In the secret organisation of the underground movement, where pseudonyms and nom de guerre and legends were used to hide and conceal officially known names and real events, the banned PAC’s operatives used ‘Nyana womNtu’ to refer to Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe. This is a loose indigenous language translation of the ‘Son of Man.’
Sobukwe politicised the rank and file of the PAC in their spoken languages. He was a serious stickler for discipline, whose interpretation of the scriptures found political resonance with organised religion – especially the independent churches that fell out of favour with the missionaries.
In his political writings and speeches, Sobukwe taught PAC middle ranking leaders to speak with the African masses wherever they are ‘in biblical simplicity.’ He advocated for concrete ideas instead of the abstract and the mysterious.
It is said that while doing a countrywide mobilisation of the people for the Positive Action Campaign in Feb 1960 with some of his National Executive Committee members, their vehicle broke down in the middle of the night near Queenstown in the eastern Cape province. They joined a wake service for the entire night until dawn conducted by a local variety of the indigenous church movement. Sobukwe asked to preach. He used the Book of Isaiah to interpret the struggle of the oppressed. Even the priests were impressed with his input. Never mind the congregation and his fellow NEC comrades.
Subsequently, Sobukwe rose into a national figure and leader of the African people with the events of Sharpeville and Langa locations; the Orlando court where he made the dock a political site of struggle and refusing to plead before a white magistrate and sticking to the abandoned 1952 Defiance Campaign standpoint of ‘No Bail – No Defence – No Fine’.
He served three full years imprisonment for leading the Positive Action Campaign. The colonial courts called it incitement and treason.
Sobukwe spent a further six years in detention without trial on Robben Island maximum prison. The whites-only settler parliament had enacted a special clause to the General Law Amendment Act to keep him as a political prisoner ‘until this side of eternity.’ They feared his ‘natural dignity’ and powerful gift of organisation.
He fell sick with a recurring tuberculosis and lung infection whilst in isolation on the island prison. He told his wife, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, neé Mathe, that he had found traces of broken shards of glass in his meals. He was not allowed private and independent medical treatment. For an approximately three week period in April 1969 he was rushed to a state medical facility without the knowledge of his attorney Raymond Tucker, and his family were kept in the dark too.
He was then released and banished to number 6 Naledi Street, Galeshewe location, in the magisterial district of Kimberley. He was on a 24 hour house arrest – with a network of special branch police spies watching him.
Sobukwe’s leadership of the African nation continued even though he was prohibited. His presidency in the PAC continued. The Party – uMbutho wamAfrika, as it became known – was now operational in the prisons, underground with the oppressed people and in the mission in exile.
It is the PAC Underground operatives who used the name Nyana womNtu. The name was found fitting in many ways than one. It was a revolutionary myth to mobilise and galvanize the national struggle for liberation around a national leader whose image kept resistance real and alive.
Many sought his wise counsel. World renown African philosophy academic, Prof Mogose Bernard Ramose, tells of a consultation of Black Consciousness activists in 1974 in which Sobukwe legally argued the supremacy of a constitutional dispensation to protect all citizens over a parliamentary system (as was the case then) which was prone to abuse by corrupt and captured politicians. There was a bee line of overt and covert leadership going to Sobukwe’s place at 6 Naledi Street, Galeshewe.
A dark cloud fell over the country figuratively when he died on 27 February 1978. An absolutely noble and selfless son of Africa was called to the heavens.
In 2018, it is forty years of the political wilderness for the Azanian masses. It is perhaps blasphemy to equate Sobukwe with Jesus Christ. In the Underground, the reference worked wonders. Long live, Nyana kaNtu.
Jaki Seroke – PAC Secretary for Political and Pan African Affairs
(Photo: Drum/Mike Mzileni)