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A tribute to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe


en years have passed since the death of Robert Sobukwe, the first president of the Pan African Congress (PAC). Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe died of cancer on 26 February 1978. He was 53 years old.

Sobukwe, a brave leader and fearless fighter, will always be remembered with great respect by the people of this country — even by those who did not agree with his politics and the direction of the PAC.

At the time of Sobukwe’s death, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Sobukwe was “.. a giant among men.”

Even Sobukwe’s enemies had respect for him. When prime minister John Vorster heard of Sobukwe’s death, he said that Sobukwe had always been a “heavyweight”. Maybe he was thinking of the time Sobukwe called for protests against the “dompas” in 1960 — and how the government was forced to drop the pass laws for 17 days.

Sobukwe may have been a heavyweight – but he was at all times a gentleman. Stan Motjwadi, the editor of Drum magazine, remembers Sobukwe as a “gentleman in the true sense of the word.”

The pipe puffing Sobukwe, who “had a grin that nothing could wipe away,” never lost his temper. No matter how much he suffered, he never let himself get bitter. But above all, Robert Sobukwe will be remembered as a humble man who never forgot his humble beginnings.


Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was born in 1924 in Graaff Reinet, a small town in the Cape Province. He was the youngest of six sons, born to a strict Methodist family. His father was a poor woodcutter, who cut and sold wood for a living. His mother was a domestic worker.

Educated at a mission school, Sobukwe was a keen sportsman and a brilliant student. After getting a first class matric, he got a bursary to study for a BA degree at the University of Fort Hare in the Ciskei. At university he met Veronica, a young student nurse, who was later to become his wife and mother to their four children.

At university, Sobukwe showed that he was a born leader by being chosen as president of the Students’ Representative Council (SRC). After leaving university, Sobukwe went to work as a teacher in Standerton in the Transvaal.

In 1952 Sobukwe, who was now a member of the African National Congress (ANC), joined the Defiance Campaign — when the ANC called on people to break unjust apartheid laws and to fill the jails.

Sobukwe, together with many other teachers, was fired for joining the campaign. He later got his job back but left soon afterwards and went to teach African languages at Wits University in Johannesburg.

At this time, Sobukwe began to have problems with the ANC. The ANC has always believed that whites are welcome to fight side by side in the struggle. But Sobukwe believed that black people should fight apartheid in their own organisations — with their own black leaders.

In 1958 Sobukwe and his followers broke away from the ANC. In April of the following year, the PAC was born at the Orlando Community Hall in Soweto. Sobukwe was elected as the first President.

In March 1960, the PAC started a campaign to fight the hated pass laws. On 21 March, Sobukwe left his pass at home and went to the Orlando police station. He told the police to arrest him. They did, together with hundreds of other people all over the country.

On the same day, the police opened fire on a peaceful pass protest in Sharpeville. Sixty nine people were shot dead. It was one of the darkest days in the history of this country.

On 8 April the government banned the ANC and the PAC. Two days later, the government declared the first state of emergency. Thousands of ANC and PAC members were arrested.

Sobukwe was charged for “incitement” and sentenced to three years in prison. But after the three years were up, the government did not free Sobukwe. They passed a special law to keep him in jail. The law, known as the “Sobukwe Clause”, allowed the government to keep anyone charged for incitement for as long as they liked. Sobukwe was sent to Robben Island for a further six years.


Even on Robben Island, the government feared Sobukwe. Piet Pelser, the minister of justice, told Parliament that Sobukwe was being kept in a two roomed hut, far away from the other prisoners. The hut, surrounded by barbed wire, was guarded 24 hours a day by “five warders and two warders with dogs.”

Sobukwe was not allowed to talk to the other prisoners. Only his family and government officials were allowed to visit him. Sobukwe spent most of his time on the Island studying. He got a BSC degree from the University of London. He also wrote Xhosa poems and a novel in English.

At the end of June 1969, Sobukwe was released from jail. But he was not allowed to go home to Graaff Reinet. The government banned him and sent him to live in Kimberley, where he knew nobody. He was to be banned for the rest of his life. Sobukwe could not attend meetings or leave Kimberley. He was allowed to work in a lawyers’ office — but when he became a lawyer a few years later, he could not go to his own celebration party!

In 1971 a university in America invited Sobukwe to go and teach there. He asked the government for a passport. He was refused.

But the government did at times give Sobukwe a break. They allowed him to work in court — but he could not be be quoted in the newspapers. In May 1975, the government let him go to his mother’s funeral in Graaff Reinet. His mother, Mma Angeline Sobukwe, who once said that she wanted to live to see her son a free man, died at the age of 90.

Sobukwe never did see freedom in his lifetime. At the end he suffered great pain from a spreading cancer. But he never liked to speak about his illness. He never once complained about the pain. Such was the dignity of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe!

New Words a humble man — a man who didn’t believe he was better than other people humble beginnings — from a poor family incitement — stirring up people’s feeling a keen sportsman — he liked sport very much dignity — strength and pride brilliant — very clever a novel — a long story


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