Es'kia Mphahlele

(Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe Memorial Lecture, Fort Hare University , March 25, 2003).

Mr. Chairperson, Vice Chancellor, university community, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am honoured to have been invited to this occasion by the Steve Biko Foundation and the University of Fort Hare. Who cannot but feel elevated by such an unvitation from men and women who honour and hallow the memory of such historical personalities, whose ideas are building blocks in the reconstruction of our history as a mouthpiece of the truths that elevate us and reaffirm us.

It is easy to be blinded by our present passionate loyalties to our individual political parties to the fact that the ideas Sobukwe and after him Biko expressed are woven permanently into our African psyche. A statement that applies, of course, also to heroes who preceded them, each in their own ways. It is a measure of our crass political mediocrity in places, even immaturity in other places. There is a note of anguished reproach in Xolela Mangcu's highly enlightening article in Sunday Independent (March 16) in which he says, “Sobukwe's leadership of the March 21 protests against the pass laws focused the world's attention on South Africa like nothing before (those fateful events). And yet we continue to commemorate that day without any mention of the man.” And then his damning rhetorical question---“What nation forgets its political and intellectual ancestors so cruelly?” To which I am motivated to add, “What inanity prompts people to even think that they can tear out any pages from our historical record and continue to live a lie?”

Surrounded as we are by the overwhelming economic and social forces backing the Western powers' conquests past and present, we had begun to forget that we belong to and are of Africa ; that we need therefore to energise our inner sense of Africanism, backed up by our historical memory. Sobukwe advanced the teachings of Anton Lembede and A P Mda far beyond the reaches of their imaginations, thus giving the concept of an “Africanist consciousness” contemporary meaning. It became inseparably tied y up with our humanity.

The term “consciousness” may sound like a cliché, but the substance of African consciousness continent-wide, and Black consciousness in its national context, should make us realize how our vision of ourselves keeps coming back, unstoppable, to call us to account. For aren't we indeed in the process of reconstructing the history of a people who have been disinherited, whose culture has been savaged? The late Senghor of Senegal once called the European colonizers (I translate loosely from French) carriers of a civilised barbarism. Can we afford to wish out of our memory those building blocks created by predecessors so many in our midst long misjudged anti-this-or-that? Remember, Africans were nations centuries before 1994!

I wish the Foundation more power behind their work in the interests of social justice beyond simple fanciful talk. One of the casualties of our own apathy and intellectual confusion, is the opportunity to read history for nation building as well as for self-knowledge. Sobukwe and Biko made this pretty clear to us. It is ignorance of history that prevents us from moving beyond the folk hero to the genuine nation builder: at once introspective and circumspdective.

Before I go any further I must read a poem I dedicate to Mama Veronica Zodwa Sobukwe on this occasion when we remember her beloved husband's life and loved father of her family

Tribute to Zodwa Veronica

A Great Woman

Es'kia Mphahlele

March 25, 2003


I see through the window of my mind

millennia upon millennia of African women:

droves and droves of them

have walked this earth and toiled

babies on their backs, clay pots, firewood

on their heads.


And when the red and the pink locusts

swarmed our lands savaging

every blade and every acre and leaf of it,

stripping us naked.

We attacked.

When the reds and the pinks

gunned us down

wrung our necks in the noose of their civilisation---

that is when we lost our innocence.


In our time a man was born

to this nation

Mangaliso Sobukwe.

He had a dream that would not let him be---

amid so much pain, so much longing,

so much history dripping

centuries of blood

the heavens themselves must have screamed:

a dream to seek and restore

that sense of ourselves

that proclaims a people's selfhood

echoing from hill to hill down the ages

from rim to rim of this planet.

You were there with Mangaliso,

Mother Veronica

ever ready for him to draw the vigour,

succour from the family warmth that

only one can know in his woman's

embrace a million million times reassuring.

You were there with him,

Daughter of Africa ,

at the banging and clanging of prison doors and gates,

there in the busy wards where your man

lay listening to the ravaging beat of his pain.


The ebb of the flow of life

from a body

always waiting for someone's paper work,

someone counting time for a man's life

he would never grasp.


You had been there to witness it all---

man fixed on a course

to set black humanity free:

a man breasting the hills

and breaking his feet on rocky road

from college to stockade to the end of his life.


Then at last, daughter of Mathe,

the sun came out of you

and your children

blazing from above the eastern skyline

lighting your way

through the darkness of your journey.

Always you were reminded this---

that no-one in all of savage Christiandom

could break your man's mind or spirit,

or trample on sanctity of your home---

divine gift of the Supreme One

attended by the ancestors.

We salute you,

Daughter of Africa

devoted wife and mother

who turned pain into an ever-glowing shrine

the full shadow of your man

on the wall above your head while you pray.

And look, children of Africa---

the soothing modesty of that

Sobukwe smile leading defiant crowds:

Not riding tanks of fire but

pushing frontiers of courage, faith,

a people's love---

the smile that speaks in many tongues!

You were always there,

Mama Sobukwe, waiting.

The sun, our elders teach us,

Shines on all of us, Mama,

Bears no envy nor spite for anyone.

(Lebowakgomo, Limpopo )

What did Robert Sobukwe say that we find so memorable? I am indebted to Benjamin Pogrund, beloved friend and confidant of the family, for his magnificent biography, Sobukwe And Apartheid (Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1990, pp. 34-39) for some of these.

# On the momentous evening of the Com[pleter's Social, on these very grounds (October 21, 1949), Sobukwe addressed the gathering as President of the Students' Representative Council. Her repeated what he had said in a meeting the previous year: that he saw Fort Hare 's mission as similar to Stellenbosch University 's in relation to the Afrikaner. It must be “a barometer of African thought.”

# There was at this time a nurses' strike at the nearby teaching hospital. Sobukwe referred to his fellow-students then as “sons and daughters of Africa , harbingers of the new world order.” Which signifies the broad sweep his intellect could already make beyond the borders of our own country. Further, he saw “the trouble at the hospital as part of a broad struggle” (i.e. the one between black and white). “We must fight for freedom---for the right to call our souls our own. And we must pay the price.” He was far ahead of his peer group, let alone his political seniors.

# To those students still continuing: “You have seen by now what education means to us: the identification of ourselves with the masses. Education to us means service to Africa . You have a mission.”

# “A doctrine of hate can never take people anywhere. It is too exciting. It warps the mind. That is why we preach the doctrine of love, love of Africa .”

# “TO the completers among whom I number myself, my exaltation is: REMEMBER AFRICA!”

# “We are witnesses today of cold and calculated brutality and bestiality, the desperate attempts of a dying generation to stay in power. We see also a new spirit of determination, a quiet confidence, the determination of a people to be free whatever the cost.”

# “We are seeing within our own day the second rape of Africa . . . But this time of imperialism we see is not the naked brutal mercantile imperialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a more c subtle one---financial and economic imperialism under the guise of a tempting slogan ‘the development of backward areas and peoples'.”

# “We have chosen African Nationalism because of its deep human significance; because of its inevitability and necessity to world progress. World civilization will not be complete until the African has made his full contribution.”

# “We are anti-nobody. We are pro-Africa. We breathe, we dream, we live Africa; because African and humanity are inseparable . . . On the liberation of Africa lies the liberation of the whole world. The future of the world lies with the oppressed and the Africans are the most oppressed people on earth . . . “

# “Talks of co-operation (from opponents of African Nationalism) are not new to us. Every time our people have shown signs of uniting against oppression, their ‘friends' have come along and broken that unity.” In the very early days, Sobukwe pointed out, it was the Reverend Shaw's Christian-missionary ideals that kindled inter-ethnic hostilities between Fingo and Xhosa. “Between 1900 and 1946 it has been the professional Liberal. Today it is again the Missionary who fulfils this role.”

# In a pleading tone, Sobukwe then exhorted his fellow-students---“lovers of my Africa” to carry “with you into the world the vision of a new Africa, an Africa reborn, an Africa rejuvenated, an Africa recreated, young AFRICA. We are the glimmers of a new dawn . . . Those [British colonists] who clamped Nehru (first Prime Minister of independent India , 1947] in jail are today his servants . . . We dare not compromise, nor dare we use moderate language in the course of freedom . . . “

#Sobukwe ended his well-reasoned delivery by quoting Mnandi Azikiwe, one of the leading Nigerian anti-colonial stalwarts of the forties and fifties: “ 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 baby from the fire into which it has fallen; but do not ask me to use moderation in a cause like the present .”

In a speech to the PAC Sobukwe entitled “The State of the Nation.” Aug. 2, 1959---barely three months after the formation of the PAC---he sought throughout the address to place the African struggle in South Africa in the context of the larger collective continental nationalism. North Africa, West and East Africa, Central African and the larger Southern Africa---Sobukwe saw here a pattern to unfold which, in his view, would be the longed-for revolution needed to restore the land to the natives of the continent. In explicating the programme of the PAC, he laid bare its activities right up the vertical line of leadership and across on the horizontal plane of the masses.

Robert Sobukwe was ever sharply aware of the continental movements that came to define his intellectual search for African unity and its relationship with nationalism. He realized what a powerful idea Pan Africanism was and how its spirit was inspiring the whole nationalist movement on the continent, especially in the two decades, thirties and forties, giving it the intellectual force it needed. It was a mirror of the African self that straddled the Atlantic .

The Pan-African ideology had its beginnings in a conference in London , 1900, convened by West Indian barrister, Henry Sylvester –Williams. The central motivation was to bring together the Negro peoples of Africa, USA , the Caribbean , to form a Pan-African front against colonialism. The idea was inspired by their common heritage, one that had been disturbed, even shattered, by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery. Completing the trio were W. E. B. Du Bois, the great African American sociologist and a compatriot, Marcus Garvey, forceful leader of the Back-to-Africa movement. After Sylvester-Williams' death Du Bois became the major driving force of Pan African conferences as of 1919, the first of a series of five. The leaders of the conference were particularly motivated for this meeting by the apathy and impotence shown by the “civilised world” in the face of the Belgian Congo 's torture and murder of African labourers.

The 1945 Pan-African conference in Manchester , England , was to attract the largest number of Africans since 1919. Among them were George Padmore (West Indies); Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana , other West African countries, South African Peter Abrahams (the speaker's high-school classmate), Kenya 's Jomo Kenyatta. This conference also sought to express solidarity with all other colonised peoples, including South-East Asia and India .

Sobukwe was a scholar and thinker, the likes of which we had only had a glimpse of in Anton Lembede of the ANC Youth League before his untimely death, and in A. P. Mda, whose brilliant thoughts we have always regretted were so scantily recorded. Most of the political leaders down the years, barring such creative figures as John L. Dube. Sol T. Plaatje and later luminaries such as A. C. Jordan, have been no more than what sociologists call “political intelligentsia,” whatever steam and passion they displayed. They are just sweet and knowledgeable about political issues that engage their society. They generally prefer to talk about high profiles to remembering and debating ideas and cold reason. So the bulk of their knowledge comes from the media.

I'm not being disrespectful to the intelligentsia. They form, after all, the majority in the professional classes, administrative, organizational and managerial occupations. They are the functionaries and the best of them make things work, help the general populace manage the mechanics of living.

The true intellectual like Robert Sobukwe does not rely on formulae and petty loyalties just for the sake of being part of the group. As an intellectual you don't simply toss a heavily-loaded phrase or sentence or slogan over to your loyal followers, spin doctors, and the ever-news-hungry media to decode it. You yourself have to think your theories through, establishinh what is workable and how and what isn't. To quote historian Paul Johnson, you “demolish altars and enthrone reason.” “Altars” here signifies blind faith, worship and obedience, continually footnoting what you once told people before: “I was saying to them the other day . . .” And Sobukwe was a man of action as well as ideas. We miss leaders like him, “adventurers of the mind” as Johnson calls them, but still more so in Sobukwe's case, who did not simply toy with ideas for entertaining debate nor please a patron. Especially in our time---the age of political adventures and floor-crossings; the age of patronage, desperate partisan loyalties, mutual back-scratching, rewards and punishment; the age of political mediocrity.

He was a devout Christian. Whatever conflicts and doubts he may have been experiencing internally concerning his religious belief, he did not regard them as something for display. He seemed to have had an awesome pact with life and trust in the human ability to reconcile the two painfully divergent streams of morality---the political and the religious. Political authority, especially savages like the breed that governed at the time, trembles in the presence of men like Sobukwe. Because there is no instrument to enable them to penetrate such a cultured mind whose poise belies the rare mixture of fury, love, courage, daring, gentleness, hatred for war and violence, almost superhuman endurance of pain---all controlled, disciplined by the person's singleness of purpose.

And if the savage cannot fathom the enemy's character, he goes out to destroy him or her. The Malans, Strydoms, Verwoeds, Vorsters, the Bothas, De Klerks all had steel-hearted technicians in their respective departments of torture and “permanent removal from society.” Throughout history dictators have been frightened of intellectuals. Because it is not in the latter's nature to come out into the arena to display their weapons or take on the barbarians. Such men ruled this country whose feelings of terror were so stark that they subsisted on a regular diet of superstition about their enemies, eg., the freedom lovers, whether children or adults. So they went out to destroy.

For this man of Africa, the epithet “pan-African” signified knowledge of African history, African thought and belief and world view, giving what is originally African a contemporary meaning to deal with our present reality. It meant pushing the frontiers of one's geographic nationalism to reach out to our continental commonality based on our African-ness or Africanity; and to reaffirm the very nationalism we sought to transcend.

When the nationalist movement swept across Africa in the forties and fifties, culminating in formal independence from colonial rule, there was little attention paid to actual programmes for educating the masses about the fact of ethnic divisions. Indeed such lines of distinction did not signify for them a call for conflict; until colonialism broke upon us. Then both ethnicity and tribalism began to present problems of tragic magnitude. Especially when we tried to adopt the European style of electioneering, each country adopting the sytle of governance used by the former colonial power. But Europe has continued in its evil historical fashion to play ethnic groups against one another, always for economic gain.

It may very well be asked what Pan-Africanism can still do for us. Cynical journalism will even say that we have the African Union (former OAU), the New African Partnership, Southern African, East African, West African regional unions or “communities.” Is that not enough pan-Africanism? One answer may be a question: What do the average citizens from the grass-roots level to that of functional literacy, even the average college level---what do these understand by such high-flight concepts? Are there educational programmes for young and adult citizens to raise their degree of understanding? Underlying our engagement of the above concepts of co-operation should be a Pan-African sensibility or consciousness. This is a condition people are educated to attain, it's not just picked up. And as education is part of the process of living---education by reading and discourse---we should be able to restore out [the] sense of being. This way also, we can get to learn about our continent---know the human face of Africa .

We must not be merely content to work out the logistics and economic equations required of these new African conditions. We need in addition to bring the heart into the developmental formations and process. A consciousness that draws its inspiration from our history---Pan-Africanism and the humanity Sobukwe divined to be built into it.

We could go further: debate the role or non-role of nationalism in a non-racial society. If we are ever going to work towards informing our communities, so that they learn to talk, evaluate information media, know government, know the implications of such concepts as globalization, present-day style of imperialism, and so on. We are going to have to be systematic about community development, national consciousness and so on.

Once the PAC had been banned and several of its leaders fled into exile, its morale crashed. Faction feuds, financial greed and its companion---extravagance and high living---all this and more worked their evil and tore the father of the PAC's ideals to shreds. They betrayed his dream, that Vision Splendid. But not only did they dishonour the dream, they had no ideas to replace nor even to advance it. Unfortunately too, the stalwarts who returned from exile or stayed on at home and have continued to cherish Sobukwe's dream, are absent from the present-day PAC. New blood has moved in, by and large dismally ignorant of Africa 's history, barren of ideas. Yet the story of this Man of Africa should continue to be retold for the benefit especially of the younger leaders-in-the-making. As I have indicated, if history has to be rewritten, as it should be, we have to distinguish between false or trumped up images of African heroism, often in mere silhoutte and that which is personified by the robust personality of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

[Professor Ezekiel Mphahlele gave me this essay as a gift in March +2004 in Lebowakgomo when I visited him of the second day of my arrival in South Africa; my first visit in 42 years since I left home with my Mother and three brothers in 1962 to join my father who was studying at the University of California in Los Angeles. In the 1950s Professor Mphahlele's family and father's family lived on the Maseko Street in Soweto . On the same street below Uncle Thom's Hall (which is no longer there) lived Zeph Mothopeng's family. Nelson and Winnie Mandela lived four streets below Maseko Street . Across from us in Orlando West, Walter Sisulu's family lived in Phomolong. In the 1960s my family and Mphahlele's family met in exile in Nairobi ; another prominent family there was that of Selby and Nisa Mvusi. It was these interconnections and inter-crossings that made me seek out Professor Mphahlele in 2004. I visited him again in September 2005. In honor of his remarkable scholarship I contributed an essay in celebration of his eightieth birthday in 1999 at the University of the North; now the essay appears in the recently published Es'kia: May You Grow As Big As An Elephant , (eds.) Sam Raditlhalo and Taban Lo Liyong, Stainbank Associates, Johannesburg , 2006, pp. 168-210.]