HERO remembered

Themba Molefe

Themba Molefe

Today marks 30 years since the death of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress.

Born on December 5 1924, Sobukwe died on February 27 1978 of "lung cancer", which also claimed the life of his successor Zephania Mothopeng.

Many still think the two leaders were poisoned in prison and sent home to die.

In 1952 Sobukwe, then a member of the ANC, was among the leaders of the Defiance Campaign, one of the most effective protests against apartheid.

A strong believer in Africanism, he was one of a group of activists within the ANC who articulated the principle that the future of South Africa lay in the hands of Africans, and rejected any model adopted from the West and believed that communism was a foreign ideology.

"Africa for Africans", "Izwe lethu iAfrika", became the rallying cries of the Africanists. In 1957, Sobukwe became editor of The Africanist newspaper in Johannesburg. Two years later - on April 6 1959 - he led the Africanists out of the ANC to form the PAC. He was elected its first president at a meeting held at the Orlando Communal Hall in Soweto.

Sobukwe, who was fondly known as "Prof" to his close compatriots and followers, maintained that it was up to Africans to liberate themselves. Some of his powerful speeches are preserved in the Robben Island Museum, where he spent 15 years.

In one of the speeches, he said: "We are fighting for the noblest cause on Earth, the liberation of mankind. They are fighting to entrench an outworn, anachronistic and vile system of oppression. We represent progress, they represent decadence. We represent the fresh fragrance of flowers in bloom. They represent the rancid smell of decaying vegetation. We have the whole continent on our side. We have history on our side. We will win."

On March 21 1960, the PAC targeted the dreaded pass laws, which required blacks to carry the dompas on their person and produce it on demand.

Sobukwe led a march to Orlando police station where he and his followers turned themselves in for arrest. They were arrested.

However, in Sharpeville, police opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing 69 people. The tragedy was to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre, and is observed officially as Human Rights Day.

On March 21 1960, Sobukwe was arrested, charged and convicted of incitement. He was jailed for three years. He would never be released after serving his sentence, though.

Sobukwe was kept on Robben Island without trial. The new General Law Amendment Act was passed, allowing his imprisonment to be renewed annually.

The provisions of this law became known as the "Sobukwe Clause", and continued for three years.

On Robben Island, Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement away from other political prisoners, out of fear that he might influence them.

Many of the PAC's leaders fell victim to the Sobukwe Clause, thus strangling the party leadership. While in jail, Sobukwe studied, obtaining several degrees, including one in economics from the University of London. He was released in 1969 and banished to Kimberley under house arrest. He was also slapped with an order banning him from all political activities.

He finished his law degree by serving his articles under a local lawyer at Galeshewe township and started his own practice in 1975. In 1977, after his doctors had pleaded in vain with the government to allow him freedom of movement on humanitarian grounds, he was admitted to hospital with lung cancer.

Several chroniclers have written about the PAC post-Sobukwe, but most refer to its dearth of leadership.

Here is an excerpt: "With the increase of student violence in 1976, police watched Mothopeng, after Sobukwe the most senior PAC member inside South Africa. He was eventually arrested and put on trial in 1977 together with 17 other PAC supporters, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In the post-Soweto period, the PAC attempted to build itself up again.

"In 1990, the ban on the ANC and PAC was lifted. The PAC started to show signs of renewal in this period as a result of better leadership.

"In the aftermath of Soweto, a number of students went into exile. The PAC's Azanian People's Liberation Army(Apla), the successor to Poqo, was also active in exile although for the greater part of the time it was subdued by banning and the ANC's growing stature as the more powerful liberation movement."

Sobukwe was buried in Graaf-Reinet, Eastern Cape, on March 11 1978.