TOURISTS travel in their thousands to Robben Island, mostly to visit the cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life. Few of them know about or are interested in the cottage some distance away from there where Robert Sobukwe was held in solitary confinement.
The house stands alone, separate from the rest of the prison complex, far from all the other political prisoners. It is a cold, barren, pale yellow cottage surrounded by a wire fence. When you step inside, the tremendous effect of the isolation strikes you. Sobukwe had no one to talk to. No one ever smiled at him. He could only watch and wave to the other prisoners as they walked to the quarry to work in the sun – something that would affect their sight for the rest of their lives. But he couldn't call out to anyone to come and chat. He had only his own thoughts for company.
As you look around the bare house, you understand the psychology behind it all: it was meant to break Sobukwe, mentally and physically; the apartheid state wanted to destroy him and make him forget he was once a dynamic leader with followers who hung on his every word and blindly followed his call in March 1960 to ignore the laws that required black people to carry a pass — the despised dompas.
The interior reinforces the sense of an intense psychological war waged against Sobukwe: there is only a single bed, an FM radio, a desk overlooking the desolate backyard of a prison, and an iron. It was a combination of cruelty and the naked abuse of power that kept this brilliant leader imprisoned in such a wretched place for six years.
Near the house there is another bare, gloomy building. Inside are four single beds neatly arranged in a row, a painful reminder that Sobukwe's children slept here when they visited. They had to obtain permission and cross Table Bay on the ferry from Cape Town harbour. As Sobukwe's wife, Zondeni, later testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), these visits were traumatic for the children.
The leaders of the National Party and the apartheid state's security structures were reportedly afraid of Sobukwe's influence and his emphasis on African nationalism. And yet, the one quote for which he is surely best known is now embodied in the spirit of our constitution: “There is no race but the human race."
Sobukwe was born in Graaff-Reinet in 1924, the son of a woodcutter and a kitchen worker. He studied at Fort Hare with a loan from the Bantu Welfare Trust, became interested in politics and joined the ANC, becoming the chairman of the student council in 1949. In 1950, he started working as a teacher in Standerton but in 1954 he moved to Johannesburg and became a lecturer at Wits, acquiring the nickname “Prof".
In 1957, he became the editor of The Africanist and began criticising the ANC for the influential role played in the organisation by white leftists, liberals and communists. Sobukwe was an Africanist. He could not identify with the Freedom Charter, adopted in Kliptown in 1955, which became the ANC's foundational document. According to his friend and biographer Benjamin Pogrund, Sobukwe was a natural leader, a gifted speaker and a deep thinker.
Establishment of the PAC
In 1958, Sobukwe broke away from the ANC and a year later founded the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). He was unanimously elected as the first president. The humiliating pass laws that restricted the movements of black South Africans and curtailed their participation in the economy were among Sobukwe's top priorities.
Shortly after the ANC announced a campaign against the pass laws in December 1959, the PAC launched its own campaign. On March 16, 1960, the PAC wrote to the police commissioner stating its intention to launch a peaceful campaign against the pass laws on March 21. On that day, Sobukwe led a march to the police station in Orlando, Soweto, and was arrested and charged with sedition.
In the Vaal Triangle, about 5,000 PAC supporters marched to Sharpeville police station. Upon arrival, the police opened fire on them, killing 69 people. The Sharpeville Massacre was a turning point in South Africa and sharply turned international sympathy against the apartheid government. It also led to the banning of the PAC and the ANC.
Sobukwe was sent to prison for three years in May 1960 for inciting people to violate the pass laws. At the end of his sentence on May 3, 1963, parliament approved the General Law Amendment Act with a clause that allowed the minister of justice to detain a political prisoner indefinitely. This became known as the “Sobukwe clause" and was never used for any other prisoner.
Because Vorster wanted it
Sobukwe was then sent to Robben Island, where he was held for six years. Unlike all the other political prisoners on the island, he was not sentenced to prison by a court but detained because the minister of justice wanted it. Balthazar Johannes Vorster was the minister of justice in Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd's cabinet in 1963.
Less than a year after Sobukwe arrived on Robben Island, the Rivonia Trial convicts, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, were also being held there. But Sobukwe never met them because he was kept apart in his own little house. He mostly read and studied, earning a degree in economics from the University of London.
From time to time his family was able to visit him, including his four children to whom he was very attached. His wife, Zondeni Veronica, a nurse, testified before the TRC about how traumatic these visits were for the children. They were stripped naked and searched. This ritual particularly traumatised one of her twins, Didane, and he later exhibited severe behavioural abnormalities.
A district physician and a neurologist examined Sobukwe on Robben Island in 1964 after he began experiencing health problems, according to his wife's testimony before the TRC. The diagnosis was chronic sinusitis. She requested that another specialist examine him, but her request was denied. The prison simply stated that it would not allow an independent specialist to examine him; it provided him with pain pills and massages, and that was deemed sufficient.
Legal practice in Kimberley
Sobukwe was released on May 4, 1969, by which time he was a sick man. However, he was not allowed to go home; he was placed under house arrest in Kimberley, where he later started a legal practice. His wife concluded her TRC testimony by describing what it was like to share her life with this remarkable man who had a vision for a different South Africa.
“Nothing came to my surprise or shock because from the day I met him he was in the struggle, and he died in the struggle. Everything was to be expected. I was not too grieved, in the sense that I expected these things."
Sobukwe passed away on February 27, 1978. The dominance of the ANC and its bitter fight against the PAC meant he never truly enjoyed the heroic status he deserved. He should be celebrated and commemorated, not only by the PAC but by all South Africans, as a freedom fighter who sacrificed his life for our democracy.
The race to commemorate Sobukwe and Mandela planned for December should serve as a reminder to South Africa, Africa and the world of the lives that were sacrificed to liberate the country. May it become a beacon to constantly remind us of the high price that was paid — and of our duty to preserve and protect our democracy at all costs.
*Additional research and analysis by Max du Preez.
♦ VWB ♦
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