Professor Robert Mangaliso 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 blacks, despite the large non-black minorities in the country. He later left the ANC and formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), where he was elected its first President in 1959.
Robert Sobukwe became known as the Professor or ‘Prof’ to his close compatriots 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-blacks. His strong conviction and active resistance inspired generations of South Africans, and also inspired many organizations involved in the anti-apartheid movement, notably the Black Consciousness Movement.
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 ‘ Newapaper and soon began to criticise the ANC for allowing itself to be dominated by what he termed ‘liberal-left-multi-racialists’. He was an ardent supporter of Africanist views about liberation in South Africa and rejected the idea of working with Whites.
On 21 March 1960, the PAC led a nationwide protest against the hated Pass Law which require black people to carry a pass book at all times. Sobukwe led a march to the local police station at Orlando, Soweto in order to openly defy the laws. He was joined on route by a few followers and, after presenting his pass to a police officer, he purposely made himself guilty under the terms of the Pass Law for being present in a region/area other than that allowed in his papers. In a similar protest the same day in Sharpeville, police opened fire on a crowd of PAC supporters, killing 69 in the Sharpeville Massacre.
Following Sobukwe’s arrest, he was charged and convicted of incitement, and sentenced to three years in prison. After serving his sentence, he was interned on Robben Island. The new General Law Amendment Act was passed, allowing his imprisonment to be renewed annually at the discretion of the Minister of Justice. This procedure became known as the “Sobukwe clause” and went on for a further three years. Sobukwe was the only person imprisoned under this clause.
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).
Sobukwe was released in 1969. He was allowed to live in Kimberley with his family but remained under house arrest. Kimberley was suggested as an area where he could not easily foster subversive activities and also a place where he could live and work, whilst being easily monitored by the state. He was also restricted through a banning order, which disallowed political activities.Various restrictions barred Sobukwe from traveling overseas, thus curtailing his attempts at furthering his education. For this same reason he had to turn down several positions as a teacher at various locations in the United States.
Robert Sobukwe finished his law degree with the help of a local lawyer, in Galeshewe. On completion he then started his own practice in 1975 in Kimberley.
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. He died on 27 February 1978, and was buried in Graaf-Reinet on 11 March 1978.