One of the most respected and feared of the African nationalists, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was born in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape on 5 December 1924. He came from humble origins, the son of a farm worker and housewife mother, but he won a scholarship to the Methodist college in Healdtown and, like so many of his political compatriots, later attended Fort Hare University, at that stage one of very few sources of further education for black Africans in the country.
He went on, initially, to become a teacher, then in 1954, took a position as lecturer of African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg - a job which earned him his nickname 'the Professor' or 'Prof'. From 1957 onwards, he became editor of The Africanist paper.
Sobukwe joined the ANC Youth League while a student in 1948 and became a leading player, with Nelson Mandela, in their 1952 Defiance Campaign but gradually his views parted company with those of the ANC leadership. He believed strongly in that the future of Africa should rest solely in the hands of black Africans, denying the role of multi-racial groups in favour of government for the individual. In 1959, he formed a new party, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and became its first President.
At his inauguration speech, he said:
"… multi-racialism is in fact a pandering to European bigotry and arrogance. It is a method of safeguarding white interests, implying as it does, proportional representation irrespective of population figures…
…We guarantee no minority rights, because we think in terms of individuals, not groups."
An eloquent speaker, his message of black empowerment was instrumental in creating the 1960s Black Consciousness Movement that questioned the very white stance taken by the teachings of church, state and school and led eventually to the Soweto Uprisings of 1976.
On 21 March 1960, Robert Sobukwe was at the head a nationwide protest against the Pass Laws, which required all black South Africans to carry a pass book showing which areas of the country they were allowed to visit. As he led a march to the police station in Orlando, Soweto, police opened up on other marchers in Sharpeville, creating the nightmare that became the infamous Sharpeville Massacre, with 69 protestors dead. Sobukwe and many of his fellow marchers were arrested. It was the excuse the authorities had been waiting for. Sobukwe was sentenced to three years on Robben Island. During his time in jail, a new law, the General Law Amendment Act, was enacted allowing the Minister of Justice to renew his imprisonment each year at his discretion. The 'Sobukwe Clause' was used for a further six years. It was never used on anyone else.
Sobukwe's powers of persuasion and political leanings so terrorized the authorities that he was kept in solitary confinement throughout his time on Robben Island. He was given some privileges, such as civilian clothes and books, but was not permitted to speak to anyone and could only communicate with other prisoners through secret hand signals while on exercise. He spent his time studying, gaining an Economics Degree from the University of London.
Eventually released in 1969, he was immediately put under house arrest with his family in Kimberley, in the Northern Cape. The town was considered to be sufficiently isolated for him to be 'safe' there! He was also banned from any political activity and from travelling overseas, an order which stopped him from accepting several lucrative teaching jobs offered by American universities. He finished a law degree and opened a law practice in 1975. Shortly afterwards, however, he became ill.
Robert Sobukwe died of lung cancer in Kimberley on 27 February 1978. He was buried in Graaff-Reinet.