Flipping through the re-issue of Benjamin Pogrund’s hagiography of Robert Sobukwe, How Can Man Die Better, one starts off by noticing that Pogrund has chosen a really trite and crummy title for the book. It would be difficult to find a more imperialist text than Lays of Ancient Rome, especially given the British ruling-class policy of pretending to be a replacement for Rome. Then again, one notices that the poem is about a man who risked his life by successfully protecting his country against attack, which Sobukwe did not do — he eventually died of cancer in bed.
Sobukwe enjoys an uninterrupted stream of praise in the media, mostly on the pretext that he was a genius and a marvel of humankind. He has a great big monument in Graaf-Reinet, though mysteriously people keep on vandalising it. Some have suggested that Fort Hare University be renamed Sobukwe University. Obviously there’s a lot of noise being made here, but it seems a lot like a football crowd chanting “Ooh-aah Sobukwe!” and blasting away with vuvuzelas. The problem being that it doesn’t take a lot of vuvuzelas to make a loud noise, and you can get people to join a chant even when they don’t know what they’re chanting about. Did Sobukwe do anything to justify this? Does Pogrund tell us?
Pogrund is a South African liberal in the classic mould — a thoroughly dishonest person who believes that his rich friends will buy him political power thanks to his ideology, which holds that what is needed is absolute freedom for everyone who agrees with Pogrund and obeys the same masters that he does. More recently Pogrund has become a firm supporter of racist mass murder provided that it is committed by Jews (or perhaps this was the position which he always held). This intellectual degradation is quite positive in this case, for it means that one can easily discern when Pogrund is lying, especially since he doesn’t acknowledge it even to himself, and frequently provides one in the book with evidence which contradicts his own propaganda.
Apparently, then, Sobukwe was marked out at an early age as a potential tool of white power and privilege. He went first to Healdtown, then to Fort Hare, where he was sponsored by white supporters on condition that he would return to Healdtown as a teacher. However, something went wrong. According to Pogrund, Sobukwe (who was President of the SRC, at that time making him a liaison officer between black students and white staff) gave a speech to a select gathering which was unduly Africanist in tone. Therefore, says Pogrund, Healdtown no longer wanted him, seeing him as a troublemaker. (Alternatively, it could just be that he wanted to leave rather than have to pay back the money he owed.) In any case Sobukwe, after taking his degree, went off to teach in a Johannesburg township in 1950. (He didn’t get any distinctions, although according to Pogrund he was considered good enough to get them; his main speciality was Bantu Language and Native Administration.)
But after a short while he fell foul of the authorities by giving a political speech. He was then notified that his contract would not be renewed — he was working in a government school. (So, rather than work for the missionaries, he preferred to work for apartheid? How interesting.) Normally that would have been the end of it, but the missionaries and Z K Matthews pleaded his case, and the government decided not to sack him. However, he went off to teach at the University of the Witwatersrand anyway. So he moved from a relatively low-paying job working in the interests of black people, to a much better-paid job working for, and largely teaching, white people. Interesting again. Also interesting that Wits wanted him. Was it because he was a genius, or because they thought he might be a useful lackey?
Throughout the early 1950s he was only modestly involved in politics, but he joined the ANC and began building up a personal power-base, especially in Alexandra. He was particularly associated with the Africanists in the ANC, who had their own newsletter in which they vilified the party leadership and the Communists, whom Sobukwe hated. Ostensibly he hated them because they were undemocratic, and because they were whites (though most of them were black) and because their allegiance was not to Africa. But then again, these Africanists were also remarkably friendly with white liberals like Pogrund, many of whom were on the “left” wing of the United Party, some of whom were thinking about forming a Progressive Party, and some of whom were thinking about forming a liberal pressure group.
This was Treason Trial time. The people who had taken over the ANC in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mandela and Sisulu and Luthuli, were all banned, and a lot of their friends were as well — and they were all faced with courtroom drama and the possibility of long sentences if they had a sufficiently corrupt judge who would take the ludicrous charges at face value. It was obviously a time which cried out for unity. Except, to people like Sobukwe and his friends, this was an opportunity not to be missed. The old Youth League crowd and their allies were all officially out of action — they were not allowed to participate in ANC activities and their movements were restricted. Now, surely, was the time for Sobukwe and his friends to move in and gain control of the ANC. Why not?
Well, the reason why not was that they were exploiting the oppression of the apartheid regime for personal gain — not an unfamiliar practice by Africanists. (As Pogrund coyly reveals, one of Sobukwe’s great allies and a co-founder of the PAC eventually decided that he did not like exile, and did a deal with the apartheid regime to return to the Transkei bantustan, where he became Minister of Police under the Matanzima dictatorship.) This obviously did not win friends among the ANC’s stalwarts, and a couple of the people from the Alexandra cabal who suggested this were expelled from the ANC, probably at the behest of the SACP, who loved expelling people almost as much as they loved the sound of their own voices.
Not liking this, Sobukwe and his friends decided simply to take over the ANC at the next Transvaal congress late in 1958. They showed up at the congress with about a hundred tsotsis carrying sticks, along with the people who had been kicked out of the ANC. To their dismay, Oliver Tambo, the Chair, allowed them all in, where they were considerably outnumbered by non-Africanists and where they were allowed to speak their piece. The problem was that Sobukwe and friends had nothing to say except that everybody should get out of the way and let them take over, something which the rest of the ANC wasn’t much impressed by. Tambo, meanwhile, set up a committee to investigate the credentials of all delegates — which is the typical ANC way of keeping out people you didn’t like, but which applied painfully well here because the Africanists were almost all either people who had been expelled, or Alexandra street thugs who’d never belonged to the ANC. Furthermore, because the non-Africanists were in the majority, the Africanists couldn’t pack the committee with their supporters. The actual assessment of the committee was put off to the following day, at which point Tambo had acquired sticks for the majority and the Africanists were easily excluded because their appalling behaviour fully justified it. Thus Sobukwe and their friends succeeded in splitting the ANC out of their incompetence and greed; they had nothing to justify their high-handed behaviour which could only serve the interests of the white minority forces.
Pogrund’s view of the period between then and March 1960 is interesting. On one hand he does his best to smear the ANC, declaring that they did nothing of substance apart from a potato boycott and preparations for the great anti-pass defiance campaign. However, they had at least three times the membership of the PAC — and, as Pogrund remarks, the PAC’s leadership was almost entirely middle-class (Wits allowed Pogrund to carry on at his lecturing job while being the President of the PAC, something which would never have been permitted for an ANC activist — it was almost as if the fact that the PAC was in constant contact with white liberals, as well as holding opinions which were very congenial to white racists, was helpful.)
The PAC picked up its membership predominantly in the Vaal Triangle, where Sobukwe’s friends had been strong, and in the Western Cape where there had always been distrust for the ANC and where factionalism was strong. The reason why these people joined the PAC seems to have had little to do with any ideological or practical motive, for apart from bombast Sobukwe and his friends offered no ideas. The suggestion was that they would be more vigorous than the ANC and would take advantage of the ANC’s failure. However, it was only in late 1959, after the ANC announced their plans to launch a massive national anti-pass campaign, that the PAC came up with its own idea — a massive national anti-pass campaign. In other words, the PAC had no ideas of its own.
Nor did the PAC have any planning capacity of its own. It did not even set a date for its campaign. It did not develop media or other material for its campaign, in spite of having months and months to work on it. This was partly because the PAC had virtually no dues-paying members; in sharp contrast to the ANC the PAC focussed all its energy on people who were prepared to say they supported the PAC rather than on committed members. This, of course, would pose a huge problem were there to be a crackdown, because support would then melt away to nothing — it would appear that Sobukwe was blissfully unaware of the certainty of state repression, perhaps because, unlike the ANC’s leadership, he had never personally experienced anything except pampering from whites.
But once the ANC had announced that it would launch its anti-pass campaign on the 31st of March (much sooner than it wanted — it had originally hoped to wait until June) the PAC announced that it would launch an anti-pass campaign as well. Pogrund claims that the PAC was afraid that the ANC’s anti-pass campaign would fail, and that this would lead to a decline in support for liberation movements. This makes no sense; if the ANC’s campaign were to fail then the PAC could surely have prepared a better one thereafter. Instead, the PAC decided to pre-empt the ANC’s campaign with their own — unfortunately without effectual coordination, leadership or planning. Whether the ANC would have been able to do better is not certain, although it is likely.
Anyway, Sobukwe came up with the brilliant idea not only of launching the PAC’s anti-pass campaign on the 21st, but also of announcing this on the 18th, which ensured that the PAC’s campaign would definitely happen before the ANC’s. The PAC’s campaign was much more of a damp squib than has ever been admitted; it had any success only in the Vaal Triangle and in Cape Town, and in both places the chaotic demonstrations which took place led to massacres of PAC supporters (fortunately, thanks to the unexpected behaviour of Philip Kgosana, who took charge when nobody else would, the Cape Town massacre was on a smaller scale than at Sharpeville). The leadership of the PAC rushed to the nearest police station demanding that they be arrested, and duly were, which had the effect, completely unanticipated by Sobukwe and his friends, of decapitating the organisation and preventing it from doing anything. The ANC then arranged a stayaway to mourn the dead — Sobukwe attempted to disrupt the stayaway, but failed; it was the ANC’s most successful single action before the banning of the organisation, and showed the virtue of organisation as opposed to opportunism and blather.
But it didn’t, of course, save the ANC, which was duly banned along with the PAC. And Sobukwe was sent to prison — though only for three years, and the bitter complaints presented by the PAC leadership about how awfully they were treated in prison, which Pogrund reproduces in faithfully pitiful detail, simply shows how pathetically unprepared they were for prison, and how vulnerable the middle-class PAC leadership were to state bullying. It is hardly surprising that so many of them betrayed the movement and that others walked away from the PAC itself in search of a tougher and more effective organisation.
Pogrund also points out how deeply the PAC was entwined with the white Liberal Party. To Pogrund this is good — but it is also, obviously, the sheerest hypocrisy. On one hand they were denouncing whites as their enemies, on the other they were begging money and aid from them and writing cringing articles for white magazines. It seems likely that the PAC’s hostility to the SACP was driven partly from racism, partly from envy of the SACP’s courage and discipline — everything the cowardly and chaotic PAC was not — and partly from a desire to please their white patrons.
So what is left of Sobukwe that one can respect? Not much. He was a modestly able ANC activist in the mid-1950s who proved incapable of sustaining himself as a disciplined comrade, and whose subsequent behaviour was not worthy of respect or even close scrutiny. He was not even a Biko, a mock-intellectual with at least the courage of some convictions. He was, instead, simply a man who tried to do the best for himself and, because of his ignorance and bad judgement, ended up ruining himself instead. That wouldn’t be so bad if he had not contributed to the ruin of the ANC for half a generation, and if he had not promoted a foolish, parasitic strain in South African politics. Compared even with Jacob Zuma or Tony Yengeni it is hard to see anything of merit in him.
He deserves to be forgotten, not commemorated.