The Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala recently penned an opinion article published by the Sunday Independent on 13 October 2019.
As calls for the decolonisation of knowledge continue to reverberate through the halls of our teaching and learning institutions one solution is to regale in the hidden histories of South African figures.
One such human treasure is Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe whose role in the liberation Struggle is widely acknowledged. I am also reminded of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie s stark warning in a Ted Talk some years ago about the danger of a single story. While tales from the American and British books she read stirred her imagination and opened up new worlds for her Adichie says the unintended consequence was that she did not know that Africans could exist in literature. The absence of Africans in literature serves as a sober truth for both fiction and non fiction.
This then is a call on universities to take concrete steps to ensure that Africans exist in literature. Recently the University of Johannesburg launched the first of at least 12 biographies on African leaders. The first book is on Sobukwe- Sobukwe The Making of a Pan Africanist Leader is a story from the pan Africanist Thami ka Plaatjie. Perhaps now that we are living in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution where machines through artificial intelligence AI can write their own stories we shall have a biography of Sobukwe written by AI machines. We however need to digitise our archive first before we use AI to write our stories.
Cornell West from Harvard University in pursuit of a different story on Sobukwe once asked Nelson Mandela about his views on Sobukwe. Mandela paused for a moment and then remarked that one . What Mandela was alluding to was that Sobukwe was a complicated man who requires serious study. It is through multiple stories that we can cross validate facts and have a more accurate story. We are well versed in the stories of historical figures of Thomas Edison Abraham Lincoln Martin Luther King jr.
However these biographies we consume do not often include our own stories. What the UJ Africa Biographies Project seeks to achieve is to create a platform for African stories to be told because our tapestry is plentiful and there is a void where these stories should be narrated. This project is the first of such magnitude and is fully funded by the university. When the Africa Biography Project was announced last year we set the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study an ambitious goal of 10 biographies. By next year we will be closing on 20. Some of the personalities that will be covered in these biographies include Moses Mabhida Wangari Mathai Nadine Gordimer and John Knox Bokwe. Plaatjies biography on Sobukwe demonstrates the necessity for these stories and the yearning to delve into our history.
It was 59 years ago that Sobukwe resigned from his job as a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. Leading the PAC he was about to embark on a five day non violent protest against the draconian pass laws. His plan was more significant than just the five days at the end of it Sobukwe would hand himself in at the Orlando Police Station as a powerful call to other black South Africans to fight back. He gathered a following along the 8km walk to the police station as groups of men from Phefeni Dube and Orlando West accompanied him. There he was sentenced to three years in prison for inciting Africans to demand the repeal of the pass laws. The power behind it was palpable and it shook the National Party. They lashed out and his time on Robben Island was isolated. While he had books and newspapers to bide the time he was kept in solitary confinement and lived in a separate area on the island where he was strictly prohibited from contact with other prisoners.
However his legacy demonstrates the power of thought. Sobukwe was so feared that the Nationalist government enacted the Sobukwe clause which empowered the Minister of Justice to extend his detention indefinitely. So entrenched had his views on the liberation of Africans become that the clause was only applied to him and renewed every year for the entirety of his sentence. His imprisonment continued long after his release.
So fearful was the apartheid government of his pull they ensured he was never really a free man again. First he was banished to Galeshewe in Kimberley to remove him from friends and family. Then they insisted that the only work he could do was low ranking jobs. The apartheid regime barred him from leaving the country to take up international job offers. After finally studying law completing his articles and establishing his law firm the government tried to stop him from entering the courts. When that failed they ensured newspapers were not allowed to quote him when he argued in court. When he fell ill because of cancer they stopped his attempts to get the medical treatments he needed which ultimately led to his death in 1978. The apartheid government tried so desperately to maintain this hold on him but it was too late to extinguish the fire he had ignited.
While Sobukwe’ s political views that mobilised Africans to liberate themselves and later inspired the black consciousness movement are widely known Ka Plaatjie has delved deeper into the inner thoughts soul principles and the heart of Sobukwe’s story.
Ka Plaatjie was elected as the secretary general of the PAC in 2000 and has devoted his life to understanding the psyche of Sobukwe. His biography relays the narrative of a man of towering intellect with deeply held principles and the authority he continues to have years after his passing. This biography is but the beginning of a project that aims to move away from the focus on a single story.
Much more remains to be achieved in telling the African stories. It is important that we have stories about leaders who have played significant roles in our lives such as Lillian Ngoyi Gertrude Shope Queen Nzinga Mbande and others. Here we still have a gap. While we have phenomenal biographies coming out this year the stories of female icons still need to be told. Consider this a clarion call for writers and those who have a penchant for South African history we need more female representation.