This is the last passage i will be sharing from the book, ‘Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better’ [because you do need to go and get a copy and read the whole thing, you know!] And this is a look forward to how Sobukwe might have felt about the current situation with a big focus on justice and what i think lies ahead of us in terms of a move from racial focus to that of social and economic justice.

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When we got to spend some time on Robben Island recently, we were privileged to get to hang out with the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane. This next passage from the book became more significant as we had encountered the person it was talking about:

‘The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, spoke about Sobukwe’s legacy in the struggle for liberation in the memorial lecture in 2004: by focusing on the pass laws he had ‘addressed what was at the very heart and core of the oppression of black people in South Africa’. Sobukwe’s ‘eloquence, charisma, decisiveness and clear objectives caught the imagination of many’. And, going on a personal note, said Ndungane, his encounter with Sobukwe had changed the course of his life.: ‘It marked the beginning of a journey which saw me involved in political activism and landed me on Robben Island for three years. A journey which began in chains and has now ended in freedom; a journey which saw a prisoner from Robben island becoming an archbishop.’

Ndungane, renowned for his liberal views on homosexuality and his urging of action to tackle South Africa’s HIV/AIDS scourge, had been a student at the University of Cape Town in 1960 and took part in the PAC’s anti-pass demonstrations. He continued working underground after the PAC was banned and in 1963 was jailed for three years. He was on Robben Island while Sobukwe was there. 

Ndungane assessed Sobukwe in the context of the grave problems in the liberated South Africa: ‘I wonder what he would have made of the continued economic conditions in which most black people still live, and of the fact that the rich in South Africa are getting even richer? Over half the African population is living in poverty – even in destitution. Would he have applauded the fact that the rich – even the mega-rich – in our country now include black people? I am sure that he would have been glad to see that black people have the opportunity to develop their capacities to the full – including their entrepreneurial capacities. 

‘But my own feeling is that he would have been shocked by the continued lack of freedom in South Africa today. I think he would have been shocked that so many human beings live without freedom. A person is not free if they do not have enough to eat, if they have to hear their children cry in vain for food. A person is not free if they have to sell their bodies in one way or another for a very tiny mess of potage. A person is not free if they cannot read and write in a society that rewards only the literate. A person is not free if they must beg on the streets, or go irredeemably into debt, or steal from others – in other words, beg, borrow or steal. That is the condition of the majority of the black population – and some from other population groups as well. The astonishing thing is how many do NOT resort to crime, considering the alternatives.

In other words, I think that Robert Sobukwe would have mourned the continued economic injustice in South Africa today. Black Consciousness was not only about dignity and self-respect – thought that was the personal individual core of it. It was also about justice. I don’t think he would have thought it is enough to have a vote – though that is a basic human right and essential for our dignity. I think he would have thought a vote, to be useful, should be able to carry in its wake justice for those who were marginalised.

I believe Robert Sobukwe would have moved on from the emphasis on equality and reconciliation between the races to an emphasis on economic justice. That indeed IS the struggle that lies ahead of us.’

[To return to the beginning of this series, click here]

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