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Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was born in Graaff-Reinet in the Cape Province in 1924. His father was a farm worker. Sobukwe was an excellent student, which won him a scholarship to the Methodist boarding school at Healdtown in the Eastern Cape. Afterwards he enrolled at Fort Hare University, where he displayed a keen interest in literature.

At Fort Hare, where generations of young Black South Africans were exposed to politics, he joined the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in 1948. The organisation had been established on the university campus by Godfrey Pitje, who later became its president. In 1949, Sobukwe was elected as president of the Fort Hare Students' Representative Council, where he proved himself to be a good orator.