Lest we forget our Struggle heroes

Robert Sobukwe's political voice was silenced by the apartheid government's use of constantly amended laws. He is the reminder of a destructive time which too many people would rather not think about.

Robert Sobukwe's political voice was silenced by the apartheid government's use of constantly amended laws. He is the reminder of a destructive time which too many people would rather not think about.

Published Mar 24, 2013


Some time in February 1945, Muziwakhe Lembede, the founding president of the ANC Youth League, published an article in the newspaper, Inyaniso, titled: “Some Basic Principles of African Nationalism”. In that article, Lembede noted:

“It was Paul Kruger, who in the gloomy days of the Transvaal Republic said: ‘Wie zich een toekomst scheppen wil, mag het verleden niet uit het oog verliezen’ (One who wants to create the future must not forget the past). These are words of deep wisdom. We Africans have still to erect monuments to commemorate the glorious achievements of our great heroes of the past, such as. Shaka, Moshoeshoe, Hintsa, Sikhukhune, Khama, Sobuza, and Mzilikazi. In their times and environment, and under the circumstances in which they lived, these men served their people and did their duty nobly and well.

Writing more than 150 years after the commencement of colonial conquest, Lembede was obviously lamenting what had become of the state of African history, something he wished to rectify in future.

Monuments of the 1940s said nothing of the African past, but exulted Afrikaner history and heroes. This illustrated how history was harnessed for colonial subjugation as well as to legitimise power.

Lembede was not the first nor would he be last to reflect on the utility of history for a political project. Almost forty years later, another young nationalist intellectual, Steve Biko, would make a similar observation. “Colonialism”, Biko wrote, “is never satisfied with having the native in its grip but, by some strange logic, it must turn to his past and disfigure and distort it. Hence the history of the black man in this country is most disappointing to read”.

And, Biko explained the disappointment: “It is presented merely as a long succession of defeats. The Xhosas were thieves who went to war for stolen property; the Boers never provoked Xhosas but merely went on punitive expeditions to teach the thieves a lesson… Great nation-builders like Shaka are cruel tyrants who frequently attacked smaller tribes for no reason but for some sadistic purpose. Not only is there no objectivity in the history taught us, but there is frequently an appalling misrepresentation of facts that sicken even the uninformed student”.

Needless to say, like Lembede before him, Biko’s advocacy for African history is renowned. He considered it critical not only for epistemological reasons, but also to nurture positive perceptions of self.

Black consciousness precipitated political action, as would be proven by the 1976 student uprising. The connection between history, memorialisation and political power was, therefore, a recurring concern within South Africa’s anti-colonial struggle.

How African nationalists have come to memorialise history, however, defies their previous lamentation. Then subjects of deliberate omission and distortion, they envisaged a re-writing of history to set the record straight.

Victims of oppression that African nationalists were, they based their claim on equality. They protested that they too had a history worth telling, re-telling and memorialising.

With what seemed to be a profound belief in the equality of histories, it is not unreasonable that one would have expected that, once in power, African nationalists would not omit or neglect other histories.

The (non-)event of two weeks ago suggests that nationalists, albeit adept at expressing moral outrage, are similarly capable of promoting one-dimensional narratives. March 11 was the anniversary of Robert Sobukwe’s funeral, having died on February 27, 1978. On that day hardly a reference was made to Sobukwe. Yet, on that fateful Saturday, the Earth welcomed into its bosom a man whose life had captured the South African imagination almost endlessly between 1959 until his death. In awe of the man, Biko, as Xolela Mangcu tells us in his biography of Biko, apparently exclaimed, upon walking into a room where Sobukwe was seated: “Tyhini, noThixo ulapha – phew, (even God is here)”.

The silence of two weeks ago, however, was itself an ironic expression of an anomaly. Silence does speak. It too has a voice. The silence tells us, in its own unique way, of an official quest to forget Sobukwe. South Africa’s public space hardly exhibits any memorial reminders of the man. Take, for instance, the house that Sobukwe was incarcerated in at Robben Island. For a long time, which may still be the case, that house was not part of the tour that tourists were taken through upon their visit to the island.

Yet the house is symbolic of the manner in which authorities sought to silence their fiercest critics, even with incarceration. It was not only solitary confinement, but was also a stark display of the unlawfulness of apartheid. They confined Sobukwe in that house even after he had served the initial three-year sentence for leading the tragic protest of March 21, 1960. Rather than release him on May 3, 1963, as the court had ruled, the apartheid Parliament promulgated a law – the Sobukwe Clause – to keep Sobukwe locked up for another year.

In a charade of a lawful society, apartheid parliamentarians would vote, every year, to renew the act, keeping Sobukwe in prison. The charade went on, not only once or twice, but six times. Sobukwe never knew when he’d be released.

In the meantime, solitary confinement had exerted its inhumane impact on the man. Because he hardly spoke, Sobukwe began to forget how to speak. And, without any warning on April 24, 1969, the Minister of Justice announced his release.

But, what was announced as a release turned out to be yet another imprisonment. On May 14, 1969, Sobukwe was not free to return to his home in Soweto, but was driven to Kimberley for house arrest. That house, numbered 6 on Molapo Street in Galeshewe Township, in what was formerly a white area, was to be Sobukwe’s prison for the rest of his life. He couldn’t leave Kimberley; had to be inside the house between 6am and 6pm; and no-one was to visit him except a doctor and family members. Today, there’s nothing about that house that tells of the emotional torture that apartheid visited upon those who dared fight it. It is an inhumane story of countless other freedom-fighters who were released into the wilderness, dumped in remote towns like Eastern Cape’s Dimbaza, into houses that hardly had any windows.

Where an official gesture has been made to recognise Sobukwe’s memorial site, it has also been accompanied by acts of concealment. His law office in Galeshewe, just close to the prominent Bantu Hall, is one such example. The office is recognised and concealed at the same time. The front wall bears an inscription about the building, with signage nearby pointing towards it. But, no attempt is made to keep the building visible to a curious eye. Hawkers stack-up their trolleys against the wall hiding the plaque. One really has to look hard to find the building.

Attempts to erase Sobukwe’s memory in our public consciousness are indicative of how those in power legitimise themselves. They only tell and memorialise narratives that cultivate popular acceptance of their ideas. Only icons that lend legitimacy to the status quo dominate our public space. Appropriated as a symbol of reconciliation, Nelson Mandela’s towering statues protrude into the sky above Bloemfontein and Sandton, and one can’t think of any major town that doesn’t have a prominent street named after him.

Because Sobukwe reminds us of land dispossession, his memory is uncomfortable for a society that seems intent to forget the past. We’ve deluded ourselves to believe that because we no longer see or talk about Sobukwe, then all must be fine. This fake amnesia endangers our future. Sobukwe is a necessary reminder of the need for social justice. We need to remember him for our own sake, before we it’s too late.

* Ndletyana is head of political economy at Mistra.

Sunday Independent

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