When the South African apartheid regime extended his sentence in 1963 for instigating Africans to demand the repeal of the pass laws, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was jailed on Robben Island.
But while on Robben Island, he was held in solitary confinement. Basically, his living quarters were separate from the main prison and, therefore, he was isolated from other political prisoners.
It is documented that he was kept away from other political prisoners due to his influence and fear of the apartheid regime.
“Sobukwe was isolated because the apartheid government feared him and his intellectual abilities, his eloquence, his ideas and his influence over others. He was a threat to the sustainability of the apartheid state. Sobukwe had the power to influence people both intellectually and politically, ”writes historian Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo.
Today, the South African freedom fighter and activist is not only known as South Africa’s most feared man under apartheid, but as the only political prisoner in the world to pass a act by parliament on its behalf.
This law, nicknamed the “Sobukwe clause”, authorized the then Minister of Justice to extend the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely.
Such was the life of Sobukwe who spent much of his life in either in solitary confinement, or in internal exile, under house arrest for being a militant opponent of white supremacy in South Africa.
Born in the South African town of Graaff-Reinet on December 5, 1924, Sobukwe first became interested in politics while studying at Fort Hare University College, the only institution open to blacks.
There he was elected chairman of the Student Representative Council before joining the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, an organization protesting the South African government’s apartheid policy.
But in the 1950s, tensions began to grow within the party when Sobukwe and others voiced concerns about the party’s multiracial path.
For someone who believed that South Africa’s future should be in the hands of black South Africans, Sobukwe was against the idea of multiracialism as a solution to the country’s socio-economic problems.
Thus, he and others broke with the ANC in 1958 and founded the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) of which he was elected its first president.
In his inaugural address to the convention in April 1959, Sobukwe noted “That Africanists should not subscribe to the doctrine of South African exceptionalism at all.
“He stressed that South Africa is an integral part of the whole Africa, warning that South Africa cannot solve its problems in isolation and without considering the rest of the continent.”
A year later, on March 21, 1960, Sobukwe’s PAC led peaceful black protesters into Sharpeville Township to protest the laissez-passer laws, a passport system adopted under apartheid to further separate the population. .
Police opened fire on them, killing 69 people and injuring 180 in what became the Sharpeville massacre. The anger and riots that accompanied this forced the apartheid government to ban both the ANC and the PAC.
Sobukwe was also arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for instigating people to demand the repeal of the pass laws. During the trial, he refused the assistance of a lawyer and did not appeal his conviction because he believed that the “The tribunal had no jurisdiction over him because he could not be considered either as a tribunal or as a court of justice.”
In prison from 1961 to 1964, he studied law by correspondence and obtained a diploma. Immediately after his release, he was again arrested under the “Sobukwe clause”, which was included in the general law amending the law of 1963.
Aimed at anyone considered a danger to the state, Sobukwe was transferred to Robben Island and remained there for the next six years. Interestingly, this clause was never used to detain anyone else.
While on Robben Island, Sobukwe, being isolated from other political prisoners, had access to books and other materials that enabled him to study and earn a degree in economics from the University of London.
In 1969, Sobukwe was released and allowed to settle in Kimberly town. However, he was prohibited from participating in any group activity or speaking in public.
These restrictions kept him under house arrest and he was not allowed to leave Kimberly and South Africa. Even when he fell ill, it was difficult for him to seek treatment due to the restrictions.
Nonetheless, he practiced law until his death from cancer in 1978.
Decades after his death, Sobukwe remains one of the greatest but often forgotten heroes of South Africa’s freedom struggle.
As Dr Motsoko Pheko stated in an article on perspectivepanafricaine.com, “The greatness of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe lies more in the fact of his personal sacrifice for the cause of his people and in the denial of his own personal comfort. He was a well educated individual. He would have enjoyed the best of this world if he wanted to. He could have principles in the wind if he wished and live a very comfortable life, but he wanted nothing more than a real liberation for the millions of Africans who, even today, have not known any. economic change in their lives.
“Sobukwe was a fearless warrior against evil colonialism and apartheid. He is in his grave. But there remains the dynamo of inspiration for the economic liberation and social emancipation of the people still dispossessed of the land of AZANIA South Africa.