Robert Sobukwe – The shaping of an Africanist – Fort Hare University

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Robert Sobukwe,left,student at Fort Hare University,with his mentor, lecturer and fellow Healdtown College student Proffessor Cecil Ntloko.

When Sobukwe left Healdtown Mission Institute for the next stage of his education,he found that most of the country`s universities were closed to blacks.Only the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand gave limited access to handfuls of black students.The premeir institute for blacks was near Alice – the South African Native College at Fort Hare.

The college,founded in 1916, was originally intended for blacks,as the title indicated,but also had a small number of white students.Later,there were no white students,but there were coloured and Asian students.The year before Sobukwe enrolled,the college had 324 students – 260 blacks,29 Asians and 35 coloureds.Only 31 of the students were women,fourteen students came from Basutoland(later to be renamed Lesotho) and eighteen from other parts of Africa.The teaching staff was overwhelmingly white.

In its time,the college nurtured many blacks who later rose to leadership. Sir Seretse Khama,first president of independent Botswana,was there in 1946.Robert Mugabe,who led the struggle against white rule in Rhodesia and became first Prime Minister of Zimbabwe,graduated in 1941,as did Oliver Tambo,later the President-in-Exile of the African National Congress.And a year before him,Nelson Mandela.

Sobukwe went into the Wesley House hostel.Theoretically,it was supposed to be only for Methodists like him but,in practice,it drew and accepted students of whatever denomination who hailed from the Eastern Cape,just as Methodists and Anglicans from Johannesburg preffered to go to the Anglican Beda Hall.The Presebyterian Iona Hall tended to be for the “undetermined” like the Basotho.

The undergraduate rivalry was intense – the Wesley students would,with all due arrogance,say of their residence:”The only House amidst hostels(Iona)band halls(Beda).”Beda students would,in turn,boast that their residence had the “bright boys”;they reffered to the Wesleyans as “Barbarians.”The women students were neutral in all of this – they had their seperate residence,Ekukhanyisweni.

Physical conditions at Wesley were considerably better than at Healdtown.As a first-year student Sobukwe was in a wooden-floored dormitory of sixteen beds,with lockers and cupboards.The wake-up bell was at 6 am,and breakfast at 7:45 am.Hot water was available for showers and baths.Meals were eaten at tables,eight students to a side sitting chairs.Breakfast was mealie-meal(corn meal) porridge,milk,bread and butter.A private supply of eggs could be left with the usual kitchen “aunties” for daily frying or boiling.Luch was samp.It was soul food for Sobukwe and others raised in the Eastern Cape region.Lights out was at 11 pm,but who wanted to could stay out until later.

The habitual bookworm.Sobukwe pictured next to his evergrowing book collection in his quarters on Robben Island,1965.

As it was a white hotel,and in a country village at that,it was incoceivable that black students could use the front door,let alone the dining room.Instead they went to the kitchen door at the back carrying their own plates and pots,placed their orders – grilled steak was the favourite dish – and returned to their hostel room where primus stoves reheated the food.

Sobukwe`s college fees were 55 pounds a year.During each of his three years of study,he received a 20 pound loan bursary from the Native Trust Fund,which administered income retrieved from taxation on blacks,and 20 pounds as a Cape Merit Bursary from the pronvincial Department of Education.Not only did Mr Caley,as his headmaster at Healdtown,recomend the bursuaries,but he and his wife went on giving substantial help to him.

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Mr S Caley,headmaster at Healdtown during Sobukwe`s years.He was later to be a major benefactor of Sobukwe`s tertiary education at Fort Hare University.

During his three years of study at Fort Hare,they paid the 15 pound balance of his tuition fees,and he could buy whatever books he needed at the Lovedale bookshop and send the accounts to the Caleys.They also paid for his examinations – each subject required a fee – and they met his open account at the pharmacy in Alice.

Now began a proccess of fundamental change in Sobukwe.He had just turned 23 when he started at Fort Hare.This would have been a late age for white youngsters going to university.But it was by no means unusual for blacks,who often started their initial primary school several years later than their white counterparts and then dropped out as they waited for vacancies in succeeding levels of the educational system or,as had occured with Sobukwe,until money was available.

Sobukwe was at this stage not interested in politics,but he had other pronounced views wich soon landed him in trouble.His fellow students chose him to speak at the “Fresher`s Ball” – a social function for new students – at Wesley House.He launched,in his own words,”a venomous attack” on parochialism and the frivolous attitude of students in the hostel.”B.A”(Bachelor of Arts) stood for “Blinking Ass”,he said in the speech,because invariably the students were nothing but asses.The “senior and saner” students,as they reffered to themselves,in the conservative Wesley House were incesed at this insulting brashness from a newcomer.A house meeting voted that no one should speak to him for a month.


Sobukwe on a visit to Fort Hare a few years after his graduation.

In 1948,his second year saw the start of his political consciousness.Three influences were at work.

First,he decided to study Native Administration,as the study of laws controlling blacks was called.In this course he confronted the details of the means through which blacks were oppressed.It caused him vast shock.Suddenly he became aware of his situation and that of his fellow blacks in a way that he had never before considered.During his school years he had,of course,like all other pupils,whether black or white,been fed the standard version of South African history which potrayed white settlers engaged on a civilizing mission and bravely facing up to marauding gangs of native savages.As part of his history studies in the course he had to study about the “Kaffir Wars” of the Eastern Cape frontier during the nineteenth century.

In everyday life,Sobukwe was subject with all other blacks to the inferiority imposed on those who were not white.This means not only racial segregation,already established as a tradition in South Africa,but the poverty which went with it.It is astonishing that Sobukwe became conscious of the racial discrimination of which he was a victim only when he was close to his mid-twenties.Could it be really be possible for someone to expirience the humiliating effects of discrimination in his everydy existence and yet be as unthinking about it as Sobukwe was.As he later described his outlook,”It was just a matter of accepting things as they were.”

If the study of Native Administration opened Sobuke`s eyes and his mind,his developing views were shaped by a second major influence – his relationship with Cecil Ntloko,his lecturer in Native Administration.Ntloko had matriculated at Healdtown some years ahead of Sobukwe.He taught for a year,studied at Fort Hare and went to the University of Cape Town where he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree.He studied Native Administration,and continued these studies,as well as law,through correspondence with the University of South Africa.He went to Fort Hare in 1947,and remained until 1958.

Ntloko first met Sobukwe at the Fresher`s social when Sobukwe`s speech created such a stir amongst students.He was impressed by the newcomer but saw very little of him that year.The following year Sobukwe became one of his students.He recalls Sobukwe as a “good student,very intelligent,a scholar in every respect, a hard worker with originality.”But the real contact and stimulation came outside of the classroom.In Ntloko`s twelve years at Fort Hare there were no students with whom he spent more time than Sobukwe and his two close friends,Denis Siwisa and Galaza Stampa(who went on to become a teacher,and then a schools inspector).They were known as “The Three S`s”.

“He always carried two books for his leisure reading at any time of the week” – Mrs Scott,English teacher,Healdtown Mission Institute.


Fort Hare`s smallness and isolation helped to create a pressure-cooker enviroment.Friendships were immedeate and close,and direct personal contact was possible with lecturers,especially those who were black.Discussions which began in Ntloko`s Native Administration course during the day continued as free-wheeling debates,often heated arguments,at his house in the evenings,and would go on sometimes until early dawn.Years later,Sobukwe would often express his indebtness to Ntloko for having done more than any other single person to open his mind to the society around him.

In everyday existence,the college was relatively regimented.Each morning,students had to attend prayer, with the Principal standing at the door to check that everyone was present.On Sunday evenings,students were obliged to attend another service.But there was a great redeeming feature.As with the emphasis on learning which Sobukwe`s parents had infused in him in his earlier years,now he could revel in an exceptional enviroment which Fort Hare provided:”There was free debate and students could read what they wanted.”

He began with the main books for his course – An African Survey by Lord Hailey,the British expert on colonial policy,The History of Native Policy,by Edgar Brookes,the South African liberal historian,and Native Administration in the Union of South Africa by Howard Rogers – a practical everyday guide to administering black lives by a governmental official.This was also the year in which Edward Roux`s Time Longer than Rope was published – a vibrant history of black struggle in South Africa.The Fort Hare library had one copy and a long list of people waiting for it.The “Three S`s” booked it out overnight.They were given the book at 5 pm and flung themselves into it.They missed supper and went through the night taking turns to read the book aloud to each other.

Sobukwe also launched himself into reading anything he could find on Africa – an unusual interest in those days when only a few South Africans of any colour wanted to know what was happening further north in the continent.He subscribed to the Western African Pilot,the newspaper founded by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe,the early campaigner for Nigerian independence,and read newspapers from the Gold Coast,later to become Ghana and the leader of Africa`s rush to independence.

He was also enthralled,in his English 2 studies,by the play Strife,by John Galsworthy,first produced in London in 1909.It had an electric effect on him.The play is about the struggle between Labour and Capital,with the two leaders holding their beliefs to the end without counting the cost.Each,according to his own lights,is finally brought down by lesser men.Sobukwe identified totally with strikers` leader,David Roberts,even trying to sound like Roberts declaiming in the play.

The esteem in which Sobukwe was held by his fellow students was demonstrated at the start of the 1949 academic year.He was elected to the Students Representative Council(SRC) and also elected as its president.


“His speech at Fort Hare University proved him to be an individual of note to watch in South Africa`s political trajectory”,Godfrey Pitje, Fore Hare University lecturer and later prominent anti-apartheid lawyer.

In Fort Hare university folklore the night of 21 October 1949 is called “Sobukwe`s Night”.That was the night of the Completer`s Ball.Students and staff all came together for it,to bid its most recent graduates farewell.The event featured prominently in the college`s social calendar.

What distinguished the occassion in this particular year was the quality of the speeches.Ntsu Mokhehle,who later formed the Basutoland Congress Party(BCP) and campaigned for the presidency of Lesotho,gave a speech.So did Temba Hleli,who represented those who were continuing with their studies.

But it was Sobukwe`s speech,as SRC president, which stamped him as a natural-born leader and an individual to watch in future:

“Sons and daughters of Africa,harbingers of the new world order.Our college,Fort Hare,must become a centre for African studies to which students in African studies should come from all over Africa.It has always been my feeling that if indeed the intention of this college is to make it into an African college or university,as I have been informed it is,then the department of African studies must be more highly and more rapidly developed.

It has come to my understanding that it is the intention of the college`s trustees to develop and prepare a new management by Africans to eventually lead the college towards this new unmistakably African instituition.But nothing in the college`s policy points in this direction.After the college has been in existence for thirty years the ratio of European to African staff is four to one.And we are told that in ten years` time we might become an independent college or university.Are we to understand by that an African college or university guided,as in the present,by European thought and strongly influenced by European staff?

I said last year that Fort Hare must be to the African what the University of Stellenbosch is to the Afrikaner.It must be the barometer of African thought.It is interesting to note that the theory of apartheid,which is today the dominating ideology of our new rulers,the National Party(NP),was worked out and formulated at Stellenbosch,by Dr WM Eiselen and his colleagues.Its also interesting to learn that Dr Eiselen is now the Secretary for Native Affairs in the current administration.Stellenbosch is not only the expression of Afrikaner thought,it is also the embodiement of the aspirations.

In the same breath,Fort Hare must express ad lead African thought.The college has remained mute on matters deeply affecting Africans,because we learnt,it feared to annoy the Nat government.What the college governing body fails to realise is that rightly oe wrongly,the Nats believe that Fort Hare`s staff is predominantly liberal.By this fact alone,whether the college remains mute or challenges its unjust race laws,the government will continue to be hostile and target the college because it views it as a thorn in its foot.

Ladies and gentlemen.The battle is on.It is a struggle between Europe and Africa.Between twentienth century desire for self-realisation and a feudal concept of authority.I know,of course,that becuae I express these sentiments I will be accusd indecency and will be branded an agitator.

People do not want to see the tenor of their lives disturbed.They do not like to be made to feel guilty.Thet do not want to be told that what they believed to be always right was wrong.And above all they resent an encroachment on what they regrd as their special province.But I make no aplogies.It is imperative that we state the truth before we die.

I said last year that our whole life in South Africa is political.This has been proven on numerous occasions in the course of this year.We can no longer pretend that there is a proper place and a proper place for politics.During the war,for instance,it was clearly demonstrated that,in South Africa at least,politics does not stop this side of the grave.A number of African soldiers were buried in the same trench with European soldiers.A few days afterwards word reached the high command of this development.An urgent instruction was relayed back to the army unit that the Africans should be removed and buried in another trench.Apartheid,seemingly,has to be maintained even on the road to eternity.

The consolation I have,however,is that Africa never forgets.These sons and daughters of the soil,these martyrs will be remembered and properly given their due honour when Africa comes into her own.

A word to those remaining behind.You have seen by now what education means to us – Education to us means service to Africa.It is a tool towards identifying ourselves with the masses.You have a mission.We all have a mission.A nation to build.A God to glorify.A contribution to make.We must be the embodiement of our people`s aspirations.And all we are required to do is to show the light and the masses will find the way.

A doctrine of hate can never take people anywhere.It is too exacting.It warps the mind.That is why we preach the doctrine of love, a love for Africa.We can never do enough for Africa,nor can we love her enough.I am certain that I speak on behalf of all of young Africa when I say that we are prepared to work with any man who is fighting for the liberation of Africa within our lifetime.

We see amongst us a new spirit of determination, a quiet confidence ,the determination of a people to be free whatever the cost.We seeing within our own day the naked brutaliy of Western imperaialism – which I term as the second rape of Africa after the colonial era of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries.This time it is more subtle – operating under the guise of “developing the backwards areas of Africa,Asia and South America.”At the same time we see the rise of uncompromising nationalism in all these places,in Malaysia,Indonesia,Argentina and all over Africa.

We have made our choice.And we have chosen African nationalism.World civilisation will not be complete until the African has made his full contribution.

I wish to make it clear that we are anti-nobody.We are pro-Africa.We breathe,we dream,we live Africa.Africa is us and we are Africa,fully in tandem with the rest of the world because Africa is inseperable from her offspring.On the liberaion of the African lies the liberation of all mankind.

History has taught us that a group in power will not relinquish that power voluntarily.It has always been forced to do so.In light of this,we do not expect miracles to happen here.We have chosen the path of non-collaboration.It is neccesary not only for our freedom in South Africa,but for the liberation of all mankind.

We are the first glimmers of a new dawn.And if we are persecuted for our views,we should remember,as the African saying goes,that it is darkest before dawn,and that the dying beast kicks more furiouslt when it is about to give up its soul.Those who crucified and villified the Son of Man will appear before him on judgement day.We are what we are because the God Africa made us so.

We dare not fail in the course of our freedom.All the nations of the world take their turns at the wheels of justice.It is Africa`s turn.Africa will not retreat,nor shall she surrender.

I then plead with you,lovers of Africa,to carry with you into the world the vision of a new Africa.An Africa reborn.An Africa rejuvenated.An Africa recreated.A young Africa.Remember Africa!”

A chance meeting.Sobukwe meeting his fellow ANC Youth League member at Fort Hare University,Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi on the streets of Johannesburg ,1958.

With rousing applause and ringing shouts of iAfrica! Mayibuye!,those present in the hall stood up to give Sobukwe a standing ovation.Many staff members were stunned.His status as an orator of note and a natural-born leader were instantly confirmed on that night.

Reactions to his speech came from far beyond Fort Hare`s walls.Reports came from Healdtown that his mentors,the Caleys,were unhappy about it.Thus far,the Caleys were the main contributors to Sobukwe`s financial needs,supplemented by his older brother,Ernest.His English teacher at Healdtown,Mr Hamish Noble,also made a contribution as and if there was a request.

The Caleys were driven by a sense of mission in doing this.Before Sobukwe,they had sponsored the education of two other Healdtown students at Fort Hare,namely William Kgware,who went on to become a rector of the University of the North,and Present Tshaka who later became a lecturer at the University of the Transkei.The idea was to enable a financially fluid course of study for gifted Healdtown matriculants so that they could,upon graduation from Fort Hare,return as well qualified teachers to Healdtown who could,in their view,help the school to produce better educated black leaders.

The Caleys were caught completely unawares by the speech,and Sobukwe`s increasing political conscientisation since his arrival at Fort Hare.They were left feeling disillusioned,rejected and hurt by him.This was,however,only the beginning of the ruffling of feathers between Sobukwe and his sponsors` plan for him to return to Healdtown as a graduate teacher.Later,in the middle of 1949,Sobukwe set of an even greater storm.

On 18 June 1949,the Governor and principal of Healdtown,Reverend CW Grant,came to Fort Hare to present a talk on current affairs in the country.He spoke of the brotherhood of man,suggesting it could be achieved between blacks and whites by greater personal contact at all levels of social interaction without changing the state`s discriminatory laws.

Sobukwe refuted this,and addressed him.”The moment I step out of your home,sir, after a show of the brotherhood of man, I will be picked up by the police for not carrying a pass”he pointed out.”But that won`t be my fault”, retorted Grant.”It will be.The mere colour of your skin makes you,unwisely,part and parcel of the favoured population in this country.You are a part of the oppresive system in this country,even though it is not of your making” Sobukwe highlighted.

Grant returned to Healdtown and told the Caleys that under no circumstances would he allow Sobukwe to return to Healdtown.”He is a troublemaker.We can`t have him here.We don`t want him here”he layed it out to them.It was not all bad blood between him and the Caleys though.He,however,never went back to Healdtown as a teacher,but only as a visitor to the Caleys and an ex-student.

Sobukwe and his family on graduation at Fort Hare,1949.

Upon his graduation,and on a sterling reccomendation from the college,he took up a post as a teacher at the Jandrell Secondary School in Standerton,in the Transvaal.The offer came from his fellow student and friend at both Healdtown and Fort Hare University,WS M`cwabeni,who was principal of the school.

After three years Sobukwe moved onto Johannesburg.This is where his political career earnestly took off,with his membership of and increasing activity in the African National Congress Youth League(ANCYL).In 1955 he led a breakaway from the African National Congress and formed the Pan Africanist Congress(PAC) with a number of other Youth League members.

In 1960 the white nationalist government introduced strict laws curtailing the activities of both the ANC,PAC,SACP and other major liberation organisations.By year-end,all liberation movements campaigning against the goverment`s segregationist policies were banned from any activity,and a string of laws proclaimed it to be illegal to promote the ideals of these movements within the country`s borders.

This course of action only served to strengthen the resolve of the movements,resulting in reccuring spells of imprisonment for Sobukwe and many other liberation movement leaders and members.For Sobukwe,this ultimately gave way to the government`s final solution to his defiance – The Sobukwe Clause.The first of its kind,the cabinet approved law,made it legal for Sobukwe to be detained for a maximum period of twelve months without trial,and in isolation.He began his first term of imprisonment under the law in 1964.To keep him in prison,the law was annually extended by pearliament for a period of six years until his release in 1970.

Sobukwe with wife Veronicah and children,from left Dalinyebo,Dini and Miliswa,after his first operation for cancer at Groote Schuur Hospital,Cape Town,1976.

Upon his release he was banished to the township of Galeshewe,lying on the outskirts of Northern Cape small town of Kimberly.He was joined by his family there,and for the first time in 14 years had the chance to lead a normal family life as a husband and father to his four children.It was not a wholly normal existence as yet,as he was still restricted to stringent curfews on his daily existence,overlooked by the local police.

Despite the restrictions,the everlasting yearn for knowledge and his commitment to serving his people led to Sobukwe,once more, taking up studies,this time to become a lawyer.He registered to study by correspondence with the University of South Africa(UNISA).He qualified as a lawyer in 1975,and the following year opened a small practice in Galeshewe.His focus was on the legal hurdles faced by the local community,especially with regard to the unjust laws meted out against it by the state.

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Robert Sobukwe`s biographer Benjamin Pogrund,left,with former state president Nelson Mandela when the author donated his Sobukwe papers to the University of the Witwatersrand`s library,September 1997.

By 1977,reccuring bouts of fever and influenza his led to Sobukwe being flown to Cape Town for a full medical examination.He was confirmed to be a carrier of lung cancer.In an unpreceedented series of actions by the state,all available avenues for the best treatment for him were made available,including access to the best surgeons to deal with his condition at the whites-only Groote Schuur Hospital.

The morning of Monday,27 February 1978 came with a dark cloud over the top of Table Mountain,reaching as far the dry plains of the Northern Cape,over the Limpopo river in the north,beyond the heights of the Drakensberg Mountains and the coastal borderline of the Indian Ocean in KwaZulu Natal.Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe had taken his last breath,and left an indelible mark on the struggle for human rights in South Africa.

A street poster announcing Robert Sobukwe`s passing on 28 February 1978.

Remember Sobukwe! is a documentary film on the freedom fighter, Robert Sobukwe, who formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959 and went on to be sentenced to solitary confinement on robben island for his political activity.Watch it below:


4 thoughts on “Robert Sobukwe – The shaping of an Africanist – Fort Hare University

  1. Hi Vuyo.Thank you so much for your feedback.It is really good to have a direct link to the descendants of some of the mean and women I am covering in my blog posts,and on the subject.Your grandfather belongs to the great echelons of South African history.He made possible the development of a mind which changed the course of our history and indirectly our future.We will forever be gratefull to Cecil Ntloko for fullfiling this role in his lifetime.I have been through your own blog,and I realise that,in a similar vein as me,you have a passionate interest in heritage,particularly South African heritage and history.I would like to get in contact with you.How can I do so?I`d really appreciate your feedback.Best regards and happy New Year!


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