Robert Sobukwe

Human Rights Day: Who was Robert Sobukwe?

Remembering Robert Sobukwe and his role in the abolishment of pass laws.

Robert Sobukwe

South Africa celebrates Human Rights Day as a commemoration of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, where police opened fire on civilians – fatally wounding 69 of them.

In every commemoration of the tragic day,a central figure springs back into the public consciousness as South Africa are reminded of one Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe’s role in leading the resistance against laws which severely restricted the movements of black people under the apartheid regime.

Who was Robert Sobukwe?

Robert Sobukwe was born on 5 December 1924, hailing from a small Eastern Cape town called Graaff Reinet.

He was not exactly interested in politics until his mid-20s. His passion was more in literature and the arts, with a strong inclination towards poetry and drama.

In 1947, he enrolled in Fort Hare University – an institution famous for churning out some great African leaders, most famously, former heads of state such as Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe and Thabo Mbeki. It was only inevitable that an interest in politics would be triggered.

In that very institution, the ANC Youth League was established by Godfrey Pitje, and Sobukwe would join the liberation movement through its youth wing, where he quickly rose through the ranks as he was appointed its National Secretary.

Sobukwe moved to Johannesburg in 1954, where he became a lecturer in African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Differences between himself and the ANC began to emerge as he strongly criticised the ANC for being dominated by liberals and “multi-racialists”.

The gulf between the organisation and his “Africanist” ideals led to a breakaway Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which was formed in 1958.

 Human Rights Day: What are my rights as a South African citizen?

What was Sobukwe’s role in the anti-Pass Laws march?

Under Sobukwe, the PAC had set in motion a plan to liberate South Africa by 1963 and the first public order of business would be a five-day peaceful protest against the pass laws, starting on 21 March 1960.

“African people have entrusted their whole future to us. And we have sworn that we are leading them, not to death, but to life abundant. My instructions, therefore, are that our people must be taught now and continuously that in this campaign we are going to observe absolute non-violence,” Sobukwe was quoted as saying.

On the day, he left his home in Mofolo – and his pass – with the intention to hand himself over at the Orlando Police Station, with the hopes that many other black South Africans would also follow suit.

In his 8km walk to the station, he was joined by a group of protesters and, along with most of them, he was arrested and charged with sedition as he arrived at the station.

There was a similar protest in nearby Sharpeville around the same time but police responded differently as they opened fire at the marchers, killing 69 and wounding 180.

Sobukwe was sentenced to three years in prison for inciting black people to demand the abolishment of pass laws.

‘The Sobukwe Clause’

The apartheid government played hardball when it came to his release as he ended up serving three times his initial sentence. This was due to Parliament enacting an amendment in the law, which allowed the Minister of Justice to prolong his sentence indefinitely.

This was termed “The Sobukwe Clause” and he would be the only prisoner to ever be detained under the law in history.

In the latter half of his nine year prison sentence, he was moved to Robben Island where he spent most of the time in solitary confinement. This was where he had kept himself busy by studying, eventually obtaining an Economics degree from the University of London.

Life after Robben Island

While he fought to give black people freedom of movement, he would not enjoy such as, after he was released from prison, he remained under house arrest in Kimberly, and was prohibited from partaking in any political activities.

He successfully applied for a teaching post at the University of Wisconsin, but the apartheid government turned down his application for a passport.

In 1971, he applied to move to the USA together with his family but again, that nasty regime stonewalled him.

Movement within the country was also restricted, until 1974 when he was finally allowed to leave Kimberly, but only on special occasions.

In 1977, he fell ill and, after the government had again refused to let him leave for Johannesburg for medical attention, they eventually gave in.

This is when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which was already at an advanced stage at the time.

On 27 February 1978, Sobukwe finally succumbed to lung complications.

Forty years after his death, he will be remembered as one of the more iconic figures of the liberation movement who’s symbolic stance paved the way for the freedom we are enjoying today.

Also read: Human Rights Day, 21 March – what is this day all about?