Why Robert Sobukwe is not dead
It is through the people taking part in service delivery protests, and those who refuse systematic dehumanisation that the founder of the PAC lives, writes Malaika Wa Azania.
Johannesburg - African intellectual revolutionary Thomas Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso, once argued that while revolutionaries as individuals can be killed, you cannot kill an idea. Victor Hugo went further to argue that there is nothing in the world more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
No truer arguments have been made, or as vividly evidenced as in the life of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the founding president of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania.
This month, Sobukwe month, we not only celebrate the contributions of a great man to the struggle for our liberation, we also take time to reflect on the journey we have travelled as African people, necessarily asking ourselves whether our revolution is still on course or if, like many others before it, it is a revolution betrayed.
Born to a domestic worker and a municipal labourer in Graaff-Reinet in 1924, Sobukwe was an ordinary young black child playing on the dusty streets of a highly segregated South Africa.
It was not until he enrolled at Fort Hare University for his tertiary education in 1947 that Sobukwe became drawn to politics.
Fort Hare University, a historically black institution in the heart of the Eastern Cape, had produced a great number of radical intellectuals preoccupied with the deconstruction of the colonial order.
It was here that Sobukwe met a lecturer named Cecil Ntloko, a follower of the All African Convention, and the man who ignited a spark in the mind of what would become one of the continent’s greatest revolutionaries.
Sobukwe became a member of the ANC Youth League in 1948 and a year later, he was elected as the student representative council president of the university. Inspired by the writings of Anton Lembede, the founding president of the Youth League, Sobukwe’s ideological outlook as an Africanist became sharpened by the prevailing material conditions of the time, a period where apartheid was undergoing formal systematisation.
Just over 10 years later, Sobukwe and a group of Africanists broke away from the ANC to established the PAC, a controversial move that saw the birth of a new era of militancy and radical politics.
This paradigm shift from the passive resistance modus operandi of the Defiance Campaign of the earlier part of the 1950s was largely influenced by the growing tidal wave of Africanism sweeping the entire continent.
This wave resulted in the political liberation of a number of African states that had been colonies for many decades, and gave birth to the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, an institution that would later play a critical role in the mobilisation and organising of African states towards the attainment of political independence from colonial powers.
The 1960 Sharpeville/Langa Massacre that was organised by the PAC was a turning point in the struggle history of our country.
Following this event, in which unarmed black men, women and children protesting against the unjustness of the draconian pass laws were gunned down by apartheid police, the state increased its brutality against natives.
The country was rendered an abattoir where daily, hundreds of black people were being killed, tortured and incarcerated.
Liberation movements were banned and many freedom fighters were forced to flee to exile or go underground.
In 1963, three years after his arrest, the year when he was supposed to have been released, a legislation known as the Sobukwe Clause, which was part of the General Law Amendment Act No 37 of 1963 that allowed people already convicted of political offences to be further detained for a period determined at the sole discretion of the Minister of Justice, was passed.
This resulted in the further detainment of Sobukwe in solitary confinement on Robben Island, where he remained until he was released in 1969, and banished to the township of Galeshewe in Kimberley, in the Northern Cape.
Nine years later, Sobukwe died of lung cancer.
The physical death of Sobukwe must never be mistaken for the death of Sobukwe as a vessel of an idea, for though he now rests in a cemetery in Graaff-Reinet, with what was once his flesh now decomposed and fossilised, the idea that he died fighting, continues to live.
It is Sobukwe’s idea of an Africa for Africans that inspired the birth of the Black Consciousness Movement that brought the apartheid regime to its knees.
The idea behind the Black Consciousness Movement’s (BCM) insistence on the mobilisation of the colonised majority, drew great inspiration from Sobukwe’s reason for rejecting co-operation with white and Asian anti-apartheid groups.
Steve Biko, the founder of BCM, was greatly influenced by the ideas that had been articulated by Sobukwe.
It was Sobukwe who posited the argument later refined by Biko, that years of white supremacy had conditioned whites to be dominant and blacks to be submissive and because of this, blacks needed, above all, psychological independence.
He argued: “There are Europeans who are intellectually converts to the African’s cause, but, because they materially benefit from the present set-up, they cannot completely identify with that cause.
“Real democracy can come only when blacks by themselves formulate policies and programmes and decide on the method of struggle without interference from… the minorities who arrogantly appropriate to themselves the right to plan and think for the African.”
From this argument put forth by Sobukwe, inspired by the writings of another great Africanist intellectual, Lembede, a movement of young black people was born.
The BCM mobilised around the idea of the decolonisation of the black mind as a necessary requisite for the decolonisation of the African economy.
It was this movement that sparked the 1976 student uprisings, uprisings that were a turning point in the liberation struggle of our country.
The youth of 1976 were not merely fighting against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. They were fighting against the consistent colonisation of the black mind. They were fighting against the dispossession of black humanity.
This year, exactly 36 years since his death, we are sitting on the threshold of yet another Sobukwe-inspired moment.
Two decades into a democratic dispensation that is characterised by growing levels of inequality and the ever-persistent reality of landlessness that has resulted in the disenfranchisement of black people, there is a silent wave of consciousness that is sweeping through the dusty streets of our country. To ignore its magnitude, is to be in denial of truth.
It would be a sensationalist untruth to claim that South Africa in 2014 is the same as South Africa in 1984.
There has been some progress made in so far as attempting to redress some of the injustices of the past, particularly as it relates to freedoms of movement and association, which must never be undermined or easily dismissed.
But equally true is that post-apartheid South Africa is still a colonial state, evidenced by white monopoly capital and the failure to address the fundamental land and agrarian question.
For the past two decades, the claws of economic bondage have suffocated black people.
The firm grip has resulted in soaring levels of unemployment, poverty and disease, a parallel reality to the general comfort of whiteness that is insulated by a system that continues to protect white privilege.
For many of us who are located within historically white institutions of higher learning, apartheid is not a theory or a point of reference to a distant history.
It is a reality evidenced daily in the preferential treatment given to white students, and the ostracisation of black students that goes beyond financial and academic exclusions.
The reality of the situation is that while apartheid as policy has been annihilated, apartheid as a philosophy remains institutionalised even within the state, where organs such as the judiciary remain highly untransformed.
But there is a rapture happening in our country. There is an awakening of black people.
There is a sense of consciousness that is slowly but surely creeping into our communities.
Government officials, in their usual narrowness and endless capacity for manufacturing conspiracy theories, want to have us believe that the increasing number of service delivery protests is a result of some “third force”.
In truth, they are a result of disenfranchised masses fighting for the right to humanness.
These are people who are refusing to continue living in squalor, to being accessories to corruption, maladministration and mediocre leadership, obese with immorality and a lack of integrity.
Above all, these are people who, like the masses that marched to Sharpeville in 1960 and the students who took to the streets in 1976, are making a clear statement to the regime, a statement that says the black condition is unacceptable.
These are Sobukwe’s disciples, blacks who refuse systematic dehumanisation.
Through them and through other truth defenders, MANGALISO SOBUKWE LIVES!
* Wa Azania is a second-year Rhodes University student, and the African Union Youth Charter Ambassador for SADC.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.