Writing our own stories: Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe

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PAC founder Robert Sobukwe File picture: Independent Media

As calls for the decolonisation of knowledge continue to reverberate through the halls of our teaching and learning institutions, one solution is to regale in the hidden histories of South African figures. One such human treasure is Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, whose role in the liberation struggle is widely acknowledged. I am also reminded of the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stark warning in a Ted Talk some years ago about the danger of a single story. While tales from American and British books she read stirred her imagination and opened up new worlds for her, Adichie says the unintended consequence was that she did not know that Africans could exist in literature.

The absence of Africans in literature serves as a sober truth for both fiction and non-fiction. This, then, is a call on universities to take concrete steps to ensure that Africans exist in literature. Recently, the University of Johannesburg launched the first of at least 20 biographies of African leaders. The first book is on Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe. The book “Sobukwe: The Making of a Pan-Africanist Leader,” is a story from the Pan-Africanist Thami ka Plaatjie.

Perhaps, now that we are living in the era of the fourth industrial revolution where machines through artificial intelligence (AI) can write their own stories, we shall have a biography of Sobukwe written by AI machines. We, however, need to digitize our archive first before we can use AI to write our stories. Cornell West, from Harvard University in pursuit of a different story on Sobukwe, once asked Nelson Mandela about his views on Sobukwe. Mandela paused for a moment and then remarked “that one.” What Mandela was alluding to was that Sobukwe was a complicated man who requires serious study. It is through multiple stories that we can cross-validate facts and have a more accurate story. 

We are well versed in the stories of historical figures – the stories of Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Junior. However, these biographies we consume do not often include our own stories. What the UJ Africa Biographies Project seeks to achieve is to create a platform for African stories to be told because our tapestry is plentiful, and there is a void where these stories should be narrated.

This project is the first of such magnitude and is fully funded by the university. When the Africa Biography Project was announced last year, we set the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study an ambitious goal of 10 biographies. By next year, we will be closing on 20. Some of the personalities that will be covered in these biographies include Moses Mabhida, Wangari Mathai, Nadine Gordimer, and John Knox Bokwe. Plaatjies’ biography on Robert Sobukwe demonstrates the necessity for these stories and the yearning to delve into our history.

It was 59 years ago that Sobukwe resigned from his job as a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. Leading the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), he was about to embark on a five day, non-violent protest against the draconian pass laws. His plan was more significant than just the five days – at the end of it, Sobukwe would hand himself in at the Orlando Police Station as a powerful call to other black South Africans to fight back.

He gathered a following along the eight-kilometre walk to the police station as groups of men from Phefeni, Dube, and Orlando West accompanied him. There, he was sentenced to three years in prison for inciting Africans to demand the repeal of the pass laws.

The power behind it was palpable – and it shook the National Party. They lashed out, and his time on Robben Island was isolated. While he had books and newspapers to bide the time with, he was kept in solitary confinement and lived in a separate area on the island where he was strictly prohibited from contact with other prisoners.

However, his legacy demonstrates the power of thought. Sobukwe was so feared that the Nationalist Government enacted the “Sobukwe clause,” which empowered the Minister of Justice to extend his detention indefinitely. So entrenched had his views on the liberation of Africans become, that the clause was only applied to him and renewed every year for the entirety of his sentence. His imprisonment continued long after his release. So fearful was the apartheid government of his pull, they ensured he was never really a free man again.

First, he was banished to Galeshewe in Kimberley to remove him from friends and family. Then, they insisted that the only work he could do was low-ranking jobs. The apartheid regime barred him from leaving the country to take up international job offers. After finally studying law, completing his articles, and establishing his law firm, the government tried to stop him from entering the courts. 

When that failed, they ensured newspapers were not allowed to quote him when he argued in court. When he fell ill because of cancer, they stopped his attempts to get the medical treatments he needed, which ultimately led to his death in 1978. The apartheid government tried so desperately to maintain this hold on him, but it was too late to extinguish the fire he had ignited.

While Sobukwe’s political views, mobilised Africans to liberate themselves and later inspired the black consciousness movement, are widely known, Thami ka Plaatjie has delved deeper into the inner thoughts, soul, principles, and the heart of Sobukwe’s story.

Thami was elected as the Secretary-General of the PAC in 2000 and has devoted his life to understanding the psyche of Sobukwe. His biography relays the narrative of a man of towering intellect with deeply held principles and the authority he continues to have, years after his passing. This biography is but the beginning of a project that aims to move away from the focus on a single story. Much more remains to be achieved in telling the African stories.

In my inaugural address as vice-chancellor last year, I called for stories about leaders who have played significant roles in our lives, such as Lillian Ngoyi, Gertrude Shope, Queen Nzinga Mbande and others. Here, we still have a gap. While we have phenomenal biographies coming out this year, the stories of female icons still need to be told. Consider this a clarion call for writers and those who have a penchant for South African history – we need more female representation.

Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.