In a small town in the heart of the Great Karoo, a small party gathers to honour an overlooked icon of South African politics
The President stepped onto the pavement in Graaff-Reinet, his bodyguards scanning the throng, their faces as impassive as Easter Island statues behind their wraparound sunglasses.
It was my first visit to the dorp, with its beautiful Gereformeerde Kerk and its crisp, dry Karoo air, and I was embarrassed to realise how little I knew about its culture and heritage, or even how to spell its name. But all of that was about to change.
A woman chanced upon the scene, blonde and smiling, pushing her toddler in a pram. The infant was wielding a big, knobbly tree-branch, sideways, like an oar, and there was an awkward jam, a you-go-no-you-go moment, as the mother and child tried to squeeze by.
Then Lepatla Mphahlele, the President of the Pan-Africanist Congress, tall and imposing in his cream-coloured Nehru shirt, stood back with a nod, and the procession moved on.
It was Robert Sobukwe Day in Graaff-Reinet, honouring the founder of the PAC, who was born and was buried here. Sobukwe. He too was a lawyer, a leader, an exile on the Island. But today there is not even a street in his hometown that bears his name.
We had driven up from Cape Town through the Great Karoo, the thirstland that was once a sea, where change comes as suddenly as a flash-flood, or as slowly, as imperceptibly, as the earth shifting over aeons. The memorial was going to be held at the soccer stadium.
When we got there, the sun was glinting on rows and rows of cars, and I thought, well, this is a pretty good turnout. But the man at the gate looked bemused. “No,” he said, this is a school sports day. You must want the graveyard.”
Back in town, we were shown to a modest homestead, where a man appeared behind the bars of a security gate. He had a deep, resonant voice, a pulpit voice, and a handshake as solid as oak.
Try the town hall, he said, and he wished us well, as people do on the Platteland. I later learned that his name was Dinilesizwe, and he was the son of Robert Sobukwe.
There were a few people milling around in front of the hall, in their tee-shirts that said The Land Is Ours and PAC Our Only Hope and Serve, Suffer, Sacrifice.
A man wearing a Kaizer Chiefs shirt and a pork-pie hat showed us how to do the PAC salute: a raised, open palm, with the pinky scissored to the side.
Then we drifted off to the graveyard, where we joined a small party gathered around the tomb, with its outline of Africa and its epitaph, Tata Prof.
“Comrades,” said the regional organiser, in his billowing black-and-green kaftan shirt, “is there anybody who can pray for us?” Silence. “A bishop, a priest, a volunteer?” Finally, a man stepped forward.
He delivered an entreaty to the heavens, a reminder that it does not take a mob to start a revolution – in Cuba, he said, there were only 95 – and then he called for the return of the prodigals.
“Those who have run away, they must come back. But they shall have to follow the proper procedures and processes.” He bowed his head, beneath the umbrella that was being held by a bodyguard. “In the name of Jesus Christ, we thank you oh Lord, amen.”
At the town hall, which was about a quarter full, a young man stood on the stage and read from a document that was rich with hope and revelation, like a spreadsheet of projected Retirement Annuity values.
It began with 10,000 now, and rocketed to 320,000 by 2019: the number of PAC members, if everyone went out and persuaded just one person a year. The President stood up.
He spoke about Robert Sobukwe, who never owned a car, and about the ideal of leadership through service. Then he spoke about trees.
“In the forest, there are many trees,” he said. “There are tall trees, and short trees. But they are all trees. They all belong to the tree family. Just like there is only one race. The human race.”
The song rose slowly, softly at first, to the shuffling of feet that became a stamping, and the voices echoed like thunder in the open space.
“Yihla moya kaSobukwe,” they sang, their palms swaying. Come down, spirit of Sobukwe, come down.
*Letlapa Mphahlele is no longer the serving President of the PAC. The party has been torn again by strife, and there is a possibility that it may merge in some way with the EFF.