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Robert Sobukwe

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Leader of the Africanist


Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was a central figure in a defining moment in the struggle against racism in 1960, but he was also at the forefront of the ideological battle against oppression. He believed that Africans should fight to free themselves and not rely on white support. "We must fight for freedom - for the right to call our souls our own. And we must pay the price." As the first leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), Robert Sobukwe led from the front in the anti-pass campaign of 21 March 1960, marching to the Orlando police station and presenting himself for arrest. Sobukwe's action resulted in a jail term, but the events at Sharpeville that day changed the course of South African politics.

Police at the Sharpeville police station killed 69 peaceful protesters and wounded a further 180. The African National Congress and the PAC were banned and began to organise underground military activities. A new era of heightened oppression and increased militancy had begun.

As a student at Fort Hare University, Robert Sobukwe joined the African National Congress Youth League and his intelligence and skills as a speaker were recognised when he was elected as the president of the Students' Representative Council. His speech on behalf of the graduating class of 1949 was about the liberation of Africa. As a teacher in Standerton he lost his post for supporting the Defiance Campaign of 1952. He was reinstated but his move to the University of the Witwatersrand saw him move closer to the debates then raging within the ANC about the principles and strategies of resistance.

Anton Lembede, an early leader of the ANC Youth League, had argued that more action was needed in resisting the government. This argument found favour with most of the other "young lions" of the youth league like Nelson Mandela. But the other strain to Lembede's thinking, the Africanist position, was more contentious and garnered less support. Robert Sobukwe was an articulate supporter and theorist of Africanist thinking. In Johannesburg he edited The Africanist and criticised the ANC for falling under the influence of "liberal-left multi-racialists". The Africanists were involved in acrimonious clashes at ANC meetings in 1958, at one of which ANC leader Chief Albert Luthuli criticised "racial extremism". On 6 April 1959, 300 years to the day after Jan van Riebeeck's arrival at the Cape, the PAC was launched with Robert Sobukwe as the first president.

The PAC's first campaign was designed to make shopkeepers treat Africans with respect. The anti-pass campaign followed soon afterwards. Sobukwe was arrested, charged and imprisoned. Sentenced at first to three years in jail, Sobukwe then spent another six years on Robben Island, the victim of a special law that parliament passed each year, the so-called "Sobukwe" clause. This marked the end of the National Party government's pretence of respect for the rule of law. On his release in 1969, Sobukwe was restricted to the magisterial district of Kimberley where he started a law practice, having studied extensively during his time in prison. Robert Sobukwe fell ill with lung cancer and died in February 1978. The son of a farm labourer and a mother with no formal education, Robert was laid to rest in the town of his birth, Graaff-Reinet. Sobukwe's insistence on Africans securing their own freedom found resonance in the Black Consciousness movement which grew as the struggle intensified in the 1970s and 1980s.



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