Robert Sobukwe: But who wants his memory lost?

True leadership demands complete subjugation of self, absolute honesty, integrity and uprightness of character, courage and fearlessness, and above all, a consuming love for one’s people. _Robert Sobukwe.

Freedom. I rarely spend time thinking about it. I was born free. I’ve never had to spill blood or break a sweat for it nor has it ever been taken away from me. I have it in abundance and if I’m honest, I sometimes take it for granted.

The bus came to a brief stop and our attention shifted to the right as the tour guide showed us the lone prison structure that once accomodated Robert Sobukwe during six years he had been a political prisoner on Robben Island. I’m certain that the mention of that name did not strike any particular emotional chords for majority of the tourists on board. I know. I was there. I wouldn’t judge you either if the mention of Robert Sobukwe had the same effect on you. They’ve worked very hard to wioe his name out of the books of history.

I took an Uber to Jomo Kenyatta international Airport, sat in an aeroplane fir close to six hours, hopped onto a bus and sailed on the Atlantic Ocean to walk on the remote Robben Island just to see where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life. It was a worthy pilgrimage but looking back now, I realise that the spotlight shone only on Mandela leaving equally deserving heroes out of the limelight. Neither the guide nor the Robben Island Museum made any deliberate efforts to tell Sobukwe’s story yet he was considered such a dangerous threat by the colonical government that they passed a bill especially for him know as the Sobukwe Clause. The clause ensured that the would be kept in solitary cinfinement indefinitely-in an attempt to break his fearless spirit-never getting another chance to influence a human soul.

I only began to truly appreciate Robert’s story when I got back to Nairobi and researched on him. His story is important to me because he believed in his cause so much so that he was willing to sacrifice himself for it- he had a lot to lose.

Only one signature separated him from the prestigious title of full time lecturer at Rhodes University, a position that would have guaranteed him a seat at the elite’s table. Instead he chose to lead his people in a non-violent protest towards the police station seeking liberation from the pass books that curtailed their freedom of movement- an act that warranted immediate arrest. And when they arrested him he said, “We believe in one race only – the human race to which we all belong. The history of that race is a long struggle and we would have betrayed that race if we had not done our share. We stand for equal rights for all individuals and are not afraid of consequences.”

What struck me most about the man is the level of kindness, compassion and forgiveness he demonstrated to his enemie after all they had done to him.

Many years after they released him from prison, he was walking home from his law firm and found a crowd of black South Africans jeering at white police whose car had a flat tyre. They did not have a jack to change the tyre so Sobukwe stepped in, lifted the car with his own bare hands and the crowd joined him. He did not do it out of submission but out of love because he believed that was the only way one could truly change another human being.

I’m a young African girl living in the 21st century so I know how rare it is to come across such selfless leaders. Yet I constantly wrestle with my thoughts “Why do all good African Leaders die before fulfilling their vision? Is it worth the sacrifice? Does it really make a difference?” I wonder.


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