Robert Sobukwe: The man apartheid tried to break
Largely unsung in an ANC-dominated political landscape, Defiance Campaign hero and PAC leader Robert Sobukwe has been honoured by the University of the Witwatersrand, where he once taught
I grew up in an activist home. My mother was detained several times, once just a year before my twin brother and I were born. My aunt was an Umkhonto weSizwe soldier. Their brother went to prison for his political activism. Yet I was already in my third year of my history course at university before I heard of Robert Sobukwe.
Sobukwe, the founder of the PAC, was one of the great African ideologists and heroes of South Africa's liberation.
The political leader considered so dangerous that he was kept in solitary confinement for six years on Robben Island. Such a threat to the state that parliament passed the "Sobukwe Clause" to keep him in jail. A man who was banished to Kimberley after being released and was only allowed to speak to one person at a time.Inspire black South Africans
On May 4 1960, about six weeks after the Sharpeville massacre, Sobukwe was jailed for three years for inciting Africans to demand the repeal of the pass laws.
Parliament also enacted the "Sobukwe Clause", which empowered the minister of justice to prolong the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely.
At the end of Sobukwe's sentence in 1963 he was moved to Robben Island. There his living quarters were separate from the main prison and he had no contact with other prisoners. After being released in 1969, Sobukwe was banished to Kimberley."The house is different now," said Dini as we looked at Sobukwe's birthplace. "The people who live in it have extended it. When my father was born it would have been even smaller than the matchbox houses the apartheid regime built in other townships."
From the house we went to his former primary school, his high school, the new Robert Sobukwe Museum due to open in March, his grave and the town's public museum. Everywhere we went, Dini greeted every member of the community, just as people say his father used to."Walking around this township and still seeing sheer painful poverty is like seeing how my father grew up," said Dini.
"My father's role was to inspire other black South Africans and his home town is no inspiration for black people. The only way people make money in the township is if they sell alcohol. There are no jobs or developments."
Graaff-Reinet is the fourth-oldest town in South Africa, settled by Dutch missionaries after Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Swellendam were established. It is known for its preserved colonial buildings, and not much has changed for its people either. The town is still segregated, with the Dutch Reformed Church building marking the divide. It is the first thing you notice when driving into town, and even while you are walking around the township, the top of its steeple remains visible.
In the township there are missionary churches and schools, one of which was attended by Sobukwe.
"My father was a religious man," said Dini. "He and my grandfather used to preach at the Methodist Church."
The church the Sobukwes attended has not changed either. This month it will be renamed Robert Sobukwe Church, a partner to the old-age home run by the church and named for Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe.
Robert and Zondeni met at the University of Fort Hare. She was the love of his life."They met at a protest," said Dini. "My mother was protesting about the living conditions in hostels for nursing students."
While at Fort Hare, Sobukwe was elected president of the student representative council and secretary-general of the ANC Youth League. After his studies, he taught history, English and geography at a secondary school in Standerton, and in 1954 moved to Johannesburg's Mofolo township with his family, and became a lecturer in African studies at Wits."He was a teacher and a preacher but he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time," said Dini. "They were always watching him. But he never complained."ROBERT SOBUKWE: DEATH AND DEFIANCE
On March 16 1960, Sobukwe wrote to the commissioner of police stating that the PAC would be holding a five-day, non-violent, disciplined and sustained protest campaign against the pass laws, starting on March 21.
On March 21 1960, at the launch of the PAC's anti-pass campaign, Sobukwe resigned from his post as a lecturer at Wits. He made last-minute arrangements for the safety of his family and left his home in Mofolo. He intended to give himself up for arrest at the Orlando police station in the hope that his actions would inspire other black South Africans.The march
Along the 8km walk to the police station, small groups of men joined him from neighbouring areas like Phefeni, Dube and Orlando West. As the small crowd approached the police station, most of the marchers, including Sobukwe, were arrested and charged with sedition.
In a separate march, an estimated group of 5,000 reached Sharpeville police station. Police opened fire, killing 69 people and injuring 180 in what became known as the Sharpeville massacre.
The government responded to Sharpeville by imposing a state of emergency, banning both the ANC and PAC as illegal organisations and detaining 18,000 people.