by Yamkela F Spengane and Malaika Wa Azania
“Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.” – Amilcar Cabral, Revolution in Guinea (1969)
On Tuesday, Solly Mapaila, the First Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, made shocking remarks about Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) founder and anti-apartheid struggle hero Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Mapaila was the main speaker at a dialogue celebrating the Rivonia Trialists at Liliesleaf Farm, Sandton. The dialogue was a commemoration of 29 years of Nelson Mandela’s release. These were some of his utterances:
“Sobukwe left the ANC on the basis of its acceptance of White people. But the thing that I said I’m going to speak of for the first time, is that when our leaders were on Robben Island they were incarcerated. They were ill-treated, treated as slaves. They went to the quarry to crush stones every single day because they were being punished.”
“The apartheid government decided to treat Robert Sobukwe as the only political prisoner and others as terrorists. That’s why they built him a house. He was treated as a political prisoner when our leaders were treated as slaves, terrorists and criminals. That is unforgivable, although we don’t deny that he was a revolutionary. I’m saying this not because he was anti-communist, but that is unforgivable.”
Though Mapaila has since issued an apology for his utterances, it is prudent that we engage his assertions, for if they go unchallenged, they might be accepted as truth. History is littered with many examples of the dangers of revisionism. Palestinian scholar, Edward Said, has written extensively on the contested history of the Palestinian struggle, situating Israeli revisionist historians at its centre. He dismisses them with contempt, positing: “It always puzzled me why whenever I argued with Zionists, they would eventually take refuge in history as if history was on their side”. Unlike the Israelis who take refuge in a history that is not on their side, Mapaila sought to take a Sobukwe who stood on the right side of history and subject him to erasure. We would have been shocked if it was something new, but unfortunately there exists a historical tendency in the congress movement to discredit and delegitimise any other movement or person not affiliated with it, that was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, particularly people who were part of the PAC and the Black Consciousness Movement. Steve Biko himself was labelled with many insults, the gravest of which was the allegation that he was an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Steve Biko was a student of Sobukwe and regarded the PAC leader as an intellectual and revolutionary giant. It is not an accident of history that both men have been painted with the brittle brush of allegations of collaborationism. Brittle, because it breaks easily when put to the test and subjected to scrutiny.
But Biko and Sobukwe are not unique in this targeted malice, nor did it cede with the ushering in of a new dispensation. In the new South Arica, pan Africanists affiliated with the PAC continue to suffer immense alienation. We have Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA) combatants who are still imprisoned in South African jails despite the fact that they are prisoners of consciousness who were fighting against a regime that the United Nations has declared a crime against humanity. Kenny Motsamai, a former APLA Commander arrested in 1989 for the murder of a White officer, was refused pardon by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). He spent 27 years and 11 months in prison before being released on parole in 2017 following years of fruitless pleas to various presidents to grant him amnesty. Motsamai was re-arrested in 2018 for some petty issue around parole condition violations and then later released.
This deliberate beastly treatment of a liberation struggle hero by our democratic government is especially devastating given that mass murderers of the apartheid regime were never convicted. Furthermore, no combatant of the African National Congress (ANC) was imprisoned for crimes of revolutionary conscience because the organisation applied for blanket amnesty to the TRC. Only few of its comrades were hurled to the TRC, including Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the Mother of the Nation.
Given this well documented history of the onslaught on the pan Africanist movement, we could ignore Mapaila’s assertions as merely another habitual burst. But a lie repeated often enough becomes accepted as truth, and so left unchallenged, Mapaila’s assertions might end up being accepted and then regurgitated by unsuspecting people who think he holds intellectual authority. Thus, we have to address firstly the issue on Sobukwe, and secondly, why the mass democratic movement has cemented a tendency of rewriting history or discrediting that which cannot be re-written.
ON MANGALISO SOBUKWE
Mangaliso Sobukwe joined the ANC Youth League in 1948. It had been founded in 1944 with Muziwakhe Anton Lembede as its founding president. While the basic objectives of the existence of the ANCYL (which have evolved to be defined as twin tasks) are to mobilise and rally the youth behind the ANC and to champion the interests of the youth, they gestated in the fundamental roots of its birth: to radicalise the ANC. The ANCYL leaders of 1944 believed that the organisation, then led by President Alfred Xuma (1940 – 1949) was too conservative and that the Defiance Campaign needed radicalisation in order to meaningfully shake the solid foundation of the repressive apartheid regime. The ideologue behind the league’s Africanist position, Lembede, would die in 1947 and AP Mda would take over the reigns as president. The following year, in 1948, DF Malan’s Nationalist Party won the elections and officially introduced and legislated apartheid, which intensified the oppression of Black people in our country. In response to this newfound attack on the freedoms of the natives, the ANCYL pushed the ANC to launch the Programme of Action as its Policy Document in 1949 – a document that adopted a militant stance against the regime and called for an end to compliance with the government’s racist policies. Sobukwe, then the SRC President at the University of Fort Hare and a member of the ANCYL, was one of the key advocates of the POA.
Between 1950 and 1952 Sobukwe was a teacher in Standerton, where he lost his job after campaigning for the ANC’s Defiance Campaign in 1952. He then moved to Johannesburg where he took up a post as a lecturer of African Studies at Wits University in 1954 (why we advocate for the university to be named after Sobukwe), and became the editor of The Africanist. In this publication, he outlined his discontent with what he termed an increasing liberalisation of the ANC by Whites from the Communist Party who seemed to have increasing influence within the organisation. But Sobukwe’s discontent with the ANC was more than just about the growing influence of Communists within the organisation. It was informed by the growing wave of independence struggles that were being waged on the continent, in what is aptly termed the “Decades of African Independence”. The experiences of this liberation struggles in other African countries made Sobukwe believe very strongly in the idea that only Africans, grounded in solidarity and geared towards an African agenda, could fashion a higher civilisation – an idea that gave birth to the slogan “Africa for Africans”.
Whether Sobukwe’s position on Communists was reasonable is a debate that is ongoing. The authors of this article themselves sit on opposite sides, with Yamkela affirming the position of Sobukwe and Malaika believing that the characterisation of Communists as liberals is flawed. But it would be unreasonable to interrogate the thinking of Sobukwe without an appreciation of the space and time in which he navigated, and the politics, both local and continental, that shaped his worldview. No historian worth the title should opine with absolutism on the posture of a colonised people’s theorisation of their struggle without understanding the basis of such theorisation. For this reason, to dismiss Sobukwe as reactionary without engaging the totality and layeredness of his ideas is vulgar.
The climax of the antagonism between the Africanists led by Sobukwe and the other grouping in the ANC was reached in 1955 when the Freedom Charter was launched in Kliptown, Soweto. A breakaway was eminent and it finally happened in 1959 when Sobukwe led the Africanists to form the PAC. The PAC drew its radicalism from the Programme of Action of 1949 and approached the struggle with more militancy. In 1960, on March 21, Sobukwe led a countrywide march against pass laws in what culminated in the Sharpeville-Langa Massacre. He was subsequently incarcerated on Robben Island for three years. What happened when Sobukwe was due for release in 1963 was nothing short of unprecedented. Parliament passed the General Law Amendment Act (Act no. 37 of 1963), as amended in 1964, that contained a clause that allowed John Vorster, the then Minister of Justice, to indefinitely keep Sobukwe incarcerated by renewing his sentence every 12 months. This became known as the Sobukwe Clause, and it became the first time that a government had created a law for the purpose of dealing with a specific person.
The Sobukwe Clause, and the Act that it was contained in didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor were they an accident of history. There were preceding events that made the apartheid government fear Sobukwe and his influence so much that they crafted a piece of legislation to keep him incarcerated. On 22 November 1962, a group of about 250 POQO members – the precursor to APLA – left Mbokweni location outside Paarl into the city, armed with axes, machetes and other weapons and caused mayhem, attacking the police station and businesses, killing a white man and woman in the process before being repelled by reinforcements from Cape Town. In the aftermath, many Black people were arrested. John Vorster seconded Justice H. Snyman of the Transvaal division of the Supreme Court to run a commission of inquiry into the incident. The commission ran from 7 December 1962 – 13 March 1963. He subsequently submitted his report to John Vorster and that is what informed the General Law Amendment Act (Act no. 37 of 1963) and its contained Sobukwe Clause. Among the recommendations of the Snyman Commission Report were the following:
• That POQO and the banned parent organisation PAC be annihilated as it posed greater threat to the government’s control. It had radical ideas of seeking to overthrow the government, and the Paarl incident showed the intent, for it was the first time since the banning of national liberation movements that natives had converged themselves and waged a systematic attack on White industries and people.
• Robert Sobukwe was a danger to the state and had to be neutralized in order that he could not continue having influence in shaping ideas of the people.
The apartheid government understood the danger that Sobukwe posed, hence they isolated him from other prisoners in the three years he stayed on Robben Island. Any influence he could have on other political prisoners had to be nipped in the bud. The isolation was also used to break him down mentally. Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, in her autobiography titled 419 Days, aptly describes the beastliness of solitary confinement, stating that it’s a diabolical mechanism of torture used to psychologically and mentally destroy prisoners. Snyman, and indeed the apartheid regime, understood that if Sobukwe was released to the public, he would reinforce POQO by influencing more people to engage in civil disobedience. Contrary to Mapaila’s assertions that Sobukwe was housed alone because he was favoured, evidence suggests that Sobukwe suffered immense abuse on Robben Island. Transcripts of the TRC, documented in case EC0155/97ALB, detail how Sobukwe was given food laced with glass fragments. He was also operated on, subjected to invasive surgery, without consultation with his family. Evidence also details that Sobukwe was repeatedly poisoned and denied independent medical assistance. Even after being released in 1969, he was banished to Galeshewe, a deprived township in the Northern Cape province, to isolate him and distance him from any political activity.
How then Mapaila would suggest that all of this is favouritism shows the lengths that many in the congress movement will go to vilify dissenting views, and how history will be revised in order that the dominant narrative of the ANC as the sole liberator of our country find root. In our next article we look at the roots of the re-writing of history by some in the congress movement, and how this manufactured hegemony is a question of power.