South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe

(December 5, 1924 - February 27, 1978)

Robert Mangaliso, which means ' wonderful ', Sobukwe was born in Graaff-Reinet in the Cape Province in 1924. His father was a farm labourer and his mother had no formal education. Sobukwe showed signs of being an excellent student from an early age and won a scholarship to the Methodist boarding school at Healdtown in the Eastern Cape. Following the completion of his schooling he enrolled at Fort Hare University, where he displayed a keen interest in literature.

At Fort Hare, where generations of young Black South Africans were exposed to politics, he joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in 1948. The organisation had been established on the campus by Godfrey Pitje, who later also became president of the ANCYL. In 1949 Sobukwe was elected as president of the Fort Hare Students' Representative Council, where he proved himself to be a good orator.

In 1950 Sobukwe was appointed as a teacher at a high school in Standerton, a position he lost when he spoke out in favour of the Defiance Campaign in 1952. He was, however, reinstated. During this period he was separated from mainstream ANC activities, but still held the position of secretary of the ANC branch in Standerton.

In 1954 Sobukwe was appointed as a lecturer in African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. He moved to Johannesburg and soon his outstanding intellect was recognised. During his time in Johannesburg he edited ' The Africanist ' and soon began to criticise the ANC for allowing itself to be dominated by what he termed 'liberal-left-multi-racialists'. He was an ardent supporter of an Africanist future for South Africa and rejected the idea of working with Whites.

'The Prof', as his friends knew him, was a charismatic speaker, and in 1958 was instrumental in a breakaway from the ANC, resulting in the birth of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). He was unanimously elected as the president of the movement at its inaugural congress. Sobukwe's eloquence as a public speaker, his intelligence and commitment to his cause soon established him as natural leader, and helped him rally support for the PAC. On 21 March 1960, at the launch of the PAC anti-pass campaign, he resigned from his post as teacher. He made last minute arrangements for the safety of his family and left his home in Molofo. He intended to give himself up for arrest at the Orlando police station in the hope that his actions would inspire action among other Black South Africans. On the 8 km walk to the police station small groups of men joined him from neighbouring areas like Phefeni, Dube and Orlando West. The small crowd arrived at their destination and most of them, including Sobukwe, were arrested.

He was given a surprisingly harsh sentence of 3 years ' imprisonment, at the end of which Parliament enacted a General Law Amendment Act, which empowered the Minister of Justice to prolong the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely. He was moved to Robben Island, where he remained for six additional years.

On his release in 1969 Sobukwe was allowed to join his family in Kimberley while remaining under twelve-hour house arrest. He was also restricted from any active political activity as a result of a banning order. During his incarceration Sobukwe had obtained an Honours Degree in Economics from the University of London, and had also started a Law Degree. He articled in Kimberley and started his own law practice in 1975.

Although he was offered several teaching posts at American universities he was prevented from going overseas by the government of the day. Robert Sobukwe passed away on 27 February 1978.


This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH