HE might well have been the first black leader of a free South Africa. The apartheid government saw him as so formidable an opponent that at the end of his three-year sentence for incitement it passed the infamous Sobukwe clause. And so Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, who died on 27 February 1978, was subjected to a grotesque provision. It allowed for annually-renewable banishment to Robben Island on the grounds that he, a stern anti-communist, might commit a crime in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act. After six years, he was placed under house arrest at Galeshewe in Kimberley.

The state regarded him as its primary challenge. It understood other brands of nationalism only too well; but was terrified of more complex ideologies – socialism, Africanism, liberalism – that required a radically different balance of power. But if you ask the average South African to list the most significant six black leaders of the last half century, the chances are that very few selections would include his name. Posterity has not been kind to Sobukwe.

There is every reason to ask why his political philosophy should be considered as anything more than an historical footnote. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) he led from 1959 was a product of anti-communism, anti-colonialism and ethnic nationalism with little relevance to the problems faced by South Africa today. After his jailing, the PAC descended into incompetent chaos driven by personal ambition and the occasional assassination. Apart from Sobukwe, the only other significant leader it has produced is Patricia de Lille. Organisationally, he left no lasting legacy.

But Sobukwe stands head and shoulders above his party as a leader of national historical significance. A Natal Witness editorial described him the day after his funeral as a man of “distinction, vision, moderation and courage”. His great friend and biographer, the journalist Benjamin Pogrund, believes that he was a committed non-racist: for him there was just one human race. As far as whites were concerned, he could not accept them as partners in the struggle until they committed themselves as Africans and material differences were abolished. In one of those endearing South African complexities, the PAC held in high esteem lines from the poem ‘Horatius’, by the imperialist poet Macaulay, that applauded heroic death facing terrible odds.

Sobukwe possessed an unusual and powerful combination of characteristics: a self-effacing intellectual with charismatic leadership qualities. His courage in setting out on the morning of Monday 21 March 1960, to lead a crowd of 200 people demanding arrest at Orlando police station for refusing to carry their passbooks was extraordinary and testament to his belief in non-violence. It was a day that changed South African history irreversibly. Pogrund, in his editorial obituary for the Rand Daily Mail, describing Sobukwe as father of the nation, was wrong of course to fear that his death had deprived South Africa of its last all-embracing black figure capable of leading a liberated country. But his absence in 1994 was a tragic loss to the nation.

He died at 53 of lung cancer, a death hastened by the restrictions placed on travel that obstructed treatment. Just as he was persecuted in life, so he was betrayed in death. His funeral at his home town of Graaff-Reinet on 12 March 1978 was a shameful affair that turned into a riot. Speakers invited by his family, including Pogrund, were denied the platform by a youthful mob. More seriously, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was abused and stoned, and according to one account only saved from stabbing by bodyguards firing blanks. Buthelezi described these events as political thuggery. The funeral was a significant moment for Natal and KwaZulu: relations between Inkatha and the broader liberation movement, which had been reasonably cordial, never recovered. The eventual consequences are remembered only too well.

Above all, Robert Sobukwe represented an era when those who emerged in leadership roles were, by and large, principled, dedicated and altruistic. They illuminate our shabby age like beacons. And at a time when renaming is all the rage, it is perhaps appropriate to ask whether, three decades after his short but illustrious political career ended, there should not be more reminders of his name throughout South Africa.

This article was first published in The Witness on 27 February 2008 and entitled ‘Remember Sobukwe’.

Further reading: Benjamin Pogrund, Sobukwe and Apartheid (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1990).