Island: A History of Robben Island 1488 - 1990. Edited by Harriet Deacon


Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (1924-1977) was the head of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, a group that broke away from the African National Congress in 1959. The PAC disagreed philosophically with the ANC over several key issues. These ranged from the centrality of Africans in the fight for freedom, to the time and method whereby the armed struggle or liberation war would be undertaken. The nature and content of these debates was intense and complex, and they have yet to be resolved. "Africanism," as the PAC's position is frequently characterized, is one of the core constituents of black consciousness, the focus of the work of the martyred Steve Biko. Sobukwe and his organization occupied separate terrain from that of the ANC and are often described inaccurately as a minor current in the South African liberation struggle. The PAC continues to exist as a political organization which has made inroads in the Eastern and Western Cape by fielding candidates such as the charismatic Patricia De Lille, a mixed-race politician representing a vibrant constituency. This has marked a kind of PAC renaissance. The domestic conflict between the PAC and the ANC inevitably became wrapped up in the Cold War combat between the Soviet Union and the United States. This and a number of dramatic mistakes by some of its other leading figures such as the late flamboyant Potlako Leballo, left them open to criticism by ANC leaders. The quality of the paper on which this poster was made is clearly not comparable to the superior materials typical of ANC posters makes this piece far more fragile.


1 comment:

Ridwan said...

Ana thank you posting this on Sobukwe. You may know that I am a great admirer of him and his struggle legacy.

I had the fortune of growing up in his midst and write some about that on my blog.

If he were here he would be standing right next to us in struggle.

OK, so the petition is up and running and needs to get out there.

These are the details. It is literally minutes old.

Please access the petition at: