How do we emulate you?

I remember you’d get embarrassed when we called you Prof, but to us your followers who knew nothing about university protocols, you remained Prof. I still call the son I named Mangaliso after you and a nephew’s son, also named Mangaliso, Prof. For us the name is a measure of our deep love and respect for you.

We don’t say it with the sarcastic tone of the “young Afrikaner boys”, policemen, who waylaid you at Braamfontein Station when you got off the train from Dube Station in Soweto and always demanded to see your pass every working day. They were hoping that one day they’d catch you when you’d forgotten it at home. It would be a coup for them to arrest “’n geleerde kaffir who taught at the Engelse universiteit”. You never
forgot it at home, and you’d laugh at them. I remember your toothy laugh that rose from your belly.

You could afford a second-class ticket, but you always bought third class and pushed your way into the people’s coach – fuduwa – as they did. You listened to their stories, felt their anger, heard their preaching and their hymns.

I’m writing this note/meditation decades after you led the breakaway from the African National Congress at Orlando Communal Hall in November 1958; decades after you swept me off my feet when you launched the Pan Africanist Congress in the same hall in April 1959, decades after the PAC resolved to launch an Anti-Pass Campaign at its congress in December 1959 and decades after I stood near, oh, so near, you as we entered the Orlando Police Station on the morning of March 21 1960 – the day 69 of us were slaughtered at Sharpeville in the Vaal, including eight women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children.

On that day we, led by you, changed the trajectory of the liberation struggle in this country. Did we really change it?

Sit in a shebeen, ride a taxi to work, sit at a business meeting and you feel the gloom covering our country today. The shanty towns of those times – Emaplateni in Orlando or Emasakeni in Moroka – are now spread near and wide around the country.

The once-proud Johannesburg has turned into a slum, where cars and taxis have to dodge huge potholes to reach their destination. Headlines in the media scream “CORRUPTION! CORRUPTION!” at every turn.

Poverty is rampant. According to StatsSA more than half of South Africa’s households (57%) are classified as poor and unemployment stands at 33%. The World Bank (2018) says we are the most unequal country with the Gini Coefficient on income inequality hovering between .66 and .67.

This is not what you sacrificed your life for. What went wrong with the revolution?

This note addressed to you, this meditation, surfaces two speeches, one by you and the other by your tormentor, John Vorster, who was styled “the Minister of Justice” at the time.

According to your lifelong friend, Dennis Siwisa, you once told your fellow students at Fort Hare University, what you understood about leadership:

“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.”

These words are now inscribed on your tombstone at a cemetery in Graff Reinert. They describe perfectly the Sobukwe I knew: who sacrificed his life, his career, and his family – all because of his love for his people.

Even Vorster was scared by your commitment: he described you as “a man with a magnetic personality, great organising ability and a divine sense of his mission”.

What would have happened post 1994 if South Africa had adopted the values you stood for? Of course, we still mouth them in our national constitution, but have not grabbed them and lived them.

The new elite is not different from the apartheid oppressors. It’s a world of scarcity… I should hoard whatever I can for myself and perhaps for my children. The devil takes the hindmost.

Son of the soil, how do we get back to the consuming love of our people? Actually, feel the love and embrace it – go beyond the slogans of Batho Pele.

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