Sobukwe’s uneasy sleep

Robert Sobukwe


As we observe what would have been Pan Africanist Congress of Azania founding President Robert Sobukwe’s 91st birthday, MR SIPHIWE MPYE writes him a note on the state of his beloved Azania.

Dear Prof.

“We are witnesses today of cold and calculated brutality and bestiality, the desperate attempts of a dying generation to stay in power”

On the eve of what would have been your 91st birthday, I am drawn to these words from your “State of the Nation” address at Soweto’s Orlando Communal Hall on August 2nd 1959, just four months after you founded the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC). You were referring to an Apartheid regime digging in its heels, intensifying its brutality. Your words would become violently prophetic only seven months later as that regime slaughtered 69 men, women and children outside the Sharpeville Police Station. It is staggering that in 2015, one could just as easily draw on your words to frame contemporary South Africa.

In August 2012, the current regime, a democratically-elected majority black government, led by the party you joined in your youth, presided over the execution of 34 striking mineworkers. It was the starkest and deadliest reminder in post-Apartheid South Africa, of the insidious relationship between the comprador black elite, in business and politics, and foreign white capital. The methods employed by this troika were, up to that point, much subtler: lobbying behind closed doors, lubricated by pricey libations and transfers to offshore accounts. Marikana blew the lid off these habitual, collusive relationships; exposing would-be presidents in waiting as lackeys in a system whose levers are pulled by those whose pockets are deeper.

During that same speech in Orlando, you went on to say: “We reject the economic exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. We accept as the policy the equitable distribution of wealth as the only basis on which the slogan of ‘equal opportunities’ can be founded.” While unemployment soars and education bears similarly dismal characteristics to your time, the few in this comprador class continue to eat at the trough as the master dishes up the scraps as he sees fit. Black ownership of The Johannesburg Stock Exchange – depending on who you ask – sits between 10 and 30%. Management in the corporate sector remains overwhelmingly white and male. Business has lobbied for years for the right to hire and fire as they wish and they cry out for financial incentives for righting wrongs they were, directly or indirectly, party to.

Citizens who supported the racist regime actively or through their silence, decry daily your people’s “sense of entitlement” and their “fixation with the past” while they refuse to acknowledge their part in perpetuating a system that two decades after freedom, still places them at the top of the food chain. This system – founded on inequality, head starts, unearned privilege and ominous barriers to entry – deliberately amplifies stories of African success, the proverbially ‘inspiring’ rags to riches tales. Minibus taxi driver to millionaire transport mogul; cleaner to medical doctor and any other version of this tale they can get their hands on, fooling the masses into believing that these exceptional stories are in fact what is possible for the majority. They fail to acknowledge the structural maze designed to keep the dream of 1994 perpetually beyond their reach.

We reject the economic exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. We accept as the policy the equitable distribution of wealth as the only basis on which the slogan of ‘equal opportunities’ can be founded.

In the midst of all this despair, however, you will be happy to know that there is pushback from quarters that were until this year, seen as apathetic and disengaged. I wish to inform you that racism and neocolonialism is under a relentless assault from the daily conscientisation of our young people. Prof, there are twenty year-olds sparring ideologically with the crudest and the most sophisticated racists, and winning. Their minds cannot reconcile that they were born supposedly without shackles, while their lived reality is that of active exclusion. When some of them rose up gallantly recently, demanding their government live up to the promise of a free, quality education, they admitted that your spirit, among other heroes whose ilk you scarcely come across nowadays, guided them.

I don’t think you need to hear about the woes of the PAC from me, you have plenty of comrades who have joined you that can articulate its decline much more eloquently, but you can rest assured that the youngsters in its ranks – outnumbered as they were by non-partisan youth and many from other parties – also made their voice heard in the moves to topple Rhodes, shaft student fees, decolonise their textbooks and relegate to history the exploitative practice of outsourcing at tertiary institutions. I have no doubt these young people recalled that so dangerous was your message and your intellectual fire, that your jailers isolated you and assigned you five guards on Robben Island. This was extreme but futile, for these evil men lacked the capacity to realise that even 5 000 guards could not keep at bay the torrent that was your mind. You remained resolute and even after you were banished to Kimberly, your body steadily deteriorating, they could never arrest your spirit or mind, co-opting you into Faustian pacts designed to undermine the nub of the revolution.

This is how we remember you, and your legacy remains true to your convictions when you said: “True leadership demands complete subjugation of self, absolute honesty, integrity and uprightness of character, courage and selflessness, above all a consuming love for one’s people”.

Happy Birthday Prof. It may not all  be well, but we hold on to what we have, not least of all, the memory of you.

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