And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds?
Lines from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, Horatius, capture the spirit Benjamin Pogrund wished to convey in this masterpiece bringing together the life and struggle of Robert Sobukwe caught in the vagaries of apartheid but with an iron will to insist on man’s humanity to man: ubuntu.
As I came away from this unique biography, which reads somewhat like a diary between friends as close as brothers, I thought that the answer about dying was less significant as it became clear that Sobukwe had lived better for facing fearful odds. His story is a triumph of personal perseverance in the face of persecution, injustice and bigotry; the overwhelming impression one receives from Pogrund’s description is that Sobukwe was a man of intense grace.
The friendship between “Benjie and Bob” (Pogrund and Sobukwe) unfolds after the initial introductory chapters which feature Sobukwe’s family and education at Fort Hare, which also produced leaders such as Seretse Khama, Robert Mugabe, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela. The type of life these men endured was described by Motlana, one of Sobukwe’s followers at Ft Hare:
“We lived a life of subservience, obsequiousness, fear, of obeisance to the white man in a way that nobody can really understand. When you saw a white man you saw God Almighty and you had to get out of his way . . .”
The backdrop of this biography is apartheid. While not taking over the story, apartheid becomes the totalitarian manipulator. The weakness of totalitarianism is that it cannot touch the human heart, unless that heart allows it. Sobukwe did not allow it. His choices: to get arrested for not carrying his pass, to be imprisoned and not accept fines, to forgive no matter what was heaped on him, were his own. He was able to live better, facing fearful odds because he knew who he was and what he believed.
Benjamin Pogrund was an anti-apartheid journalist who ran afoul of the Nationalist Party himself, but he focuses the story on Sobukwe’s decisions which led to him being recognized as a dangerous leader. He was the man who showed bigotry to be blind. By living the Truth in broad daylight, it became invisible and his captors singled him out for the two precise elements he would never be guilty of: communism and violence.
Sobukwe was feared by the apartheid regime to such an extent that he was sent to Robben Island and kept in solitary confinement for an undetermined length of time. He had not broken a law, but was deemed dangerous; a special clause, the Sobukwe Clause, was written into law allowing the government to extend his incarceration year by year simply because to give him his freedom would be too dangerous. He lived on the island in a house separate from the other prisoners, surrounded by a wire fence, with armed guards who were not supposed to talk to him. No one else was ever punished by that clause.
The entire mid-section of the book deals with the indignities and complications Sobukwe endured for six years while imprisoned on Robben Island. He was not a “regular” prisoner because he had not broken a law worthy of such sentencing, so the treatment of him was “relaxed”: he was allowed to wear clothing sent to him, study for his degree and receive books, he even had a record player and a heater! But the solitary nature of his punishment took its toll on his mental health. When it became evident that he was unstable, he was removed from the island and put under house arrest in Kimberly, banishment to a township where he did not speak the tribal language.
The island experience was where Sobukwe lost his faith. He said he never lost his faith in God, but the church and the humans who ran the church--he no longer had time for. Pogrund speculates that this could have been exacerbated by the bigoted ministers who came to “minister” to him. However, when he was released, he did resume corporate worship--the extent to which his “faith was restored” is not clear, but he never wavered in his confidence in God and God’s purposes.
A deep thinker, the father of African Nationalism, the one who inspired Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement, Sobukwe succinctly expressed himself:
On education: “Education to us means service to Africa. You have a mission; we all have a mission. A nation to build we have, a God to glorify, a contribution clear to make towards the blessing of mankind.”
On race: “There is only one race to which we all belong and that is the Human Race. In our vocabulary, therefore, the word race, as applied to man, has no plural form.”
On leadership: “We must be the embodiment of our people’s aspirations. And all we are required to do is show the light and the masses will find the way.”
Pogrund’s research blends in many details of the apartheid system while telling the story of his friend Bob. We are faced with incomprehensible facts: that black people were denied the vote but required to pay a head tax or be jailed; during the decade of the 60s, the law to define a white person was amended at least five times. And in order to pass history exams, black students had to refer to their people as “kaffirs”.
The dismal chapter covering Sobukwe’s funeral revealed in depth the importance of this man whose name is scarcely known while Mandela and Tambo are household words. His significance as a Son of Africa and Father of the Nation was blatantly apparent. Sadly, this led to his funeral becoming a battleground for warring factions with political agendas. The man who was described as “remarkably gentle. Not that he was weak. He was gentle with a strength that was very humbling.” (Alex Boraine)--had a funeral hijacked by an agenda counter to the ideals he lived by.
Sobukwe was a significant player in the demise of apartheid although he spent most of his mature life in prison or banished. His humility, deep love for his people, quiet nature and serious demeanour made it difficult for people to describe him. As one simple township person observed when asked about Sobukwe:
“When a person becomes an eagle, it is difficult to talk about him.”
For that very reason, we are indebted to Pogrund for writing this book, sharing the man who was Bob Sobukwe.