From the Archive | Robert Sobukwe’s inaugural speech

The founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, who made this address in April 1959, was committed to the vision of a united continent under democratic socialist rule by and for Africans.

Robert Sobukwe formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959. In 1960, the PAC led a demonstration against pass laws. In Sharpeville, police opened fire on protesters, killing 69. Sobukwe was arrested and convicted of incitement. He spent three years in prison before being moved to solitary confinement on Robben Island. He was released to house arrest in 1969 and died of lung cancer in 1978. This is a lightly edited excerpt of a speech published by South African History Online

The speech contains strong language, deliberately used by Sobukwe to show the racism directed at Black people of the time.

Relation to states in Africa

Our relation to the states in Africa may be stated precisely and briefly by quoting from George Padmore’s book, Pan Africanism or Communism. Discussing the future of Africa, Padmore observes that “there is a growing feeling among politically conscious Africans throughout the continent that their destiny is one, that what happens in one part of Afrika to Africans must affect Africans living in other parts”. We honour Ghana as the first independent state in modern Africa which, under the courageous nationalist leadership of Dr Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party, has actively interested itself in the liberation of the whole continent from white domination, and has held out the vision of a democratic United States of Africa. We regard it as the sacred duty of every African state to strive ceaselessly and energetically for the creation of a United States of Africa, stretching from Cape to Cairo, Morocco to Madagascar. The days of small, independent countries are gone. Today we have, on the one hand, great powerful countries of the world; America and Russia cover huge tracts of land territorially and number hundreds of millions in population. On the other hand the small weak independent countries of Europe are beginning to realise that for their own survival they have to form military and economic federations, hence the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and the European market. Beside the sense of a common historical fate that we share with the other countries of Africa, it is imperative, for purely practical reasons that the whole of Africa be united into a single unit, centrally controlled. Only in that way can we solve the immense problems that face the continent’s people.

National movements in Africa

It is for the reasons stated above that we admire, bless and identify ourselves with the entire nationalist movements in Africa. They are the core, the basic units, the individual cells of that large organism envisaged, namely, the United States of Africa; a union of free, sovereign, independent, democratic states of Africa. For the lasting peace of Africa and the solution of the economic, social and political problems of the continent, there needs to be a democratic principle. This means that white supremacy, under whatever guise it manifests itself, must be destroyed. And that is what the nationalists on the continent are setting out to do. They all are agreed that the African majority must rule. In the African context, it is the overwhelming African majority that will mould and shape the content of democracy. Allow me to quote Dr WEB du Bois, the father of Pan Africanism: “Most men in the world,” writes Du Bois, “are coloured. A belief in humanity means a belief in coloured men. The future of the world will, in all reasonable possibility, be what coloured men make it.” As for the world, so for Africa. The future of Africa will be what Africans make it.

The race question

And now for the thorny questions of race. I do not wish to give a lengthy and learned dissertation on race. Suffice it to say that even those scientists who do recognise the existence of separate races, have to admit that there are border line cases which will not fit into any of the three races of mankind. All scientists agree that all men can trace their ancestry back to the first Homo sapiens, that man is distinguished from other mammals and also from earlier types of man by the nature of his intelligence.

The structure of the body of man provides evidence to prove the biological unity of the human species. All scientists agree that there is no “race” that is superior to another, and there is no “race” that is inferior to others. The Africanists take the view that there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race. In our vocabulary therefore, the word “race” as applied to man, has no plural form. We do, however, admit the existence of observable physical differences between various groups of people, but these differences are the result of a number of factors, chief among which has been geographical isolation.

Related article:

In Africa, the myth of race has been propounded and propagated by the imperialists and colonialists from Europe, in order to facilitate and justify their inhuman exploitation of the indigenous people of the land. It is from this myth of race with its attendant claims of cultural superiority that the doctrine of white supremacy stems. Thus it is that an ex-engine driver can think of himself as fully qualified to be the head of the government of an African state, but refuse to believe that a highly educated Black doctor, more familiar with Western culture than the white premier is, cannot even run a municipal council. I do not wish to belabour this point. Time is precious.

Let me close discussion of this topic by declaring, on behalf of the Africanists, that with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, we hold that “every man is his brother’s keeper. For every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, because he is involved in mankind.”

In South Africa

In South Africa we recognise the existence of national groups, which are the result of geographical origin within a certain area as well as a shared historical experience of these groups. The Europeans are a foreign minority group, which has exclusive control of political, economic, social and military power. It is the dominant group. It is the exploiting group, responsible for the pernicious doctrine of white supremacy, which has resulted in the humiliation and degradation of the indigenous African people. It is this group which has dispossessed the African people of their land and with arrogant conceit has set itself up as the “guardians”, the “trustees” of the Africans. It is this group which conceives of the African people as a child nation, composed of boys and girls, ranging in age from 120 years to one day. It is this group which, after 300 years, can still state with brazen effrontery that the native, the bantu, the kaffir is still backward and savage, etc. But they still want to remain “guardians”, “trustees”, and what have you, of the African.

In short, it is this group which has mismanaged affairs in South Africa just as their kith and kin are mismanaging affairs in Europe. It is from this group that the most rabid race baiters and agitators come. It is members of this group who, whenever they meet in their Parliament, say things, which agitate the hearts of millions of peace-loving Africans. This is the group, which turns out thousands of experts on that new South African science “the native mind”.

Related article:

Then there is the Indian foreign minority group. This group came to this country not as imperialists or colonialists, but as indentured labourers. In the South African set-up of today, this group is an oppressed minority. But there are some members of this group, the merchant class in particular, who have become tainted with the virus of cultural supremacy and national arrogance. This class identifies itself by and large with the oppressor but, significantly, this is the group, which provides the political leadership of the Indian people in South Africa. And all that the politics of this class have meant up to now is preservation and defence of the sectional interests of the Indian merchant class. The downtrodden, poor “stinking coolies” of Natal who, alone, as a result of the pressure of material conditions, can identify themselves with the indigenous African majority in the struggle to overthrow white supremacy, have not yet produced their leadership. We hope they will do so soon.

The Africans constitute the indigenous group and form the majority of the population. They are the most ruthlessly exploited and are subjected to humiliation, degradation and insult. Now it is our contention that true democracy can be established in South Africa and on the continent as a whole, only when white supremacy has been destroyed. And the illiterate and semi-literate African masses constitute the key and centre and content of any struggle for true democracy in South Africa. And the African people can be organised only under the banner of African nationalism in an all-African organisation where they will by themselves formulate policies and programmes and decide on the methods of struggle without interference from either so-called left-wing or right-wing groups of the minorities who arrogantly appropriate to themselves the right to plan and think for the Africans.

We wish to emphasise that the freedom of the African means the freedom of all in South Africa, the European included, because only the African can guarantee the establishment of a genuine democracy in which all men will be citizens of a common state and will live and be governed as individuals and not as distinctive sectional groups.

Our ultimate goals

In conclusion, I wish to state that the Africanists do not at all subscribe to the fashionable doctrine of South African exceptionalism. Our contention is that South Africa is an integral part of the indivisible whole that is Africa. She cannot solve her problems in isolation from and with utter disregard of the rest of the continent. It is precisely for that reason that we reject both apartheid and so-called multi-racialism as solutions of our socio-economic problems.

Apart from the number of reasons and arguments that can be advanced against apartheid, we take our stand on the principle that Africa is one and desires to be one and nobody, I repeat, nobody has the right to balkanise our land.

Against multi-racialism we have this objection, that the history of South Africa has fostered group prejudices and antagonisms, and if we have to maintain the same group exclusiveness, parading under the term of multi-racialism, we shall be transporting to the new Africa these very antagonisms and conflicts. Further, multi-racialism is in fact a pandering to European bigotry and arrogance. It is a method of safeguarding white interests, implying as it does, proportional representation irrespective of population figures. In that sense, it is a complete negation of democracy.

Related article:

To us the term “multi-racialism” implies that there are such basic insuperable differences between the various national groups here that the best course is to keep them permanently distinctive in a kind of democratic apartheid. That to us is racialism multiplied, which probably is what the term truly connotes. We aim, politically, at government of the Africans by the Africans, for the Africans, with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Africa 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. Economically we aim at the rapid extension of industrial development in order to alleviate pressure on the land, which is what progress means in terms of modern society. We stand committed to a policy guaranteeing the most equitable distribution of wealth. Socially, we aim at the full development of the human personality and a ruthless uprooting and outlawing of all forms or manifestations of the racial myth.

To sum it up we stand for an Africanist socialist democracy. Here is a tree rooted in African soil, nourished with waters from the rivers of Africa. Come and sit under its shade and become, with us, the leaves of the same branch and the branches of the same tree. Sons and daughters of Africa, I declare this inaugural convention of the Africanists open. 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.