What can Sobukwe teach us for today’s struggle?

by WASP Executive Committee

SobukweMillions are disappointed and angry that the end of apartheid did not bring about a fundamental transformation in living standards. After 22 years of ANC-ruled ‘democratic’ South Africa the distribution of wealth is more unequal today than under apartheid. Inequality still appears first and foremost as a division between black and white and racism remains a stubborn and repulsive feature of society. The racist white-minority regime that was defended by the apartheid apparatus of state coercion has been replaced by a predominantly black ANC government openly and corruptly enriching itself at the expense of the people. The working class and youth want to know “what went wrong?”

In the search for an answer, it is entirely understandable that the ideas of past leaders are examined. This is especially the case with figures such as Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and Chris Hani, whose premature deaths mean they are untainted with the disappointment felt for so many leaders. This has elevated them to near mythic status.

However, in searching for answers to today’s problems by examining the ideas of past leaders, no matter how exemplary their personal and political conduct may have been, or how great their sacrifices, it is necessary to guard against the temptation to romanticise their ideas, or to re-interpret them in a manner which cannot be supported by an objective examination. For such an examination to serve the purpose of arming the present generation, an all-sided assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of individual leaders and an understanding of the times in which they lived are needed. We plan to produce material examining the lives and ideas of all the historic figures that the new generation are examining to find guidance for today’s struggles, beginning here with Robert Sobukwe.

Sobukwe seems especially relevant today. His opposition to the ANC and distrust of the Communist Party appears to have been vindicated since 1994; under his leadership the PAC adopted the policy of non-co-operation with whites, in part because of their privileged position in society; he believed in disciplined and principled leadership and led by example, living an austere lifestyle compared to the extravagance of the present generation of leaders.

 

Sobukwe’s legacy

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was a courageous individual who waged a brave and intransigent struggle against apartheid. He is proudly celebrated for his role in initiating and leading the anti-pass law protests of 21 March 1960. The pass laws were a hated cornerstone of apartheid that required ‘non-whites’ to carry passes everywhere and at all times. At the time of the campaign one third of all black ‘criminal’ convictions related to pass law offences with over 1,000 arrests per day in 1958.

On that day in 1960 protesters marched peacefully to their local police stations without passes demanding arrest as the law required. This mass act of civil disobedience was intended to render the pass laws unworkable by clogging up the legal system. But the protests were brutally crushed by the apartheid regime. This included the infamous massacre at Sharpeville where 69 unarmed protesters were shot by police, many in the back as they tried to escape. Today, the massacre is commemorated with an annual public holiday. Sobukwe himself was arrested for leading the march to Orlando police station in Soweto. He would never be free again. Ten days later the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) of which Sobukwe was the founding president, and which was not even one year old, was banned alongside the ANC.

Sentenced to three years imprisonment, this charismatic and respected leader was considered such a threat that the apartheid regime passed a special law allowing them to arbitrarily extend his detention. It became known as the “Sobukwe Clause” because it was only ever used against Sobukwe himself. He was imprisoned in solitary confinement on Robben Island from 1963 to 1969 and then internally exiled to the small town of Kimberley and placed under a banning order. Ultimately the apartheid regime would take his life. The delays in diagnosis and treatment arising from the travel restrictions placed on him in Kimberley led to his death from lung cancer in 1978 at the age of 53.

 

Sobukwe’s youth

Sobukwe was born in 1924 in Graaff-Reinet to a humble family. His exceptional academic abilities quickly marked him out and he was supported financially by well-meaning whites to gain an education. He was one of the 1.25% of black children in his age group to gain a secondary education and went on to study at Fort Hare University. After qualifying and spending time as a secondary school teacher he moved to Johannesburg in 1954 and joined the academic staff at the University of the Witwatersrand in the post of language assistant. His modest salary nevertheless put him amongst the best paid blacks in South Africa.

These relative privileges made the injustices of apartheid and its racist discrimination all the more sharp for Sobukwe. It made him more aware of the limitations placed upon him and highlighted that the vast majority of blacks would never be allowed to achieve what he had.

 

Creation of the PAC

Sobukwe joined the ANC Youth League in 1948 while at Fort Hare. This was just months before the League, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, won the ANC over to the famous 1949 Programme of Action (PoA). The PoA was a watershed in the history of the ANC committing the organisation to the methods of mass struggle – strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and non-co-operation. It marked a re-invention of the ANC from the organisation founded in 1912 whose outlook was characterised by pledges of loyalty to the King of England and petitions asking him to lift the yoke of colonial subjugation for those loyal black colonial subjects who had managed to acquire a little education and property.  The PoA was an explicitly nationalist document posing the struggle in terms of black liberation vs. white domination and committed the ANC to unite the people “under the banner of African nationalism”. Sobukwe and the PAC would hold the PoA as an expression of the genuine principles that the liberation struggle should be based upon.

But the ideas expressed in the PoA were only a stage in the thinking of Mandela and other Youth League leaders. When it was written they considered themselves first and foremost African nationalists for whom communism held no particular attraction and who opposed the ANC’s co-operation with whites. But the experience of the struggles of the 1950s, and the role of both the white liberals and white Communist Party members, led to a softening of these positions. The conflicting interpretations of the role of the liberals and the communists by Sobukwe and his allies on the one hand, and Mandela and his comrades on the other, led to growing ideological differences within the ANC. This led to the emergence of an increasingly organised nationalist wing (soon to be called the ‘Africanists’) that Sobukwe gravitated toward. Throughout the 1950s his involvement with the Africanists increased steadily.

But the Africanists were in the minority in the ANC. In 1955 the multi-racial Congress of the People met and adopted the Freedom Charter. For the ANC majority, this document superseded the PoA. It was written in non-racial language, talking in terms of “the people” and declared that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. This was viewed by the Africanists as a betrayal of the PoA.

Fuelling the feeling that the ANC had gone astray was the beginning of the end of colonialism that was spreading across the continent as the European powers prepared to withdraw. Ghana became the first independent African country in 1957 under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah who promoted his own ideas of black nationalism and Pan-Africanism.

To the Africanists in the ANC this reinforced the idea that the Freedom Charter was a step backwards towards appeasement with whites just when their rule appeared to be crumbling across the continent. This fed impatience at the failure of the ANC’s mass action campaigns to deliver faster results in the struggle against apartheid. The Africanists increasingly blamed this on the ANC leadership’s willingness to work with whites and to accommodate them despite their unwillingness to lead by example and risk their own privileges.

Things came to a head at the ANC’s Transvaal regional conference in 1958 where Sobukwe led the Africanists in a walk-out after failing to capture the leadership of the region, announcing a parting of the ways with the ANC. Africanists in other ANC branches looked to Sobukwe and the Transvaal for leadership. It was decided to found a new organisation and the PAC’s founding conference took place in April 1959, electing Sobukwe president.

 

Sobukwe’s ideas

There is no doubting that Sobukwe was a man of exceptional capabilities. But he was no political theorist and nor did he ever aspire to be. He was an excellent academic and after imprisonment spent much of his time studying and writing exams for additional academic qualifications. But he wrote no significant political material and never made any attempt to systematise his political beliefs or place them on a theoretical foundation. Inevitably, the result is eclecticism (borrowing ideas from many places even when they are contradictory) and empiricism (taking a superficial view of things). Much of what survives of his ideas comes from interviews given to journalists, most notably Benjamin Pogrund, his friend and biographer.

It is clear that Sobukwe did not make any serious attempt to study or seriously grapple with Marxist theory. Yet Marxism played a critical role in the struggles of the working class worldwide, especially after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Marxism continued to attract the support of millions in the epic anti-colonial revolution that swept through Africa and Asia after World War Two. It is likely Sobukwe had some familiarity with the ideas of Marxism and he reportedly knew some Trotskyists. But unfortunately there is no indication that he ever became familiar with Trotsky’s analysis of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution which could have helped Sobukwe to clarify his distrust of the Stalinist Communist Party. More importantly it could have armed him with an understanding about the class basis of colonial oppression in general and the national oppression of the black majority in South Africa in particular. This would have enabled him to disentangle race and class and understand the inter-relationship between them.

His lack of a theoretical foundation is revealed in a number of ways. Sobukwe was a Christian for most of his life, though he briefly questioned his faith on Robben Island. Pogrund recalls the comment Sobukwe made to him at this time:

…we are Christians because we were subjugated by Europeans, whose cultural religion Christianity is. If we had been subjugated by Turks we would be fanatical Mohammedans [Muslims] as are eighty million Africans on the continent. Similarly, if Indians had subjugated us we would be fanatical Hindus. There is nothing inevitable, therefore, in our being Christians.

However, Sobukwe returned to church while in Kimberly. Whether this was the result of ‘rediscovering’ God or simply to break his isolation is unclear.

But it is in Sobukwe’s assessment of world events where his lack of a Marxist class analysis lets him down most clearly. Letters survive that reveal his illusions in Western imperialist leaders, such as Prime Minister Wilson in Britain and President Kennedy and Johnson in the United States, not to mention illusions in the ‘neutrality’ of the imperialist dominated United Nations.

Sobukwe is noted for his two “anti” positions – anti-white and anti-communist. But what Sobukwe meant by them was more complicated than the simple labels that have since been given to them. Therefore they are the most misinterpreted and misunderstood parts of his legacy. They are also the two areas where those rediscovering and embracing his ideas today are most likely to be led astray if they are not carefully examined.

 

Sobukwe’s nationalism

The emergence of the PAC represented a further development of a youthful and militant brand of nationalism that built on and went further than the ANC Youth League of the 1940s. It reflected the growing radicalisation in society that apartheid’s introduction from 1948 inevitably provoked and the burning desire to do something decisive to fight back. With every year that passed, the apartheid regime introduced new laws to control blacks, constantly increasing the weight of national oppression. Amongst a section of the youth in particular this fed a growing national consciousness that angrily rejected anything and everything white. This growing militant nationalism was a generally progressive reaction to apartheid. But it was also impatient and impulsive.

The Africanists crystallised around Sobukwe because of his ability to passionately articulate those feelings. He sought to instil pride and dignity in the oppressed black majority by rejecting the paternalistic ‘help’ of whites and rejected working with them (and Indians) in the founding of the PAC. But even so, Sobukwe’s nationalism was not a crude ‘anti-white’ one. Sobukwe said he was fighting for a “non-racial” society and stressed the unity of the “human race” in a future where colour would not exist. He said that anyone who accepted Africa as a home was accepted as an African. His nationalist views are best understood as an undeveloped anticipation of the Black Consciousness (BC) ideas that would emerge from the late 1960s and acquire a more sophisticated presentation from the pen of Steve Biko.

Some have accused Sobukwe of being a racist. However, the simple fact that some of his longest and most enduring friendships were with white people is enough to dismiss that idea out of hand. Others accused him of being the black counterpart to apartheid. Indeed, certain Afrikaner ideologues hoped that he and the PAC would support their “separate development” policy of creating ‘independent’ homelands (or Bantustans). However, Sobukwe firmly rejected this assessment of his ideas and was an opponent of the homelands.

 

Anti-white?

To really understand Sobukwe’s views on whites it is necessary to understand what opposing co-operation with whites meant practically in the 1950s and early 1960s. Anti-apartheid whites who gravitated toward the liberation struggle in those days generally fell into one of two main camps. Firstly, there were the liberals who opposed apartheid in word but were not genuinely prepared to oppose it in deed. They were middle class and lived privileged lifestyles. In a rare piece of political writing, Sobukwe explained that “because they benefit materially from the present set-up, they cannot completely identify themselves with [the African] cause…whenever Europeans “co-operate” with African movements, they keep on demanding checks and counter-checks, guarantees and the like, with the result that they stultify and retard the movement of the Africans.” In other words, the vacillating middle class could not be trusted then any more than it can be today.

Secondly, there were those whites who were members of the Communist Party. By the 1950s, Communist Parties around the world had become the foreign policy tools of the dictatorial Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. Despite the genuine intentions of many who joined the Stalinists in South Africa, the record of Communist Parties around the world was to betray struggles for national liberation where this suited the interests of the Russian bureaucracy. In Eastern Europe, they acted as an occupying power crushing the national aspirations of the Eastern European peoples, brutally putting down resistance and propping-up puppet governments. In 1956, less than three years before the founding of the PAC, the Russian army had invaded Hungary to crush a revolutionary movement that fought for workers’ democracy in an attempt to throw off the Soviet yoke.

In the 1950s, neither the white liberals nor the Stalinist Communist Party, whose white members Sobukwe and his allies considered the dominant influence upon the ANC, were reliable allies in the struggle for national liberation. For Sobukwe there was no real distinction between the two. Both reinforced the conservatism of the ANC leadership.

It would have been entirely correct if Sobukwe had made it clear that his refusal to co-operate with whites was based on opposition to the political programme of the liberals and the Stalinists. However, it is unlikely that Sobukwe understood his opposition to these groups in those terms. The baleful influence of the Communist Party was understood in terms of the excessive role of whites within that party rather than in the Stalinist perversion of Marxism and Bolshevism which those whites stood upon. His nationalist pride and empirical political approach simply told him that anti-apartheid whites were unreliable allies and therefore the PAC should not work with them. It was presented as a principle.

But there is evidence that programmatic considerations were important in Sobukwe’s thinking even if he never articulated it in that way. Pogrund recounts a discussion between himself and Sobukwe during a visit to Robben Island where Sobukwe remarked that if the PAC were to be re-formed on that day it would be on a non-racial basis. This was because of the genuine and active support given by some members of the white Liberal Party during the anti-pass law campaign which had impressed many in the PAC for its sincerity and bravery. In other words, those whites had been willing to commit to a militant programme of action against apartheid.

 

Anti-communist?

Sobukwe’s so-called anti-communist views are also not as straightforward as they might seem. He was certainly anti-Communist Party but there is little evidence that he gave any serious thought to the economic system of a future non-racial society. His lack of interest and ambivalence towards communism was no doubt reinforced by his critical views of the party itself. Sobukwe was concerned about the plight of workers in society and gave serious attention to the development of the PAC’s trade union work. However, this was more because they were potential PAC supporters than that he had given any serious consideration to the role of the working class in the struggle against apartheid.

Like millions of working class fighters and youth the world over, Sobukwe was repulsed by the “totalitarianism”, as he described it, of the Stalinist or “communist” countries. At times Sobukwe described himself as a “Fabian socialist” (the Fabians were a reformist group in Britain who, rather ironically, were in essence white middle class liberals) or simply as a “socialist”. The PAC described itself as “socialist” too. But what any of this meant was left largely undefined.

But if Sobukwe’s description of himself as a “socialist”, even a “Fabian” one, was serious he would have attempted to delineate the lines of class division within both the white and black populations. He would also have worked to identify which class had the revolutionary potential to lead the struggle for national liberation – which could only have been the black working class – and who their real class allies were. Further, a socialist should have outlined the class and economic basis on which a society based on non-racialism and true equality could be constructed and developed a programme to achieve both national liberation and social emancipation. Lacking the tools of Marxism, he and the PAC allowed their brand of nationalism to blind them to the class contradictions in society. They only saw two monolithic racial groups – whites and blacks – each bound together by common interests across class lines.

They were thus unable to identify the contradictory class aspirations within, for example, the Freedom Charter. The socialist aspirations of the working class found expression for example in the demand for free education and healthcare, and most significantly the demand for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy. This aspect of the Freedom Charter gave rise to claims that it was a “socialist document” despite the word socialism not appearing anywhere in the text.  Many in the ANC leadership, including Mandela, denied this, consciously voicing the aspirations of a future black capitalist class. He even explained that the Freedom Charter envisaged creating the conditions for the rise a “prosperous non-European bourgeoisie”.  (See WASP’s article For a Socialist Freedom Charter.) But there is no such ambiguity in the PoA which Sobukwe and the PAC continued to swear allegiance to. The PoA is clearly not a socialist document. Despite a section dedicated to the economy there is not a word that can be interpreted as a challenge to capitalism.

 

Sobukwe & leadership

Sobukwe and the Africanists had growing complaints against the conduct of the ANC leadership. They were concerned about a lack of accountability and transparency, especially when it came to Communist influence. In addition to instances where mass action was curtailed without consultation, the ANC leadership did not initially support plans for the historic 1956 womens’ march on Union Buildings to oppose the pass laws. Sobukwe also objected to what he perceived to be the unwillingness of the ANC leadership to truly stand with the people and lead by example.

However, in the understandable desire to have leaders of a different type, Sobukwe and the PAC bent the stick too far in the other direction. They elevated what should be tactical considerations about the role that leaders play in any given campaign into a matter of principle. The weakness in this approach was demonstrated in the anti-pass law campaign.

On 21 March 1960, the PAC leadership, with one or two exceptions, turned themselves in at police stations. They were arrested as planned. Whilst this act showed the heroism of the protesters, with Sobukwe first among them, it was disastrous for the organisation. Less than a year old, the PAC voluntarily beheaded itself. It is true that the cruelty of the apartheid regime’s imposition of jail sentences far in excess of what was ‘normal’ for the offence could not have been anticipated. Instead of the expected weeks, Sobukwe and others were sentenced to years. But there was no second tier of leadership capable of replacing the jailed leaders. In retrospect, it was a mistake for the majority of PAC leaders to surrender themselves.

The consequences for the PAC and the youth that followed them were dire. Burning anger at the Sharpeville massacre and the brutal repression that followed led to desperation and despair among many PAC supporters. With no clear leadership they moved away from mass action and the methods of non-violent civil disobedience which Sobukwe championed.  The PAC-offshoot Poqo, with the support of the new PAC acting-president Potlako Leballo, turned to acts of violence organised by individuals cut-off from the masses that would terrorise the apartheid regime and the white population supporting it. But far from weakening the regime, these methods, including the aim of killing as many whites as possible, strengthened it. The regime presented itself as the protector of the white population as a whole. At the same time these methods reduced the black working class to spectators in their own liberation that would be delivered to them not by their own mass actions but those of a heroic army of individual freedom fighters. By mid-June 1962, 3,246 Poqo members had been arrested. Many would be executed or imprisoned for life. With the leadership in prison these mass arrests decimated the PAC and it never recovered.

Sobukwe become a martyr as a result of his imprisonment and became a hero of the liberation struggle. He was never prepared to compromise on his opposition to apartheid and his commitment to see it brought down, even if compromise might mean possible release, or later, a lifting of his banning order. But the reality was that, unfortunately, he never played a direct role in the struggle again. That there was no one of his calibre able to fill his role in the PAC meant that the heroic determination and militant energy of many brave youth were squandered in the misdirected and futile activities of Poqo.

It seems that Sobukwe came to recognise the mistake. The PAC leadership had agreed that the slogan and policy once arrested would be “no bail, no defence, no fine”. When the longer than expected sentences were handed down most imprisoned PAC leaders decided to appeal. Sobukwe argued that it went against the principle of “no bail, no defence, no fine” but when his name was included in the application he went along with it. Later, recognising that he was of no use to the movement in jail, especially in solitary confinement, he twice, once in prison on Robben Island and then again in Kimberly, applied for an ‘exit pass’. This would have allowed him to leave the country in exchange for renouncing South African citizenship. Though even this was denied to him by the apartheid regime who feared him being free anywhere.

The highest standards are expected of leaders in a revolutionary struggle. Leadership means a wholehearted and unreserved commitment to the cause, setting an example and being prepared to make sacrifices. But leadership must also be understood as a resource that, especially in a party, is patiently and carefully built and developed. Therefore, exactly what “setting an example” or “being prepared to make a sacrifice” involves depends upon the stage of development of the party and the demands of the class struggle. In other words, whilst there are principled requirements of leaders, there are also important tactical considerations to their deployment.

For example, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the leaders of the workers’ 1917 Russian Revolution, risked life and liberty many times before 1917, facing arrest, imprisonment and exile repeatedly. This was necessary to build the standing of the party and its leaders when most workers did not know them. But during the period of “dual power” between February and October 1917, Lenin had to go underground at times to avoid arrest. In fact in the preparation of the insurrection and seizure of power, Lenin was in hiding, appearing only at crucial leadership meetings heavily disguised.  After the Revolution, as leader of the Red Army in the civil war, Trotsky’s leadership did not consist of leading detachments into battle but rather managing and organising the army behind the lines. A leader of his abilities could not be risked in what would have been a futile gesture. After the death of Lenin in 1924 and with the beginning of the degeneration of the revolution, Trotsky again put himself in harm’s way, risking arrest, trial and even assassination, by becoming the foremost spokesperson of the anti-Stalinist Left Opposition. With his exile from Soviet Russia in 1928, Trotsky’s role as a leader was first and foremost to theoretically and strategically rearm the genuine forces of Marxism. He spent the next decade until his murder in 1940 moving around the world taking every precaution to avoid arrest or capture, writing articles and holding small secret meetings with other leaders.

 

Lessons for today

Today, the PAC claims the heritage of Sobukwe. But they are undeserving of any monopoly on his legacy. In reality, Sobukwe spent almost no time at all at the helm of the party he helped to create. He occupied the office of PAC president for less than a year before being imprisoned. At first Sobukwe was able to maintain some influence whilst he was held with other PAC leaders, but his ability to give any sort of leadership was severely, and increasingly, restricted.  From his 1963 imprisonment on Robben Island until his death Sobukwe never played a leadership role in the PAC and they never again produced a leader of his standing.

In reality, Sobukwe was succeeded by the Black Consciousness movement. That Sobukwe recognised this affinity was revealed years after his death. When under banning order in Kimberly in the 1970s, a series of secret meetings took place between Sobukwe and Biko. Sobukwe is not known to have taken such risks to reach out to the PAC leadership of the time.

The lack of clarity in Sobukwe’s ideas leaves them open to misinterpretation and even abuse today. That the ANC and the Communist Party did indeed betray the struggle has seemingly justified some of Sobukwe’s views. But unfortunately, Sobukwe, even if he had kept his freedom, would not have been in a position to genuinely forewarn of that betrayal because his opposition was not based on a Marxist analysis of the class forces operating under apartheid. And more, without clarifying where he stood on the question of capitalism and socialism he would not have been able to play a meaningful role in positioning the PAC as a genuine alternative to struggle for a different outcome to the 1994 settlement that left apartheid’s capitalist economic foundations intact.

Sobukwe did not develop an all-sided Marxist analysis of the PAC’s ‘anti-white’ policy, which prevented the youth that it was consciously directed towards to rise beyond a crude, one-sided, anti-white sentiment which arose from their frustrations and anger with apartheid. This has bequeathed an extremely blunt instrument for understanding South Africa post-1994. Many who try and stand on an ‘anti-white’ policy today as a matter of principle are forced to gloss over the past 22 years of ANC rule, downplaying the responsibility of a black majority government in maintaining racial inequality and white privilege by defending its capitalist roots. The real class forces that can explain society are ignored.

Those genuine militants that have gravitated towards the EFF, for example, are in danger of repeating the mistakes of Sobukwe rather than learning from them. But they will repeat them in a caricatured form. In the EFF, the genuineness of Sobukwe and the honest shortcomings of a nevertheless principled and committed fighter are replaced with the conscious populism of Malema who exploits the anger of the masses. Instead of the political content of Sobukwe’s non-co-operation with whites, however poorly expressed, a reactionary, even racist anti-white (and anti-Indian) sentiment is encouraged amongst the masses whilst Malema dines with ‘white capital’. The crucial question of programme – capitalist or socialist? – is again relegated to the background and treated as unimportant. Malema talks radically but pursues policies that increasingly show he has no intention to actually break with capitalism. The danger is that the militancy and energy of a new generation of youth will again be squandered.

The past twenty-two years under a black government, which has seen the rise of a small but growing black elite, demonstrates that today’s struggle is first and foremost a class struggle. The key task we face is to build independent organisations of the working class based upon a socialist programme. The struggle to replace capitalism with socialism is the only way to improve living standards and end racial inequality and white privilege. That is the task of this generation.