Press "Enter" to skip to content

We dare not forget Sobukwe’s legacy

A week ago, I decided to go to Kimberley in the Northern Cape to visit the house of the founding president of the PAC, the great Robert Sobukwe. Finding house number 6 in Naledi Street was easy. People of Galeshewe township know Sobukwe’s house. We found the gate opened and walked to the door to announce ourselves. A young man opened and allowed us into the house. He informed us that nothing of the original furniture of Sobukwe’s house remains, save for a kitchen unit and red tiles in the lounge. I battled to hold myself as I asked him, unfairly, why no one had bothered to preserve this historical house by maintaining its original architecture, which I believe plays an integral part of his story. After spending some time there, we left the house that had once been a prison for one of our continent’s greatest revolutionaries.

Our next stop was the Methodist Church. A feeling of helplessness overcame me the minute I walked in. Not a single reminder of Sobukwe, despite the fact that he had attended and spoken there shortly before his death in 1978. Our final stop was the Mayibuye Uprising Memorial. This is the vicinity of Sobukwe’s offices, from which he ran his law practice. The offices are completely dilapidated. Trash is strewn all across the floors, windows are broken, doors are falling off, the ceiling has caved in, the walls are littered with vulgarities and the stench of the place could induce cardiac arrest. But what is most tragic is that the offices, once a sanctuary for the oppressed masses of our people seeking legal assistance, are now reduced to a place where young men converge to smoke nyaope, an extremely toxic substance that is destroying our townships. These are young men who, in a normal society, ought to be in school. But because doors of learning have been shut in their faces, they never got an opportunity to access institutions of higher learning. They have resorted to a life of crime, which occurs inside a revolutionary building. I left Kimberley the following morning, depressed.

Who is this Sobukwe that I must be so traumatised by the failure of our government and our people to preserve his legacy? Sobukwe, born in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape province, is the founding president of the PAC and former commander-in-chief of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla), the armed wing of the former liberation movement that played a critical role in our liberation struggle. In 1960, the year after the formation of the PAC, Sobukwe led the anti-pass campaign, an intensification of the Defiance Campaign that had employed a Gandhist approach of passive resistance. The anti-pass campaign took place on March 21, with hundreds of thousands of black people marching to police stations to demand they be arrested for not carrying their pass books, which was compulsory under apartheid laws.

This brave confrontation between the oppressed and the oppressor led to the most violent responses the apartheid police had ever meted out against our people. Hundreds were injured and over 70 people were killed nationwide (including women and children), mostly in Sharpeville and Langa. The Sharpeville/Langa massacre became a turning point of our struggle. Liberation movements were banned and struggle activists were arrested (a few months later, Apla entered into an armed struggle, followed a year later, in 1961, by Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the ANC). Among those arrested was Sobukwe, who spent almost a decade in solitary confinement on Robben Island. Sobukwe was meant to be released in 1963, but a legislation known as the Sobukwe Clause was passed. It made allowance for the regime to detain political activists without trial “until this side of eternity”. As a result, Sobukwe was only released in 1969 and then banished to Galeshewe, where he started a law practice to assist poor black people with legal matters.

It is because of the appreciation of this man’s contributions that I battle to comprehend how his legacy can be allowed to die such a painful death, at the hands of a majority government. That our democratic regime failed to turn Sobukwe’s house into a historic monument is criminal. But equally criminal is that the PAC allowed it to happen. And most criminal is that we, the people, the motive force of Sobukwe’s contributions to the struggle, are doing nothing to preserve the legacy of an African giant. It is clear that both the ANC and the PAC have failed Sobukwe, and therefore it is our responsibility to ensure the restoration of his name to its rightful place in our history.

Firstly, we must document his legacy while there are still primary sources that we can obtain information from, in the form of the elderly in Galeshewe and his comrades in the Apla Military Veterans Association. We must dedicate a journal to documenting his legacy in the context of a colonised and a post-apartheid South Africa. I have already begun this Herculean task by launching a self-published journal (last December, the month of his birth) dedicated to pan-Africanist philosophy. Unfortunately, due to a lack of funds, the journal only released one issue and is yet to find its feet. Secondly, the struggle for free education must be intensified by our student movement so as to ensure that Sobukwe’s legacy becomes part of a formal curriculum in schools — to enable our young to learn about him with the purpose of being architects of a liberating pedagogy for our bruised and divided nation. Thirdly, we must put pressure on the department of arts and culture to restore Sobukwe’s offices, purchase his house from the current owners and turn it into a museum of pan-African history. And lastly, we must, at every platform we are availed, remind the world of this great man who taught us to defy constructs of white supremacy. This way Sobukwe’s voice will rise from the ashes.