New Books | Robert Sobukwe’s letters from prison

Five days before the Sharpeville massacre, PAC leader Robert Sobukwe wrote to the police commissioner asking for restraint from his officers.

Robert Sobukwe, the man who led the anti-pass protest in 1960, was jailed for nine years, six of which he spent in almost total solitary confinement.  His prison letters have been published in a new book. These letters reveal the mental, physical and emotional privation experienced by the Pan-Africanist liberation leader, as well as his commitment and courage.

This is an edited excerpt from Lie on your wounds: The prison correspondence of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (2019) edited by Derek Hook and published by Wits University Press.

Robert Sobukwe 
to Major-General C.I. Rademeyer, 
Commissioner of Police, 
Cape Town, 
16 March 1960


My organisation, the Pan Africanist Congress, will be starting a sustained, disciplined, non-violent campaign against the pass laws on Monday the 21st March 1960. I have given strict instructions, not only to members of my organisation but also to African people in general, that they should not allow themselves to be provoked into violent action by anyone. In a press statement I am releasing soon, I repeat that appeal and make one to the police too.

I am now writing to you to instruct the police to refrain from actions that may lead to violence. It is unfortunately true that many white policemen, brought up in the racist hothouse of South Africa, regard themselves as champions of white supremacy and not as law officers. In the African they see an enemy, a threat, not to “law and order” but to their privileges as whites.

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I therefore appeal to you to instruct your men not to give impossible commands to my people. The usual mumbling by the police of an order requiring people to disperse within three minutes, and almost immediately ordering a baton charge, deceives nobody and shows the police up as sadistic bullies. I sincerely hope that such actions will not occur this time. If the police are interested in maintaining “law and order”, they will have no difficulty at all. We will surrender ourselves to the police for arrest. If told to disperse, we will. But we cannot be expected to run helter-skelter because a trigger-happy, African-hating young white police officer has given hundreds of thousands of people three minutes within which to remove their bodies from the immediate environment.

Hoping you will cooperate to try and make this a most peaceful and disciplined campaign.

I remain

Yours faithfully, 
Mangaliso R. Sobukwe 
President Pan Africanist Congress

PAC press release 
announcing anti-pass campaign, 
18 March 1960

Call for positive active

In accordance with a resolution adopted at our national conference, held in Orlando on the 19th and 20th December, 1959, I have called on the African people to go with us into positive action against the pass laws. We launch our campaign on Monday, the 21st of March 1960, and circulars to that effect are already in the streets.

Meaning of campaign: I need not list the arguments against the pass laws. Their effects are well known. All the evidence of broken homes, tsotsism and gangsterism, the regimentation, oppression and degradation of the African, together with the straight-jacketing of industry leads to one conclusion, that the pass laws must go. We cannot remain foreigners in our own land.

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I have appealed to the African people to make sure that this campaign is conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence, and I am quite certain that they will heed my call. I now wish to direct the same call to the police. If the intention is to “maintain law and order”, I say, you can best do so by eschewing violence. Let the Saracens have a holiday. The African people do not need to be controlled. They can control themselves. Please do not give my people impossible orders, such as “disperse within three minutes.” Any such order we shall regard as merely an excuse for baton-charging and shooting the people. If the African people are asked to disperse, they will do so orderly and quietly. They have instructions from me to do so. But we will not run away! If the other side so desires, we will provide them with the opportunity to demonstrate to the world how brutal they can be. We are ready to die for our cause. We are not yet ready to kill for it.

Finally, I wish to offer all those non-African individuals and groups who have expressed themselves as bitterly opposed to the pass laws, an opportunity to participate in this noble campaign, which is aimed at obtaining for the African people those things that the whole civilised world accepts unquestioningly as the right of every individual. Here is an opportunity for you to create history. Be involved in this historical task. The noblest cause to which man can dedicate himself – the breaking asunder of the chains that bind your fellow men.

Remember: “Every man’s death diminishes me. For I am involved in mankind.”

Mangaliso R Sobukwe 
President Pan Africanist Congress

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