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By André Odendaal
The Founders is a fascinating account of the rise of a black elite, the members of which were products of the mission schools and exerted themselves for the extension of human rights in the 19th century colonies and republics that were to make up the present South Africa.
They were moderate men who knocked patiently but insistently at a door that opened only slightly to allow a limited, qualified franchise in the Cape and often grudging exemption from the indignity of carrying a pass. The creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 was a profoundly disillusioning experience for them as it offered no prospect of amelioration for blacks. In response to their exclusion, black leaders established the ANC in January 1912.
The centenary of this movement highlights the continuity between the past and the present, and current leaders of the ANC have for the past year traversed the country, capitalising on the virtues of their predecessors. However, reading about the idealism and integrity of these pioneers, one is forcibly struck by the discontinuity between them and the self-seeking venality manifested by so many politicians now in power.
The Founders is an extremely thorough, well-documented work. The author has filled out the lives of familiar figures such as Tiyo Soga, John Tengo Jabavu, Sol Plaatje, Walter Rubusana, John Dube and Pixley Seme. Telling detail brings them vividly to life. In addition, many minor figures who merit commemoration have been rescued from oblivion. Here special mention may be made of the painstaking reconstruction of the important role of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in fostering a dream of freedom and a sense of self-worth.
It is mostly a story about men, but the figures of strong women such as Charlotte Manye, better known to us by her married name as Charlotte Maxeke, loom in the background. The author alludes to the impressive protest against passes for women in Bloemfontein in 1913, in which she played a prominent part.
The following year, pass laws for women were relaxed and resistance subsided.
When the government threatened to reintroduce these laws in 1918, the ANC Women’s League was founded under the leadership of Charlotte Maxeke.
The Founders is enlightening and enjoyable and highly recommended for any reader who is keen to know more about the course of South African history. – John Boje