Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (5 December 1924 – 27 February 1978) was a South African political dissident, who founded the Pan Africanist Congress in opposition to South Africa under apartheid. In 2004 Sobukwe was voted 42nd in the SABC3’s Great South Africans.
Sobukwe was born in Graaff-Reinet in the Cape Province on the 5 December 1924. He came from a poor household and was educated locally. He attended a Methodist college at Healdtown and later Fort Hare University where he joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in 1948.
In 1952 Sobukwe achieved notoriety backing the Defiance Campaign. He identified with the Africanists within the African National Congress and in 1957 left the ANC to become Editor of The Africanist newspaper in Johannesburg.
He was a strong believer in an Africanist future for South Africa and rejected any model suggesting working with anyone other than Africans, defining African as anyone who lives in and pays his allegiance to Africa and who is prepared to subject himself to African majority rule. He later left the ANC to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and was elected its first President in 1959.
Robert Sobukwe became known as the Professor or ‘Prof’ to his close comrades and followers. This was witness to his educational achievements and powers of speech.
He spoke of the need for black South Africans to “liberate themselves” without the help of non-Africans, defining non-Africans as anyone who lives in Africa or abroad Africa and who does not pay his allegiance to Africa and who is not prepared to subject himself to African majority rule.
His strong convictions and active resistance inspired many other individuals and organizations involved in the anti-apartheid movement, notably the Black Consciousness Movement.
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 university campus by Godfrey Pitje, who later became its president.
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 not directly involved with mainstream ANC activities, but still held the position of secretary of the organisation’s branch in Standerton.
In 1954 after moving to Johannesburg Sobukwe became a lecturer of African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. During his time in Johannesburg he edited The Africanist newspaper and soon began to criticise the ANC for allowing itself to be dominated by what he termed ‘liberal-left-multi-racialists’. He strongly believed in non-racialism. He was an ardent supporter of Africanist views about liberation in South Africa and rejected the idea of working with Whites.
Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement but permitted certain privileges including books, newspapers, civilian clothes, bread etc. He lived in a separate area on the Island where he had no contact with other prisoners. The only contacts were his secret hand signals whilst outside for exercise.
Despite this he succeeded in giving his approval to the external PAC to adopt a Maoist political program. He studied during this time and received (among others) a degree in economics from the University of London.
It is speculated that the South African administration had profiled Robert Sobukwe as a more radical and difficult opponent than the regular ANC prisoners.
Throughout his imprisonment, Sobukwe maintained communication with his friend Benjamin Pogrund who later became his biographer (“Sobukwe and Apartheid,” Johannesburg, J. Ball, 1990).
Due to lung cancer, he was hospitalised in 1977. His doctors requested that the authorities allow him freedom of movement on humanitarian grounds. This request was refused indefinitely. He died on 27 February 1978, and was buried in Graaf-Reinet on 11 March 1978.