Jacob Zuma and Nelson Mandela File picture: Cara Viereckl/ Independent Media

As SA goes through an extremely difficult period it is important to try to understand the thinking of people like Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, writes Ryland Fisher.

Three years ago, I attended the funeral of former president Nelson Mandela.

Mandela’s death was a “where were you” moment and, although he had been unwell for a long time, it still came as a shock to many.

There was a certain irony in the fact Mandela died on the birthday of Robert Sobukwe, the late Pan-Africanist leader who was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1924 and died in Kimberley in 1978 of lung cancer.

Sobukwe, who started out in the ANC Youth League with Mandela and others, was considered one of the most popular leaders in his heyday. At some point, the PAC was even more popular than the ANC. After the 1994 elections, it rapidly declined in popularity.

Some people who gave the ANC the benefit of the doubt in the first 22 years of democracy and who are now feeling betrayed, are revisiting the writings of leaders such as Sobukwe and Steve Biko, but there is not much about Sobukwe in the public space.

As far as I know, Benjamin Pogrund’s biography is the only book of substance written about someone who put more pressure on the apartheid regime than most.

Although the PAC was formed in 1959, with Sobukwe as its first president, it quickly caught the imagination of South Africans, leading defiance against the pass laws in 1960 and, in some ways, forcing the ANC to review its stance on non-violent protests.

Sobukwe was sentenced to three years in prison in May 1960, and was imprisoned in a house on Robben Island away from the main prison. He ended up spending another six years, with the government extending his detention every year under what became known as the Sobukwe Clause.

After Sobukwe was released in 1969, he was banned and restricted to Galeshewe township in Kimberley. He was harassed throughout his supposed freedom, but still managed to qualify as an attorney.

Those who are looking for alternatives to the ANC will probably struggle to revive the fortunes of the PAC and other organisations whose role in the liberation struggle was overshadowed by the ANC.

I believe we do not need to look at alternative policies for South Africa. Those developed under the ANC government are among the best in the world. It is just a case of finding the political will to implement them, while also making sure corruption, which imperils service delivery, is dealt with speedily and properly. This is easier said than done.

Unlike Sobukwe, a lot has been written about Mandela and rightly so. He was the world’s most famous political prisoner, and died as someone who was recognised for his powers of reconciliation.

His memorial service at FNB Stadium was attended by world leaders including Barack Obama and Raul Castro, who greeted each other warmly for the first time in public. It seemed that, even in death, Mandela was still able to play a role in reconciling perceived enemies.

As we remember Mandela this week – and Sobukwe almost by accident – it is important to juxtapose the outpouring of grief compared to a more recent funeral, that of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The popularity of both leaders could be seen in the public support after their deaths, with long queues gathering to show their last respects.

There was one moment, however, in the lead-up to Mandela’s funeral, which indicated to me how our leaders have become out of touch with ordinary South Africans.

After the casket containing Mandela’s body landed at the airport in Mthatha, en route to Qunu, the procession was supposed to stop at two spots in the town to allow ordinary residents to pay respects, but someone in authority decided this would not be safe.

This angered residents who then tried to march to Qunu, singing Johnny Clegg’s Asimbonanga which means “we have not seen him” in Zulu. The march was broken up by police.

Even the funeral service for Mandela was restricted to dignitaries, excluding locals who might have benefited from his wisdom over the years.

I pondered how Mandela, who loved being among ordinary people, became appropriated by elites.

After the funeral service I walked back to where I would meet my transport. It was strange walking the paths Mandela would have strode many times.

As South Africa goes through an extremely difficult period, politically and economically, it is important to try to understand the thinking of people like Mandela and Sobukwe and how that thinking would have influenced their reaction to our current crises.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Weekend Argus