Robert Sobukwe in Solitary Confinement

Learn about Sobukwe's life and years of isolation on Robben Island

By Robben Island Museum

Robben Island Museum

Robert Mangaliso SobukweOriginal Source: BAHA

Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (1924-1978)

Robert Sobukwe was a political dissident and freedom fighter who founded and led the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).  Robben Island Museum's  2009 exhibition "Robert Sobukwe: A Son of the Soil of Africa” commemorates the 40th anniversary of his release from Robben Island prison and honours his contribution towards the struggle for democracy in South Africa. Robert Sobukwe was released in April 1969. The exhibition portrays aspects of Robert Sobukwe’s life and his years of isolation on the Island. It also depicts the roots of Pan Africanism and his abiding interest in it.

Sharpeville massacre (1960-03-21)Original Source: Baileys African History Archive

Sobukwe, a freedom fighter and university professor, resigned from his position to lead a non-violent march in Sharpeville, in the former Transvaal on February 28, 1960 to protest the discriminatory "Pass laws." Under the Apartheid regime these laws required all black citizens to carry a passbook and this severely restricted their movements in the country.

Sharpeville massacre (1960-03-21)Original Source: Baileys African History Archive

During the march, Sobukwe was arrested. As the march continued toward the Sharpeville police station, the police opened fire on a crowd of several thousand protesters, killing 89 and wounding over 180. The incident become known as the Sharpevile Massacre.

For three years, Sobukwe was "banished" to a remote farm. From 1963 to 1969 Robert Sobukwe was detained on the Island under the Sobukwe Clause which was especially written into the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 as amended by the General Law Amendment Act of 1963.

The Sobukwe Clause empowered the Courts of South Africa to renew a prisoner's period of confinement on an annual basis. The court invoked this clause three times until 1969. At that time we was able to return home, but lived under house arrest for several more years until his death in 1977.

Robert Sobukwe was detained on the Island under the Sobukwe Clause in 1963. From 1963 to 1969 he was housed in the "Sobukwe Complex", a housing complex formerly used by coloured warders who were removed from the Island.

View of the two-roomed Robert Sobukwe House as seen from the front.

There was no running water in the house, but he was able to cook in the front room.

The ablution area with hot and cold water which had a shower was located in an adjacent building.

After Sobukwe left the Island, two long kennels were constructed to house the prison warders' guard dogs, The animals were trained as aggressive attack dogs for patrolling the prison fence perimeter and intimidating the inmates.

View of building T158 - the ablution area with a shower and toilet facilities.

View from inside the doorway of the house.

View of first room. Other personal papers including letters are displayed on the wall today.

On the back wall appears a photograph of Sobukwe ironing a shirt.

Iron from Robert Sobukwe HouseRobben Island Museum

The iron Sobukwe used to press his clothes.

Sobukwe used the second room as a study and bedroom. He spent many hours writing letters and making detailed notes of his experiences.

Red Desk Chair from Robert Sobukwe HouseRobben Island Museum

Sobukwe's desk chair.

Notebook of Robert SobukweRobben Island Museum

One of Sobukwe's notebooks.

Letter to Robert Sobukwe Letter to Robert SobukweRobben Island Museum

Letter from Sobukwe's wife, Veronica, dated 28 May 1963.

Letter to Robert Sobukwe Page 3Robben Island Museum

...How is the climate? Look after yourself darling. You must try to have fruits or dried ones daily and some exercises not strenuous ones though. I am going to send you a pair of shoes so that you can repair that pair you are using. Now that I think it must be very cold now. I shall send another jacket and some handkerchiefs...
--from a letter to Robert from Veronica Sobukwe

Sobukwe's bed. On his nightstand is a small lamp, radio and portable clock.

The house was sparsely furnished. There was only a bed with a mattress made of coir fibers, a floor mat, a cupboard, small table, chair, and a bookcase. He was able to secure a radio during his detention, and permitted to wear civilian clothing.

Travel Clock in Robert Sobukwe HouseRobben Island Museum

Prisoner's RadioRobben Island Museum

Sobukwe lived in solitary confinement for six years on the island. While his family wrote many letters, his children were only permitted to visit him once - in 1967 - two years into his detention.

Although he was isolated from other prisoners, he managed to communicate through hand signals and gestures while exercising outdoors near the fences separating the complex from the rest of the prison.

Credits: Story

*Robben Island Museum
*Robben Island Museum,Cultural Landsapes, Chapter 3.
*African Media Online

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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