In Kimberley, where he returned after his long stint on Robben Island, his old house is in ruins, his memory unfamiliar to most ‘born free’ South Africans – even if his radical politics are invaluable to the new protest movements. How did one of the legends of the anti-apartheid struggle disappear from its history?
Growing up as the child of a politically- exiled South African father, social gatherings of the exile community would include South Africans of all political shades. Although my father was a member of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) armed wing, Mkhonto we Sizwe, I have fond memories of playing with ‘uncles’, ‘aunts’ and ‘cousins’ from other political parties – the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in particular.
The PAC was formed by a breakaway faction of the ANC, which disagreed with the leadership when it abandoned the 1949 Programme of Action in preference for the Freedom Charter. Where the Programme of Action saw the need to recast the struggle in the radical terms of self-determination and fast-tracking the return of stolen lands, the Freedom Charter adopted the more liberal “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. The PAC envisaged a South Africa governed by people who owed their allegiance only to Africa; the ANC invited anybody interested in resisting apartheid.
But despite these differences, in exile they would gather under the roof I grew up in as a child, and get along very well; there, ideological differences tended to be lighthearted. And what the ANC ‘Charterists’ and the PAC ‘Africanists’ were in full agreement about was that Robert Sobukwe, formerly of the ANC and the founding president of the PAC, was a brilliant man who died too soon.
On 21 March 1960, Sobukwe’s PAC, which was then less than a year old, led a nationwide protest march against the hated Pass Laws. Sobukwe himself led the march to Orlando police station in Soweto, where he surrendered his pass so that he could be arrested for not having one. But it was in Sharpeville where history was made. There, police shot protestors, killing 69 people. Without irony, the apartheid regime charged and convicted Sobukwe of incitement, giving him a three-year sentence. He would serve many more than three years. At the end of his sentence, Sobukwe was sent to Robben Island under a law commonly known as “the Sobukwe Clause” which extended his incarceration annually at the discretion of the Minister of Justice. Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement, considered too dangerous to interact with the other prisoners.
He would eventually be released in 1969 to the diamond mining town of Kimberley, to be with his family, but where he was effectively under house arrest.
I grew up knowing 21 March as Sharpeville Day. Back then, ANC parents would recount the story of the Sharpeville massacre, always emphasising the central role played by the PAC, the protest regarded as an act of audacious courage by supporters, and incredible recklessness by detractors.
And then South Africa held its first elections in 1994. As the final results were announced, even my ANC father was surprised at the PAC’s showing. In one of the last African countries to allow universal suffrage, the party with Africanist and non-racialist credentials garnered only three percent of the vote. The victor was the party of multiracialism. The despondency of the PAC ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ was further deepened when the new ruling party proclaimed South Africa a “Rainbow Nation”, and renamed Sharpeville Day as ‘Human Rights Day’.
The extent of historical erasure was perhaps best exemplified when former ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema, remarked a few years ago that it was the ANC that led the marches in Sharpeville. By the time Idris Elba was acting as Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom and surrendering his pass to a policeman in an action that mimicked that of Sobukwe, it would have been difficult to convince many young South Africans under 30 that this was overstretched artistic licence.
Towards the end of last year, still in the thrall of the Abantu Literary Festival in Soweto, I decided to visit Kimberley. I was interested in seeing the town where Sobukwe had spent his last years. What I witnessed broke my heart and will remain with me forever.
While Sobukwe’s old home has been lovingly tended by the couple that bought it and still has the cupboards in the kitchen and the chicken run outside that was used by the man the good people of Galeshewe knew simply as ‘Oom Prof’ (Uncle Prof), there are no signposts to mark the home. Unlike that other house on Vilakazi Street where Mandela’s family stayed, Sobukwe’s home is not a heritage site. It has not been marked by the Northern Cape government as worth preserving. What has been preserved from the days of Sobukwe is all the work of the family that lives there. I was fortunate to have as my friend and guide, Sol Plaatje University lecturer and author, Sabata Mokae. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to identify the house or had the guts to approach it. Mokae has previously brought people there; the owner obliged us because Sabata has previously brought people to the house. It may have helped too that Sabata introduced my partner and I as visitors from Kenya – making it harder for the homeowner to turn away an innocent tourist couple.
The despair properly began when Sabata led us to Prof’s office. A blue sign saying ACTIVITY ROUTE, with underneath it, ‘Robert Sobukwe’s Office’, announced it. I was ready to forgive the house. Here, at least, was something.
Except it was nothing
The structure exists, it’s true, but that’s about it. No ceiling. No doors. No windows. The floor is a dumping ground with papers, bottles and the damp smell of urine. It was then that I broke down, realising just how successfully Sobukwe has been erased from the history of a country he gave so much to yet got so little from in return.
But the un-remembrance of Robert Sobukwe in South African history cannot be placed solely at the door of the governing ANC. It began before 1994, during the internecine fighting within the PAC. Another Kimberlite friend, theatre director and actor Moagi Modise remembers a PAC meeting in Johannesburg in the early `90s. Modise remembers someone spoke about an image of Robert Sobukwe on the wall. Modise was disappointed: “I could not take these PAC people seriously. How could they point at Oom Prof and claim he was Robert Sobukwe?”
He would later be informed that they were one and the same person. The PAC people in Kimberley had failed to ensure that even the children of their town knew who this phenomenal man was.
Unfortunately, this is not a uniquely South African thing. In Ghana, few know who all the Big Six are beyond Nkrumah, JB Danquah and Akufo-Addo. While eastwards in Kenya, there are many who will be unable to tell you the Kapenguria Six apart from Kenyatta, Kaggia and Ngei. So even as I hope that those who claim to be pan-Africanists in South Africa will find a way to restore Sobukwe’s office so it’s a place that future generations can learn about this man who is all but forgotten by many in his country, I hope too we can begin to resurrect the memories of all the unremembered liberation greats across pan-Africa.