On June 25, 1955, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Thabo Mbeki, Desmond Tutu, and more than 2,000 delegates gathered in Soweto, South Africa to hear the reading of a document as revolutionary as the Constitution of the United States was in 1775.
The “Freedom Charter” as it was called was the result of work done by 50,000 volunteers who collected the demands of the South African people, and combined these demands into a statement of self-assertion.
Its opening demand, “The People Shall Govern!”, was in itself revolutionary in apartheid South Africa.
This same charter would later become the Constitution of South Africa under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela.
The Rise of the Pan Africanist Congress
As popular and universal as the principles of the Freedom Charter were, there were many critics. Parts of the African National Congress did not want racial unity – they wanted the end of white influence in Africa and rejected any model suggesting working with anyone other than Blacks.
These individuals separated from the African National Congress (ANC) to form the Pan-Africanist Congress, or the PAC, on April 6, 1959. The charismatic and intelligent Professor Robert Sobukwe of the University of the Witwatersrand was chosen to lead the organization as its first President.
A Pan-Africanism proponent, Sobukwe is undoubtedly one of Africa’s foremost freedom fighters, a remains a respected nationalist, writer and thinker who later influenced a generation of Pan-African nationalists and freedom fighters.
In his opinion, South Africa had been dominated by ‘liberal-left-multi-racialists’ and Africans worldwide should “liberate themselves” without the help of other races. His message resonated with many Pan-Africanists who had witnessed slavery, apartheid, police brutality, and the rape of Africa and her resources.
With strong leadership, and an easy-to-understand message, PAC membership swelled to 25, 000 exceeding that of the ANC.
Blacks in South Africa were forced to carry “pass books” to segregate the population and control when and where they could go. These pass books also proved they were authorized to live or move in “White” South Africa.
Every Black man, woman, and child was required to carry a pass with them when outside their neighborhoods, and failure to produce a pass often resulted in the person being arrested.
A white child could ask an adult Black man to produce his pass book – and the Black man must comply with the white child’s request.
Sobukwe led his new PAC to the Orlando Police Station on March 21, 1960 to demand an end to the pass laws. This very act violated that law, and Sobukwe and his followers were imprisoned.
White Supremacist Backlash Leads to Reign of Terror
On the same day that Sobukwe was imprisoned, white South Africans went on a rampage. White police opened fire on a crowd of Black PAC supporters, killing 69 men, women, and children in what came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre.
Most of the PAC leadership were hunted down, assassinated or sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment on the grounds of inciting violence, forcing the organization to go underground.
The more aggressive the government was, the more aggressive the Pan-Africanist Congress became. With Sobukwe imprisoned, the new leader – Chief Potlako Leballo – relocated PAC headquarters to Maseru, capital of Lesotho. From there, the PAC launched a and members began a reign of terror against the white establishment. Across the country, Black South Africans rose up and declared open war against policemen and suspected Black informants. They killed whites indiscriminately in random terrorist attacks, and organized revolts against the state that brought the system to its knees.
In 1962, a crowd of 250 PAC men armed with home-made weapons, marched from Mbekweni location to the town and attacked the police station, homes and shops. On the way there, they killed two whites – Frans Richard (22) and Rencia Vermeulen (18).
On November 22, 1962, a small band of PAC members tried to free a fellow member trapped in Paarl prison – killing two whites and wounding 4. This is one of the few instances in the political history of South Africa where whites were attacked in their own neighborhood.
Later, when PAC members came across a white family camping by a riverside, they were hacked to death with machetes. The white campers – Norman and Elizabeth Grobbelaar, their teenage daughters Edna and Dawn, together with Derek Thompson – were all found in pieces on February 4, 1963.
Shortly after that, Chief Leballo planned a massive revolt for 8 April 1963, during which thousands of PAC members and supporters were to attack strategic points and kill whites indiscriminately. However, he publicized these plans at a press conference two weeks in advance, tipping off law enforcement who then raided PAC headquarters and found a roster of all members’ names.
The publication of these names gave the South African police the intelligence they needed to hunt down members and wipe out the entire organisation.
By 1964 thousands had been killed or sent to prison, and Leballo was deported but attempted to reorganize by creating a new PAC headquarters in Ghana and Tanzania.
From Bullets To Ballots
The PAC was supported around the continent by other Communist, anti-white and anti-western regimes. Arms were supplied by Ghana and Egypt, and troops were trained in Libya under Gaddafi. But these alliances were all coming under pressure from American intervention and the loss of key leaders like Nkrumah and Mao Zedong. PAC leaders were pressured to change their violent strategy to one of political participation.
In 1975, a PAC representative – David Sibeko of the Azanian People’s Revolutionary Party – was sent to the United Nations to separate the organization from the ideologies of Chief Leballo, and declared himself the new President of the organization.
Leballo was forcibly resigned, and would spend the next two decades travelling the world to re-establish the PAC as a tool to “drive whites into the sea”. Potlako Leballo died suddenly in January 1986 in Greenwich, London.
As the new President of the organization, Sibeko was a sharp thinker with a great sense of humor and a strong sense of statesmanship. One minute he would be gaining support from a U.S. State Department official. The next minute he would be persuading Soviet representatives to assist the PAC.
David Maphgumzana Sibeko became so popular that he was called the “Malcolm X of South Africa”. Sibeko failed, however, to win the support of some of the older members of the PAC who were still loyal to the ideology of Leballo, and on June 12, 1979, he was assassinated in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.
Following the death of Sibeko, John Pokela was appointed the Chairman of the Pan-Africanist Conference Pokela’s priority was reunifying and reconciling the organization, bringing an end to in-fighting among the militant factions of the PAC, and forcing the leadership to account for missing and misused funds by requiring annual financial reports about their use of PAC funds.
Under Pokela, the use of funds was set, with 50% set aside for military operations, 30% going to administration, and 20% used for propaganda. Nevertheless, money went missing at various points in time, and the PAC ran out of funds between March and November 1981. Aside from this failure, Pokela was successful in reunifying the party, and in 1982 the extremist branch of the PAC – the Azanian People’s Revolutionary Party (APRP) – dissolved back into the PAC.
Pokela’s death from illness in 1985 passed leadership of the unified organization onto Johnson Mlambo (1985 – 1990), and then onto Zeph Mothopeng (1990), Clarence Mlamli Makwetu (1990 – 1996), Bishop L. Mokgoba (1999 – 2003), Dr Motsoko Pheko (2003 – 2006), to President Letlapa Mphahlele, and to Narius Moloto as of 2018.
The Pan Africanist Congress Today
Today, the organization is at the forefront of some of the most serious issues facing South Africans and the Diaspora. But the Congress is not without its troubles.
In 2018, Mzwanele Nyhontso declared himself the new leader of the Pan Africanist Congress in what some see as a coup. Nyhontso was elected during the party’s three-day national conference in Kimberley in the Northern Cape. Meanwhile, Narius Moloto who has boycotted the conference has described it as unconstitutional. He says he remains the leader of the party and has already opened a fraud case against the organisers of the elective conference.
Regardless of its infighting, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania has held true to its three principles of African nationalism, original values, and continental unity.
Its body of ideas drew largely from the teachings of Anton Lembede, George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, and W. E. B. Du Bois. These teachings include:
- a redistributive economy;
- land redistribution, housing and agrarian transformation;
- rural development and poverty eradication;
- an efficient and affordable public health care system accessible to all;
- free, compulsory and high quality education;
- transformation of the criminal justice system and the judiciary; and
- improvement of governance and acceleration of service delivery.
To this day, the party observes the persistent truths that
- the indigenous African people remain economic outcasts in the land of their forebears.
- the mental liberation is still not yet realized as testified by regular and fatal outbursts of Afrophobia, erroneously labelled xenophobia. And that Africa remains an outpost of Western imperialism economically and culturally.
- the salvation and dignity of the Africans on the continent and in diaspora lie primarily on the unification of Africa coast to coast. Africa under one president. Africa that will not kneel before Western demigods. Africa that will nullify the colonial borders.
- the black working class, inspired by a revolutionary awareness, is the driving force in the struggle.
These are the enduring truths that gave birth to the PAC. And because they still persist, the organization’s present-day relevance is beyond debate.
The organization leads South Africa in the ongoing task of organizing the Black working class and rural poor so that, along with the radical groups of the middle class, they can bring an end to oppression and exploitation by the white ruling class. During this struggle one national culture, underpinned by indigenous values, will emerge.
Important principles such as anti-racism and anti-imperialism, non-cooperation with the oppressors and their political instruments, independent working-class organisations, and opposition to alliances with ruling-class parties are part and parcel of the successful execution of their national liberation struggle.
The time has come, for the Pan Africanist agenda to assert itself as a solution for the most social ills our country is encountering. The nation is crying for salvation and Pan Africanism is the answer.
All over the world, the African Diaspora is challenged by a system prone to criminality, ill-informed political decisions, national disunity, tribal entrenchment and cultural insurgency.
But as the PAC of Azania shows us, Pan-Africanism is, was, and always will be the answer.