Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (1924-1978), who helped found and led the Pan-African Congress, was a militant opponent of white supremacy in South Africa.

Robert Sobukwe was born in the South African town of Graaff-Reinet on December 5, 1924. His mother was a South African of Xhosa background; his father was from Lesotho and had been both a worker in the Graaff Reinet water system and a woodcutter. Like most Black families in South Africa, Sobukwe's was poor. With financial help from the local Methodist mission, Sobukwe went to Healdtown, a Methodist boarding school, and was an outstanding student.

In the late 1940s he went on to Fort Hare University College, the only such institution open to Blacks, and was elected president of the Students' Representative Council. At Fort Hare he also joined the African National Congress (ANC), the principal organ of Black resistance to race discrimination, and became associated with its Youth League. Begun by Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, and others in the 1940s, the Youth League challenged the moderate policies of older ANC leaders.

After graduation from Fort Hare, Sobukwe took a teaching position, from which he was fired in 1952 for participating in the ANC's Defiance Campaign, a mass refusal to obey apartheid laws. He then taught in the languages program of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

In the mid-1950s Sobukwe opposed the ANC's policy of allying itself with anti-apartheid organizations of other races. This led him and others to leave the ANC in 1959 and found the Pan-African Congress (PAC), which rejected cooperation with other races. Sobukwe was elected its first president.

Convinced that a direct challenge to the apartheid government would spark a mass uprising, the PAC planned a nationwide attack on South Africa's hated pass laws—laws that forced Blacks to carry identity cards to certify their right to be in areas reserved for whites. The demonstration on March 21, 1960, did not attract mass participation. But in one of the few places where the turnout was heavy, the township of Sharpeville, the police fired on the crowd, killing 67 and wounding hundreds more. Many victims were shot in the back as they fled. This event profoundly altered South African history.

In the aftermath of the Sharpeville killings, the government declared a state of emergency. Sobukwe and other anti-apartheid leaders were jailed and the PAC and the ANC were outlawed. As a result, both groups decided that because decades of peaceful protest against race discrimination had led only to intensified violence by the state, violent countermeasures were necessary. For the next 30 years both groups launched occasional raids and sabotage campaigns against the state. The ANC became more popular than the PAC among Blacks during this period. The armed struggle and other factors culminated in the government legalizing the PAC and the ANC in 1990, releasing Mandela and other leaders, and beginning negotiations that were eventually to lead to the end of apartheid, though the process was a bloody one.

After his arrest in 1961, Sobukwe denied the legitimacy of the judicial system that tried him and refused to defend himself. He served a prison term from 1961 to 1964. In prison he studied law by correspondence and earned a degree. Upon release he was re-arrested immediately under what came to be known as the "Sobukwe clause"—Article 4 of the General Law Amendment Act of 1963—which allowed the government to detain indefinitely without trial anyone who, having completed a prison sentence, was deemed by the minister of justice to be a danger to the state.

In 1969 Sobukwe was allowed to settle in the town of Kimberly but was banned—prohibited from speaking in public or being quoted and from participating in any group activity. He could not leave the Kimberly area; nonetheless, he practiced law until his death from cancer in 1978.

From all reports, Sobukwe was a reluctant, self-effacing leader who radiated warmth, generosity, and intellectual vigor. An instructor at Fort Hare reported that he was "by far the most brilliant fellow we have at college …. It is doubtful if Fort Hare will ever get the like of him in the foreseeable future." One of his colleagues referred to "his clear, incisive mind …, his glowing honesty …, his concern for the welfare of each of us, his willingness to assist in whatever capacity." One student of Black politics concluded that his activity was "wholly the product of a sense of duty, never an outlet for frustrated ambition."

Sobukwe's reason for rejecting cooperation with white and Asian anti-apartheid groups was that he believed that years of white supremacy had conditioned whites to be dominant and Blacks to be submissive. Blacks thus needed psychological independence. He admitted that "there are Europeans who are intellectually converts to the African's cause, but, because they materially benefit from the present set-up, they cannot completely identify with that cause." Real democracy, he argued, can come only when Blacks "by themselves formulate policies and programmes and decide on the method of struggle without interference from … the minorities who arrogantly appropriate to themselves the right to plan and think for the African." These ideas draw much from the "Africanist" philosophy articulated earlier by Anton Lembede. It was refined and extended by Stephen Biko in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sobukwe was aware of the danger that this would become an anti-white, rather than a more precise anti-white supremacy, position. He frequently stated that, even though Blacks must be independent of the influence of sympathetic whites, ultimately loyalty to Africa was the crucial requirement for citizenship in a liberated South Africa. Whites and Asians would have full rights, so long as they viewed themselves as Africans and acted accordingly.

Before his death Sobukwe worried that younger PAC militants, unwilling to see the subtleties in the PAC philosophy, would develop hatred of whites, rather than of apartheid. The fact that in the 1990s the PAC boycotted negotiations, announced a policy of "one settler, one bullet," and was linked to random killings of whites during the difficult transition to a post-apartheid society suggest that his fears were realized.


Further Reading on Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe

Benjamin Pogrund's Sobukwe and Apartheid (1991) is a highly personal biography. For a superb study that places Sobukwe's life and ideas in a larger context, see Gail Gerhart's Black Power in South Africa (1978). Peter Walshe's The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa (1971) and Tom Lodge's Black Politics in South Africa since 1945 (1983) are also valuable.

Additional Biography Sources

Pheko, S. E. M., The land is ours: the political legacy of Mangaliso Sobukwe, New York: Pheko & Associates, 1994.

Pogrund, Benjamin, How can man die better: Sobukwe and apartheid, London: P. Halban, 1990.