Revisiting Sobukwe: Violence, Race and the Economy

By Rekang Jankie

While Mandela and Biko have dominated different sectors of mainstream political discourse in South Africa, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was largely relegated to the side-lines of the postapartheid imagination until recently when the #MustFall raised him to prominence once more. It is important therefore to revisit his works and assess his relevance to the political climate today. Of particular interest are his views on the political efficacy of non-violence, the concept of nonracialism in relation to African nationalism and the call for universal franchise and a planned economy as necessary pillars of a post-apartheid society. At the outset, it is important to note the limitations in analysing Sobukwe’s ideas given that his life was cut short by an early death following a long period of incarceration and isolation. As a result, many of the views he had publicly expressed could not be fully fleshed out.


A debate that has gripped anti-oppression movements globally is the question of pursuing violent or nonviolent resistance. In the formative years of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) Sobukwe was a firm believer nonviolence. In his speech preceding the Sharpeville Uprising/Massacre he was adamant that the march would observe the principle of absolute non-violence, arguing that the state and the police would be the only people to benefit from any violence. He pointedly stated, “My instructions, therefore, are that our people must be taught now and continuously, that in this campaign we are going to observe absolute non-violence” further lamenting “the only people who will benefit from violence are the government and police”. Beyond considering political violence as beneficial for the state, he also objected to it on the basis that violence would alienate many who were sympathetic to the grievances of the anti-apartheid movement. Sobukwe believed this alienation would stem from people being resentful of becoming cannon fodder without any tangible results.

Despite this, following Sobukwe’s imprisonment, the PAC, like the ANC, adopted armed resistance as a response to increasing state violence by forming the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) also known as Poqo. The nature of Sobukwe’s incarceration meant he was removed from the formation of this armed wing and had harsh criticism for Poqo describing it as a “tsotsi element” and “undisciplined”. He described himself as being opposed to acts of sabotage but accepting of the fact that there would have come a point where they were necessary.

Race and Being an African

While the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) espoused the principle of multi-racialism, Sobukwe was fundamentally opposed to this, instead preferring a philosophy of non-racialism. He argued that multiracialism accepts the false notion of race to be true. Non-racialism on the other hand was rooted in the idea that, because the biological concept of race is false, it would be foolish to then base an ideal society on it . While Sobukwe rejected the concept of biological race he can be described as being accepting of the constructivist concept of race. This understanding formed the foundation for how he practiced African nationalism.

A further criticism Sobukwe levelled on multi-racialism was rooted in the fact that because South Africa had long fostered group prejudices and antagonism, keeping racial classification would “be transporting to the new Africa these very antagonisms and conflicts”, and that multi-racialism was pandering to “European bigotry and arrogance”.

Sobukwe viewed non-racialism as the end goal for society but preached for an exclusively black resistance movement to avoid corruption by what he viewed as self-interested whites. He conceded the argument that one could not organise people based on exclusion and then hope that those people would come to view non-Africans as being African at the conclusion of the struggle. He believed that he and his peers would be recognised by future historians as having chosen the correct path. However, the PAC was unable to gather momentum perhaps as result of the fact that the ANC‘s emphasis on multi-racialism ensured broad participation while the PAC continued to embrace an even more strident racialism thus alienating potential supporters.

Sobukwe’s non-racialism was emphasised by an ideal of Africanism that did not consider race to be relevant in who was considered African, something clearly evident when he stated that, “government of the Africans by the Africans, for the Africans, with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Afrika and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African. We guarantee no minority rights, because we think in terms of individuals, not groups”. While clearly stated, this prescription of who can be considered African is paradoxically quite vague.

In short, it states that to be African you have to believe in the rule of Africans, with the caveat of individualism trumping collectivism. The vagueness stems from the circularity of the proposition, with an African unable to be defined without relying on the use of the term “African”. What further complicates “African-ess” is that Africanism as argued by Sobukwe essentially boils down to self-identification. However, one can self-identify as being an African but view someone else who also identifies as an African as not being African or sufficiently African. The conflict is then between the collective (Africans) and the individual (the self-identifying African). The collective is offered the ability to impose/abate the identity of the individual. One can attempt to square this circle by pointing out that being an African is less of an identity and more of a commitment to a political program. However, this does little to help us because, firstly one needs to articulate what the political and economic project is and, secondly, one has to articulate what it is that makes the political and economic program distinctly African.


The political project Sobukwe advanced was one of universal franchise where anyone, regardless of race or gender, was free to vote and run for election. The corresponding economic project he advocated for was one of a planned economy.A critique of this set of ideals rests on two questions that need be answered. Firstly, what makes their content distinctly African? Secondly, what is the relationship between individual liberty and a planned economy?

It seems obvious to point out that neither universal franchise nor a planned economy are distinctly African ideals. Examples of the aspiration for democracy have been observed across the globe over the past two centuries while planned economies were ubiquitous across Eastern Europe and many other non-African “socialist states” in the 20th century. A possible defence of this is that both models are to the betterment of Africans and as such they are African, at which point one might argue that merely asserting that something is for the betterment of Africans does not necessarily make it true. One can claim that economic liberalism, ethno-nationalism and a whole host of other political philosophies are to the benefit of Africans without it necessarily being true.

The above leads us to a second question, “Can one have individual liberty under a planned economy?” It is important to note upfront that what follows will not be a critique of a planned economy per se but rather an attempt to explore the contradictions that arise in emphasising individual liberties within the context of central planning. It is in fact a contradiction Sobukwe himself was able to identify when he stated, “Our problem, as we see it, is to make a planned economy work within the framework of a political democracy. It has not done so in any of the countries that practice it today, but we do not believe that totalitarianism is inherent in a system of planned state economy”. However, mere acknowledgment that an economic system one is proposing almost always leads to totalitarianism is insufficient to resolve the contradiction, as is the assertion that one will be able to avoid totalitarianism. One has to show how this totalitarianism will be avoided. This should include concrete measures necessary to enforce plans including, for example, measures to deal with individuals who resist processes, such as redistribution of wealth.

It goes without saying that these measures are bound to be resisted; this is the fact that any political movement dedicated to redistribution is bound to encounter. The way in which said movement responds to this resistance determines its commitment to individual liberties and political freedoms. This contradiction becomes less pressing if the political movement loses any notions of individual liberties being at the core of their political project or if the movement adopts “means justify the ends” thinking. However, it is clear from Sobukwe that the latter was a framework he intended to avoid, whether it be in matters of the economy, political violence or even integration. There does seem to be room for a more nuanced position on the matter of “Individual Liberties vs State Authority”. The position is one that Sobukwe was able to acknowledge but unable to work through, largely as a result of his early death and extended incarceration.

To conclude, Sobukwe held a whole host of views on a number of complex social issues. He opposed violence as a political tool since he viewed it as counterproductive in nature. This position on the efficacy of political violence is one that has long been abandoned by members of the organisation he helped found. He rejected the concept of race in support of the idea of a singular human race while simultaneously supporting a racially exclusive anti oppression movement a position that the PAC has yet to be able to reconcile. If we are to recognise the importance of leaders like Sobukwe it is important that we not only acknowledge their positive contributions to society but also explore some of the shortcomings they had.