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History of the ANC: The rise of black intellectualism

As part of his series on the depoliticised history of the ANC, Mphuthumi Ntabeni looks at the life of John Tego Jabavu, one of the leading black intellectuals in South Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries, and his role in the foundation of the party – a party with a past and present rich in factionalism. 

Jabavu was born in 11 January 1859 at the village of Tyotyorha, in what is now the town of Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape. His home was close to the Methodist missionary school of Healdtown. Most of the black educated class, Thabo Mbeki and my parents included, attended Healdtown. So did Jabavu.

After obtaining his teacher’s certificate Jabavu went to teach at Somerset East when he was only seventeen years old. Like most black intellectuals of his time, Albert Luthuli for instance, during the weekends Jabavu became a lay preacher and was the founding member of many black literature and debating societies. In 1885 he married Elda Sakuba whom he met when both were studying in Healdtown. Elda was a daughter of methodist Reverend James B Sakuba (1833-1893). Elda who had been chosen by Jabavu’s mother after his parents disapproved of his own choice, died in 1900, leaving him with four sons, some of whom went to England for their education.

A new voice

In 1876 Jabavu started a long apprenticeship on liberal papers like the Cape Mercury and Argus, and in the process, becoming a good friend with editors like Saul Solomon. Jabavu moved in liberal circles, becoming a close friend of James Rose-Innes, who later became the chief justice of the Supreme Court of South Africa. He contributed opinion pieces to liberal newspapers that were popularly commented on by the white liberal class. The British liberals in particular saw the opportunity to organise the native opinion against Afrikaner nationalism and promote British imperialism. Jabavu subjected himself to a grueling schedule of starting his early mornings at a newsroom for apprenticeship, and teaching from late morning to late afternoon, before resuming journalistic writing in the evening. He eventually left teaching when he took over the editorship of the missionary associated Isigidimi samaXhosa, (The Xhosa Express aka Kaffir Express in the parlance of the era) at Lovedale. The British liberals used his voice on the paper to organise the native opinion against Afrikaner nationalism. By 1883 Jabavu had amassed a formidable political following and strained under the apolitical stance of the missionaries who felt his political rhythm was not according to their notation.

Jabavu’s writings tended to concentrate on equal rights for South Africa’s black population. He was also a strong proponent of women’s rights when the idea was still extremely unpopular even among white liberal and religious circles, say nothing of the patriarchal black culture. From his writings, one can see the first staunch campaign for public education of black people in the Southern Africa as well. He had strong political interest that put him at odds with the missionaries who demanded complete neutrality, something Jabavu thought to be a fallacy.

We can say he shared similar beliefs with the Anglican Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, that neutrality in evil times is a choice for the devil. While still straining under the leash of missionary control who demanded forbearance on political issues, he veiled his political discussions as inputs on parliamentary debates. He favoured liberal politicians who promulgated for African interest. In 1883, the group of prominent Cape Colony white political figures approached Jabavu to stand for a seat in the Cape Council (parliament) – blacks still had a limited vote then in the Cape. He refused on grounds that it would defeat his political campaign purpose, because it could create a rallying point of unity for white constituency in fear of black political force. History proved him right on that issue. He lent his support to the liberal South African Party against what he saw as the repressive policies of Cecil John Rhode’s Progressives.

The beginnings of political activism

When he secured private funding, from the likes of Rose-Innes, Jabavu found his longed-for release. He broke off from Isigidimi to establish his own newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu (The Black Opinion). He was then only twenty four and brimming with vitality – the paper finally closed down in 1998. He put all his energy on the adventure, as such the paper became the leading opinion maker of the time among black people. By then Jabavu had become a full-time political activist and an agent for Rose-Innes during the 1884 Victoria East elections. Where the white liberal and black interests coincided Imvo was great; it put up an excellent fight against Pass Laws, for instance, and opposed the unrestrained sale of alcohol to the black population – a very big debate, particularly for the mostly religious in fear of poisoning the black moral standards. But as time went on, the paper gradually chose the interests of its financiers over and above of those of black people.

By 1884 Jabavu was the leading voice of the loose political movement known as Imbumba (The Union). Later it became more organised into the South African National Convention (SANC). The SANC was founded more as means to unite Africans in the advancement of their political and socio-economic status. Initially made up more of the black educated class – journalists, reverends, teachers and chiefs from the Eastern Cape – it was initially an elitist black aristocratic movement.  Led by newspaper editors who brought, not only the rivalry of their papers into its politics, but ethnic clashes also, it was, perhaps, doomed to fail at seed. Worse still, it became tribal; those who followed Jabavu were mostly amaFengu who had a history of collaborating with the British since the Frontier Wars. The new rivalry group was led by W.B. Rubusana. His followers were mostly from what we now know as the former Transkei, the Xhosas of amaGcaleka lineage. Jabavu’s Xhosa followers were mostly across the Kei, the greater part of amaRharhabe.

A division of thought

The issue of the Land Act of 1913 was the last straw to break the camel’s back of other black intellectual against Jabavu. According to Sol Plaatjie, he falsely claimed that a meeting of blacks in King William’s Town was pro Grobbler-Sauer Bill – eventually a Land Act. Plaatjie challenged Jabavu to a public debate – with a monetary prize of fifteen pounds to be given to charity. He travelled from Mafikeng to King William’s Town to investigate Jabavu’s claim. During the visit Plaatjie demanded to meet up Jabavu and iron the issue out. Jabavu flatly refused to meet with Plaatjie, even choosing to lock himself inside his office. On his side, Jabavu found Plaatjie to be crude, reductionist and coarsely racialist. Hence, he claimed, he had no interest in renting him propagandist space at his expense. The relations between the two irreparably deteriorated and seriously tarnished Jabavu’s reputation. Plaatjie was inspired from this to write a book about the topic: South African Native Life.

Meanwhile, Cecil John Rhodes, who needed a new black voice, sponsored another Xhosa newspaper to be his mouth piece for promoting white liberal values among black people. It was called Izwi Labantu (The People’s Voice). Though Umhalla, Tyamzashe and Tiyo Soga’s son Kirkland were the were its editors, respectively, Rubusana, himself at that stage still acting as Rhodes’ henchman, controlled its editorial content by the backdoor, and was its most prominent opinion pieces voice. The lack of editorial freedom irked Kirkland who left the paper unceremoniously shortly after he took its editorship. Needles to say, Rubusana was also Jabavu’s staunch opponent, obviously at Rhodes’ group directive. Rubusana agreed to the proposal Rhodes initially made to Jabavu; as such he became the first black person to be elected, with the support of white liberals, to the Cape Council (Parliament) in 1909 as the representative of the native constituency.

Rhodes, under attack in the British Parliament, used the pro-Rhodes articles of Izwi to perpetuate the lie that he was popular among the natives. And that the natives had asked him to continue his civilising project to the African hinterland, as far as Cairo, which was terminated by his death at the Mashonaland, now Zimbabwe. Jabavu’s paper, Imvo, was the main casualty of his politicking. The liberals withdrew their funding – at some stage it was banned for fourteen months by the government of Jameson who had taken over the leadership of the Progressive Party after Rhodes’ death in 1902 – Jameson became South African prime minister in 1904.

Around this time things seemed to work together to heighten Jabavu’s sense of loss – he had lost his wife. He seemed to unthinkingly promote contrapuntal points of views if only they opposed his many enemies, even if when he didn’t really believe in them. He had no funds for running his newspaper even when it was unbanned – the real reason for banning it was to financially cripple him. While the rivalry newspaper, Izwi, milked to the udder his plight and the humiliating incident with Plaatjie. Jabavu had now fallen lower on the black liberation pecking order. Cut out of the herd, he lived with a threat he feared most, that of nonentity – he was obsessed with his reputation and legacy. As if this was not enough, while still busy agitating to formalise the SANC, then referred to as Ingqungquthela, into a political movement, he fell off with his liberal supporters also, the so called ‘Friends of the Natives’. In anger his pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction by supporting the Afrikaner Bond, the nemesis of black politics, and the archenemy of liberals. He also supported the Anglo-Boer war as means for Africa to unshackle herself from British colonialism, that was his argument.

On the other side the Rubusana group was thriving, they initiated the Native Education Association that contributed towards the formation of the South African Native Congress (SANNC) in 1912. They also had more money than Jabavu – having been sponsored by what today we will call White Monopoly Capital of Rhodes – thus better propaganda. As such, when the group of young lawyers – Seme, Alfred Mangena, Richard Msimang and George Montsioa – recently arrived back in the country from their studies in the US, with pat talks about Black Power, and looking for a vehicle to organise and propagate their ideas Izwi seemed like an obvious choice – the Land Act debate, between Jabavu and Plaatjie on the black papers then, must also have greatly influenced their choice. This group was fired by raw sensibilities of American Black Power confrontational political talk. Active revolution, in our country, was still safe and romantic then. Seme published on Izwi an article in October of 1911 called the Native Union whose ideas formed the backbone of the SANNC constitution. The Seme group eventually took over the SANNC after dissolving the leadership of Rubusana and co, as stated in my previous article here. And had all but in name parted ways with the Jabavu group whose concerns had drifted to issues of black education, literature and culture. Jabavu’s energies were turned into a campaign that eventually became pivotal to the establishment of what was initially called the Inter-State Native College, and eventually became the Fort Hare College, and later the black university in the Southern Africa. The Rubusana and Seme group were vehemently opposed to the idea, preferring that black students continue going abroad, especially the US, for a quality tertiary education than be subjected to what they anticipated to be a watered down institution designed only for natives.

I mentioned also in my previous article, The depoliticised history of the ANC, that a national meeting was called in Bloemfontein for 8 January 1912 to consider the formation of a dynamic and unified movement that would challenge the White government. The outcome was the formalised establishment of the South African Native Congress (SANNC). Despite its growing teething problems, the SANNC managed to develop the political consciousness amongst black Africans in the country. Its campaign was mostly boosted by opposition to the white government practices of confiscating black people’s land, which culminated into the Land Act in 1913. As the SANNC grew into a fully fledged political organisation, through joining up with similar campaigns around the country, it became became inclusive and diverse. It was renamed the ANC on the 8th January 1923.

Looking to the future

Jabavu died in 1921, still feeling strafed and slightly bitter, consoled by his deeper religious faith. He had began interpreting his life along Tiyo Soga’s who fallowed the soil black intellectualsim before him. He felt his life’s work was a classical case of ploughing the sea. In the end, he put his faith on his children – who didn’t disappoint – to achieve better harvest from where he had turned the soil Tiyo fallowed – if they stayed true to the seed. He was certain that the development of black people, through formal education he played a role in establishing, would be his vindication in the end. Kirkland, Tiyo Soga’s son, who also regarded the Seme’s group, somehow, as usurpers who took over their movement by stealth, shared his disappointment and recluse into writing books that would raise the horn of black culture and resurrect the work of his father.

The SANC was indeed the ANC in its embryonic state, as the SANNC was its fetus. But what eventually became the ANC was slightly different, even if there would never have been the baby without the other two stages. It is always better to explore than suppress history. By airbrushing our history to suit the status quo, or hide the growing pains, we are claiming easy victories. Hence, to date, we’re still unable to move beyond politics of factionalism and such.

How eventually we handle these issues will determine the fate of this oldest movement of liberation in Africa; if, like most revolutions, it peters out into a tragic caricature of itself, as it seems to be doing in the last few years. Or it reinvents itself to something capable to serve the glaring needs of our people, as it has done in the past. Lastly, as we’ve seen, the land issue is the arbiter of true political intentions. The evidence, even today, points to nothing having changed much. So we brace ourselves for the second phase of the revolution, that of Radical Economic Transformation the newly elected president of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, defined as thus:

“Radical economic transformation refers to the fundamental change in the structure, system, institutions, patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favour of all South Africans, in particular the poor and the working class, the majority of whom are Black and female. It is a programme that is undoubtedly in the best interest of our country and its future. Let us all embrace it and determine what role we can play in effectively advancing it.”

This, by the way, is what Ingqungquthela was originally founded for.


* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.