The indomitable spirit of Robert Sobukwe

Winnie Mandela. Picture: Alf Kumalo

Barring people from attending a funeral or memorial service was recently a discussion in South Africa. Yet testifying in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the life and death of her husband, Mme Sobukwe suggested that “a funeral is a funeral”. 

Asked about the presence of Mangosuthu Buthelezi at her husband’s funeral she said even a witch should be allowed to attend a funeral. She went on: “It is not good to chase anybody away from a funeral. It is not a good thing. There is no dignity in that, no honour. No matter how cruel you are, you should not be chased away from a funeral.”

Such was the African legacy of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

In this one answer Mme Sobukwe described the life and legacy of her husband. This year 2018, commemorates the fortieth anniversary of his untimely death. While Ntate Sobukwe might have died from unnatural causes there was no doubt that his rapid deterioration in health within a span of a few years could be laid squarely at the feet of the apartheid security police.

The man whom apartheid police kept in custody, under the Sobukwe clause, even after his official release was suppose to occur would not be surprised that the recent South African Reconciliation Barometer, conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, identified that the majority of South Africans believed that access to land was integral to addressing inequality. Only eight percent of South Africans denied that access to land would address inequality.

Significantly half of Whites and Indians, forty-nine percent and fifty-one percent respectively, believed that resolving the question of land would address inequality in South Africa. The figures were sixty-seven percent and fifty-nine percent for Africans and Coloureds respectively. 

Yet Robert Sobukwe is also best know for his articulation on the Africanist agenda. As a member of the ANC Youth League, Sobukwe was elected president of the Student Representative Council at Fort Hare and would a year later end his term with a speech recalling the importance of Africanism within the movement. 

In that speech he said: “Let me plead with you, lovers of my Africa, to carry with you into the world the vision of a new Africa, an Africa reborn, an Africa rejuvenated, an Africa recreated, a young Africa. We are the first glimmers of a new dawn. And if we are persecuted for our views, we should remember, as the African saying goes, that it is darkest before dawn, and that the dying beast kicks most violently when it is giving up the ghost.”

These words of Sobukwe, coming in this the fifty-fifth year of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor to the African Union, must entreat us as Africans and South Africans to refocus our attention once again on the peace and prosperity of the African continent. We must, as Soubukwe declared, ensure that we hold a “vision of a new Africa, an Africa reborn, an Africa rejuvenated, an African recreated, a young Africa!”

Yet the question that must assist our consciences as Africans must be whether Sobukwe would be pleased with the state that Africa and Africans in particular find themselves in today.

If we were to look at the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), for example, we would see that much more work needs to be done in order to pay particular attention to the development of Africans on the continent. This particular international index measures, annually, life expectancy, education and per capita income. These, according to the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq who established the index, would allow people to explore their capabilities and take advantage of opportunities. 

Yet in 2016, two years ago, only five countries on the continent measured for a “high human development”. These were the Seychelles, coming in on the top for African countries but ranking at 63rd place in the world, Mauritius, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Indeed, the last one may be a surprise given that it has been embattled in a civil war since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi but this human development ranking proved just how effective the Gaddafi administration was in providing development for ordinary Libyans. In 2017, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates, Libya recorded the highest percentage in GDP growth on the continent with fifty-five percent. 

Thirteen African countries then follow in the “medium human development” category, on the HDI, and South Africa, together with Botswana, Gabon, Egypt, Morocco, Namibia, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia are also among these countries. 

The rest of the African countries, the rest of thirty-five, all find themselves in the “low human development” category. The country at the bottom is the Central African Republic while others including Ethiopia, Djibouti and Ivory Coast also find themselves in this category. These last three ones are specifically pointed out because in 2017 their gross domestic product growth rate was over 7 percent, according to the IMF. This growth must mean development for the people of those countries else it was just be benefitting the few on top.

The three worst performing African countries on the human development index was the CAR, Niger and Chad. However in 2017, both the CAR and Niger could boast a GDP growth rate of over four percent. These figures, from the World Economic Outlook of the IMF, show that the CAR, Niger and Chad host three of the most unequal societies in the world in terms of the 2016 inequality-adjusted HDI. Equatorial Guinea, which in 2017 boasted the highest GDP per capita at over 34 thousand international dollars per annum, was only ranked a medium human development country.   

In the aftermath of the global economic recession in 2008/9, many countries, especially on the African continent, loss the focus which they had in the previous decade, to develop Africa. Yet African leaders must pay attention to establishing thorough redistribution policies within their countries. Indeed, as the International Monetary Fund data suggests only three countries experienced negative growth in the GDP growth rate in 2017: Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

In other words, this indeed is proving to be the African century where African economies are growing but this growth must translate into yielding better lives for Africans. As Sobukwe prophesied, Africa is being reborn, rejuvenated and recreated in this new dawn.

We must not be surprised that sadly the only three countries where growth did not occur are the three countries where Africans are fighting each other. Even more so, we must learn from the life of Robert Sobukwe that Africans cannot afford to be fighting each other at all even to the extent of barring each other from funerals. We must learn to respect and work with each other, putting cheap political points and egos aside, in order to realise a better human life for all on our continent.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is Minister in the Presidency for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation and Meokgo Matuba is Secretary General of the ANC Women’s League