I’ve always known about the stories of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela; who are my most inspirational people. Yet, I had no knowledge of the story of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, who was a teacher, lecturer, lawyer, founding member and first President of the Pan Africanist Congress. Though, he was mentioned several times in the LWTF, our trip to Robben Island brought his story alive to me and I have grown much respect and admiration for him as well.
As a student of Fort Hare University, he worked with the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and proved himself to be an amazing speaker and insightful thinker. He strongly believed that the future of South Africa should be in the hands of Black South Africans. Because the ANC was following a multi-racial path, he launched the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC); who intended to overthrow white supremacy and establish a government Africanist in origin, socialist in content and democratic in form. They sought to sabotage the ANC and divided the people at a critical moment. They would ask the people to go to work when the ANC called a general strike. On March 20, 1960 the PAC launched an anti-pass campaign against the pass laws and encouraged Black South Africans to march to the Orlando police station to turn themselves in for arrest. When an
estimate of 5,000 people reached Sharpeville police station, the police opened fire killing 69 people and injuring 180 others in what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre; which displayed great courage and strength and moved the PAC to the front lines of the struggle. Sobukwe was arrested, charged with treason and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Yet, he was being addressed as the savior of the liberation movement.
Sobukwe refused to appeal against the sentence as well as the aid of an attorney on the ground that the court had no jurisdiction over him. At the end of his three-year sentence, the Parliament enacted a General Law Amendment Act termed the “Sobukwe Clause,” which empowered the judge to prolong the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely. The Clause was never used to detain anyone else; Sobukwe was moved to Robben Island, where he remained for an additional six years. He was kept in solitary confinement, where his living quarters were separate from the main prison and he had no contact with any other prisoners. His family was allowed to visit him at Robben Island, which had a separate room for them. He was allowed civilian clothes, access to books and spent most of his time studying. He obtained a degree in Economics from the University of London.
He was offered a job by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the United States, which led him to apply to leave the country with his family. His request was denied. When he was released from prison, he remained under twelve-hour house arrest and banned from participating in any political activity. He studied Law while on house arrest and established his own law firm. Newspapers were not allowed to quote him, when he argued in court.
Later he was diagnosed with lung cancer and the government deliberately made it harder for him to receive treatment by insisting that he comply with the conditions of his restrictions. On February 27, 1978 he died from lung complications.
My respect and admiration grew from his willingness to pay the penalty for his principles in the same manner as Gandhi, King, Jr. and Mandela.