WE CANNOT afford to simply whinge about apartheid and hope this will lead to economic transformation. An insatiable appetite for knowledge and skills is what will change the country for the better. This is what was on my mind as I imbibed the work of historian David Killingray at the British Library, in London, at the weekend.
Simply sitting back and moaning about apartheid is akin to that struggling, and often rowdy, rural boy and girl who have given up on transforming themselves for the better because they believe witchcraft is weighing on them. Witchcraft or no witchcraft, apartheid or not, the African child must pick himself up and defy the odds. Of course, it is a tough test but we cannot afford to be softies.
More than 100 years ago, a number of natives worked on defying the odds and armed themselves with the knowledge and skills that were to be key in politically liberating SA. After being vanquished by the colonialists, many of these great African ancestors did not just resign themselves to bars and empty sloganeering.
By 1900, and 12 years before the official establishment of the African National Congress (ANC), a significant number of black South Africans had already packed their bags to go and study in the UK. Many of them were to return and play a key role in the formation of the ANC.
Contrary to the views of the new radicals, many of these great ancestors did not leave SA because they were quislings. They saw education was a key ingredient in creating a better life for the generations to come. They were equipped with the skills that allowed them to argue the case of transformation intellectually.
In 1856, Tiyo Soga, a black South African, had studied at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and was ordained as minister in the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Soga had acquired the skills necessary to be a pioneer journalist critical of the treatment of natives. When the ANC was formed in 1912, it is recorded that the congregation sang a Soga hymn.
In a paper in ANC Today in 2007, titled “We are children of a rich heritage”, then president Thabo Mbeki commented on how, in the early 1860s, in a publication called Indaba, Soga “spoke about the importance of having an African newspaper”.
“He saw such a newspaper not only as a truthful reporter of relevant news to the African oppressed but also as a vital weapon in the struggle to reassert the identity and the pride of the African people.”
In 2011, at the unveiling of the Soga Memorial in Centane, Eastern Cape, Mbeki added: “In all conscience, Tiyo Soga, one of the very first among the modern African intelligentsia, should have become a slavish agent of the oppressor and expropriator. Against all odds, he refused.”
Many followed in Soga’s footsteps. Killingray writes in 1866, Nathaniel Cyril Mhala and Jonas Ntsiko were studying at St Augustine’s Missionary Training College in England. When he came back to SA, Mhala, partly thanks to his British experiences, had grown to be more politically conscious and active. In 1897, he edited Izwi Labantu and served as vice-president of the South African Native Congress.
Sefako Makgatho, a former president of the ANC, studied in London in 1882. There were many others who did not merely sit and moan.
Despite the tough colonial times, there were those like Paul Xiniwe who was able to assemble an African choir in the 1890s that would perform in England for audiences featuring the likes of Queen Victoria.
Xiniwe and his party, which included Charlotte Maxeke, had gone to England to sing in order to raise money to build schools. Between 1880 and 1940, several hundred black South Africans were educated in the UK and the US, Killingray notes.
If the Sogas, the AB Xumas, the Alfred Mangenas, the Pixley Isaka Semes, the Richard Msimangs and many others could do it in the tough days of colonialism, what stops the African child today from lifting himself up? The individuals mentioned above might have been exceptions but the world has opened up today to allow for many more.
The historical injustices in SA must never be an excuse to maintain the status quo. Having said that, the determination of these great African ancestors should never be an excuse for corporations not to transform.
By: Phakamisa Ndzamela
Phakamisa is financial services editor covering banks, insurance companies, private equity firms and any other companies-related matter.