Tag Archive: Robert Sobukwe


Who am i reading? [2015]

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i love to read.

i was challenged a couple of years ago by the idea of diversifying the voices that i invited to speak into my life. For me that related mostly to books as i don’t tend to find the time slash bandwidth to do much podcast listening, but it would apply to both.

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A lot of people complain about South Africa or just feel completely overwhelmed by stories [and experiences] of crime or corruption and more. There is good reason for a lot of that, but if you aren’t planning on leaving the country, then it makes a lot more sense to be a part of the change.

In Part I, we looked at five practical ways at which we can genuinely get involved in seeing change in our country and here are five more:

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My friend Nkosi has written for me a number of times on this blog and so it was a great privilege to have him around for a special meal on Friday night with some friends, that i wrote about over here, and i asked him to share some of his impressions from the evening: 

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Conversation is an integral part of transformation. It was for this reason that I went to Brett's house together with Monde Nonabe. It was a very short notice that I invited Monde to come with me and I was so happy and glad that he responded to my short notice invite. I was glad because I respect Monde's heart and passion for change in the black people's situation. I have only known Monde not for a very long time but one thing I knew is his heart for the Lord and his heart for transformation in the lives of the majority of this country. 

During the story telling, I was moved by Monde's story of course because mostly I could identify with his story. Our conversation with Monde began on our way to Wynberg which I was already learning a lot from his knowledge about our fallen heroes in Biko and Prof Sobukhwe. Monde has a speacial ability of linking today's problems with yesterdays happenings and hopes (should haves). 

When I listened to stories from the white brothers and sisters who were there I must say that I came to realisation that they themselves are victims to a system that even though they may not necessarily love but they are beneficiaries of. I listened to one white brother with teary eyes who said that he is aware of his white previlege yet he doesn't know what to do with it. Even though I myself was moved by that sincere heart but I knew that I can't lie about the fact that there is nothing much this brother could necessarily do except to join hands with blacks in dismantling and destroying the white power structure which is the cause of every pain in South Afrika and Afrika in general. 

I was moved about the story of Jan who has been living at a black township Kayamandi in Stellenbosch for many years. He is the only white in that area. As moving this story is but it had to be made clear that for him it was a choice that he went to live and stay in Khayamnandi unlike the blacks living in that area. 

I was also moved by the story of a brother from England who moved in to Mannenberg which is one of the hardcore areas in the Cape flats. I was moved that this brother was making moves and courageous, intentional actions that were to bring about change in Mannenberg. This brother told us a story about privilege on how he managed to raise up funds from contacting few friends in a short space of time for him to be able to own a house in Manenberg. It went more touching when he told a story about how was he a victim of robbery and his house being broke into and still he had a choice to either stay in Mannenberg or to live in a white surburb. This still proves that privilege gives one choice which the black majority of this country don't have. 

Conversation that was in Bretts house was so transforming. I think it was a safe space for such a conversation rather than the social networks. It was in that conversation that I was able to look into peoples' eyes and allow them to be broken and hopeless and hopeful with all the roller coast of emotions. I think these kind of conversations can be more progressive if they could be happening all around the country. These conversations could be more progressive if they could be taking place in the workplace. I do think that conversation like prophecy did to Israel in bring about God's view to the people, conversation puts the different world views into one. The Western Worldview which is most likely to be found amongst the whites and the Afrikan worldview which could possibly be found amongst blacks. 

I must thank tbV for her delicious spaghetti and mince and I would also like to thank Brett and tbV for opening their house for such hard and uncomfortable talk.

[For another post by Nkosi where he speaks about first steps for South Africa, click here]

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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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]

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