Greed for money and power were foreign to Sobukwe

By Joe Thloloe

I don’t believe there is a better place to start thinking about Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, celebrating his life, than at his very end. The words inscribed on the tombstone in the cemetery in Graff Reinet tell his whole story:

“True leadership demands complete subjugation of self, absolute honesty, integrity and uprightness of character and fearlessness, and above all, a consuming love of one’s people.”

It is the re-emergence of that brand of leadership that can save our country and that can lift the gloom hanging over South Africa, and possibly the entire globe.

I probably met Sobukwe on the day the Africanists broke away from the ANC, on November 2 1958, but my 16-year-old mind was focused on Josias Madzunya and Potlako Leballo, the two firebrands that hogged the media headlines.

I had read about them and heard about them from classmates who lived in Alexandra. Madzunya had led a successful campaign that forced the Putco bus company to reverse the fare increases it had imposed on the people of Alexandra.

Madzunya wore an overcoat and flowing beard even in the heat of November.

Leballo was another colourful character that we youngsters then followed, probably the same way that young people follow Julius Malema today.

I now know that Sobukwe was in that crowd because newspaper photographs from that time show him speaking at the Transvaal congress of the ANC on the night of November 1.

I’ve also come to know that he wrote a letter that informed the ANC that the Africanists were leaving to start their own organisation.

However, I got to know Sobukwe when he burst into the history books when he opened the inaugural congress of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in April 1959. He had us cheering, stomping with our feet and the women ululating as he spelled out the policies of the new organisation.

The bottom line of his address was that it was the oppressed that had to liberate themselves, without the patronising assistance of the more liberal fringes of the oppressors.

The values that propelled Sobukwe’s life were selflessness – “complete subjugation of self” – honesty, integrity, uprightness of character, courage – fearlessness – and a consuming love of his people. He lived these values.

A few events pop into my heard when I remember Prof (by the way, he didn’t like us calling him Prof, a nickname we gave him because he was teaching in the African languages department at Wits University.)

On December 16 1959, the national executive committee had just announced that the Status Campaign we had been running would be elevated to an anti-pass campaign, and that the details of the campaign would be announced in due course.

Sobukwe said the leaders of the PAC would be in front in the campaign and the masses would not be used as cannon fodder while the leaders were invisible, commanding the troops from the back.

The women in the hall pranced up the aisles to the area in front of the stage and mocked the men: “If you are scared of the boers, give us your pants, and we’ll show you how to do it.”

Among these women, I remember Mrs Walaza and MaMolapo.

I look up and I see Prof wipe tears from his eyes, moved by the chanting women, and already anticipating the massacre on Sharpeville Day.

The letter he wrote to the commissioner of police a few days before the massacre also anticipated violence from the police.

On March 21, various groups from the corners of Soweto converged at the Orlando police station. Sobukwe, true to his word, leads us to the charge office, but the police refuse to arrest us and tell us to go home.

A couple of hours after they refused, a convoy of cars with security police entered the police station yard and a senior policeman comes to us and reads out a list of names: “Wie is Sobukwe? Leballo?”

The national and provincial leaders are taken into the police station, and we see our leaders driven away in police vehicles.

We waited outside the police station all morning into the afternoon. Then the journalists sped off, telling us that hundreds of our comrades had been killed in Sharpeville. They wanted to be at the thick of the action.

The women that were prancing at the Communal Hall on December 16 fed us as we waited. We were arrested late in the afternoon and we saw Sobukwe and other national and regional executives the next afternoon at the Johannesburg Prison – Number Four.

The irony that day was that Madzunya and his executive in Alexandra were arrested at their homes, after they had denounced the campaign as premature.

As they entered the cells, some of our aggressive colleagues were threatening them and accused them of having sold out. Sobukwe calmed the angry men and invited Madzunya and his men to join the group in his cell, so they would be safe.

Sobukwe was both tough and gentle.

One day in April that year, we were convicted and sentenced, and as we arrived back at Number Four, the warders stripped us of our civilian clothing, got old-time prisoners to shave our heads clean and gave us a standard uniform of khaki shorts and red short-sleeved shirts.

A sea of shiny heads and a mass of red under them … When Sobukwe and his colleagues came to get their breakfast, I saw him wipe tears from his face.

Another memory: we were reunited with Sobukwe and his team at the Stoneyard Prison in Boksburg – we from Pretoria Central Prison and Sobukwe and company from Number Four. We were excited … then the prison commander came: “Wie is Sobukwe?”

It turned out he had brought a special uniform for Prof – a pair of long pants, shoes – yes, shoes – and a jersey.

Sobukwe’s reaction? “I’ll take them only if everybody else gets the same.” The angry commander stormed away with his entourage behind him.

One of the stories he told us was of “the young white boys, policemen”, who waylaid him at Braamfontein station every working day and demanded that he produce his “pass”.

They knew that his pass was in order because they checked it daily, but they were hoping to catch him on a day he’d forgotten it at home and then they would have caught “‘n geleerde kaffir” (well-taught black person), who taught at the Engelse universiteit (English university.

For me, the lesson was not in the policemen, but in his daily commute.

As a lecturer, he could afford a car or a comfortable second-class ticket on a train, but he chose to walk about 5km from his Mofolo home to Dube railway station and ride in third-class coach.

The third-class coaches were packed and most of the time during peak hours you had to wiggle in using your behind to push your way in.

He chose this commute to be with the people he was leading and to hear their day-to-day stories.

For me, the most inspiring story about Sobukwe was during his stay on Robben Island.

PAC prisoners, who at the time were the majority population on Robben Island, walked past him and “his house”, they would pause and greet him with the PAC’s open palm salute; “Izwe Lethu!” and he would salute back.

The warders stopped this ritual and threatened to charge them with furthering the aims of a banned organisation.

His reaction was to wait until his followers passed his mini-jail and he would then silently scoop up soil with his hand and let it trickle through his fingers indicating: “Remember, you are sons of the soil.” And in turn they would scoop up soil.

In this talk, I’ve concentrated on Sobukwe, the man. I’ve deliberately kept away from the man Balthazar John Vorster, the then minister of “justice”, described as “a man with a magnetic personality, great organising ability and a divine sense of his mission”. That version you will find in books and on the internet.

I have tried to look at a man who lived his values and didn’t pursue the current values that rule our society – values of greed for money and power.

And from these memories, I hope you will then understand the sacrifices he had to make because of his consuming love for his people. He sacrificed not only his life, but that of his wife and children, because he loved his land and his people.

  • This was an address at the launch of the Year of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe by the Robben Island Museum

Thloloe is a veteran journalist, an ex-trade unionist and former managing editor of Sowetan

Latest News