Sobukwe's contribution must always be remembered

27 March 2018 - 10:54
By Jo Mangaliso Mdhlela
Robert Sobukwe.
Image: File Photo Robert Sobukwe.

Human Rights Day is a significant day which the country ought to celebrate proudly. In part, the day reminds us of the great struggles black people waged against the brutal apartheid system of the National Party which came into political power in 1948.

Twelve years later, on March 21 1960, South Africa and the international community were to see the same minority regime degenerate into a monster that would result in the Sharpeville massacre in which 69 Africans, engaged in a peaceful march with thousands of other anti-pass protesters, were slaughtered by the apartheid police firepower. Nearly 300 other protestors were wounded in that madness.

On March 30, nine days after the Sharpeville killings, a young 23-year-old University of Cape Town student, Phillip Kgosana, inspired by the charisma of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania leader, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, led an anti-pass protest of an estimated 30000 people from Langa to Cape Town. Scores of people from Orlando in Soweto and other parts of the country handed themselves to the police for arrest in protest against the pass laws.

As the political saga thickened, Sobukwe, who had instigated it all, left his post as a lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand to be with his people. In fact, Joe Thloloe - the recently retired former press ombudsman and a journalist of more than 50 years, who was then a young high school student - retells how Sobukwe, after his incarceration for instigating anti-pass protests from a prison cell, sent a letter of resignation to the university.

He could not afford the comfort of a university job when his people were subjected to unjust laws, a conviction he would manifest when he appeared before the magistrate's court: "It will be remembered that we refused to plead to the charges against us. We felt we had no moral obligation to obey laws made by a white minority.

"Without wishing to impugn the personal honour and integrity of the magistrate, an unjust law cannot be applied justly."

So, we cannot think of Human Rights Day in isolation of these events that happened in Sharpeville, inspired by this great son of the soil whom we, for political expediency, wish never lived.

The point is that the country acknowledges the importance of Nelson Mandela as the first president of a democratic South Africa - a man who signed into law the constitution in Sharpeville on December 10 1996. We must also accept that as important as Madiba's signature was, this should not downgrade other elements of our struggles.

That signature was made possible because the Sharpeville massacre had awoken people to the injustice and brutality of apartheid.

The anger that followed it led to the guerrilla warfare that was undertaken by the people of this country. And March 21 1960 is an important element of the total mix.

Sobukwe has been in his grave for 40 years. His incarceration on Robben Island gave him a stature and honour we should not seek to wish away. To celebrate Human Rights Day without reference to Sobukwe would be an injustice and a failure to give honour to the 69 people who died at Sharpeville.

Sobukwe is the man who told the world that the "freedom of the African means the freedom of all in South Africa, the European included, because only the African can guarantee the genuine democracy."

As we celebrate Human Rights Day, we must remember his words which were that we all ought to love Africa and to love justice.