The 6th Annual Robert Sobukwe Memorial Lecture

The Legacy and Relevance of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe in the 21st Africa

By: Kwandiwe Kondlo
University of Fort Hare

Honourable Vice Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, the CEO of the Steven Biko Foundation, the CEO of the Robert Sobukwe Trust, fellow academics, honourable, members of the provincial government, the leadership of the ANC and PAC as well as other political parties, guests from various sections of our society including those from outside South Africa, student leadership, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honour to give the 6th Robert Sobukwe Memorial Lecture at this University.
Mangaliso Sobukwe’s footprints in South African political history shall never be erased. Unfortunately Sobukwe is not widely known in South Africa and I think this is not just a matter of oversight but is deliberate. The post-apartheid dispensation in our country is marked by the rise of a new kind of selective memory and a new kind of exclusion . We are led to believe that one movements’ history of struggle; one movement’s leaders and fallen heroes are all- embracing of the entire liberation movement. This attempt to stamp the entire history of the liberation struggle in South Africa with the colours one organization has made some of our heroes - who were victims of exclusion during colonialism and apartheid, victims once again – they are now victims of an exclusionary post-apartheid memory, which is largely an invention of today’s the victors.

This invention has its own intellectuals, these I call tendentious scholars who one day shall stand accused before the judgment of history. Yes there are efforts to bring Sobukwe and his ideas back to public discourse but let him not be inscribed with meanings completely unrelated to the cause he stood for and the organization in which he operated. I am refer here to the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania.

Ladies and gentlemen I am an academic, I am a researcher and an African scholar. What energizes scholars is the pursuit of the truth in all its dimensions.I say this so that it is clear from the outset that I am not a political party activist, I am loyal to no political party but to the quest for truth.
I owe ordinary African people, especially those humbled by their conditions of poverty and deprivation, the truth about our reality and circumstances; the truth about why the ideas of Robert Sobukwe remain so true and so relevant today as they were before1994.

Ordinary people, want to know the truth – they have nothing to lose from the truthful analyses of their predicament, it’s the elites who usually benefit from the mystification of the way society works. The problem in the 21st century Africa is that African scholars have sort of abandoned their mission – some also found comfortable spaces in the market place – as Isa Shivji (1993) puts it, they have also distinguished themselves by their silence, submission and subservience rather than courage and consistency.

I have chosen to talk about the legacy and relevance of Robert Sobukwe in the 21st Century Africa, the African Century. I am acutely aware of debates around whether the 20th century really ended or is it just a change in numeric – I will stay clear of that debate for now.
In a book which I edited, titled ‘Africa in Focus – Governance in the 21st Century’ to be released next month, I argue that the 21st century is for the African continent a make or break century. If liberal democracy doesn’t deliver in order to meet the ‘cares and sorrows’ of the African majority, then all prospects of peace are likely to be dashed and destroyed. In fact among the major challenges facing humanity in the 21st century is the sustainability of peace and the crisis of the state as a form of power and authority that guarantees order in human society.

There are four thematic issues which emerge from a close examination of the political life and work of Robert Sobukwe. I will examine only 2 for the sake of time. These include:
First is organic social-capital leadership – a leadership style which emerges from and is rooted among people – a kind of leadership which cultivates bonds of solidarity and trust

Second, is the weapon of theory in the building of a united polity. The dry pragmatism of today has eclipsed the significance of theory to inform and guides action; people want to implement and conceptualize later; thinking and conceptualization are seen as a waste of time.
Third, Sobukwe taught us the possibility of another kind of politics - the ‘politics of devotion’, This is a desire-less politics of sacrifice . Lastly his entire life and politics underlined the ethical duty of solidarity and reconciliation – the poverty of the new South Africa in this area is glaring
From the political life of Robert Sobukwe the most important lesson for today is that where there is no desire for fruits, the temptation to untruth carries no force (Ghandi). The hankering for fruits; the hankering for benefits of having been part of the liberation struggle is at the root of some of the problems we have today

The themes I have identified lead us to an examination of a number of recurrent themes in South African and African politics to date. These include, leadership battles and unhealthy contestation; for the African continent the issue is the kind of leadership Africa needs in order to emerge from today’s crisis; the character of politics in many African countries is another issue and most importantly, the relationship between the ethical and the political in emerging democracies in the continent.

The organic social capital type of leadership which Sobukwe embodied provides an anchor for a collectively owned transformative vision - it provides inspiration and overall integration of strategic approaches to realize the collective vision. The leader is trusted because of his/her integrity, because of the depth of insight, his overall guiding eye and cementing inspiration.

The quality of leadership is very important in emerging democracies where institutions of oversight and control are still fragile and consolidating. But the manner in which we choose leaders and who we choose as our leaders in Africa is very important for the future we want to have not only for ourselves but also for our children.
Of course, those who want to avail themselves as leaders need to have conscience – it doesn’t mean if you are popular, then you should avail yourself for leadership – not all popular persons make great leaders who matter. The masses need education in this area
Sobukwe alluded to this in 1970 when he indicated, I quote “we are up against a situation that has always existed in South Africa, namely that the masses will always automatically follow a leader or organization that they have loyalty to, without thinking about the wisdom or weaknesses of particular policies they are told to support”.

What this shows is that the masses, without critical consciousness to deal creatively with their reality, can be complicit in the reproduction of their conditions of subordination. But as real leaders we must not agree to lead when we know we have serious deficiencies. This is an ethical issue which requires a lively conscience and humility. The relationship between the political and the ethical is a difficult one and needs serious interrogation

I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that South Africa is poor today largely because it lacks leaders of Sobukwe’s caliber. It took long and hard persuasion to get Sobukwe to stand for the leadership of the Pan Africanist Congress in 1959– as Sobukwe explains – he saw himself as an intellectual to support the new organization at the level of theory from behind the scenes.
Even when he got convinced that he was suitable to lead, he never lobbied people to be on his side – he never bought people to vote for him at the inaugural congress of the PAC in 1959.

The quality of his personality, the shining example of his moral leadership and height of his intellectual development were so outstanding such that he was the obvious choice. This is the kind of leadership South Africa needs. This is the kind of leadership the continent needs, if the 21st Century is to become an African Century.

Martin Luther King jnr describes the leaders of this calibre as “leaders not in love with money, but in love with justice; leaders not in love with publicity, but in love with humanity; leaders who can subject their particular egos to the greatness of the cause” (1991:143). This kind of leadership is also conceptually strong and intellectually grounded. This is an important leadership trait, especially today, the era of knowledge economy. This brings me to point about the weapon of theory in Sobukwe’s political outlook.

As a theoretician, ladies and gentlemen, I want to argue, Sobukwe holds together all the threads of major theoretical questions inSouth Africa. He holds them at the very point of their entanglement.
The answer to the question of race and racism - which today is debated by ANC politicians without theoretical grounding, emerges from the works of Robert Sobukwe. He argued that there is only one race, the human race. The myth of race in Africa, Sobukwe argued, has been “propounded and propagated by imperialists and colonialists from Europe, in order to facilitate and justify their inhuman exploitation of the indigenous people of the land – it is from the myth of race with its attendant claims of cultural superiority that the doctrine of white supremacy stems”.

The correctness of Sobukwe’s position is confirmed by generations of prominent scholars in the studies of race and race relations in the 21st century.

Rodolf Torres and Xavier Inda, for instance argue that race is not a biological fact; race does not refer to an already constituted object – race constitutes it own object.

Cornel West (1994), in his book ‘Keeping Faith – Philosophy and Race in America’ argues that when European immigrants arrived on American shores they perceived themselves as “Irish”, “Sicilian” “Lithuanian” and so on. “They had to learn that they were white”
He concludes that ‘whiteness is a political construction which is parasitic on the construction of ‘blackness’. Race may have constructed biological referents but it is not a biological fact
Whereas Santos, Nunes and Meneses (2008) argue that race and racism were constructed with the rise of ‘the coloniality of power and knowledge’ to ensure the dominance of the colonizers. The invention of the savage as an inferior being and that the savage is black and he is devoid of knowledge and culture justified the civilizing violence that was enacted on him.
What this confirms is that ‘race’ is a construction; it is not merely about pigmentation but it is about material relations of power among social groups and how unequal power relations are used to advantage the powerful and disadvantage the powerless. Blackness, Steve Biko indicated, is an attitude of mind and a way of life as well as a commitment to rally together to get rid of oppression and exploitation.

This brings me to the question – how is it possible for black people to be racist against each other? We have heard about the case of Jimmy Manyi and Trevor Manuel. Yes Black people may label each other negatively because of ethnic biases or regional grounds. There is a difference between is what is called racialized ethnic relations which emanate from disjunctures around issues of consciousness and culture and racism. I really don’t believe black people can be racist towards one another. Racism is a structure and ideology of domination and exclusion based ion historical materialism – it is not a mood or just negative comments. Hence it is difficult to imagine how black people can even be racist towards white people. The balance of socio-economic power doesn’t favour the socio-historical groups to which Black people belong.

Ladies and gentlemen let be clear here; in this country we relate to each other not only as individuals but also as historical beings who emerge from socio-historical groups. Material power does not favour Black people, as a socio-historical group hence it is difficult to accuse them of racism.

The problem of our time is that the post independence South Africa and the negotiations out of which it emerged have been so grotesquely refined and emptied of historical content. Hence you find black people accusing each other of being racist and inadvertently encouraging the true racists to not feel bad about their racism. African people have a tendency to allow those who dominate South Africa conceptually to define their problems, to individualize collective problems and in turn Africans also comply as they privatize collective suffering.
The media will portray, for example, children in Ngqeleni who attend classes under a tree, as if they are the only ones in that situation. Whereas the reality is that many children of black people, 16 years after democracy, are still condemned to growing up in degrading ghetto conditions where they are being preselected by their conditions for inferior and subordinate positions in the new South Africa. The fact that we allow collective suffering to be so individualized signifies a problem – the lack of theory and critical consciousness

Sobukwe dealt with all these questions and defined an African not in terms of race but in terms of first loyalty to Africa and acceptance of the rule of an African majority.

The reconciliation project has also been affected by the pervasive lack of theory and critical consciousness among the masses of our people. The choice of the paradigm of reconciliation and how it got to be defined, was to a large extent done on our behalf – the timidity of African intellectuals also created a big gap.

Ideally Reconciliation becomes true and applies meaningfully at the point of victory of the oppressed over oppression. This is different from a reconciliation project which is launched when the oppressor and the oppressed have clearly deadlocked. When they are both winners, then the former oppressor is not really bound to reconcile. Reconciliation under such conditions, tends to paper over the cracks. It is unfortunate that the model of reconciliation in this country bears a lot of these features

Reconciliation is about the extension of redeeming goodwill by the oppressed who have overcome oppression. It is not defined for the oppressed by historically advantaged groups, still arrogant and powerful, as a joint project of both the oppressed and the oppressors, otherwise it never works.
We still need reconciliation in this country but on fresh grounds and informed by a new paradigm

Ladies and gentlemen, in summary, the worst dilemmas facing South Africa, now in the 21st century, are threefold, first, the resolution of contradiction between the ethical and the political in post 1994 emancipatory politics – this requires leadership of Sobukwe’s caliber – intellectually and morally strong enough to lead by example; second, the democratization of ownership of economic means of life. This why the land question is so central in Sobukwe’s political philosophy. Black people cannot determine their destiny merely through a vote – via patronizing stances of a rainbow nation – a people who do not own the material means of production in their country cannot determine their destiny.
Lastly the resolution of the Blackmen’s existential deviation, a black person is still not himself/herself – the black men still aspires to be white; he wants to prove to the white world at all costs, the richness of his thought and the equal value of his intellect (Fanon 1986). The African needs to be saved from himself, if the African continent is to be saved.

To conclude ladies and gentlemen, there are three possible paths in the foreseeable future, in the case of South Africa. We will either sink or swim together depending on how we handle our choices – first, is how to effectively handle the settlement we negotiated in our country so that it delivers on the hopes of the majority – ‘a better life for all South Africans? The settlement is a mixed bag – there is good and bad in it.

It is dominated by the hegemonic interests of big capital, there is elite consensus which provides some kind of a glue, we have a liberal constitution, there is promise and hope; but socio-economic inequalities are deepening, human capacity development is still low and economic power is still in the hands of white elites
This state of affairs is likely to continue for a longer time. The question is how do we build inclusive communities, guarantee peace and stability, economic transformation, reconciliation and national unity under these conditions?
But in the end this scenario is very unsustainable because the very foundations are wrong. The settlement was premised on nursing white fears and less on dealing with black suffering and historic grief. It is unsustainable because white elites will never surrender or negotiate away economic power – they will open spaces for a few conformists but will never give-up ownership and leadership –
On the other hand the growing numbers of radical African youths, some unemployed, the rising frustration and anger African communities, the growing civil society networks who argue that the solution is outside formal political parties, and is outside the ruling party, gives an impression that the very pain we avoided when we decided to negotiate, may soon catch-up with us.
Part of the solution to ensure sustainability of the settlement , depends on how far white South Africans are willing to go a step further to demonstrate commitment and sacrifice and how the Black political elites is prepared to provide inspiring leadership which takes on board the challenge of personal example.

The second scenario is what I am afraid of - ‘the democracy to come’ – this may have nothing to do with Kempton Park negotiations but will emerge from a new mass- political spirituality deriving from years of pain and disappointment. The emerging sociology of democracy in South Africa” shows two distinct and “ultimately incompatible democracies that are incubating in the same democratic movement, led by the ANC Alliance, i.e. the minimalist liberal democracy which is strong on procedures, e.g. elections, parliamentary cretinism, formalities of institutions but weak on outcomes,
On the other hand is the democracy of the subalterns, the masses, peasants and workers which is more social democratic and demands concrete equality, cultural upliftment and concrete rights. This is ‘the democracy to come’ – the question is the form it will take and when it will come. The pain it will initially bring is difficult to imagine but the joy it will ultimately deliver will surpass imagination

The third possibility – is some kind of reversal of radical gains by the ‘centre-right’ victory against the forces who fought for and negotiated national liberation.

As a country, therefore we are in a crisis – if by crisis we mean a moment of choice – we need towering leadership, solid enough to leave up to the challenge of personal example. This is what Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe left behind and also took with him. Like many of us, Sobukwe came to this world with nothing, but unlike many of us, he left ONE thing behind but took ONE thing with him. He left behind a memorable example of the caliber and standard of leadership Africa needs BUT he took with him the prodigal paradox of an ethical political revolution.


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