The ‘Political Spirituality’ of Robert Sobukwe’s leadership – does it hold any relevance in South Africa post 1994

Delivered by Prof Kwandiwe Kondlo

Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellors and the entire leadership of the University of Fort Hare, fellow academics, students, workers, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me. I am greatly honoured to be here for the second time. I was here in 2011 to deliver the 6th Robert Sobukwe Memorial lecture at the Alice campus of this University and I am here at the East London campus this time to deliver a tribute lecture to a ‘great soul’, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. In fact, the tribute to Sobukwe, as one journalist once said, is a tribute to integrity. Robert Sobukwe was and will always be a remarkable Son of the Soil – his footsteps in history shall never be erased. In fact he is much bigger than the PAC which he founded; Sobukwe is for all African people and he is for all humanity.

I wish you to note ladies and gentlemen, that I am here as an academic and my position on the issues I raise is scholarly. I am not here as a political activist; I don’t have political bosses to please and I am not hunting for favours from anyone. For intellectuals, the first loyalty is to the ‘unending’ quest for truth. The duty of intellectuals in society is to “bear witness to the misery of the world”, the duty of an intellectual is to constantly disturb just by being independent (Havel 1991).

I say this because I know that once you deliver a tribute lecture on Robert Sobukwe, there is every chance to be labelled and boxed in a variety of ways. But I am hardly bothered anyway.

I agreed to deliver the lecture on Robert Sobukwe because he is one political leader whose role still needs to be highlighted and made known to our people, especially young people. Sobukwe was a very gifted human being, a thought leader whose ‘intestinal fortitude’ and courage puts him in a class of his own. Some of his enemies have remarked about his magnetic personality. Of course there are some in this country who have described him as a political looser mainly because of the state of the PAC. Of course that is not correct. One cannot use internal divisions in the PAC as a lens through which to evaluate and make judgements on Sobukwe’s legacy. Sobukwe had little time with the PAC. He was arrested and spent his jail term in solitary confinement in Robben Island and was later kept under house arrest in Kimberly until he died in February 1978.

It is during his absence that the organisation fell into ‘rough hands’ and its radical political energy was misdirected sometimes and spent on internal battles. But during his short time as an active PAC President, his leadership was immediately felt within and outside his organisation. Those who worked with him, I can mention among them the late Mfanasekhaya Gqobose and Elliot Mfaxa, whom I interviewed, couldn’t forget to remark about Sobukwe’s personal demeanour, trustworthiness, sharp intellect and common touch.

All I want to say is that those who see Sobukwe as a political failure are getting it completely wrong. Please note, ladies and gentlemen, we live in a time when ‘truth’ is usually on the scaffold and lies on the throne – this is what makes the world so awkward in our age. But it is important to know that ‘its the scaffold where truth has been thrown, which sways the future of mankind. In that scaffold, where truth stands you also find the name of Robert Sobukwe but what is comforting is that the scaffold will sway the future of the world. When you are a winner the dilemma is that you sometimes develop a short-term mindset and as a result you forget that you may be the loser of tomorrow.

So I agreed, ladies and gentlemen to deliver the lecture on Robert Sobukwe because I believe he is the winner of tomorrow. The enduring power of his ideas; the moral authority of his political leadership is transcendent, enthrals and grasps us and offers moral leadership insights even today. That is why I have chosen as the topic for my presentation – ‘the political-spirituality of Sobukwe’s leadership – does it hold relevance in today’s South Africa’. I will get to this issue soon.

Of course, ladies and gentlemen, Sobukwe still remains fairly marginalised in today’s discourses and celebrations of political leadership. This is not ‘on’ and it needs to change. That’s why I salute the Institute for Transdisciplinary Studies at Fort Hare and the Sobukwe Trust for making sure this event takes place.

Sobukwe is the only leader in our country’s liberation struggle whose voice you will never hear, you will never find his footage – its as if he is being deliberately edited out of history. People who interviewed him have reasons to explain why they could not record him. While it makes sense to understand that Sobukwe was highly guarded by the police everywhere and at all times but as a human being one is always tempted to ask why the people who were close to him did not record him.

Delivering the Sobukwe tribute lecture is undoubtedly a great honour but when you do it, you can hardly avoid scratching old wounds and re-opening old debates – the debates were never settled anyway, except that at one point we were all caught in the ‘thrill of the Mandela moment’ in early 1990s. In fact, it is during that ‘thrill moment’ when many unfortunate things actually happened.

Now that the ‘thrill is over’, old questions and old tensions are making way to the fore; the example is the debate around the meaningful resolution of the land question – a question which was at the heart of Sobukwe’s emancipatory discourse. What I think was unfortunate in the early 1990s, was the kind of deal making which occurred to make sure the political settlement was brokered, with little regard for matters of principle. I want to remind you, that some of us in the academic community raised a lot of concerns about the way the foundations of our democracy were being crafted. Some of us argued that the negotiations were characterised by unprincipled deal making and that this will compromise in the end, the very ethical fibre of a liberated society.

I am guilty as charged in this area – I actually wrote in 1990 an article titled “Byways and cul-de-sacks of South Africa’s negotiated solution’. Of course during early 1990s, a politics of pragmatism had taken centre stage – theory and strategy took a back seat.

Very few scholars in our days spent time examining the details of what happened during the foundation of the current political settlement in order to explain some of the challenges the country currently faces. We tend to focus more on epi-phenomenal reflexes and pay little attention to the big foundational dilemmas and how these could be dealt with in a comprehensive way – not in the piecemeal patch-up work we see our leaders running around doing.

Perhaps the challenge is the Constitution we agreed to which gives every right and limits a lot of material possibilities.

A matter of principle that we sacrificed involves, first and foremost, the definition and elucidation of the concrete base of the emancipatory landscape and at the centre of which is the land question. Without resolving the land question you can never claim to have resolved the national question. This is one question which must be confronted with brutal honesty and requires strong leadership.

We focused during negotiations more on conquering the levers of state power and hoped all else will follow. It is for this reason that some of us recall the wisdom of Robert Sobukwe’s emphasis on the return of land to the dispossessed majority, during the liberation struggle. To him this was the condition for authentic national liberation.

The compromises made on the land question during transitional negotiations are in fact the foundation of many of the troubles South Africa faces today. Without resolving the land question you can hardly resolve racism in South African society. Racism is a product of unequal power relations in the economic sphere and land is so central in the economic sphere. Without transforming ownership patterns in the sphere of land and resources, you are not in a position to create new material conditions of interpersonal relations in which race shall never be a factor. Fortunately the issue of land has been resurrected now by young people, mostly from the EFF and it now on the agenda.

The question is – will it be resolved – I am not sure.

Looking at the current situation in South Africa you get the impression sometimes that, we cut numerous corners to get to where we are, and we have now hit a cul-de-sac. It is going to require strong thought leadership, a leadership which has moral authority to turn around South Africa’s situation.

It is for this reason that I decided to talk about ‘the political-spirituality’ of Robert Sobukwe. This is not about ‘church’ or religious sect. It is about interconnectedness and wholeness. In trying to find the most appropriate term to capture the texture and fibre of political leadership South Africa needs, I ended up adopting ‘political-spirituality’ a term which was coined by Michel Focault, a French scholar who after observing how the Iranian Revolution occurred and how it was led, coined the term ‘political-spirituality’. The work of Michel Foucault (2005), especially The Hermenuetics of the Subject: Lectures at College de France, 1981-1982, grounds the meaning of spirituality in a manner which one finds different from conventional religious and theological approaches. He posits spirituality as resulting from an interpenetration of opposites – the subject and truth. “the subject is not capable of the truth… the truth can transfigure and save the subject”[i]. The interpenetration, in other words, is not a simple relation but is the “rebound” effects of the truth on the subject. As Foucault puts it “the truth enlightens the subject; the truth gives beatitude to the subject; the truth gives the subject tranquillity of the soul”[ii]. What emerges therefore is that spirituality is a “form of ‘practice” which bears origin from the transfiguration of the subject which occurs due to “subject-truth relations”.

One could argue that “political spirituality” occurs in actual fact when the “political” becomes the sphere of the “spiritual”, that is, when the ethical character of politics as duty to fellow human beings is restored. This is contrary to the view we grew up knowing – that politics is war by other means. Robert Sobukwe is the best example of a leader whose political life demonstrated that politics is an ethical sphere – he demonstrated the connectedness, the interpenetration, the transfiguration of ‘self’ required to produce a leader who sees politics as ethical duty to fellow human beings.

The situation of leadership, especially, political leadership which can be trusted, is becoming so dire in South Africa – otherwise democracy in the country could soon be hit by a legitimacy crisis. This is in spite of the wonderful constitution and routine elections. ‘Political spirituality’ which results in trusted leadership, underlines the ethical basis of true politics. A leadership which enjoys moral authority is in reality like the WiFi we enjoy in our homes and at work. WiFi makes things happen; it has an enabling effect which provides coherence and possibility. The qualities are invisible but are felt by people. It leadership with these qualities that we need.

We live at a time when our political landscape is dominated by the “terrible explosion of the worst political leadership faults” just over 24 years into democracy. The worst political leadership faults I am referring to here emanate from the rise of a new phenomenon, in our political party landscape – I refer here to the rise of a ‘politicised mafia faction’. Among the primary activities of this faction is the brokering of agreements, which sometimes are superficially legal but ultimately unethical.

The ethical, ladies and gentlemen transcends and completes the ‘legal’. The ethical talks to ‘conscience and consciousness’, that which Paulo Freire calls one’s ‘innermost being’ without which one cannot authentically exist. The rise of a ‘politicised mafia’ in our politics today has corrupted our politics and is now playing a crucial role in the provincialisation of state power. In the provinces you now find a lot of ‘big-man’ who subvert, when they want to, national direction and interests. The province is becoming an important battleground of power politics. The ‘politicised mafia’ in our political organisations, gate keeps and has long arms to penetrate every sphere of governance and as a result, people who can get things done to save governance in this country find themselves in the margins. The meanness of intentions, the rapaciousness of this formation, the political influence it commands, has now come to inform how political leaders are chosen and this eventually affects the fabric of the entire society. The ‘politicised mafia’ is drowning the politics of principle in our country and is exalting, instead, a crude politics of precarity.

The crisis deepens when we lack the courage to stand up and talk against this phenomenon. As Haile Selassie is remembered to have said, “throughout history it has been the inaction of those who should have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph”.

The problem is that we keep patching things up; revising legislations, policies and setting up Commissions and we don’t touch the most fundamental aspects of our crisis – the investments we need to improve capacity in our communities; improve the mindset of society and most importantly help build bonds of solidarity based on renewed consciousness of alternatives and possibilities. From the example of Sobukwe one very important lesson to learn is that politics is a sphere of ethical duty and those who go to politics must do so for the right reasons.

Robert Sobukwe’s ideas were so prophetic and some of the issues the ANC is currently dealing with, Sobukwe indicated in the late 1950. One such issue was about the role of white liberals and especially Communists in the national liberation movement. His critique of Communists was underlined by an admiration and support for the vision of society aspired to by communism.

But he was never anti-Communist; he was never anti-ANC, he was never anti-anybody but stood for truth and strongly believed that God is always on the side of truth. He differed with the ANC and eventually he led the Africanist split and the formation of the PAC in 1959. The differences were purely at the level of ideas; they were around the strategic direction of the liberation struggle. From the perspective of Africanists, the ANC waivered when it came to the implementation of the 1949 Programme of Action and allowed Communists to dominate the direction of liberation struggle politics. This same point about attempts to ‘sovietise’ South Africa’s liberation struggle emerged again after the Morogoro ANC conference. It was advanced by a group, from within the ANC, led by Tennyson Makiwane. Yes they were expelled in 1975 and Makiwane was killed here in Umtata in 1980.

But the problem of how the SACP as an organisation articulated with the broader national liberation movement continued to be an issue in exile and after the unbanning of liberation movements in 1990. President Mbeki had his own collisions with the SACP, Zuma also did and Cyril will have his own run-ins.

I want to conclude by saying of all political leaders we have had in the history of South Africa’s liberation struggle, Sobukwe is outstanding. The more you read about him, the more you feel you can also join in singing Holland’s poem which I paraphrase- ‘God give us leaders who do not lie; Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy; God give us leaders who have honor; leaders whom the lust of office doesn’t kill”.

Robert Sobukwe left behind a memorable example of the caliber and standard of leadership which this country and Africa at large really needs – a leadership which embraces the pain of sacrifice; a leadership which stands for what is good irrespective of whether it will win or not; a leadership which sacrifices without expecting returns. It is important to note ladies and gentlemen that what distinguishes Sobukwe is that he owned his own soul. Nobody owned even a part of his soul due to some investment or deal made at any point of his life. Sobukwe was his own man and he owned his own soul. Like all of us, Sobukwe came to this world with nothing but unlike all of us who also leave this world with nothing, Sobukwe left this world Not with Nothing But with Something. He took away with him “the prodigal paradox of an ethical political revolution”[iii].

I Thank You

[1] Cited in Rabinow, P. (2009): ‘Foucault’s Untimely Struggle Toward a Form of Spirituality’, in Theory, Culture and Society, SAGE, Los Angeles, p. 26

[11] Foucault, M. (2005): The Hermenuetics of the Subject: Lectures at College de France, 1981-1982

[111] Kondlo, K (2011): The Legacy and Relevance of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe in the 21st Africa, 6th Robert Sobukhwe Memorial Lecture, University of Forthare, Alice.

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