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A man of God to the end

Simon Gqubule

Simon Gqubule

I was addressing a group of people on education in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, and I made some passing references to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe as I knew him at school.

One man walked out in protest because he believed that I was trying to influence people to join the PAC. I did not get a chance to tell him that, in fact, I was recruited by Sobukwe to join the ANC Youth League when he was a student at Fort Hare.

Many people know Sobukwe as a politician who broke away from the ANC to form the PAC in 1959. Many people do not know that Sobukwe, like OR Tambo, was a very religious person and a devout Christian. He was born into a Methodist family in which religion and discipline prevailed.

His father was a Methodist lay preacher, while his brother, Ernest, became an Anglican bishop. It was no wonder that he was sent to the Healdtown Missionary Institution, a prestigious Methodist school where leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki studied.

The late Mc Vicar Zani and myself were his close friends at Healdtown, although he was three years my senior. "Robey" was an outstanding linguist and orator who spoke excellent Xhosa, English and Afrikaans.

He won first prize in an essay competition that was organised by the Cape education department. A Healdtown teacher who had an MA in English got the second prize. His essay, entitled Masilo's Conversion opened with the words: "All glory, laud and honour, To Thee, Redeemer, King ..."

This reflected the religious influences at work in him even at that stage in his life.

Sobukwe was a brilliant student. He entered Healdtown to do what was then called the "Native Primary Teachers Course", which he passed with flying colours. He did the Junior Certificate in one year, instead of the normal three, and two years later he matriculated with a first-class pass.

He was chosen by his fellow students to deliver the farewell address at the "Completors' Social" at the end of 1946. His speech was hailed by our English teacher as the best he had ever heard.

As a full member of the Methodist Church, he attended Holy Communion services. The Sunday evening services at Healdtown were a special event. They were attended by the staff and senior students only. Outstanding preachers used to conduct the services. Sobukwe used to report to us (juniors) the messages of these preachers. He was fascinated by Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven.

When he went to teach at Standerton, he became a lay preacher and a class leader.

At the Sobukwe memorial lecture at Fort Hare on March 25 2003, the university choir sang some of his favourite hymns. On that occasion, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who gave the main address, said that Sobukwe was "a humble man of God to the end".

lReverend Simon Gqubule is a retired Methodist theologian based in Uitenhage.

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