MALAIKA MAHLATSI: The democratic project’s systematic erasure of Robert Sobukwe


“Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth”.

On the 21st of March, a public holiday that South Africans commemorate Human Rights Day, I found myself thinking about these words from George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian novel about the dangers of totalitarianism. The book warns against a world governed by propaganda, surveillance, and censorship. Human Rights Day is a national holiday which, according to the government aims to “remind South Africans about the sacrifices that accompanied the struggle for the attainment of democracy in South Africa”.

Parliament's website provides a brief history of the day, linking it to the events that took place in Sharpeville on the 21st of March 1960. On that day, 69 Black people died and 180 were wounded when apartheid police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the draconian pass laws. The protest had been organised by the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) - a fact mentioned in passing on the website, which goes on to state that: “On Human Rights Day, South Africans are asked to reflect on their rights, to protect their rights and the rights of all people from violation, irrespective of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, whether they are foreign national or not – human rights apply to everyone, equally.”

This is the cemented narrative around this historic day that must necessarily be called Sharpeville Day. It is a narrative that does two things. Firstly, it completely erases the histories of those who played an instrumental role in the struggle that informed the Sharpeville and Langa massacres. Specifically, it erases the name of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Nowhere on the Parliament website does it mention the name of Sobukwe despite the fact that he was the president and founder of the PAC and was instrumental in architecting the programme of action that led to the profoundly important protests. Curiously, in the same page that intentionally does not mention Sobukwe, the name of Nelson Mandela is mentioned as the first democratically-elected president of South Africa. It is telling that the president of the PAC, which facilitated the march that Parliament correctly recognises as having played an instrumental role in our path to democracy, is not mentioned even once.

The second thing that the “Human Rights Day” narrative does is to completely de-centre black people from the conversation. The events of the 21 March 1960 were about the oppressions confronted by black people. They were about a diabolical system that dehumanised and de-civilised black people. The people who died in Sharpeville, in Langa and in many townships across South Africa following the banning of national liberation movements were black people. By not calling them black people and opting to instead say “human-beings” an impression is created that people from all walks of life, of all races and class positions, lost their lives in the massacres engineered by the apartheid regime. But it was not all human beings who lost their lives, it was black people. For this reason, by reducing this day to one where we must reflect on the rights of “all people from violation irrespective of race”, the rights of black people, which continue to be violated by a global racial capitalist economy, are concealed behind a veneer of a humanity narrative that sees no colour and therefore, does not see black people.

Those who promote the narrative of “Human Rights Day” claim that it is a way of uniting all people of South Africa. But this whitewashed unity rests on the erasure of black experiences and the geo-histories of men and women who were at the centre of these experiences. It is built on the foundation of euphemising black history in order to accommodate and ameliorate the shame that white people in our country must necessarily carry. This is especially true since the democratic project has yet to address the systematic oppression that confront black people, which is evidenced in statistics on their disproportionate experience of unemployment, poverty and many other forms of violence that stem from an apartheid history whose vestiges are still present. The “Human Rights Day” narrative is anchored on a reconciliation project that has been built on the unacknowledged traumas that black people experienced – and continue to. There are traumas in the black community that did not find articulation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These traumas are festering in the bodies of generations of black people and continue to be ignored in order that the mockery of reconciliation and racial unity can be cemented as fact.

Despite the fact that South Africa’s history is written in the blood of black people, there is an insistence on not naming black people when we reflect on public holidays. This is especially true of those who were part of the Black Consciousness and Pan Africanist tradition, such as Robert Sobukwe. It is not an accident of history. Sobukwe was feared by the apartheid regime – so much so that laws had to be created specifically for him. Keeping him incarcerated in Robben Island, in solitary confinement, was intended to brutalise and break him psychologically. But it is clear that he is also deeply feared by the democratic government, which has incarcerated his memory and placed it in solitary confinement, so that generations of black people do not remember who he was and the role that he played in our liberation struggle. The apartheid government could not kill Sobukwe’s ideas and the democratic government, with its attempts at whitewashing his memory and legacy, will not succeed either. It is not possible to induce a state of soporification in an entire people. And it is not possible to erase Sobukwe because the democratic project itself, with its titanic failures, is his greatest vindication. And for as long as black people continue to be bound to perpetual servitude, Sobukwe lives!

Mahlatsi is a geographer, urban planner and research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.