Robert Sobukwe, who died of lung cancer on 27th February 1978, aged 53 years was an outstanding leader and visionary whose legacy is enduring, whose name seems to be on the rise again.  Despite the conspiracy of silence about this great son of Africa over the years, it is heartening to see people’s growing appreciation of the “Prof”. 

We remember Robert Sobukwe.  We remember a man of great intellect;  a humble man of the people;  a man of such incomparable personality.  From Sobukwe’s life and teachings we learn about principle;  commitment;  selflessness;  dedication and determination. 

Leaders like Sobukwe are a mirror we must use to look at ourselves, they set the bar which we are expected not just to maintain but to lift even higher. 

We are now two decades into our freedom;  how far have we traversed in realising the vision that “Prof” had;  in creating conditions for the realisation of the full potential of the individual;  as Sobukwe said that the African is not just an economic animal to be fed but a full human being with social and spiritual dimensions or his exhortation for the building of a society that is democratic in form;  non-racial in character and socialistic in content?

Or have we been able to have people who can provide the kind of leadership that Sobukwe defined, which he so fittingly represented?  I dare say that the poverty of true leadership as defined by Sobukwe is so glaring and marked that it might be the single most important stumbling block to the fulfilment of the aspirations of the African millions.  Sobukwe defined true leadership thus:  “true leadership demands complete subjugation of self, honesty and integrity, uprightness of character;  courage and fearlessness, and above all a consuming love for one’s people”.

If we use this as our template, it is clear that as a country, as the Liberation Movement we have not come close to the kind of high standards that Sobukwe has defined.  In public institutions, be it in Municipalities, provinces, national or public entities what ethical standards guide our leaders;  what capacities do they possess and how diligent are they in the execution of their public mandate?  The saddest thing for Sobukwe would be the degeneration of people who spent years in the trenches fighting in the name of the people;  only to join the exploiters in perpetuating the misery of our people.  When you have a province going bankrupt mid-year;  departments failing to account properly for billions of rands;  municipalities failing to spend money to develop the physical space where the poor live, when dams are overflowing but the rural poor are thirsty; when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and when we fail to transform the socio-economic relations created under settler-minority rule, then we have a serious challenge of leadership.

Sobukwe emphasised and also epitomised that leaders must always be in front.  That is, whatever sacrifices we expect of the people, leaders must be the first to go through the fire.  Many of our struggle comrades have allowed themselves to be corrupted by the vile and vampirous materialist values of the settler-colonial minority.  They have merely aped the conspicuous consumption and display of ill-gotten money of white capital, almost as if to declare and celebrate the attainment of their long denied personal goals.

We must learn from Sobukwe, and be his true disciples.  True disciples of Sobukwe would “subjugate” the self;  be honest, have integrity and “above all a consuming love for ones people”.

The ultimate challenge that Sobukwe is putting before us is to confront the reality that as Africans we do not occupy the front rows amongst the nations of the world in terms of development.  The universal truism is equally that our development will not come as a solidarity gift from revolutionary Cuba or China;  but a product of our own sweat and toil.  Thus it becomes incumbent on each one of us, that given a chance and a position of responsibility or leadership, we need to be conscious of the plight of our people and work in a way that seeks to restore our dignity and uplift our standing.

The ever-increasing globilization and its challenges further confirmed one of Sobukwe’s most fundamental political outlooks.  As a pan-Africanist Sobukwe was totally committed to the unity of the African continent.    Like other visionary leaders of the time, Kwame Nkurmah, Sekou Toure, Patrice Lumumba etc. he fervently believed that unless Africans united and formed a continental government they will remain at the mercy of foreign powers.  Sobukwe believed in complete integration.  Since the decolonisation of Africa we have countless cases of blatant interference in African affairs, our supposed independence is merely “flag independence”.  African leaders who have stood up to the enemies of the African people and progress have been easily disposed of, from Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana);  Captain Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), Laurent Kabila (Congo) etc.  to the recent events in Libya and Ivory Coast.  The last two events showed in a very brazen colonial way how Western powers could simply brush aside the African Union (AU) and impose their will on Africa.  Sobukwe said that we were fighting to be able “to call our souls our own”.    As Sobukwe  warned without unity Africans will be manipulated to serve external interests and not those of the African people.  The question is whether the policies we make and pursue reflect the interest of our people or those of external and other interests.  As a true leader of the people Sobukwe firmly stated: “our policies must flow from the logic of the African situation and in the long term interest of the African millions”.  As a continent and as a country where do our policies flow from and in whose long term interest?

As Bob Marley sang “ … in the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty …”,  why is it that in the abundance of arable lands, oil, gas and minerals our people are desperate and poor?  The inevitable question that arises is whether we have true leaders?  The painful reality is that we seem not to have sufficient capable leaders for the task at hand, of running institutions of state not to scavenge on the masses but to work for their Liberation.

The voice of Sobukwe is on the rise, thank God!  His is a powerful tool for the emancipation of our people from mental slavery.  He might have been suppressed and ignored by the powers that be all along but the “defier of the undefiable” is speaking louder and louder to the African masses through the mouth of the African People’s Convention (APC).

Sobukwe was a great leader and patriot.  It is not for nothing that when he was to be released after completing his three year jail term in 1963 for “incitement” arising out of his organisation of the anti-pass campaign which resulted in the Sharpeville and Langa shootings on 21 March 1960, the settler-minority parliament passed the General Laws Amendment Act, better known as the “Sobukwe Clause” empowering the state to keep in prison any person who has completed his/her jail term.  This was to be reviewed by parliament annually.  It was meant and only used against Robert Sobukwe.

Equally on Robben Island Sobukwe did not stay in a cell or worked in the quarry breaking stones.  He was kept in a separate house isolated from the rest.  He had the privilege of getting bread and newspapers, and visits from settler parliamentarians in preparation for the annual debate on the renewal of his stay on the Island.  In short he was treated like a General of a defeated army;  with respect and courtesy.

Whilst on the island he completed a degree in Economics with the University of London, after his release in 1969 and banishment to Kimberley he completed a degree in Law!

Sobukwe’s life, teachings and suffering is a challenge to all of us.  At least there are those of us who take Sobukwe’s legacy and ideals as our guiding torch.  And we will never let him down.  It is indeed telling that on the occasion of his passing away in 1978, no less a person than the then Prime Minister of the minority regime John Vorster said: “Compared to (Albert) Luthuli, Sobukwe was a heavy weight”.


Compiled by Cde Themba Godi.

APC President.


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