February 27 marks 37 years since the passing away in the hands of the apartheid regime of the great pan-Africanist leader. His radical dedication to the total freedom, unity and prosperity of Africa ought to stir up the present generation to embrace a similar commitment.
As we remember the passing away of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (1924 - 1978) during this month of February, we can do well to reflect on his developmental ideas. To this day, Sobukwe remains a source of inspiration to many people in South Africa in particularand around the pan-African world. Sobukwe was arrested in Soweto, Johannesburg, in 1960 and subsequently imprisoned for organising and leading the March 21, 1960 anti-pass march. It was a peaceful protest against an indentification card that was mandatory for Africans under the apartheid regime. The march culminated in the settler-colonial regime massacre of people at Sharpeville and Langa townships of present-day Gauteng and Western Cape respectively. While wee may probably never be able to hear Sobukwe’s voice again because the settler-colonial regime ensured he remains silent beyond his grave by banning him and destroying the audio material containing his voice, his ideas remain. We wish we could hear him talk.
Sobukwe is known for his uncompromising spirit even when his own life was in danger and opportunities were presented to him to change his mind. He stood firm in his resolve to “freedom and independence in poverty rather than servitude with plenty”. He knew that accepting the offers that were made to him by his jailers was nothing but chains to keep him and the African people in perpetual subjugation. Today that truth is obvious as many remain in poverty, landlessness, and are without jobs in their own land in spite of “freedom”.
Sobukwe’s analysis of South Africa’s problems was profound. He identified three key areas for action: (1) there had to be an African democratic government, with everyone owing their only loyalty and willing to subject themselves to democratic values of the African majority being regarded as an African. In that situation, there would be no guarantees for minority rights. Sobukwe rejected the idea of ‘races’ as applied to human beings, explaining that there is only one race: the human race. He thus introduced into the South African politics the concept of ‘non-racialism’ as opposed to ‘multi-racialism’; (2) there had to be rapid extension of industrial development to help, among other things, alleviate pressure on the land as well as ensure full development of the human personality in a socialist context. He understood clearly that the political and economic life of the country could not be developed outside the cultural experiences of the majority, which is what democracy means; and (3) continental unity. As a pan-Africanist, Sobukwe could only work towards the unity of the continent. He understood the problems that the colonial borders imposed on the people. In fact, these borders could only be a problem to a free Africa because they were never meant to benefit Africans in the first place.
As a pan-Africanist, Sobukwe logically moved on the basis that South Africa was colonised by capitalists (making colonialism and capitalism synonymous). This means that, even today, capitalism is the opposite of socialism. Consequently, pan-Africanism appears as a solution and by its nature pan-Africanism can never be capitalist as it was designed to act against colonialism and imperialism as identified by both Lenin (in ‘Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism’) and Nkrumah (in ‘Neo-colonialism: the last stage of imperialism’). Rejecting all forms of exploitation and oppression, pan-Africanism is therefore a revolt against all forms of imperialism.
For Sobukwe, freedom could only be assured in a democratic socialist state where people established control over things and not over other people. Speaking during the times of the Cold War, Sobukwe also understood perfectly the fact that what was happening in some socialist countries was not the kind of socialism he wanted for his country. The capitalist and the socialist blocks were in intense competition for the loyalty of Africa and other developing countries. The US which had emerged stronger after the 2nd World War had ‘re-invented’ development and poverty and extended their development aid to colonies through their foreign policy of “constructive engagement” and “policy of containment”. With these policies, the US encouraged European countries to end their direct colonization of other people and their lands and opt for development aid – a disguised form of colonization, since this aid means the former colonies now owed the former colonizer. Not a single country has ever managed to pay off any of those loans. Having been relieved of the responsibility for the good of their colonies, former colonial powers continue unperturbed to milk Africa of her resources with no option for redress. Sobukwe was very much aware of the fact that at the core of ‘assistance’ by either bloc were Africa’s resources. In the true spirit of non-alignment, Sobukwe warned against taking sides with either bloc, but acknowledged that the country would go either side whenever it needed to.
In Sobukwe’s times, the main feature of imperialism/colonialism was the extraction and export of the continent’s raw materials and having these re-sold back as finished products. Sobukwe understood the concept of the value chain and how it could help the country develop, or without it how unemployment and poverty could affect the country. Speaking of equitable distribution of the country’s wealth, Sobukwe demanded that the ownership of resources remain with the indigenous people.
Looking at what is happening today in South Africa, one can only marvel at what Sobukwe foresaw decades ago. South Africa is still trapped in the colonial patterns of trade which exports large quantities of raw mineral resources to other countries and then becomes the market for their finished products. Today this can be seen in the bilateral agreement between Pretoria and Beijing. The agreement allows for the massive exportation of South Africa’s raw mineral resources to China while China sells back their finished textile products. The Chinese benefit extremely through the value chain that is created by raw minerals in their country while their imports cost South Africa heavily in terms of jobs, creating poverty and hardships among the working classes. Beijing is simply taking over from London by being the new exploiter of the country’s resources. The massive exportation of our raw resources deprives us of the benefits of the value chain where jobs are created at every point a product is processed.
But again, Sobukwe was a genius who understood the difference between events and processes. He knew that the liberation of Africa was going to be a process, not an event. He warned those who mobilised Africans into issues against misleading the masses. That is why Sobukwe spoke of “providing the light and letting the people find the way”. Here, the light was pan-Africanism and their way was liberation. Sobukwe strongly warned against a blind following, probably what Kwame Toure referred to as the “unconscious”. By this Sobukwe meant that people needed to be organised and educated not merely mobilised. We understand mobilisation as a short-term exercise for and/or against specific issue/s. Organisation on the other hand entails long-term conditioning. The former is therefore characterised by temporality while the latter is associated with permanency.
Educating that liberation is historical, Sobukwe first had to bring his followers to see and identify themselves as men and women that deserved to be treated humanely. But before they could demand that kind of treatment from others, Africans had to first see and accept themselves as humans as opposed to sub-humans as depicted by their foreign conquerors. Today, if Africa is marginalised in the affairs of the world including trade and politics, it is because Africans themselves lack the confidence to “walk free and tall” in their own land. In spite of being endowed with the natural and human resources that we have, we are still being under-regarded and marginalised in the world stage.
It is important to keep in mind that by ending direct colonialism, imperialism helped disguise exploitation of colonies by removing allegiance to a single metropolitan country. But in all its earnest, colonialism is alive. The existence of institutions such as the Commonwealth of Nations and other grouping of Anglo-phone countries and Franco-phone countries are all manifestations of colonialism (or should we say neo-colonialism?). These institutions represent the stranglehold former metropolitan countries still have on African resources in particular, which in turn explains why we have “Africans in government” instead of having “African governments” to which Sobukwe referred.
Understanding Nkrumah’s call for continental unity, Sobukwe stood firm in this belief. It was only through continental unity that development could be realised in Africa. All resources were to serve Africa. Today, the disregard for continental unity has opened opportunities for imperialism to find its way back through the numerous rebel groups that roam the continent in the name of fighting for freedom. Imperialists use these misdirected elements to destabilise the continent while they continue with plunder. Even the relationships that individual African countries have with their former colonial powers have little benefit for the African countries concerned but everything to do with enriching the former colonial powers. African freedom and independence have but become a contradiction in terms as all countries profess unity in words but allegiance in all respects is to the metropolitan countries. In spite of having the most of the earth’s resources, Africa is characterised by the most starving and suffering people within the borders of every country. The pseudo pan-africanism that the many agents of imperialism pursue can only deliver the continent to its plunderers. Pan-Africanism as advanced by Sobukwe could be the only solution to the continent’s tribulations.
Using the method of elimination, Sobukwe looked back at where the African people came from with their struggle: it was petitions, civil disobedience and demonstrations. He eliminated each method as having had its zenith and embarked on a method more damaging to the settler-colonialist capitalist economy by first staging what the he referred to as a continuous “status campaign” among the dispossessed themselves. The continuous status campaign was directed at self-liberation of the oppressed first. Sobukwe understood the effects of internalised colonialism and oppression. Until the oppressed themselves came to understand the nature of their oppression, they would not be responsive to extrinsic measures of liberation. For the oppressed and dispossessed, to begin to feel that they were not inferior to anyone and to anything was the beginning of the process of liberation.
By exposing the violent nature of settler-colonialism in particular, Sobukwe taught that self-realisation was basic to human development. Once people came to realize who they were, they would shed the fear of prison, and this would be followed by the shedding of the fear of death itself in order to realise total liberation.
The political turmoil we see today especially between the Western super powers and the rest of the world cannot be limited to a desire to dominate the world. But it is failure of human beings to live harmoniously with each other. Today the rich have conquered nature and the world, but at what cost? They have damaged the natural environment and now we suffer from climate change effects; they dominate the world in every respect, but in the wake of those ‘achievements’ they have alienated humanity and bred ‘terrorism’. The world we live in is so unsafe. Sobukwe was concerned about these factors. He made it clear that it was not going to help humanity that super powers could conquer nature and even go up to the moon but fail to resolve their human relations down here on earth. In biblical terms, Sobukwe was merely stating a simple fact: what does it help to gain the whole universe and lose one’s life?
Dearly loved by his people for he never compromised the truth, and fiercely feared and hated by his enemies because he was such a mobiliser and an organiser with powerful ideas, Sobukwe remains a tower of ideas for those that are inspired to seek genuine change in South Africa. “Although he was soft-spoken and humble to the point of being shy, I couldn’t help feeling that I was in the presence of no ordinary mortal”, remarked Stan Motjuwadi, editor of the Drum Magazine (1978). Motjuwadi continued to write that: “A great pity that white and black children are cheated of the Prof’s wisdom”. Motjuwadi must have known that there was (and there is) actually no audio recording of this great soul. His enemies were determined to silence him to the end of eternity; but they could not destroy his ideas.
Sobukwe’s resolve was tested on 4 May 1960. In mitigation of sentence he said to the settler-colonial magistrate sitting judgement on him and others: “If we are sent to jail there will always be others to take our place”¦ and it is not our intention to plead for mercy". These words were tested in 1976 when students revolted against an oppressive system that required them to carry oppression, high costs of education, crowded classrooms, miseducation, unemployment, poverty all in the name of an oppressors’ language. The Soweto student uprising was the ultimate pointer to the final destruction of white supremacy that Sobukwe dedicated his life to.
The Bethal Secret Trial followed the student uprising and Sobukwe’s followers stood accused of starting the uprising. A representative of his jailers, John Vorster, was to later remark on keeping Sobukwe incarcerated: “He has a strong magnetic personality and a sense of mission”.