Benjamin Pogrund (ed.), Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe: New Reflections (Jonathan Ball, 2019)

WRITTEN out of history – that is fair comment on the life of founding Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) president Robert Sobukwe. First imprisoned by the apartheid regime, it then detained and house arrested him indefinitely on Robben Island and in Galeshewe (Kimberley). Since liberation, he has been largely forgotten amid a national history painted in one political party’s colours.

The National Party government most feared opposition leaders with original, inspiring ideas. It was far more comfortable with vanguardist nationalism, even when armed, understanding it all too well. So it murdered Steve Biko and Rick Turner; and condemned Sobukwe to 18 years of incarceration and isolation. Bobby Godsell makes the poignant connection between these political philosophers, all of whom died young – a South African tragedy.

The eminent South African journalist Benjamin Pogrund was Sobukwe’s friend and his well-regarded biographer. Now, he has persuaded 20 writers to contribute short reflections on his life. Some of them are excellent; others veer from the path of relevance. But each has some insight to offer and taken as a whole these essays allow a meaningful picture of a key political figure to emerge.

Pogrund disposes summarily of conspiracy theories surrounding Sobukwe’s death at the age of 53. Its cause was no mystery: he suffered from early tuberculosis and was a smoker, although apartheid meant that like all black South Africans he was ill-served by health facilities. (It’s a pity similar myths about Albert Luthuli cannot be laid to rest.)

Barney Pityana points out that whereas the stature of Sobukwe has endured, the PAC suffered long-term decline – a ‘litany of disasters’ in exile  – into irrelevance under a burden of poor leadership, mismanagement and infighting that tragically blighted the funerals of both Sobukwe in 1978 and his wife, Veronica, in 2018. In the view of Barney Mthombothi, the PAC ‘cannibalised’ itself in exile. The heyday of pan-Africanism was as short-lived as Sobukwe’s political career, which may explain why his message has been constantly distorted and misused in a further insult to his courage and wisdom.

Like Luthuli he was a committed Christian, in his case to Methodism. Pityana describes him as a highly educated and ‘rounded intellectual’ who (again like Luthuli) blended Christian faith with political activism into an over-arching spirituality. His guiding principle was loyalty to Africa and the idea that Africans were all those, regardless of colour, who owed first allegiance to the continent. Individuals, not groups, were paramount – all humans were made in the image of God and there was just one race, humankind. Yet, the misperception has persisted that Sobukwe was anti-white.

The apartheid-era government’s failure to break Sobukwe’s spirit and beliefs creates the link, which emerges very strongly from these pages, with the black conscious movement of which he was in a sense the godfather. He was a shining example of individual psychological liberation from the false consciousness of race, bolstered by his own mental precision, fortitude and steadfastness. His influence is further evidence of the rootedness of black consciousness in theology. Who are the real prisoners, he would ask rhetorically, looking from his Spartan Robben Island cottage towards Parliament in Cape Town. Sobukwe refused to be diminished by the attitudes and methods of his oppressors; and, in the view of Kwandiwe Kondlo, he ‘owned his own soul’. Unusually for a highly cerebral person, he possessed the common touch.

Unhappily, as with the case of Biko, Sobukwe’s liberating ideology has subsequently been hijacked by what Adam Habib pointedly terms political mobsters. Sobukwe believed in political discipline and personal civility; in ideas, not the politics of spectacle, militarism and populism that quickly descends into violence, slander and ethnicity and is often touted in the name of Africanism. The methods of the mob, both physical and virtual, could not be further from the example set by Sobukwe. Indeed, there is substantial evidence that he had some sympathy for and affinity with liberals and liberalism and welcomed co-operation with them as long as black agency was not denied. He did not deny fellowship even with those ideologically opposed.

His message was radical and non-conformist, but always impeccably civil. As Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki and Duma Gqubule (their father Simon was at Healdtown with Sobukwe) point out, his political and moral philosophy was built upon ‘reason and reasoned action’, objectivity and truth; the very antithesis of reactionary identity politics. It is small wonder he was so feared by the perverted sociologists who traded in what Paul Verryn terms the ‘peculiar lie of apartheid’.

The land issue was central to Sobukwe’s ideology but it is unclear, his dislike of the Freedom Charter aside, exactly how he would have resolved it, even though a number of extremist groups invoke his name around this issue. Sobukwe the Africanist would have been appalled by the present-day xenophobia of South Africans; and the patronage networks that benefit capital and the political elite. Exactly how he would have reacted can only reside in speculation.

The on-going Zondo Commission into State Capture is the most high-profile evidence of the dearth of leadership amid the corruption of public service. Joel Mbhele describes ‘A society that seems to have chosen charisma over character, politics over people, slogans over truth’. Under such a burden it is logical to evoke the memory of a lost leader of real faith, integrity and selfless dedication often framed as ubuntu or African humanism. He was a product of an age more inclined to venerate hard work and learning.

It is tempting in our increasingly fraught times to invoke heroic figures from the political past in the hope that morality can be restored to public service. Sobukwe’s exemplary life provides plentiful evidence of what is needed. But is there not is an air of desperation involved, of clutching at historic straws, given the systemic corruption of the ANC and the contemporary South Africa state?