A Consistent Leader Who Was an Independent, Intellectual Giant
BYLINE: RK SIZANI
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the president of the Pan-Africanist Congress and one of the greatest leaders of the African people. If Sobukwe had lived, he would have been 84 on December 5, 2008.
The life story of Sobukwe is a history of service, suffering and sacrifice. He provided principled, consistent, committed, decisive and selfless leadership to the cause of African liberation.
He could have lived a comfortable middle-class life with his family. He was a university graduate, a teacher and a university lecturer; his wife was a qualified nurse. But he chose to "starve in freedom rather than to live in opulence in bondage".
He was a courageous and fearless leader. He did not mind being ostracised or victimised for "speaking truth to power" or for standing for what he truly believed in.
The fundamental features of his politics were African nationalism, socialist democracy, pan-Africanism and internationalism.
African nationalism was to unite the African people in the fight against white domination.
Africanists believed in only one race - the human race. But Sobukwe argued that Africans were the key and cornerstone of the struggle, as they were the most exploited and oppressed in South Africa. Africans, including the coloured people, were the indigenous groups in South Africa.
He saw Indians as an oppressed group and not the oppressor. However, he felt that their leadership was drawn from the merchant class, which, to protect its material interests, had sided with the oppressor against Africans. He called on the Indian working class to throw in its lot with the African majority.
He felt whites could not be part of the liberation movement at the time because they were oppressors and materially benefited from the oppression of Africans. He accepted there were whites who were intellectually committed to the struggle, but felt they must organise and fight within their communities.
He felt it was important psychologically that the struggle be led by Africans, and that every time minorities took leadership of the struggle, they tried to dilute it and seek concessions and compromises.
Sobukwe was very consistent on excluding whites - on the basis of material interests and not colour - from the national liberation movement. He was convinced that, in a free South Africa, the definition of an African would be: "The indigenous groups and everybody who owes his only loyalty to Africa and accepts the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African."
The second plank of his pan-Africanism was economic policy. He preferred socialism to capitalism. He emphasised that the Africanists should support a system that had the following features:
l Equitable distribution of wealth, especially land.
l Equal opportunities, especially equality of incomes.
l The system must seek to address the needs of the African majority. It must also be relevant to the African concrete conditions.
l It must be democratic. He complained that China and Russia had introduced totalitarianism as part of socialism and this he rejected.
The Africanists, he said, were not anti-communist; they differed with them because communists rejected African nationalism and, by implication, the concept of African rule and government; they rejected the principle of non-collaboration and they were too attached to the Soviet Union and ignored its totalitarian and undemocratic nature.
l Otherwise, Sobukwe conceded that nobody could be against the philosophy of communism with its strong pro-poor and pro-equality features. He also felt white communists were not racist; they argued on an equal footing with Africans and openly disagreed with them where necessary. He preferred them to the white liberals who chose to keep quiet so as not to offend Africans, even if they strongly disagreed with them. He felt this attitude was racist and unhelpful.
Sobukwe saw the freedom of the African states as a first step in the establishment of a unitary, socialist, democratic United States of Africa, including Africans from the diaspora. He opposed a federal Africa, as federalism led to a weak state.
His Africanism and pan-Africanism were non-racist and inclusive, as illustrated by his generous invitation to the white minority group: "Here is a tree rooted in African soil, nourished with waters from the rivers of Africa. Come and sit under its shade and become, with us, leaves of the same branch and branches of the same tree."
Pan Africanism is very much relevant today. As we are aware, there has been much talk about African Renaissance, Nepad and being African. These are ideas pan-Africanists such as Sobukwe and Kwame Nkrumah articulated in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, the circumstances that Sobukwe dealt with in the 1950s and 1960s are somewhat different from those of today.
Nowadays, everybody supports non-racism and claims to be an African. Who is an African in the context of a free South Africa?
Sobukwe's answer was simple, Africans would then be: the indigenous people of the continent and everybody who owes his/her only loyalty to Africa and accepts the democratic rule of an African majority. So, it is clear that being an African is not a question of colour, or citizenship, but of nationality and consciousness.
It is also not a mere matter of self-declaration. As Professor Kwesi Prah aptly observed: "If everybody is an African then nobody is an African." To Prah, what makes us African is not colour, but "culture, history, attachment to these, and consciousness of identity".
Sobukwe observed in 1959: "I see no reason why, in a free democratic Africa, a predominantly black electorate should not return a white man to Parliament, for colour will count for nothing in a free Africa." Africans, he continued, "hated the white man not because he is white, but because he is an oppressor".
This was consistent with the position he espoused at the age of 25, at Fort Hare in 1949: "The doctrine of hate can never take people anywhere. It is too exacting. It warps the mind. That is why we preach the doctrine of love, love for Africa. And ... we are prepared to work with any man who is fighting for the liberation of Africa within our lifetime."
Last year, Africa celebrated 50 years of Ghana's independence and 50 years of African rule. The picture of African rule in Africa is largely disappointing. We have seen African dictators, violent Africa, extreme poverty of Africans and massive corruption of African ruling elites. This is against pan-Africanism.
Sobukwe would have opposed presidents for life and he certainly would never have been silent when African leaders oppressed their own people or rigged elections.
The unity of all African states and people as envisaged by pan-Africanism is imperative if Africa is to survive economically and politically in this era of globalisation. It is also in this sense that Africa can make a positive contribution to the development of humankind and also project the African personality. This is why it is so disappointing to see most African leaders drag their feet on the issue of African unity.
On the economy, Sobukwe observed in 1949: "We are seeing today the germination of the seeds of decay inherent in capitalism; we discern the first shoots of the tree of socialism." In 1959, he called for an economic system that would ensure the most equitable distribution of wealth, deepen democracy and ensure equality of incomes. He called this Africanist socialist democracy. These issues are still debates in our democracy today.
Sobukwe and the Africanists always saw the struggle for national freedom as an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggle. They believed that national liberation is inseparable from social emancipation or the struggle for socialism.
Sobukwe loved Africa and its people. He declared: "We are anti nobody. We are pro Africa. We breathe, we dream, we live Africa; because Africa and humanity are inseparable." To him, the right of Africa and Africans to determine their own destiny was non-negotiable and their inalienable right.
To him, democracy meant Africans must enjoy full civil, political, economic, social and environmental rights. He would have opposed a one-party state, corruption and the poverty of Africans.
Sobukwe would have been disappointed to see the Organisation of African Unity and later the African Union being a trade union for African leaders and being silent or openly supporting African tyrants against their own people.
The Sobukwe we knew and loved would have not used any moderation in voicing his disapproval of this state of affairs, and would have said with Dr Namdi Azikiwe: "Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell a man moderately to rescue his wife from the arms of a ravisher; tell a mother to extricate gradually her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but do not ask me to use moderation in a cause like the present."
The debates on centralisation, decentralisation and abuse of power that are part of our current discourse would have turned for him on whether the choices taken would promote the interests of the African majority or those of a ruling minority elite.
He would have stood for the interests of the majority of our people - the poor and the downtrodden.
Sobukwe was unashamedly a political radical, a revolutionary and an uncompromising leader in defending the rights of his people. In his farewell graduation speech, he made this solemn pledge: "Watch our movements keenly and if you see any signs of 'broad mindedness' or 'reasonableness' in us, or if you hear talk of practical experience as a modifier of a man's views, denounce us as traitors to Africa."
He would not have tolerated corruption, elitism, racism, abuse of power and seeing the majority of the African people still wallowing in poverty and disease.
He was opposed to wanton violence and criminality. However, he was not opposed to revolutionary violence in pursuit of freedom, democracy and justice.
I do not think he would have allowed imperialists and African tyrants to dictate to Africans on what methods to use to show their outrage against corruption, electoral fraud and other undemocratic practices. He would have rejected racist and paternalistic suggestions that Africans deserve something less than full democracy and must accept a leader who is in power through electoral fraud or because he has the support of the army or Western imperialist countries.
Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was a very consistent and persistent leader. He was an independent, intellectual giant.
Indeed, his life answered unequivocally Macaulay's question: "And how can a man die better than facing fearful odds for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his Gods?"
l Advocate Sizani is the Director-General of KwaZulu-Natal.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: A Consistent Leader Who Was an Independent, Intellectual Giant. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: Cape Times (South Africa). Publication date: February 27, 2008. Page number: 11. © 2009 Independent News & Media PLC. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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