PIONEER

Robert Sobukwe

Robert Sobukwe. Historical Papers Research Archives, University of the Witwatersrand
Robert Sobukwe. Historical Papers Research Archives, University of the Witwatersrand

Teacher | Lawyer | Pan Africanist Congress founder and President

Born: 5 December 1924 Died: 27 February 1978

“I learnt some time ago that one cannot put oneself in another’s position. We may express sympathy, feel it and even imagine the pain. But we cannot feel it as the one who suffers it. They have a saying in Xhosa that the toothache is felt by the one whose tooth is aching.”

Who was
Robert Sobukwe?

Activist and member of the African National Congress (ANC) and the first President of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), who served time as a prisoner in solitary confinement on Robben Island.

Professions
and Roles

Teacher, lecturer, lawyer, and anti-apartheid activist.

Best Known For

Founding and leading the PAC.

Life highlights

  • In 1948, Sobukwe joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL).
  • In 1949, Sobukwe was elected President of the Fort Hare University’s Students’ Representative Council (SRC).
  • That same year he was selected to become the National Secretary of the ANCYL.
  • In 1950 he was appointed as a teacher at Jandrell Secondary School teaching History, English and Geography. He lost this teaching position in 1952 after speaking out in favour of the Defiance Campaign, but was reinstated soon after.
  • Sobukwe was the secretary of the ANC’s Standerton branch from 1950 until 1954, but was not directly involved in mainstream ANC activities.
  • In 1954, Sobukwe moved to Johannesburg and became a lecturer in African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
  • In 1957, he became the editor of The Africanist and criticised the ANC for its “liberal-left-multi-racialists”.
  • In 1958, Sobukwe led the formation of the breakaway political group, the PAC. In 1959 he was elected the party’s first President.
  • In 1960, Sobukwe wrote to the Commissioner of Police, Major General Rademeyer, regarding PAC’s protest campaign against the pass laws. Sobukwe resigned from his post at Wits and made arrangements for his family to move for safety reasons. Sobukwe and most of the marchers in the protest of 21 March 1960, were arrested and charged with sedition. This mass action resulted in the Sharpeville massacre later that same day, in which at least 69 people were killed when the South African police opened fire on a crowd of protesters.
  • An order was issued on 25 March 1960 for the banishment of Sobukwe to the Vryburg District in the now North West Province. However, Sobukwe was never banished as he was sentenced to three years in prison for inciting the protest against the pass laws.
  • At the end of his three-year sentence, Parliament enacted a General Law Amendment Act. The Act included what was termed the ‘Sobukwe Clause’, which empowered the Minister of Justice to prolong the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely. Subsequently, Sobukwe was moved to Robben Island, where he remained for an additional six years. The Sobukwe Clause was never used to detain anyone else, and was renewed every year.
  • Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement while on Robben Island. He was released in May 1969 and then banished to Galeshewe in Kimberley, where he was kept under twelve-hour house arrest and prohibited from participating in any political activity.
  • In 1970, Sobukwe was accepted for a teaching post at the University of Wisconsin in the United States, but the government refused his request for a passport or to leave the country.
  • While under house arrest, he studied law and eventually established his own law firm in 1975.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

“I learnt some time ago that one cannot put oneself in another’s position. We may express sympathy, feel it and even imagine the pain. But we cannot feel it as the one who suffers it. They have a saying in Xhosa that the toothache is felt by the one whose tooth is aching.”

– Robert Sobukwe, Letter on 5 August 1974

“We wish to emphasise that the freedom of the African means the freedom of all in South Africa, the European included, because only the African can guarantee the establishment of a genuine democracy in which all men will be citizens of a common state and will live and be governed as individuals and not as distinctive sectional groups.”

– Robert Sobukwe, 1959


IN THE WORDS OF OTHERS

“His radical dedication to the total freedom, unity and prosperity of Africa ought to stir up the present generation to embrace a similar commitment.

To this day, Sobukwe remains a source of inspiration to many people in South Africa in particular and around the pan-African world.

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”.”

– Sibonginkosi Mazibuko, Associate Professor at the University of South Africa

Sobukwe was allowed access to books while on Robben Island, and therefore managed to obtain a degree in Economics from the University of London during that time.

EXPLORE THE ARCHIVE

Audio Visual

President Mandela gives his State of the Nation address in Parliament. Mandela ends his address with the words, “Let us all get down to work”.

“We must construct that people-centred society of freedom in such a manner that it guarantees the political and the human rights of all our citizens.”– President Mandela, extract from State of the Nation Address, 24 May 1994

President Nelson Mandela announces his cabinet. It includes members of the African National Congress, National Party and Inkatha Freedom Party.

“There was pride in serving in the first democratic government in South Africa, and then the additional pride of serving under the iconic leadership of Nelson Mandela … [He] represented the hopes of not just our country, but of oppressed, marginalised and the poor in the world.”– Jay Naidoo, then Minister of RDP housing
“We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered. We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.”– President Nelson Mandela, 10 May 1994