PAC leader Robert Sobukwe’s dream of a ‘United States of Africa’ lives on after his passing

PAC founder Robert Sobukwe. Sobukwe was not only a central figure in the South African liberation movement, but he was also a steadfast proponent of Pan-Africanism. l ARCHIVES

PAC founder Robert Sobukwe. Sobukwe was not only a central figure in the South African liberation movement, but he was also a steadfast proponent of Pan-Africanism. l ARCHIVES

Published Mar 3, 2024


Tswelopele Makoe

This past Tuesday, February 27, marked the passing of the epoch-making anti-apartheid revolutionary, and founder of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

Affectionately called “Prof”, Sobukwe was not only a central figure in the South African liberation movement, but he was also a steadfast proponent of Pan-Africanism, and strongly believed in the commonality and unification of African people across the continent and Diaspora.

Born in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, Sobukwe was an educator by profession. In his formative years, Sobukwe was greatly influenced by the teachings of Anton Lembede, Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, and W. E. B. du Bois, to name a few.

He attended the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in 1947, where his interest in politics was peaked. At the time, UFH was a highly diverse mecca of black students from the length and breadth of our nation, Sub-Saharan Africa and the continent at large, engrossed in the turbulent politics of the time.

During his time at the UFH, in 1948, Sobukwe launched a daily publication named Beware, which focused on critiques of Native Representative Councils and Native Advisory Boards. Although he had joined the African National Congress Youth League that same year, he grew gradually sceptical of the African National Congress.

Sobukwe was elected president of the Fort Hare Students' Representative Council (SRC) only a year later, where his speeches as the president of SRC certified him as a skilled orator and a person of distinction. In the same year, he was elected the national secretary of the ANCYL, where he adopted a fervently Pan-Africanist position.

On June 6, 1954, Sobukwe married Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, neé Mathe, an activist and health practitioner, whom he met when she led a labour rights strike against Victoria Hospital in Lovedale, Eastern Cape.

The Mother of Azania, as Mama Veronica was affectionately known, played an integral role in the liberation struggle in her own right. She collaborated and advocated for nurses’ rights extensively, while continuously exposing the ill-treatment and humiliation suffered by her husband while he was imprisoned by apartheid authorities on Robben Island.

She both publicly and privately challenged the apartheid government, especially the then Minister of Justice, who later became Prime Minister, BJ Vorster.

In 1959 Sobukwe led a break-away from the ANC and formed the PAC. A year later, in March 1960, Sobukwe led a hugely popular nation-wide non-violent protest campaign against the notorious pass laws.

The protests resulted in the Sharpeville Massacre when 69 protesters were shot dead by the apartheid police. The event is credited with enlightening the international community about the brutality of the apartheid and the white minority regime.

Sobukwe was fired from his job as a schoolteacher, and subsequently sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on grounds of incitement. Sobukwe was remanded to solitary confinement on the infamous Robben Island from 1963 to 1969.

He was kept away from all the prisoners, and kept in a house which until this day has come to be known as the Sobukwe House on Robben Island.

His imprisonment was repeatedly extended under the “Sobukwe Clause”, which was hastily written into the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 during a special sitting of Parliament called to discuss only the fate of Sobukwe.

The "Sobukwe Clause” permitted for an indefinite renewal of Sobukwe’s prison sentence for as long as the government considered him a threat to the status quo.

Following his six-year imprisonment, Sobukwe was released but immediately placed under house arrest in Galeshewe township outside Kimberly, where he was banished until his passing in 1978. He was buried in his birthplace in the Eastern Cape.

Sobukwe’s wife was paramount in exposing the abuses suffered by Sobukwe while he was in jail, particularly how the apartheid authorities refused him access to proper and independent medical examinations.

During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Mrs Sobukwe demanded that the doctors who treated her husband, and the staff on Robben Island who had reportedly mixed broken glass into his food, make a full disclosure before any amnesty could be considered.

Sobukwe was a steadfast believer in a Pan-Africanist future, not only nationally but continentally. He was opposed to collaborations that restricted or excluded Africans, defining African as “anyone who lives in and pays his allegiance to Africa and who is prepared to subject himself to African majority rule”.

Throughout the 1950s, Sobukwe grew increasingly unnerved by the ANC’s lack of progress in the liberation struggle, a period in which a flurry of tyrannising laws were instilled by the apartheid government aiming to impede the liberation struggle.

Furthermore, he was an avid anti-communist, and repeatedly rejected ANC’s alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP). Sobukwe subsequently left the ANC, forming the PAC and being elected its first president on April 6, 1959, alongside Potlako Leballo as the secretary-general.

The PAC distinguished itself by advocating for a South Africa based on African nationalism, rather than the ANC’s position that “the land belongs to all who live in it, both white and black".

The PAC championed an Africanist Socialist Democracy, which would prioritise the actualisation of a South Africa that best served black South Africans, rather than other nationalities and ethnicities.

The PAC’s initial manifesto focused solely on national liberation and revered the black working class as the “driving force in the Struggle”.

These socialist sentiments began to subside towards the 1990s, a dwindling which the Africanist Youth Congress of Azania (PAYCO) – the youth wing of the PAC – attributed to international inter-governmental sabotage.

“Black nationalism” ultimately promotes democratic representation in culturally plural societies. It is the advocacy of a government that is comprised of black people, working for the benefit and development of black citizens.

It is not only inspiring collaborative efforts, but also fostering unity and solidarity in the diverse array of black people, continentally and in the Diaspora.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the overall political popularity of the PAC has largely dwindled, from 1.25% of the overall national votes in 1996, to 0.19% of the overall national votes in 2019.

In addition to this, the leadership in the PAC, over the past few decades, has been engulfed in internal squabble characterised by infighting, corruption, and mismanagement of funds.

Although South Africa is nearly 30 years into democracy, it remains marked as the most unequal society in the modern world. The world is seemingly moving at a pace much too fast for the growth of our society.

Over half of the population live in extreme poverty, and our public health systems are over-extended. We are facing insufficient power in a globalised nation that is vastly dependent on technology and electricity.

The cost of living is steadily increasing, and the cost of basic education is becoming inaccessible.

For Sobukwe, his dream of a nation where black people would be uplifted was stifled in the process of a free South Africa. Many of the human rights that were fervently fought for during the liberation struggle have not been actualised.

Our government and leadership do not seem to work for the benefit or empowerment of its people. Our indigenous knowledge and inclusion in contemporary curricula is virtually erased.

The current context of South Africa is unsettling, to say the least. Sobukwe’s plight was so revolutionary and momentous, particularly in the current, especially strained African context.

Collaborative efforts and unifying efforts are pertinent to widespread empowerment, upliftment, and development. The role of a successful nation is one that values its people and caters to their unique needs. Our current national context does not undertake that role.

It is more important now, than ever, to highlight Sobukwe’s legacy of bravery, revolution, and utmost tenacity in one’s passions. He not only undertook knowledge from formidable black theorists, but implemented that knowledge in accordance with his own context.

He valued African knowledge and its ability to be developmental and transformational. He defended the basic human rights of Africans, not only in his context but all over the globe.

Robert Smangaliso Sobukwe should be the centre of politics, socialism, education, development, and governance sectors. His sentiments, that promote equitable leadership and fight for the overall upliftment of the entire nation, are pertinent to our current, and future context.

It is absolutely shameful that Sobukwe is not as heralded as he should be, and this is largely due to the fact that he did not belong to the ruling ANC party. Nevertheless, the liberation struggle in South Africa is inherently synonymous with names such as Sobukwe, Mandela, Biko, and Hani, no matter their political affiliation.

It is their character, selflessness, their courage, and their plight that has shaped the freedoms that so many South Africans enjoy today. It is their sacrifices that have instilled basic human rights to all people in the nation, and that have bestowed on them the opportunities to educate and elevate themselves, without systematic and prejudicial barriers.

Sobukwe is not only a South African revolutionary and icon, but he is also a fierce flag-bearer of Pan-Africanism. His contributions are etched into history, and his contributions to the liberation movement in South Africa will remain long into the future, and one day enact Sobukwe’s dream of “the creation of a United States of Africa from Cape to Cairo, and Morocco to Madagascar”.

As brilliantly said by Sobukwe: “We take our stand on the principle that Africa is one and desires to be one and nobody, I repeat, nobody has the right to balkanise our land.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a gender activist, and a columnist for the Sunday Independent & IOL. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.