Hidden figure: The founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe. Some South Africans have complained that his role in the struggle has been minimised. Picture: MIKE MZILENI
Hidden figure: The founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe. Some South Africans have complained that his role in the struggle has been minimised. Picture: MIKE MZILENI

The Black Consciousness Reader

Baldwin Ndaba, Therese Owen, Masego Panyane, Rabbie Serumula, Janet Smith


The Black Consciousness Reader reads like an ode to the forgotten heroes of SA’s struggle who have been relegated to the footnotes of history despite playing a central role in the fight for emancipation from apartheid rule. The seven-chapter book marks the contribution of several black consciousness leaders, especially its founding father in SA, Steve Bantu Biko.

The leitmotif that courses through the text is its demonstration of how black consciousness, its antecedents and exponents of its various strands — most of whom were young activists, some at school and many at university — set the tone for the response to apartheid’s repressive machinery.

Today the continent’s political landscape is dominated by septuagenarians who led revolutions past but have not passed on the baton to the youth.

Graça Machel, who became Mozambique’s first education minister at independence in her 20s, recently acknowledged this anomaly in African politics and urged the youth to rise up and take their rightful seats at the table of power.

She believes they are best placed to lead the continent.

"We don’t have to continue to have presidents who are 70. We don’t have to continue to have ministers who are 70 something. [In some instances] when a president is 50, we all praise him and say, ‘Oooh he’s very young’," Machel said at the African Leadership Academy’s 10-year anniversary celebration. "But the majority of people on this continent are in their 20s and 30s. You must lead us; we stopped being young a long time ago. We cannot understand fully the world in which you live."

The Black Consciousness Reader provides poignant accounts of youth who seized the moment and injected a new energy into the struggle against apartheid in the 1970s.

Crucially, it illustrates how black consciousness transcended borders and found expression in different resistance movements in the African diaspora around the globe, bound by the common quest of self-actualisation and undoing the edifice of the various manifestations of colonialism.

One of the seminal "hidden figures" whose legacy is explored is Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, about who Frantz Fanon wrote: "As a result of Sobukwe’s leadership, the UN — in honour of the martyrs of the Sharpeville uprising — declared March 21 International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

"Without Sobukwe’s leadership, the UN would never have been seized with ‘the problem of SA’ for over 30 years.... [It] was the Sharpeville uprising, led by Sobukwe, which made the vile system of apartheid known internationally. Without this uprising, there would never have been a UN Special Committee Against Apartheid. This world body would have never declared apartheid a crime against humanity."

In contemporary SA, March 21 is commemorated as Human Rights Day.

Even the likes of apartheid enforcer and custodian Balthazar Johannes Vorster, "the regime’s minister of justice, called Sobukwe a ‘heavyweight boxer’ when compared to his political opponents in SA", the writers point out.

Without Sobukwe’s actions, "there would have been no Robben Island. Robben Island was primarily meant for Sobukwe and PAC members. That is why they were the first to be imprisoned on Robben Island from October 12 1962."

In chapter two, the Intellectuals and Black Solidarity, compiled by Janet Smith, a portrait of Sobukwe is carefully sketched through the canvas of a 2014 memorial lecture by former Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) president Motsoko Pheko.

In the address, titled A Leader Must Have Total Commitment to the Struggle of the African People, Pheko fills in the gaps about Sobukwe, a giant of the struggle whose legacy and record of activism the apartheid regime attempted to scrub clean.

"Prof Sobukwe is the leader who walked the political talk to the finish. In biblical language, he ran the race and kept the faith," Pheko said in the lecture.

"This is a man that the apartheid colonialist regime so silenced that even his closing speech in court case number 173/60 was expunged from court records. Researchers and film makers thirsty to find his voice in radio stations have searched in vain. The enemy destroyed anything he ever said audibly. He was a banned person to his grave."

Pheko went on to state that Sobukwe was "unashamed of his humble beginnings. He declared, ‘I am the son of Sobukwe, born in Graaff-Reinet, that land of goats …’."

Pheko also boldly declared: "A generation that does not know its past does not know even its present. It, therefore, cannot understand its present and plan for its future intelligently. The past has determined how the present must be handled."

According to Pheko, Sobukwe got his politics and his history correct. He did not forget that if a realistic and just society was to be created, the political history of this country must not be swept under the carpet.

Pheko’s words are a timely reminder, in the context of the divisive and mostly incendiary land debate often coloured by fear and hysteria, that it is important to locate plans within the historical facts.

Sobukwe’s activism was not only underpinned by a desire to be free from the shackles of apartheid but was also given impetus by one of the PAC’s slogans: "Izwe Lethu!" (loosely translated as the land is ours).

Today, SA is seized with the land question; almost as if it was not at the core of black displacement and the many antiapartheid resistance movements formed in response to large-scale land dispossession.

Sobukwe understood that the land question was central to the black struggle.

"Have you ever read the Union of South Africa Act 1909 and the Natives Land Act 1913?" Pheko asked in the lecture. "These are the two pieces of legislation that created SA. The Natives Land Act 1913 legislated the unjust distribution of land and its riches. It created a massive poverty and alarming economic inequalities affecting the African people today.

"This same law is now hidden in section 25(7) of the ... [Constitution] under a new name — ‘property clause’ — while the country’s majority people is property less. Millions live in filthy shacks not fit even for pigs."

A constitutional review committee is reassessing that clause and will report back to Parliament in August.

Pheko summed up what has been the status quo: "The rulers dangle before the dispossessed of this country ‘land claims’ from the crumbs of 13% allocated to the African people in 1913 and 1936. They are now offered to buy back the property of their ancestors through a dismally failed policy of ‘willing seller and willing buyer’. But even this is merely their land, which was further seized from 13% through the Group Areas Act of 1950."

Sobukwe’s contribution to the struggle is one of many rich topics revisited in the Black Consciousness Reader.

The book demonstrates how #BlackLivesMatter ties in with the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movement; explores the question of white participation and the place of Christianity in the struggle as explored through the prism of Beyers Naudé’s activism; and teaches the legacies of women such as Bessie Head.

Chapter six, titled The Conscious Women, is about the activism of, among others, Zulaikha Patel, Sibongile Mkhabela, Sarah Mokwebo, Vuyelwa Mashalaba and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.