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Sobukwe's struggle for unity

By Tiyani Lybon Mabasa | Feb 04, 2010 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

February is one of the most important months in the history of the South African-Azanian liberation struggle.

During this month we mark the brutal murder of Onkgopotse Ramothibi Abram Tiro, the Black Consciousness student leader who laid the foundation of the June 16 1976 people's popular revolt, and also the death of one of Africa's most illustrious sons, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe.

Sobukwe was the founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress.

He was a leader who led by example, choosing to demonstrate that in everyday life and also in the way he conducted himself in his political life. It could have been easy for him to live a different kind of life.

A life removed from the rigours and tribulations that is black life, considering he had succeeded in finding his way into the then prestigious University of Witwatersrand as a lecturer in African Languages where students and the larger African community affectionately bestowed on him the title the institution could not give to him: "professor".

Poet, author, former political prisoner and respected member of the ANC Breyten Breytenbach, now living in self-exile in France, wrote a critique of the Mandela era in December 2008: "But of course I believe that with an accountable leadership and the full and recognised participation of what used to be known as 'live forces' among the population, this continent can be turned around, and with it South Africa.

"Our dreams can be realised - and when I say this I have the examples of Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe very much in mind."


The question is: what sets Biko and Sobukwe apart from today's "misleaders"?

Sobukwe was different from today's leaders. Friend and foe alike tell a story of a dignified leader who did not wince in front of the white racist power structure. Students at the university often took time to go to listen to the courageous man clad in khaki clothes. They held him in great awe. This included the wife of former president Thabo Mbeki, Zanele Mbeki.

Sobukwe was a true Pan-Africanist who believed in the greatness of Africa and the struggle for the unity of its people.

As a student leader at Fort Hare he urged graduating students to "remember Africa" - eloquently pointing out to the graduates how their education would be in vain and meaningless if it failed to serve the greater good of liberating Africa from colonial rule.

This was an early indication of the thoughts that were to define Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

In later life his passion for Africa, the love of its people and the struggle against colonial rule would literally consume his life.

Sobukwe was part of the militant, radical leadership that emerged in the ANC Youth League in the 1940s and transformed a politically haemorrhaging ANC into a fighting liberation movement that launched the Defiance Campaign in 1952.

Sobukwe became an embodiment of the wisdom that says it is the responsibility of the oppressed themselves to launch and lead a fight against oppression. He rejected the leadership position of the white liberals, some of whom had taken cover in the Congress of Democrats. Sobukwe felt it was the responsibility of African people to lead their own struggle.

One race

This particular stance created many enemies for him. But Sobukwe was not a racist. He is the one who eloquently pointed out that there was only one race, the human race - besides he had no economic power to lever on other people for his own economic gain. Racists could not forgive him for taking away from them what they believed to be their God-given right, that is, to lead all African people.

Sobukwe was an uncompromising Pan-Africanist and his ideology found resonance with other African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere. By its own admission the apartheid regime feared Sobukwe more than any other leader at the time.

The Sharpeville massacre became a defining moment for him.

He was arrested and sent to Robben Island, where he served three years, but the racist regime piloted an amendment in the act of law for just one person - known as the Sobukwe Clause - that gave them the power to incarcerate him for a further seven years. The white racist parliament was told how "dangerous, influential and charismatic" Sobukwe was.

Sobukwe was greatly loved by all. After the announcement of his death, elderly people could not hold back their tears. They let go in a manner most unusual.

Despite the years in prison, the banning orders and unending harassment, the star of Sobukwe did not fade. He had warned of betrayal saying: "When they tell you, we are reasonable and we are accommodating, you must know we are busy selling you out."

For this country to move forward it needs to draw strength from the selfless examples of Sobukwe, Biko, Chris Hani and other martyrs of the South African-Azanian struggle.

The foundation of the Azanian revolution is on the shoulders of great men, men who, like Vladimir Lenin, did not live long enough to guide their victorious revolutions.

Mabasa is president of the Socialist Party of Azania


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