5 December 1924 - 27 February 1978
Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe died in the Kimberley General Hospital between midnight and 01 h00 on February 27 1978, aged 54 years. His wife, Veronica (Zodwa Mathe), was by his side when he died. His four children, Miliswa (23), Dinilisizwe (22), Dedaniziziwe (19), and Dalindjebo (18), were in America with their legal guardian, Andrew Young.
Sobukwe was born in Graaf Reinet in 1924, the son of poor Xhosa parents and the youngest of seven children of Hubert Sobukwe and Angelina Gaziys. He was educated at a mission school and obtained a first class matriculation pass. He enrolled at Fort Hare University with the assistance of two small bursaries and financial assistance from the Principal of Healdtown in Fort Beaufort, and while reading for his BA degree, made his first impact on the political scene. He was elected SRC President and Secretary-General of the ANC Youth League. After graduation he obtained a diploma in teaching and became a teacher at Standerton but was dismissed after becoming a passive resister in the defiance campaign of 1952. Soon after he accepted a post at Wits University in the languages department.
He identified with the Africanists within the ANC and in 1957 left the ANC to become Editor of The Africanist. A year later he and others broke away from the ANC and formed the PAC. The Pan African Congress held its first conference in 1959 where he was elected President. The aim of that first congress was to get courteous treatment for Africans in shops.
As the President of the banned Pan African Congress (PAC), he was the first person against whom action was taken in terms of the General Laws Amendment Act and he served a three-year prison sentence for leading the pass law demonstration on 21 March 1960 (Sharpeville Day). He had initiated the campaign by handing his pass to the police in Orlando and inviting arrest. On his release from that sentence - on 3 May 1963 - he was immediately re-arrested and sent to the infamous Robben Island where he spent six years in detention without trial. This law, which empowered the government to continue the detention of anyone found guilty of incitement, became known as the "Sobukwe clause".
He was kept in solitary confinement but permitted certain privileges including books, newspapers and his own clothes. (Between 1963 and his release cost the State some R70 000 to keep him prisoner).
In 1969 he was released from prison but sent to Kimberley to live in a restricted zone comprising the magisterial area, moving into a house in Naledi Street, Galeshewe. He was to stay home at night and in the magisterial district during the day. The reason he had been sent to Kimberley to live was so that he "should not live where he can with reasonable ease resume subversive activities." Another reason given was that there should be an opportunity for him to live and work and lead as normal a life in so far as this was compatible with the safety of the state.
He turned down an offer of a job in the Bantu Administration Department in Kimberley but became articled to an attorney in Galeshewe. As he already had three degrees and various other diplomas he was only required to serve three years of article for his Lib degree. He was refused permission to leave the country in 1970 in order to attend Wisconsin University in the USA where he would have studied for a PhD in African Linguistics.
Professor Christian Barnard, the famous heart surgeon, had operated on him in September 1977 at Groote Schuur for a malignancy on the bronchus (adeno carcinoma), also known as lung cancer. Barnard had requested that the apartheid authorities release him from his banning order top allow him grace to live his last few months with his family but it was refused. It was in fact Chris Barnard who flew out Sobukwe's three children to attend the funeral.
Sobukwe returned to Kimberley on 15 November 1977 but was re-admitted to Groote Schuur on 5 January 1978. He again returned to Kimberley on 29 January when he was described as being seriously ill and was admitted to the Kimberley Hospital on 9 February.
The Kimberley Memorial service for Sobukwe was held at the Odeon Cinema and was organized by the Labour Party. The Bishop of Kimberley and Kuruman, the Right Reverend Graham Chadwick conducted the service.
He was buried in Graaf Reinet on 11 March 1978.
He was an impressive personality who had considerable political influence on South African politics. His philosophy of Black Awareness was one of, if not the, major source of inspiration for the Black Consciousness Movement of Steve Biko. He had met Biko when attending his mother's funeral in Umtata.
Helen Suzman: "Mr Sobukwe would have been an agent for peaceful change if he had been used as a channel for communicating between the Government and the large number of black people who had confidence in him. "