Speaking as one African to another

South African anti-apartheid revolutionary Robert Sobukwe is often understood as a black nationalist. So what should we make of his close friendship with a white liberal?

Robert Sobukwe with his friend Benjamin Pogrund after Sobukwe’s release from Robben Island in 1969. Public Domain.

One afternoon in 1957 in Johannesburg, Benjamin Pogrund walked into a classroom at the University of the Witwatersrand to meet his fiancée Astrid. He found her in conversation with her teacher, Robert Sobukwe, a lecturer in isiZulu (his official title at the university was “language assistant”). Astrid had spoken warmly of Sobukwe before and Pogrund took an easy liking to him, even though, as he later wrote, in the early days of their friendship he was not particularly impressed by Sobukwe as an intellectual (finding him “too academic and too timid”). No record of Sobukwe’s early impressions of Pogrund is available in the archives. They began to meet at Sobukwe’s office at Wits and later at Pogrund’s home in the whites-only suburbs of Johannesburg; Pogrund would “abuse” his journalistic privileges to visit Sobukwe at his home in Mofolo, a suburb of the Soweto township, sometimes socializing there with other men from the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) such as P.K. Leballo, Zephaniah Mothopeng, and Peter Raboroko.   

Sobukwe and Pogrund were both very similar and very different men. Similar in that they shared the social and intellectual formation of those educated in the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment. Pogrund was less critical of this formation than Sobukwe, whose influences were more diverse.  Sobukwe would later describe his taste in reading as “Catholic,” which is an apt way to describe who he was as an intellectual and a person. He had, for instance, the prodigious facility for and interest in language that is natural to anyone whose life has not been narrowed by a fascistic political context but particularly commendable in one whose life was interfered with in just such a way. Although the structure of settler society meant that settlers could get by as monolinguals, while natives were in general multilingual, Sobukwe’s openness to and interest in other languages and their cultures was probably unusual. He spoke the Afrikaans of both town and location fluently, as well as isiXhosa, seSotho, isiZulu, and English (the neat divisions between some of these languages, and indeed the idea that there are clear points at which one part of the spectrum of language can be marked off from another, was itself the product of colonial linguistics and anthropology). As an adult he became interested in Arabic, wishing to study it while in prison. 

Both Pogrund and Sobukwe became active opponents of apartheid for which each man paid his price. Pogrund was serially harassed by the state (and periodically thrown into jail), while the newspaper he worked for was taken to court on account of his journalism. Sobukwe spent nine years in prison—six in solitary confinement on Robben Island—for his role in the Pan Africanist Congress’s anti-pass campaign and was then banished to the administrative district of Galeshewe in Kimberley in what was then the Cape province. 

Despite their similarities, they were also very different men. Each inhabited seemingly disparate political traditions. Pogrund was a card-carrying liberal, although not of the more conservative set. Margaret Ballinger, the first president of the Liberal Party of South Africa, still believed in the qualified franchise, according to which the right to vote belonged to those who were educated, owned some property, and were assimilated into colonial manners. Instead, Pogrund would find common cause with the more radical wing of the Liberal Party, which included figures like Randolph Vigne of the African Resistance Movement (a collection of liberals, socialists, and African nationalists briefly and catastrophically engaged in armed struggle. There is no suggestion that Pogrund himself was part of ARM and it is unknown whether he approved of its activities). These younger and more progressive members of the party rejected the qualified franchise entirely on the grounds of its inherent racism, supported state-facilitated redistribution of land, and worked to push the party in a more radical direction. Pogrund quit the party when he became a journalist to preserve his impartiality—a critical part of his self-fashioning both in his memoir and his letters to Sobukwe—although he has remained a man of liberal democratic values throughout his life. 

Sobukwe was the founding president of the PAC, the then-nascent political project of a group of young Africanists who broke from the African National Congress in 1959 over its abandonment of the more orthodox nationalism embodied in the 1949 Programme of Action. The formation of the Congress Alliance meant a rapprochement with Indians and whites (mostly Communist) and culminated in the declaration of the Freedom Charter, all of which the Africanists rejected.   

Despite public antagonism between Pan Africanists and Liberals, there is a book to be written about their private social relationships with one another, which in many cases included instances of deep friendship and solidarity even as Africanists rejected liberals and liberalism from the podium in fiery and uncompromising language. Bessie Head’s friendship with Randolph Vigne is an example, and there are tomes to be written about Patrick Duncan’s friendships, and indeed many others. Incidentally, the pejorative “white liberal” referred at the time not only to whites of liberal convictions but also to white communists— any white person thought to be inappropriately involved in the political affairs of Africans (racially defined). 

Another crucial difference between the two men was, of course, their relative positions in the legal regime under which they lived as adults. In the 1960s the apartheid state was attempting to enlist and shape the meaning of even the most mundane aspects of human social life in the construction of race. The epistemology of race that underwrote the Population Registration Act of 1950 cast race as a matter of “common sense.” Those appointed to “racially classify” worked with the existing social conventions so that every bit of social information, such as a person’s environment, what they wore, whether they played soccer or rugby, lay on a high bed or a low bed, what sort of beer they drank, and so on, became relevant to determining how to classify them.  Thus, the minutiae of the everyday was permeated by racial thinking.

Alongside the racialization of the entire population, the state was also busy buttressing the fractal version of race—tribe. Under the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959, various homelands, or Bantustans, were created in which Africans (conceived of in racial and tribal terms) were granted pseudo-citizenship which came with a veneer of political entitlements, including, significantly, the right to land use (not ownership) within their assigned homeland (on grounds of an externally ascribed tribal affiliation). Africans so defined fractured into natives and “ethnic strangers” depending on whether they were in their “own” tribal homeland or that of another group. This also meant that they were foreigners in South Africa proper (the domain of civil rather than customary law) with no political rights there whatsoever. 

This solved what would otherwise have been a serious political problem from the perspective of the state: that it governed over a politically disenfranchised majority. By dividing Africans into smaller “tribal” groups and parceling them off into separate homelands, the state also dealt with, or at least attempted to deal with, the problem of a common political consciousness and solidarity developing among those it oppressed. Mahmood Mamdani has described it as a strategy of defining and administratively producing new and more malleable subjectivities in order to better rule. It also solved an economic problem: namely, the need of capital (overwhelmingly held and controlled by whites) for cheap and fungible labor. None of this was new, of course, and similar methods had been theorized and put into practice across the British Empire after the anti-colonial rebellions of the mid-to-late 1800s. 

No one is born racialized, or indeed tribalized, and a feverish and constant labor, into which the racialized are themselves conscripted, must all the time take place to maintain the social fact of race. All this is to say that where Pogrund was both produced and conscripted by the state and society as white—made into and maintained as a white person—Sobukwe was produced and conscripted by those same forces as black, and forcibly tribalized by the regime in its attempt to cut the colonized twice over, as Mamdani puts it.

What followed their meeting at Wits, was an intensely intimate friendship defined by a passion and a longing for each other’s company and the dissolution of personal boundaries through the exchange of deeply personal declarations of love. This friendship, together with Sobukwe’s public speeches, complicates the established treatment of Sobukwe as a racially essentialist black nationalist. When Sobukwe asked Pogrund to organize his wife Veronica’s fortieth birthday celebrations, he spoke in their exchanges about “our plans” and “what we had intended”, thanking Pogrund and saying that “I know you enjoy doing all for me and mine, but I can assure you it is much more than I would have expected even from one who had shared the same womb with me.” To describe Pogrund as closer than one with whom he shared the same womb, is to mobilize the established discursive force of biology as the bedrock of filiation against its intended purposes. These exchanges are both moving and subversive. 

In another letter, Sobukwe comments that the term “friend” was both inadequate and incongruous to describe his feelings about Pogrund. Recalling a visit from the liberal politician Helen Suzman to Robben Island (where Sobukwe was imprisoned between 1963 and 1969), Sobukwe wrote: “Helen Suzman visited me in here too, as you know, and she greeted me with the words ‘I was with your friend, Benjie, yesterday.’ I was forcibly struck by the inadequacy if not the incongruity of the term. I have friends, of course, of whom I am very fond […] But I have long passed the stage of even thinking of you as a friend. I don’t want to be sentimental about that.” To which Pogrund responded: 

Both your letters moved me very deeply, particularly your second one. There is no shame – there cannot be any – in my telling you that I cried when I read it. I feel so very close to you, Bob. I recall constantly the last times we were able to see each other, of the many hours when we ranged in our chats over every conceivable subject as though we had never not been seeing each other. I have said before, and I say again, that it is little that I do for you and your family. You deserve a lot more, and so often I berate myself for not doing more for you, and so often too I pray to G-d [sic] that I had the power to act effectively on your behalf. I feel a terrible pain within me about your situation.

Though the relationship was a platonic one, exchanges such as these have the fervor of romance and suggest the emotional intensity of the tie that had formed between the two men. It is also significant, given the narrow range of masculinity at the time, that Pogrund discloses the depths of his emotional response to Sobukwe’s letters so openly. In their letters to one another, they spoke—or tried to speak—as Sobukwe put it “as one African to another.” 

The letters from which I quote above have been in the archives since the early 1990s when Pogrund donated them to the Wits Historical Research Papers. More recently they were digitized and are now freely available online. They have also been collected, edited, and annotated by Derek Hook under the title Lie on Your Wounds. I came across them in 2015 amid the reckoning of the Rhodes Must Fall protests. The question of what are we to make of such a closeness—unexpected from the vantage point of the present though perhaps less so in light of the social context of the liberation struggle in the 1960s—animates my current work.  

In Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship, Leela Gandhi sets out to think through “the empirics of friendship across difference in colonial India at the turn of the nineteenth century,”  and argues that  “the precise energies of the individuals and subcultures” that she examines “accrued in the main from innovative border crossing, visible in small, defiant flights from the fetters of belonging toward the unknown destinations of radical alterity.” It is these “small, defiant flights” that I read in the letters between Pogrund and Sobukwe to make an argument about the political work of friendship in the context of the South African liberation struggle. As Gandhi asks: “How might we recognize as political the disaggregated forms of dissent engaged for its own sake, bearing no practical investment in the telos of the anticolonial nation-state and certainly gaining no material advantage from the diminution of imperial power?” My argument, based on the empirical material, is that, as one anonymous reviewer of the work has put it “friendship can disrupt essentialized and reified notions of identity, counter a politics predicated on enmity and violence, and generate egalitarian and humanistic conceptions of political society.”

In his address to the inaugural conference of the PAC in 1959, Sobukwe stated that: “We aim, politically, at [a] government of the Africans by the Africans for Africans, with everybody who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.” At the same time, the PAC Manifesto asserted its opposition to the multiracialism of the Freedom Charter and its inclusion of whites in the nation to come, saying: “These ‘leaders’ [referring to the Congress Alliance] consider South Africa to belong to all who live in it, the alien dispossessor and the indigenous dispossessed, the alien robbers and their indigenous victims.” How are we to understand this apparent contradiction? 

The answer is in the anti-essentialism of Sobukwe’s theorization of race (and tribe), which located these in the contingencies of political economy, and colonial conquest rather than the body. For Sobukwe, whites are defined as “[…] a foreign minority group which has exclusive control of political, economic, social, and military power.” They are “the dominant group…the exploiting group.” Sobukwe characterized whites by their domination not only of various spheres of life—political, economic, and social, for instance— but also over Africans (defined as the oppressed and amongst whom Sobukwe included so-called Coloureds and working-class Indians). Nowhere does Sobukwe’s characterization of whiteness make recourse to essence, either cultural or biological. He suggests that if whites were foreign, it was because of how they occupied the space (and the land) and their violent production of and relationship to its Others, not where they come from or some essential biological or cultural quality that could not be altered. By understanding Sobukwe’s theory of race as an anti-essentialist one it becomes possible to parse both how no “alien robbers” would be welcome in a just future order and how whites might shed their whiteness, become erstwhile, and live as persons among people rather than as masters among subjects or slaves (the latter relation being the bedrock for the establishment of whiteness in the modern world). It also becomes possible to reconcile Sobukwe’s language from the podium with his friendships with figures such as Pogrund, among others. 

Looking at aspects of Sobukwe’s worldview, how he conceived of an anti-racist, non-racial Africanity, and his general openness to the world and others, one can argue that this kind of thinking on Sobukwe’s part (which one might describe as an inclusive idea of being African), is both what made the Sobukwe-Pogrund friendship possible and was deepened through the advent of the friendship. Sobukwe’s way of thinking about what it means to be African, or indeed white, tells us that his friendship with Pogrund was not just a flash in the pan or the expression of an idiosyncrasy.

Against the background of this kind of thinking, Pogrund and Sobukwe realized, fleetingly and beyond the province of guarantees, an imperfect humanity founded on the more life-affirming possibilities of being human. They exchanged letters, cared for one another’s children and spouses, celebrated birthdays and religious holidays, discussed literature and global affairs, and Pogrund (freer to serve Sobukwe because of his status as a white man), subverted his whiteness to tend to Sobukwe’s needs while he was in prison procuring him, alongside other supporters, fashionable clothing and furniture, records, a weekly parcel of fruit and biscuits, books and periodicals, legal representation, care packages for Christmas, and even kosher food on one occasion. Of the pickled fish in this latter package, Sobukwe commented: “I finished it only out of loyalty to you.”

The bond between them was not without its contradictions, however. In the context of their times, they were liable to be returned, outside of those moments in which they achieved a relation to each other as people not as races (as Ciraj Rassool has put it), forcefully by the structures imposed by the apartheid regime and their limitations to their positions as Master and illegal citizenship-less “boy.” These personal limitations are particularly pertinent to Pogrund who, despite his rejection of the qualified franchise and his commitment to opposing apartheid whatever the cost, did not develop a critique of the more insidious aspects of the liberal worldview. This is reflected in the choices he made in his biography of Sobukwe that appreciate and foreground the liberal aspects of Sobukwe’s formation and way of being in the world. For instance, a particular kind of attention is paid to Sobukwe’s mastery of English in chapters on Sobukwe’s education. It is hard when reading such passages not to recall liberalism’s civilizational mode of racism. 

Other biographers, such as Thami Ka Plaatjie, have located Sobukwe in the texture of his life in the township of Kwa Masizakhe in Graaff-Reneit recounting the influences of its idioms on his later political thinking. Both influences are, of course, relevant. But much is revealed in how the material is treated by these two biographers. Both the friendship and its friends remained rooted in the worlds and realities of colonialism and apartheid as well as in the struggle against these. Thus, there are both moments in which the racism of those worlds and realities are resisted and others in which they are reinscribed. Ironically, in spite of his personal sacrifices as an opponent of apartheid, in the early 1990s, Pogrund emigrated into the bosom of another settler-colonial project: Israel. After years of defending Israel against the charge of apartheid in 2023 in an article published first in Haaretz and later in The Guardian, which Pogrund described as “torn out of me,” he described contemporary Israel as heading toward apartheid. What Sobukwe would have made of this we cannot know, although in one letter to Pogrund after the Six-Day War he chides Pogrund about his hubris in the aftermath of Israel’s victory.  

The Sobukwe-Pogrund friendship challenged the unjust and unequal worlds while still being located in those worlds and thus bearing their mark even as it resisted their strictures. An abiding concern in my own work is to remain attentive, curious about, and engaged in the both-ness of the relationship: its tender refusal of racism and its location in a racist world that it—and its friends—could not entirely escape. 

The friendship between these two men offers us a productive challenge, in times of extreme polarization. In attending to it we can, should we choose to, hold a series of contradictions or paradoxes together as part of an ethical commitment to face the complexities of raced being and belonging in everyday life. In doing so it becomes possible to both recognize and oppose racism and, at the same time, be alert and responsive to the fact that even in conditions of racist oppression forms of identity, relationality, and mutuality emerge.

Further Reading