Must Read – Robert Sobukwe: How Can Man Die Better

In this deeply illuminating biography, Benjamin Pogrund offers the detailed life and prison journey of Robert Sobukwe, backdropped by the abominable political structure of South Africa.

The first part of the book gives a background of his life before he was involved in politics. From his early learning to his tertiary studies, he was an intelligent, hard-working, eager and disciplined student. From the moment he became involved in politics, it was evident that he had a far-reaching influence on many people and that he possessed the necessary leadership skills.

On 21 March 1960, Sobukwe led a non-violent, mass defiance of pass laws. The pass law, also called the dompas, was the ID document that the white oppressors used to control the black population. He urged everyone to leave their passes at home and go to police stations and demand to be arrested, this would stall economic activity as the blacks were the cheap labour used to facilitate the enrichment of whites. Sobukwe led the demonstration by example, which led to his arrest.

Robert Sobukwe leading the demonstration

On that day of the defiance, what was meant to be a peaceful protest against the deepening apartheid system and the grave crisis that the black population was in, things took a harrowing turn. The police used teargas, batons, then fired revolvers, rifles, pistols, and STEN guns at the marching body of people. A terrifying slaughter of men, women, and children. This is what was to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

Sobukwe and others were charged for inciting people to commit an offence against the law. The white government recognised Sobukwe’s strong and magnetic personality, his ability to organise, to lead, even within prison. There was an evident fear of what would happen if blacks finally stood up for themselves and so all measures were taken to arrest more political “criminals” or what they called “political terrorists”, such as Nelson Mandela.

The racial divide also existed behind the walls of prison, where black prisoners were subjected to the most inhumane, harsh, and hostile conditions. Outside the walls of prison, the apartheid system was worsening. After his three-year sentence the parliament came up with what was to be called the Sobukwe Clause, which allowed for political ‘criminals’ to continue being held indefinitely. However, this clause only applied to Robert Sobukwe.

He was moved to the maximum-security prison, Robben Island, where the clause would be applied every year for the next six years. After his release from prison, he was still placed under house arrest.

If you don’t know much about the history of South Africa, and the cruelty that black people went through, this book will give you pretty much all the knowledge.

It is a heart-breaking story, and one cannot help but admire this great hero of the country, the others who continued to fight and the white people who recognised the rot and helped.

Robert Sobukwe with friend and author, Benjamin Pogrund

It was a necessary but uncomfortable book to read, and I highly recommend that you read it.

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Autodidact & Bibliophile

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