Tag Archive: Benjamin Pogrund


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One of the interesting ideas that has come up both in Americaland [with the whole #Ferguson ordeal and everything connected to that and the #BlackLivesMatter movement] and in South Africa is that black people can’t be racist. i have always argued that the hypothesis is ridiculous and given my understanding of racism, anyone can be racist against another person. However, by taking time to listen to people on both sides, as far as i understand it, the idea is that racism is state or system implemented prejudice and so while anyone can be prejudiced, historically it has only been the white people who have been in the position of power in terms of creating laws etc that affirm and carry out the prejudice. So while i am not convinced that i agree [i think some countries in Africa with black parties in power have had some discriminationary actions and prejudices laid out against white people] i do think i understand a little bit more. i do feel it is a little bit semantic because i imagine people on both sides would agree that anyone can be racially prejudiced and that is what we are suggesting.

So it was with interest that i came upon this passage in the Robert Sobuke book and this is the action following his funeral where both the author, Benjamin Pogrund, and Helen Suzman were refused the opportunity to speak at his funeral:

We returned to the hotel – the Drostdy, a gracious and luxurious place, with the main section restored to its original 1806 design when it was built as the drostdy, the seat of local government, and the rooms created out of a row of cottages which were once the homes of coloured labourers, and possibly of freed slaves. The cool and comfort of the hotel came as a bizarre contrast with the dust and heat of the ceremony – and even more so because all the guests at the hotel were whites, as required by the law. Among them was the small group of whites in the town for the funeral, including Nita and Joe, whom I met for the first time [and since then, friendship with them has been one of Sobukwe’s legacies to me]; Alan Paton, the author, and Peter Brown, who had led the former Liberal Party with him and had endured years-long banning for it. [Peter was Editor of Reality, a small magazine which provided a forum for liberal thinking after the demise of the Liberal Party, often publishing articles which could find no other home in South Africa. 

On that day, the Drostdy wasn’t a totally colour-fast world so close and yet so far away from what we had experienced in the preceding hours: Neville Alexander, who was coloured and who had been a political prisoner on Robben Island while Sobukwe was there, could not attend the funeral because he was banned and restricted to his Cape Town home; but his mother came on his behalf. Moira, who was looking after her, went into the bar to get her a drink and found a black woman there. Moira discovered the hotel had been declared ‘international’ for that day: in terms of the current laws, that meant it was open to people of all races. To press home that point, Moira took Mrs Alexander to have her drink inside the otherwise usually whites-only bar.

Suzman had this to say about her exclusion. She told the Rand Daily Mail that it was obviously regretful because Veronica [Robert’s wife]  herself had extended the invitation – ‘But I respected their decision that it should be a black people’s occasion.’ She added: ‘One had no means of knowing how representative the militants were. It would have been interesting to hear the crowd’s reaction had they heard what I had to say.’

My published comment went to the heart of my outlook: ‘I feel sad about it, of course. It was a negation of the non-racialism for which Robert Sobukwe stood. It reflects how far down the road we have gone in South Africa. White racism has inevitably spawned black racism. Both are equally abhorrent.’ 

i think the last phrase sums it up – whether it is going to be called prejudice or racism or anything else, whether it is coming from white or black or anyone else, it is equally abhorrent. We must work together, not so much to fight it, but to overcome it. i believe the best way of overcoming racism, by whatever name it goes, is through genuine relationships and friendships – getting each other around the dinner table and sharing stories and living life together. i feel like that is the kind of South Africa Robert Sobukwe would be more proud of.

[For the last part in this series looking at Economic Justice, click here]

There is a tragic moment in the book where Benjamin Pogrund is refused the opportunity to speak at Robert Sobukwe’s funeral due to some angry incited politicised youth, as it seems like he would have been a natural choice and even Sobukwe’s family had extended the invitation for him to speak. The speech he had planned though was published in Reality later that year:

Robert Sobukwe. My brother and my friend. 

It did not matter that our skins were of different colours; that we came from such different backgrounds – he from a woodcutter’s home in this village, the descendant of people who have spent centuries in the African continent; me a first generation African, from a middle class home in Cape Town. It did not matter that we did not have the same father and mother. We grew to be brothers. Over a period of twenty years our relationship of love and caring developed and deepened.

That Bob Sobukwe saw me as his brother and that I saw him as my brother already tells a great deal about him and about the South Africa he believed in and wanted. A country where racism will be outlawed. 

Many words about the greatness of Bob Sobukwe are being spoken today. They are true words. Many wonderful words have been spoken about him since he passed away two weeks ago. They are true words.

It is tragic that, in his lifetime, so many in South Africa spurned him; that so much of what he had to offer us was suppressed and locked away – in Pretoria prison, on Robben Island prison, in confinement and banning in Kimberley.

But the test of a man can be seen in what he leaves behind him, in what he has left for us who remain in this world.

And we have from Bob Sobukwe that belief in South Africa of which I spoke earlier. One united South Africa, free of colour or tribal divisions. A South Africa devoted to justice and democracy for all its peoples, without totalitarianism, communism, or any other crushing of the human spirit. It was a dream in his lifetime; yet it is more than a dream for in it lies the future and the salvation of all of us. 

In all the years of his life, Bob Sobukwe did not deviate a fraction from his belief and he always wanted it to come about in peace. 

Going closely with this, what we have from him is a love of people.

He practised this in his life to an extent that was incredible to behold. Even for his oppressors, for those who held him captive, there was no bitterness or hatred. Only a sympathy for them, a pity for them because of the way they behaved.

When we were together, it was I who would express the resentment, the anger, at the way he was treated. He would simply be amused, tolerant about those who had done humiliating things to him. 

I would feel ashamed and embarrassed, as a person and as a South African, about the things that were inflicted on him – whether the cruelty of forcibly keeping him year after year on Robben Island  in isolation, or the ugliness of the apartheid system in forcing us, when I visited him in Kimberley, to go and drive out among the thorn bushes to see shelter from the sun, drinking our cool drinks and eating our pies. It was one of our moments of joy when, after several years of doing this, we discovered a cafe that actually did not mind if we sat down together to share a pot of tea. Provided that we sat in the black section of the cafe.

For Bob Sobukwe these were things to be taken in his stride. To him, they were examples of the weakness of his oppressors, of the desperate and ugly things that they had to do to maintain themselves. 

He rose above it all; he was the giant; those who tried to debase him were themselves debased. 

Whenever, during the dark times of his life, I went to give him comfort, I came away amazed. Because it was not I that gave him comfort, but it was he who gave me comfort. 

And even in the last few months of his life; he could not but know then that it was the bannings enforced on him, confining him to Kimberley, which had prevented him from travelling freely to obtain the specialised medical attention which could perhaps have prolonged his life. Even then he did not lash out, as a lesser person would so naturally have done. 

Yet none of this, as we well know, meant that there was any trace of weakness in Bob Sobukwe. For what he has also given us is the example of his strength and courage in sticking to what he believed. He applied this to a super-human extent. He asked people to do only what he himself was prepared to do. He was the first to lead the way – and to accept the consequences of what he did.

Many years ago I shared in his dilemma when Rhodes University offered him a full-time job as lecturer. At that stage, Bob was what was called a ‘language assistant’ at Witwatersrand University. Now he had the chance of a well-paid, status position to do the teaching and the writing that he loved. But he turned it down. He decided that his task was to give himself to his people. And he stuck to that unwaveringly to the end of his life, never regretting, never complaining, never losing his faith in his mission and in God’s purpose. 

It goes on a little more and then ends with this tribute:

I grieve for my brother. South Africa grieves for its father, for this son of Africa. 

Bob Sobukwe has passed away. But he lives. He is belief, love, hope – and a great gift to all who knew him or of him.’

[From Chapter 22: Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better by Benjamin Pogrund]

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[To read the next part looking at if there can be such a thing as black racism, click here]

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From Chapter 20 of ‘Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better’ by Benjamin Pogrund:

‘We [Robert and Benjamin] had three days of incessant talking and sharing emotions and thoughts. My dominant sense about him was his optimism about himself and South Africa. It helped him to endure the experience of being plunged back into the reality of everyday apartheid living. We also went through the details of a brotherly pact. I would continue to do whatever my means allowed to help him and the family, whether financially or otherwise; there would be a minimum of thank yous. In due course, if our roles were ever reversed and I landed up in need of help, he would help me to the best of his ability – and again, with a minimum of thank yous. Both of us would be frank in stating our needs and what each of us could do for the other. As Sobukwe was to say in a later letter, ‘the truth between us; that is our bargain.’ 

Short and to the point, but this paragraph stood out to me. Both for the strength of the brotherly pact between two, on the surface, very different looking men, and for the slogan of honesty. We will say what we need and we will do what we are able to and with a minimum of thankx. The realisation is always that if i am in your shoes the same thing will happen. What a strong bond and a challenge to us in our friendships. I can list many names of people in my life who have been this for me or done this with me. I’m not giving to you so that one day you will give to me. I am giving to you. One day you may give to me. Whoever can meet the need, does. Love it.

[For the next part on being the bigger man, click here]

Continuing sharing some thoughts and extracts from the really great book i just finished, ‘Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better’ by Benjamin Pogrund and if you missed the first ones, you can catch up over here.

Who better to kick us off on the topic of criticism, than my good friend Jack Handey:

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This extract is from Chapter 20 and this is Benjamin, the author, speaking:

We had to delay our first meeting. I could only get away from Johannesburg and the trial over weekends, and he [Robert Sobukwe] was available for only part of the time because of his house arrest restriction. It was a tough period in the trial, I told him, as the prosecution was summing up its case ‘with a flood of abuse flung at Gandar and me and our attorney [Kelsey Stuart, who had four years earlier, cleared my reports on jails for publication in the Mail]. Had it been justified and related to facts one could not and would not mind. But it has all been entirely unrelated either to actual events or to our evidence, so I have found it sick-making… and at an extraordinarily low intellectual level.’

Sobukwe was now following the trial day by day as the Rand Daily Mail reached Kimberley by lunchtime on the day of publication. Once more he stepped in to give comfort, at the same time reflecting his own ability to retain tranquility in the face of the poisonous attacks on him over the years: ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the prosecution had a field day: a real stryddag [an Afrikaner party political rally]. But what my attitude has always been, Benjie, that what matters is what my friends think of me. It bothers me not a damn what my enemies think of me or say of me. They would not be normal if they showered me with compliments.’ 

i feel like there is some good wisdom there in terms of being comforted and encouraged by those who know you [and like you] – it can be helpful to listen to those who think differently from you for sure, as that is often how we learn – listen and weigh up and hold on to the good and let go of the bad – but not to take everything your detractors say about you on board [yes, i imagine this includes faceless comment trolls!]

[For the next part looking at a brotherly pact, click here]

The first paragraph that stood out for me strongly in this book about Robert Sobukwe and resonated completely, was this one which spoke into my validification as an African [or as my mate, Nkosi, would put it, “Afrikan”].

From Chapter 13 of ‘Robert Sobuke: How Can Man Die Better’ by Benjamin Pogrund:

‘And on his attitude to whites he spoke with passion: “I know I have been accused of being anti-white, not only by the government, but also by others. But there is not one who can quote any statement of mine that bears that out. When I say “Africa for the Africans” I have always made clear that by African I mean those, of any colour, who accept Africa as their home. Colour does not mean anything to me.” 

Not only was this a re-statement of his known position but, as we went on talking, what emerged was that he had thought further into some of the practicalities of applying Africanist thinking.’ [page 204]

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i like these words – not because i need anyone else to tell me i am African or that it is okay for me to think that – that is something i just know and feel to the core of my being. But it is great to hear that someone who seems to be very much respected amongst many black communities, thought the same way.

[For the next post extract from this book looking at ‘Enemy Thoughts’, click here]

One of the ways i am trying to prepare myself to be a part of a better conversation in South Africa in terms of race, reconciliation and unity is by learning some of the country’s history…

…from different voices than i grew up with.

To that effect, after my weekend at Robben Island, i got hold of a copy of Benjamin Pogrund’s book titled, ‘Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better’ and just finished reading it this morning.

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Before i read the book, i had no real knowledge at all about who Robert Sobukwe was, or his role in our country’s history. I had heard his name before we visited Robben Island mostly in conversations with my friend Nkosi who has written some posts for me. And it was certainly interesting to me that he had a separate prison house set apart from the typical prison cells [including those of Nelson Mandela] on the island which seemed to strongly indicate there was something very different about him. But beyond that i didn’t really have much idea who he was.

i thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s always hard when reading someone’s version of another person’s story to be able to separate truth from fiction, but i feel like i got a pretty good idea of the life and character of this man. Reading some comments from a variety of other sources seem to back up a lot of the key features of his life.

Next up for me is the book, ‘I write what I like’ which is a collection of Steve Biko essays, so i can learn some more about another South African who was pretty much just a headline to me til now. [bad form, Brett]

But in the meantime, i thought i would share a couple of passages or thoughts that stood out for me from ‘How Can Man Die Better’ in the hope that it will encourage you to get hold of a copy of the book and find out more about this incredible man’s life and refusal to be broken by an evil and unjust system that took so much away from him.

While searching for the cover pic, i learnt that the title is from this quote in a book by Thomas B Macauley:

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How Can Man Die Better – part Afrikan

How Can Man Die Better – part enemy thoughts

How Can Man Die Better – part brotherly pact

How Can Man Die Better – part bigger man

How Can Man Die Better – part black racism?

How Can Man Die Better – part economic justice

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i never particularly wanted to go to Robben Island. in fact, to be honest, for a time i particularly didn’t want to go to Robben Island.

Something about growing up in a not too politicized environment perhaps and then later not really seeing the point or perhaps thinking it was a ‘flavour of the month’ kind of vibe with everyone going and it being such a touristy thing.

But then somewhere along the line [maybe when i was in Americaland and we would drive past Alcatraz on the bridge and i’d think, ‘Well, i can’t go there cos i haven’t even been to Robben Island] it changed and it was ‘a thing i would like to do someday’. but it always seemed booked up and quite expensive and so never became an actually planned reality.

WHY THE CHANGE OF HEART?

On the 27th of November, tbV [the beautiful Val] and i received an email that contained this invitation:

“SACLI’s youth team, Freedom Mantle, is putting together a small event (about 20 younger leaders) on Robben Island for young Christian leaders who are passionate about coming together to transform the nation in their generation. I have attached some documents that give more details. The head of the Freedom Mantle team is Siki Dlanga, who is based in the Eastern Cape. 

The young leaders will aim to discern what God is doing in the nation at this moment, specifically around the identity of this new generation of leaders and the calling we have to achieve in our lifetime. The outcomes of the Imbizo will hopefully provide the beginning of some foundations for a deeper and broader process of discernment as we clarify how we understand the movement God is initiating in our nation at the present time. At this stage the participants are a mixture of artists, activists and academics. 

Could you join us on Robben Island from the morning of 5 December to 7 December and be part of this discernment process? December 5 is the one year anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death and the 90th anniversary of the birth of Robert Sobukwe and we will include some symbolic spiritual acts around committing to picking up the Mantle of the older generation of Godly leaders in our nation. We will be sleeping in the prison. Most days will be facilitated prayer and conversation. On Dec 5 Archbishop Njongonkulu, who was a prisoner on the island for 10 years, will join us to lead some symbolic actions committing ourselves to picking up the leadership mantle of our elders.”

The invitation combined two things i am absolutely passionate about – God and South Africa and so it was a no brainer. The trip was fairly pricey in terms of what we’d want to spend on a weekend, but it included the expensive tickets to and back from the island and so was an easy purchase.

i imagine, in the next few days, as i try to put some words together to try and adequately give some kind of glimpse of the depth and significance of this week to me and us as a group, that i will fail dismally, but i will try. Suffice it to say it was an incredible group of people, some deep and involved conversations on a number of issues facing our country and the church, and some incredible food and profound experiences.

One of the highlights for me was getting to hang with my friend Nkosivumile Gola who has written a number of times for this blog, such as this piece on First Steps towards a Really New South Africa, to be able to eat together and have some back and forth conversations. And he was just one of the legendary young leaders that were brought together for this Indaba.

So glad i went – many reflections to come [both online and privately] and a copy of ‘Robert Sobukwe: How can Man Die Better’ by Benjamin Pogrund to dive into, as i start to increase and diversify my knowledge of the South African story thus far.

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[To continue with this journey and read about my identity as an African, click here]

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