Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was born on 5 December 1924 in Graaff-Reinet, a small town in the Eastern Cape known as the gem of the Karoo. He was the youngest of six children and, as was normal at the time, he was given an English name (Robert) as well as a Xhosa name, Mangaliso, meaning ‘it is wonderful’. His brothers who survived were Ernest, born in 1914, and Charles, born in 1922. His only sister was Eleanor.
Sobukwe’s father Hubert worked for the local municipality as a maintenance officer keeping open the furrows that supplied the town’s water. His mother Angelinah worked for several years as a cook at the town hospital and then did domestic work for a white family. Together they earned enough to make sure that the family did not go short for food. The children were given new clothes as Christmas gifts, to be used as Sunday best, and the previous Sunday best was brought into everyday school use.
It was a hard and simple life repeated ten thousand fold throughout South Africa. An extra ingredient, however, was the emphasis placed in the home on education. Angelinah had never been to school, and her thumbprint served as her signature. Hubert had completed seven years of schooling. He had wanted to continue, but his mother was dead and a sister who was bringing him up refused to send him to school. She feared that if he was educated he would ignore her and the family. Hubert`s disappointment lived with him and it drove him to encourage his children’s studies. According to his son Ernest he had made a vow – should God give him children, he would educate them all. He determinedly fulfilled that pledge in his lifetime.
When sister Eleanor finished her eighth year of schooling she did not want to continue and went out to work. But Ernest completed his schooling, qualified as a teacher, went on to train as a minister, and eventually was ordained a bishop in the Anglican Church. Charles also qualified as a teacher as did Robert who in due course went on to complete several university degrees.
The initial stimulus for education came from books in the house. Angelinah brought books given by the young son and daughter of the white family she worked for, and Hubert brought books discarded by the town’s library. Hubert read the books and passed them onto his children.
In addition to the emphasis on reading, there was a strong religious spirit in the Sobukwe household.The family was Methodist and Hubert was a highly respected member of the location`s congregation - so much so that, during his lifetime, the street in which he lived was named after him. It is still Sobukwe Street. Regular church attendance on Sunday was obligatory for the children. After the service, each child was required to repeat the text and outline the sermon.”If you didn’t know it, Daddy gave it to you”, recalled Ernest, meaning that there was an immediate infliction of Hubert`s sjambok (rawhide whip) on the backside.”He was a loving but stern father.” Angelinah, on the other hand, was a gentle person who merely scolded the children.
Formal schooling was provided by a Methodist mission in the location at the foot of a hill on the main road. It was actually the church in which the Sunday church services were conducted and the pews were used as desks. About a hundred children divided into four classes were taught at the same time. Reflecting the location’s residents most were blacks and coloureds.The Methodist school went as far as the sixth grade. By then the odds were that many children would have dropped out because of the poverty of their parents.
Those who were persevering switched to the Anglican school in the town for the next two years where there were proper classrooms and desks. Sobukwe, by then 11, was clearly a suitable candidate for the Anglican school even though, as he said many years later, his standard of English was “not good”. Sobukwe and his brother Charles were in the same class and were the only ones to pass out of thirteen pupils.This was the limit of education provided in Graaff-Reinet for blacks and coloureds. Any further schooling that was wanted had to be sought elsewhere.
The Sobukwe family’s Methodist adherence made it natural for him to be sent to Healdtown Mission Institute, even though it was some 225 kilometres from home. Healdtown was then a major institution in black education, one of the several schools in the Eastern Cape established by British missionaries in the nineteenth century. They provided a liberal and Christian education founded on English grammar and literature which profoundly influenced generations of students.
In January 1940, Sobukwe arrived at Healdtown for the start of the new academic year. It was still in the “great days” of black education, as the Reverend Stanley Pitts, who was Principal from 1950, put it.
Healdtown was a co-educational academic institution sited on a hill looking out over a large and fertile valley. It embraced a wide range of schooling, starting with the beginners in lower primary and extending to the end-of-schooling matriculation. It also provided teacher training, specialist physical educational education training and courses in domestic science. In its time Healdtown was the biggest black and Methodist educational centre in Southern Africa with around 1400 students most of whom like Sobukwe were boarders. The majority of the staff came from Britain and were not ministers but trained teachers.
Traditionally the teaching staff was white but by the 1940s, Healdtown began employing blacks, most of whom were from its teacher training school. Already in 1936, a black Methodist minister, the Reverend Seth Mokitimi, had been appointed housemaster and chaplain. By the 1950s a 50/50 ratio had been reached in the staff racial composition.The students, however, were always all black.
The Sobukwe family’s shortage of money also meant that career aspirations were limited. Sobukwe enrolled for the ‘Native Primary Lower’ (NPL), a three-year course which would enable him to qualify as a primary school teacher. ‘Native’ was the name then used for blacks and, as the name indicates, the course was designed to prepare blacks to teach in black schools.
As a newcomer, Sobukwe went into a wooden-floor dormitory of forty beds, twenty lined up along each side with a small locker in between each bed. He kept his clothes in a suitcase stored in a nearby box room. He could have access to it every morning but he kept his jacket on the wall. Greater privacy came with succeeding years - a ten-bed dormitory in the second year and sharing with four or five others in the third year until he finally attained the status of a single room. Like other students, he was provided with a bed frame and a brightly coloured mattress cover which the students filled with straw for better comfort.He brought his own sheets and blankets from home.
It was at the start of Sobukwe`s second year that one of the enduring friendships of his life began - with Dennis Siwisa, who also trained as a teacher, later becoming a journalist. In the excerpt below Siwisa recalls many of the details to do with black schooling and Sobukwe`s existence at Healdtown.
“First bell was at 6:00 am, but Sobukwe usually slept through it, waking for the second bell at 6:30 am. He would wash his face and, at the third bell at 6:40, go to the dining hall for breakfast to sit on a wooden bench without a back at a long wooden table. On the wooden-panelled walls were photographs of past Healdtown teachers and of George VI, the then reigning King of England and of colonial South Africa.”
It could have hardly been a plainer meal - a mug of hot to lukewarm water and sugar, plus a big dry piece of bread called umqenya in Xhosa. Anyone who wanted butter and who had money could buy it and store it. After breakfast Sobukwe went back to the dormitory to wash properly. There was no hot water except for the occasional bucket he was able to weedle from the “aunties” who worked in the kitchen. Otherwise in the cold of winter, showers were usually confined to one or two a week after playing sport. ”It was a tough life,but we enjoyed it”, Siwisa remembers.
School began at 8:30 am,b ut was preceded by ‘observation’ – the custom for the boys to stand outside and watch the girls come from their separated dormitories. Classes went through until 12:45 pm with a short break in-between and then it was back to the dining hall for lunch.Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays were the days for meat, beans and samp - porridge made from coarsely ground maize (corn); on other days only samp and beans.
Fruit was unknown but occasionally there were vegetables grown in the gardens. At 2pm Sobukwe resumed classes for another three hours with either lessons or teaching practice. Then an hour’s relaxation playing tennis, basking in the sun or walking to the nearby ravine before returning for supper which was a repetition of breakfast – bread and sugar-water. From 7pm there were two hours of study in his dormitory with lights out at 9:30 pm.
It wasn’t unrelieved academic toil. Wednesday afternoons were set aside for sport and Sobukwe made full use of this. He was a good tennis player having learnt the game back home. He played fullback for his Healdtown house rugby team Hornabrook, named after an early governor of the institution, and is said to have been a good tackler. Friday afternoons were usually free and were used for relaxing. Saturdays meant competitive sport against others schools, with teams visiting, or Healdtown teams travelling to away games on the back of an open truck.
If not involved in sport, Saturday was the one days that Sobukwe could ask for permission to walk the 11 kilometres to the village of Fort Beaufort. The attractions and facilities there were extremely limited, and largely consisted of Cooper`s grocery-cum-drapery store and fish and chips shop. This was the chance to supplement Healdtown’s sparse diet and the few weets available at the small shop in the institution by buying fish or returning with fruit or the great luxury of tea. Once a month, Saturday night was ‘Bioscope’ (movie) night, and occasionally a local music troupe came to give a concert.These events were held in the boys`dining hall. The girls were also admitted and this was a chance for couples to sit together as Sobukwe did when at one time he had a girlfriend.
Saturday was also the day to catch up on chores such as washing shirts (at least for those who had more than the regular khaki and white which were the only colours the laundry accepted). Sobukwe was already set on his lifelong pattern of dressing neatly and quitely. He did not care much for clothing and would say that he was not a ‘snob’. At this stage he favoured long khaki trousers for everyday wear when no uniform was required.
Sunday, because of the church service, was the day for smart and obligatory wear - grey trousers, white shirt, Healdtown’s red and yellow striped tie and blazer complete with the school badge on the pocket - an eagle with the Latin motto ‘ Alis velut aquilarum’ which translated means: ‘They shall rise with wings as of eagles’. Naturally it was a day of rest but only after the obligatory service, a Scripture class in the morning and holy communion once a month. Indeed Healdtown’s Christian basis was constantly evident - prayers were said before supper each day when the chaplain read from scripture and grace was said before all meals. Sobukwe was ‘a willing church-goer but he was not a zealot’, Siwisa states.
Siwisa’s overriding memory of Sobukwe in those Healdtown days is of a “happy, contented person.” He was not given to speaking about his future hopes. He spoke to his friends about sport and girls. He was known to his fellow students for his ‘brilliance and for his command of the English language.’ He invariably carried a library book with him and went through two or three novels a week. His early Healdtown addictions were the Scarlet Pimpernel novels by Baroness Orczy and The Saint stories by Leslie Charteris. He devoured all he could find until his tastes widened.
Many years later Sobukwe himself would say: “I was introduced to English literature at a very early age by my eldest brothers who had a good library. I was fortunate in the teachers I had. There was a Mrs Scott who encouraged my reading. It was a love for literature, especially poetry and drama.”
Sobukwe’s academic interest was drawing increasing interest from his teachers. Not only Mrs Scott but also from Hamish Noble, a carpentry teacher who was an assistant boarding school headmaster, and the principal and his wife, George and Helen Caley.
Once Sobukwe had completed his three-year teacher training at the end of 1942, he was encouraged by the staff not to go off and start earning a living, such as it would be as a newly-qualified teacher, but to continue his schooling. His academic ability was so promising that he was allowed to prepare for the Junior Certificate public examination (the halfway stage towards completing high school) in one year instead of the two and sometimes three as normally required. The permission of the education authorities was necessary for this but as the Caleys explained: ”he was such a clever boy.”
In the June 1943 mid-year internal examinations Sobukwe topped the class but in August, some four months before the final examination, he began to cough up blood. He was found to have the widespread and dreaded disease tuberculosis. His father came to Healdtown to fetch him.”We had a difficult time persuading him not to take Robert home to die, but that he should go to hospital” say the Caleys. It was, however, not easy to get him a hospital bed. Facilities were limited especially for blacks. Mr Caley took up the matter and succeeded in getting Sobukwe to what was then the McVicar Hospital for tuberculosis in the nearby small town of Alice.
The next year (early in 1944), Sobukwe had recovered from TB and repeated his classes.The Caleys, however, say that he did not write the examinations and was promoted to the next class despite this. Mr Caley says he wrote to the Department of Education that this was “an exceptional case.” Later in the year, only nine months after leaving the hospital, Sobukwe was so well-recovered that he was able to win the Eastern Cape tennis singles championship – a competition for blacks.
Now, with two years of schooling still to go, he was assured of the bursaries Healdtown gave to outstanding students. In addition, the Caleys sponsored him, giving him books and pocket money, taking him to the station at Fort Beaufort so that he could go home in the long June and December holidays, and sometimes buying a rail ticket for him. In the aftermath of his TB, they paid for patient medication – cod liver oil, Metatone tonic and Angiers emulsion to be rubbed on his chest.
He was a ‘group captain’ - a senior prefect - and in his last year was appointed Head Boy. He was zealous in his duties. Siwisa recalls that the toilets were outside, about ten metres from the dormitories, and that the boys would sometimes not bother to go all the way, but would urinate in the open.This was viewed as a serious offence in Healdtown’s disciplinary system. Some boys were punished for it and one of them accused Sobukwe of lying on a roof to catch them in the act. The accusation was carried over a year later to university when he was called a “sellout” because of it. He stoutly defended himself, saying he would act in the same way again if he had to track down offenders.
But his academic prowess became the dominant fact about him. His reputation was so strongly established that the Reverend Stanley Pitts, who became Healdtown`s Governor four years after Sobukwe had left, notes that he was the “brightest student we ever had.” The Caleys, speaking in 1981 when they were old and frail, still spoke of him with glowing admiration. Mr Caley`s constant phrase was that “he was so clever”. Mrs Caley said “his command of English was exceptional”. Together they remembered the farewell end-of-year speech as Headltown’s Head Boy in 1946. ”It was a most remarkable speech, it was a wonderful speech, it was all about cooperation between whites and blacks”.
As expected, he obtained a first-class pass entitling him to go onto university.His subjects were English Higher, Physiology and Hygiene, Zoology, Geography, History and Xhosa.
Daluxolo Moloantoa is a freelance writer and journalist. After being awarded a scholarship by the Sowetan newspaper and Herdbuoys McCann-Erickson advertising agency he studied copywriting at the AAA School of Advertising in Johannesburg. After a brief period working in the advertising industry, he went on an exchange programme to England and studied for a Community Media Certificate with the Community Volunteer Service Media Clubhouse in Suffolk. He became an arts journalist with Ipswich-based youth magazine IP1 and began covering South African arts-based news for London-based South African publication The South African as well as Cape Town charity magazine The Big Issue. On his return to South Africa he became arts contributor to a number of local publications. In 2015 he won the Academic and Non-Fiction Association of South Africa (ANFASA) – Norwegian Foreign Fund Writers Award for his research project on missionary schools in South Africa. Click here to see more of his work.