Sobukwe Must be Turning in his Grave

 By Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo

MORE than a century ago, the renowned Xhosa poet, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi, who had been the sub-editor of the founding black newspapers Izwi Labantu (The Voice of the People) in 1914, and of Isolezw’ (The Nation’s Eye) shortly before that, took it upon himself to correct Richard Victor Selope Thema who wrote a newspaper article giving the history of the African National Congress (ANC) that starts from 1912. The ANC is much older than that. It was formed in 1898 and relaunched in 1912 through a process that was a takeover by a group led by Pixley ka Seme who had returned from studying in the US. Mqhayi put the historical account of the present day ANC into perspective and context in a detailed and un-romanticised manner that it currently is.

On the 13th February 2019, I felt the same way Mqhayi did. Initially, I resisted the temptation to respond to the shallow claims and unfathomable analysis by South African Communist Party (SACP) deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila on Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Mapaila claimed that Sobukwe was given preferential treatment by the apartheid regime, while fellow Robben Island inmates were treated as slaves.

Late that evening however, I felt I should respond and put the issue into proper  context and perspective. I do not like to engage politicians on scholarly, epistemological and pedagogical issues for personal reasons, but, this time I break that tradition.

Just 13 days before the anniversary to mark Sobukwe’s passing on 27 February 1978 and on what is ‘Black History Month’ in the US, Mapaila made mind-boggling claims. The month of February is ‘Black History Month’ and aims to profile the history, heritage and achievements of Black people in the US.

Moving from the fallacious claims and erroneous analysis by Mapaila and many others who think like him, perhaps, even here in South Africa, we need to think about having a similar marker for historical purposes – the heritage month is irrelevant as it has been turned into performance events with no historical meaning completely. Many black people do not know their history; African history or the earlier African civilisation for that matter and rely on the distorted account of the past purported in many institutions, organisations and settings, including the current South African schools curricula.

February is one of the most important months, at least for me. It is in this month that Malcolm X was assassinated. It is the month in which Abram Ramothibi Onkgopotse Tiro was brutally killed by the apartheid regime and as I have mentioned above, the month in which Sobukwe passed on. This month has layers of significance, for some.

Mapaila’s claims are challengeable on a number of levels but I will only focus on five fronts for now:

Firstly, he claims that Sobukwe was favoured by the apartheid regime. Taking into account how Sobukwe suffered, was persecuted, surgically operated on without the knowledge of his family and killed by the apartheid state under the camouflage of cancer, these claims are unthinkable, illogical and baseless. Sobukwe’s pain, caused by the apartheid regime, the extent to which it negatively affected his family and continues to haunt them remains untold. Robert Sobukwe must be turning in his grave over-and-over.

Mapaila exposed his level of ignorance, not fully comprehending the marathon of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the level of pain the apartheid regime brought to many families, including the Sobukwe family. The second deputy general-secretary of the SACP is ill-informed and needs to be schooled.

Secondly, he asserts that when their leaders were imprisoned on Robben Island: “They were ill-treated, treated like slaves. They went to the quarry to crush stones every single day because they were being punished… The apartheid government decided to treat Robert Sobukwe as the only political prisoner and others as terrorists. That’s why they build him a house. That’s why when you go to Robben Island, there is a house there. Others got cells, Sobukwe stayed in a house. He had freedom. He had a full house”.

The statement that Sobukwe had ‘freedom’ begs this question: what freedom is he referring to? What is freedom? Or what constitutes freedom? It appears that Mapaila has a narrow and shallow conception of ‘freedom’. Does he knows how this isolation negatively affected Sobukwe? Is he aware of the impact of the isolation on Sobukwe’s speech? Does he know how that setting negatively affected his family and the scars they continue to live with in the present? Does he know that Sobukwe was isolated even when his health was deteriorating to an extent that his wife, mama Sobukwe, who was a nurse by profession wrote to Vorster demanding that he be released or she be allowed to take care of him in prison? Mapaila has no full comprehension of what Sobukwe went through and has no understanding of the South African historical facts, beside, the ANC mythology.

Thirdly, on ‘Sobukwe House’. It is important to state that the house that a visitor to the Robben Island Museum sees is not the original structure. It was built at a particular time. The initial structure was a small bungalow. The intention was to isolate him from other political prisoners because of his influence and fear by the apartheid regime. Sobukwe was the most feared political prisoner of his generation in South Africa. No amount of misrepresentation nor superficial analysis will change that.

It is important to note that, in relation to the Sobukwe House, politics of space, time and location are important for a comprehensive comprehension of the structure in question. The same can be said about the dog cages in front of the existing house. During Sobukwe’s time in Robben Island, they were not in existence. They were placed there years later. And for that reason, political prisoners who were imprisoned on the Island in the 1980s will talk about the house and also the dog cages but those before them will exclude them because they didnt exist.

Sobukwe was isolated because the apartheid government feared him and his intellectual capabilities, eloquence, ideas and the belief that he would influence others. He was a threat to the sustainability of the apartheid state. Sobukwe had a power of influencing people both intellectually and politically. There is no one in the history of the struggle against apartheid that can be compared to him. He was in a league of his own.

Sobukwe is deliberately and conveniently misrepresented for narrow reasons. The fallacious and synthetic analysis and position by Mapaila points to a number of issues. These amongst others include, lack of knowledge about Sobukwe, misrepresentation of Sobukwe, convenient marginalisation of Sobukwe and fabrication of his immense contribution to the struggle against apartheid.

Upon reflection of the absurd analysis and claims by Mapaila, I realised that there’s perhaps a need for all full-time politicians to undergo compulsory history (South Africa and African history) 101 – or a crash course. History matters for full comprehension of the country’s progression. It matters for present and future generations, as the present is the manufacturer of tomorrow’s history. It informs the present about the past and the present context is not the end but rather the punctuation in a long and complex narrative.

Mapaila’s claims are not only a character assassination but have to do with the continuous marginalisation, falsification of history and isolation of Sobukwe. Sobukwe may be gone in person, but, his teachings and ideas live as they are still relevant in the present. No character assassination will erase Sobukwe from people’s hearts. Sobukwe’s thinking and legacy lives on. Sobukwe’s philosophy is an intergenerational manifestation and indomitable link between the past and the present, between age groups. Sobukwe is timeless!!!

I underscore that, Mapaila’s claims are not merely disingenuous, character assassination and demeaning but, more importantly, they lack historical content and context. Furthermore, his assertions are trapped in an official heritage narrative where the state curate the nation as to what to remember and commemorate, and the peddled monolithic historical master narrative.

In my other work – a book chapter edited by Andre Odendaal scheduled to be published this year – I problematise the Robben Island Museum tourist gazes. I argue that the silenced Pan Africa Congress (PAC) and Black Conscious Movement (BCM) experiences on the Island feed to the currently peddled national and disjointed discourse framed by monolithic and hegemonic historical master narrative produced and sustained by the ANC and its administration and agencies.

Fourthly, Mapaila also stated that “The ANC and its alliance partners subscribed to non-racialism”. What he did not say, though, is that it was Sobukwe who first spoke about the concept of non-racialism while others were talking of multi-racialism. Therefore, the said political party subscribed to multi-racialism. Sobukwe was a leader while others were followers. They followed him including his intellectual capital and yet are now celebrated and recognised as originators of the concept of non-racialism which he coined.

Fifthly, Mapaila stated “That is unforgivable, although we do not deny that, he was a revolutionary. I’m saying this not because he was anti-communist, but that is unforgivable”. Mapaila is ignorant about the history of the South African struggle against apartheid and he exposes his unthinkable shallow analysis. He lacks historical depth. Further, these claims are trapped in what I would call the apartheid unconsciousness assimilation that existed then and continues in the present. This is evident in a number of ways. He gives the apartheid regime undeserved credit. But there is a need to denaturalise the apartheid unconsciousness assimilation.

I, further, submit that Mapaila’s claims about Sobukwe have more to do with the internal ANC issues that also find expression in the SACP. On the 31st January 2019, the Secretary General (SG) of the ANC Ace Magashule, while briefing the media in Durban, was wearing a t-shirt bearing the face of political struggle icons. Interestingly, it included Sobukwe. It was the first time since 1959 to have the ANC or a very senior member appearing in public with something bearing Sobukwe or wearing an item bearing his face. This was a fascinating public declaration and political statement by the SG.

In addition, just a year ago we also observed Minister in the Presidency, Nkosazana Dlaminni Zuma, evoking at many occasions, the spirit of Sobukwe and his teachings and mama Sobukwe’s submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Not lost to us was her use of the term ‘Son of the soil’ in reference to Kofi Annan in her tribute on his passing. Therefore, it would seem to me that Mapaila, by discrediting Sobukwe, is countering this growing momentum by some senior members in the ANC, who are claiming Sobukwe.

Long live the spirit of Sobukwe, long live. Yihla moya ka Sobukwe…

Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo, PhD, is a historian, heritage studies specialist, museologist, the former Rockefeller Scholarship holder at Emory University (US) and the former Fulbright Scholar at Cheyney University (US). He is the Director and Head of the Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies at the University of Fort Hare. He is writing in his personal capacity.

  • Mapaila has since retracted his statements offering an “unreserved apology to the PAC, Sobukwe Family and Sobukwe legacy”. 
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