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In December, progressive peoples across the pan-African world remember the birth of Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe. Dearly loved by his people and fiercely hated by his enemies, Sobukwe remains a tower of inspiration for Africa’s total emancipation from the forces of foreign domination.

As we remember Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe during this month of December, we can only do so by reflecting on his ideas about the future of this country in particular and the continent as a whole in general. This great son of the soil was born on 5 December 1924 - 90 years ago. Sobukwe remains a source of inspiration to many people in South Africa and around the world.

Sobukwe is known for his uncompromising spirit even when his own life was in danger of death and opportunities presented to him to change his mind; he stood firm in his resolve to “freedom and independence in poverty rather than servitude with plenty”. He knew that acceptance of the offers that were being made to him by his jailers were nothing but chains to keep him and the African people in perpetual subjugation. Today that truth is obvious as many remain in poverty, without jobs, and are landless in their own land of birth.

Sobukwe was very concerned about the manner in which the wealth of this country was distributed especially in favour of the minority white settler community. Rejecting the idea that a few people should dominate every aspect of the lives of a majority, Sobukwe stood for a socialist democracy where: (1) there had to be an African democratic government with everyone owing their only loyalty and willing to subject themselves to democratic values of the African majority being regarded as an African. In that situation, there would be no guarantees for minority rights; (2) there had to be rapid extension of industrial development to also help alleviate pressure on the land, and (3) full development of the human personality. He also explained how these objectives were to be achieved.

For Sobukwe, freedom could only be assured in a socialist state where “men (sic) shall establish control over things and not over other men”. It must also be remembered that Sobukwe was speaking during the period of the Cold War. The capitalist and the socialist blocks were in intense competition for the loyalty of Africa and other similar countries. The USA which had emerged stronger after the 2nd World War had ‘invented’ development and poverty and extending their development aid to colonies through their foreign policy of “constructive engagement” and “containment”. With these policies, the USA encouraged the European countries to end their direct colonization of other people and their lands and opt for development aid. On the other hand, the socialist block was training and arming some colonies to fight their colonisers. Sobukwe was very much aware of the fact that at the core of ‘assistance’ by either block were Africa’s resources. Sobukwe warned against taking sides with either, but acknowledged that the country would go either side whenever it needed help.

The main feature of imperialism/colonialism was the extraction and export of the continent’s raw materials and having these re-sold back as finished products. Sobukwe understood the concept of the value chain and how it could help the country develop, or without it how unemployment and poverty could affect the country. Speaking of equitable distribution of the country’s wealth, Sobukwe demanded that the ownership of the land’s resources remain with the indigenous people. Looking at what is happening today in South Africa, one can only marvel at what Sobukwe foresaw decades ago. South Africa still exports large quantities of raw resources to other countries and becomes complacent with being the market for their finished products. The latest move in that regard is the bilateral agreement between Pretoria and Beijing. The agreement allows for the massive export of South Africa’s raw resources to China while China sells back their finished textile products. The Chinese benefit extremely through the value chain that is created by raw materials while their imports cost South Africa heavily in terms of jobs, creating poverty and hardships among the working classes. Beijing is simply taking over from London.

It is important to understand why Sobukwe preferred a socialist state. As a pan-Africanist, Sobukwe logically moved on the basis that South Africa was colonised by capitalists (making colonialism and capitalism synonymous). This means that, even today, capitalism is the opposite of socialism. Consequently, pan-Africanism appears as a solution and by its nature pan-Africanism can never be capitalist as it was designed to act against imperialism which Lenin describes as the highest stage of capitalism. Today we know some socialist countries are capable of practising imperialism; pan-Africanism becomes the shield that Sobukwe spoke about. Pan-Africanism is a revolt against both capitalist imperialism and socialist imperialism.

It is only important to keep in mind that by ending direct colonialism imperialism helped disguise exploitation of colonies by removing allegiance to a single metropolitan country. But in all its earnest, colonialism is still very much alive. The existence of institutions such as the Commonwealth of Nations for former British colonies and Francafrique for Franco-phone countries are all manifestations of colonialism (or should we say neo-colonialism?). These institutions represent the stranglehold former metropolitan countries still have on African countries in particular, which in turn explains why we have Africans in government instead of having African governments to which Sobukwe referred.

Dearly loved by his people, and fiercely hated by his enemies, Sobukwe remains a tower of ideas for those that are inspired to see an even better South Africa. A better South Africa can only be realised by attending to the contradictions that Sobukwe identified and suffered and sacrificed his life for.

*Dr Sibonginkosi Mazibuko is with the Department of Development Studies at the University of South Africa. He writes here in his own personal capacity.



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