In a letter of condolence written on 5 August 1974 to Nell Marquard, a friend with whom he had been corresponding since his time on Robben Island, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe made a telling observation:
I learnt some time ago that one cannot put oneself in another's position. We may express sympathy, feel it and even imagine the pain. But we cannot feel it as the one who suffers it. They have a saying in Xhosa that the toothache is felt by the one whose tooth is aching.
Sobukwe, who clearly knew about suffering, loneliness and the impossibility of ever fully communicating one's pain to another, was writing just after the death of Nell's husband, the noted Cape liberal, author and historian, Leo Marquard. Given that Leo was a prominent liberal, and that white liberals had not always been friendly to the aims and agendas of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) – the organisation that Sobukwe led from 1959 until his arrest in 1960 – one might have expected coolness from Sobukwe. Not at all. Sobukwe, as always, was gracious:
I am thankful that I was able to talk to you two years before Leo's death and more thankful that he died knowing how much his contribution had been appreciated.
Touching as this acknowledgement of his contribution would have been for Marquard, the real poignancy of Sobukwe's letter comes a little further on, when he starts speaking of the myriad difficulties he has faced since leaving Robben Island.
It has not been a good year for me. I had planned to leave [from Kimberley] … by car on the 31st May and make straight for Cape Town. But these boys beat me to it. They came on the 30th May, 1974 to serve the fresh lot of bureaucratic output. Well it's good to know that our security is entrusted to such alert people.
Despite the fact that he makes light of it, one senses in Sobukwe's letter that the constant surveillance and harassment of the Security Police was taking its toll. Behind the ironic salute to the astuteness of the police, there is also a disturbing foreshadowing.