Biographies of early and current black scholars and luminaries are sadly lacking, writes Xolela Mangcu.
I have a dream, or is it mere fantasy? You decide. Imagine bringing into a room 100 black students, each with an assignment to write a 1000-word biography of the most eminent black intellectuals in South Africa since 1850. Each essay would then be edited by a team comprising myself, André Odendaal, Steven Niven and Henry Louis Gates jr of Harvard University. These edited entries would then be published in a new Dictionary of South African Biography.
Well, this is neither a dream nor a fantasy but an idea that was first broached to me by Henry Louis Gates jr shortly after he received an honorary doctorate from UCT a few years ago. Over the past several years Gates has been producing several such dictionaries of biography under the auspices of the Oxford’s African American Research Centre. Already completed are the Dictionary of African American Biography with 4000-plus entries, the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin Biography and the Dictionary of African Biography. Gates’s goal is ultimately to produce a Dictionary of Pan African Biography.
Over the years there have been attempts to revise the apartheid-era Dictionary of South African Biography, but for the most part this has been a matter of including well-known black South Africans into the existing framework.
A genuinely new dictionary would turn that framework on its head by documenting the long history of black intellectual thought. I have made reference on numerous occasions to the pioneering black public intellectual Tiyo Soga, our country’s first black university graduate and first black ordained minister.
Soga’s influence on those who came after him was phenomenal, including on his sons – all of whom became distinguished academics. His eldest son, William Henderson, was the first black veterinary surgeon in the country.
Then there is Allan K Soga, the inimitable journalist and editor of Izwi Labantu and founding member of the South African Native Congress in 1890 – the real predecessor to the ANC. And then of course the first black historian, John Henderson Soga, who wrote the magisterial historical work, The South-Eastern Bantu (1928).
While there has been a tendency to focus on the journalist-intellectuals of the Drum generation of the 1950s, much more scholarly work was done by earlier generations. What is relevant for today about their work is its focus on questions of history and identity.
This should not be surprising given the colonial assault on the identities of African people – and so think of Walter Rubusana’s Zemk’ Inkomo Magwalandini (1906); Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa (1916); Magema Fuze’s Abantu Abamnyama Nalapho Bavela Khona; and DDT Jabavu’s Black Problems (1922).
My favourite is SEK Mqhayi, arguably the most prolific of them all. Not only did Mqhayi write Ityala Lama Wele, the first novel in isiXhosa, but he wrote several biographies of African leaders. While John Knox Bokwe wrote the first African biography with his publication of Ntsikana, Mqhayi followed with several biographies – of Bokwe himself, Elijah Makiwane and Rubusana.
And how many people know that Mqhayi wrote the bulk of the lyrics that made up Enoch Sontonga’s song, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika? Where is the Sontonga biography, I might add.
To Pan-Africanists I ask, where are biographies of the early founders of Africanism in South Africa – Nehemiah Tile, founder of the Thembu Church, and Mangena Mokone, who gave the name Ethiopianism to the new African churches, and James Dwane of the Order of Ethiopia; and of later leaders such as Robert Sobukwe, Zeph Mothopeng, Barney Desai, Patrick Duncan and Costa Gazi?
Can anyone explain why there are no biographies of John Tengo Jabavu and Rubusana, without question the two most influential black leaders in the period between the 1880s and 1910?
Jabavu was the first black owner of a newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, founded in 1884, to be followed by the likes of John Langalibalele Dube’s Ilanga Lase Natal and Silas Molema’s Koranta ea Becoana, edited by Plaatje.
In 1905 Jabavu drafted the resolution of the Lovedale Convention that led to the decision to establish the University of Fort Hare.
I take pride in the fact that Jabavu’s resolution was seconded by my great-grandfather, Peter Tyamzashe – who was also one of the executives of the Native Educational Association and co-founder of the South African Native Congress in 1890 with the likes of Rubusana, Jonathan Tunyiswa, Green Siwundla and Mbem Njikelana. Where, may I ask, is the biography of Walter Rubusana?
Can the ANC explain why there is no definitive biography of Pixley Seme, or that no African has to this day written a biography of Nelson Mandela.
How much do our young scholars really know about Nontsizi Mgqwetho, the prolific columnist of Seme’s Abantu-Batho newspaper before she broke off to join another newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu?
And what about the writings of Phyllis Ntantala, Cissy Gool, Noni Jabavu and Ellen Kuzwayo? And how much do our students know about Winnie Kgware, the first woman to be elected president of a political party in South Africa,
The Black People’s Convention? And what about a biography of the mother of Black Consciousness, Vuyelwa Mashalaba, without whom the movement might have been dead in the water.
It was Mashalaba who stood up to conservative student leaders like Ben Ngubane at the University of Natal to get the movement started.
And what about the story of Winnie Mandela, independent of Nelson Mandela?
There are many more people whose biographies our young students could start writing: James and Meshack Pelem, Paul Xiniwe, Richard Kawa, Richard Msimang, RV Selope Thema, Zac Mahabane, Selby Msimang and Govan Mbeki.
It is just unforgivable that there is no biography of Griffiths Mxenge, one of the most important leaders in South African political and legal history, or of Mapetla Mohapi, one of Steve Biko’s closest comrades.
But let us say you are interested more in contemporary figures – then where are the biographies of sports pioneers and heroes such as Kaizer Motaung, Irvin Khoza, Ria Ledwaba, Happy Boy Mgxaji, Mzukisi Skweyiya; civic leaders and journalists such as Nthato Motlana, Percy Qoboza, Aggrey Klaaste and poets such as Don Mattera and Ingoapele Madingoane?
A national project such as this could keep young scholars busy for generations, and inspire a truly decolonised, literary revolution.
* Mangcu is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and Harry Oppenheimer Fellow at Harvard University.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.