Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe: Acknowleding the Legacy of a Pan-Africanist Hero.

AuthorLebakeng, Teboho J.
PositionReport - Biography

The Making of an Icon

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, who died fourty years ago, was one of the most prominent pan-Africanists to have come out of South Africa. He was born on 5 December 1924 in Graaff-Reinet in the Cape Province as the youngest of six children. The family had meagre resources but emphasised the importance of education to the children. His father, Hubert Sobukwe, worked as a municipal labourer and a part-time woodcutter. His mother, Angelina was a Pondo of the Xhosa ethnic group and worked as a domestic worker and cook at a local hospital. Sobukwe's grandfather left Lesotho (then known as Basutoland) to resettle in South Africa around the time of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 - 1902.

After completing Standard 6, he enrolled for a Primary Teachers' Training Course for two years but he was not given a teaching post. He then enrolling at the Healdtown Institute in 1940 for his high school. He spent six years at Healdtown studying with the financial assistance provided by George Caley, the school's headmaster, and completed his Junior Certificate (JC) and matric. Healdtown was a Methodist college which was by all accounts a major institution for black education. While at Healdtown, his academic excellence drew attention to his teachers and he was known by his fellow students as a brilliant, eloquent, persuasive and dynamic person with a great command of the English language.

In 1947, after turning twenty-three he enrolled at Fort Hare University where he subsequently joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). During this time, he proved himself to be a great orator whenever he made pronouncements on various issues. His fellow-students chose him to speak on their behalf at the 'fresher's social' at Wesley House where he was staying. Sobukwe took the opportunity to launch a venomous attack on parochialism and the frivolous attitude of students in the hostel. Seeing a disturbing disconnect between the school environment and the lived experiences of African people, he pointed the hypocrisy of the school and the injustices suffered by African people thus puncturing missionary paternalism. It was vintage Sobukwe with fierce determination to set the record straight and demonstrate to the oppressed why they should not be pliant simply because of white paternalism.

In 1948, during his second year he decided to do a course in Native Administration which dealt with the laws governing black people. He began to understand and appreciate the shocking existential reality of his people and thus began his political conscientisation. Apart from books relating to his course of study, he immersed himself into reading a wide range of material on Africa. Critically, he subscribed to the influential West Africa Pilot, the newspaper founded by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. As Sobukwe developed his interest in understanding the nuances of the deplorable African condition not only in South Africa but the entire continent, on 26 May 1948 the Afrikaner National Party came to power and instituted and institutionalised apartheid.

By that time the ANCYL had grown into an aggressive force within the African National Congress. Sobukwe and his two friends Dennis Siwisa and Galaza Stampa started working on a daily commentary called Beware highlighting the deplorable conditions of African people and the need for liberation, the importance of non-collaboration and critiques of Native Representative Councils and Native Advisory Boards. On account of his enunciation of the African struggle Sobukwe was elected as the first president of the Fort Hare Students' Representative Council in 1949.

During the same year, he met 21-year-old Veronica Zodwa Mathe, who came from Hlobane in Natal but was a nurse in training at Alice Hospital. The couple married four and half years later (Pogrund, 2017). In 1954 after moving to Johannesburg and settling in...

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