On my Watch

Behind the News ~ Book I

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Cross-reference from Chapter 19.

Dr Alfred Xuma (X as in Xhosa) was the most prominent link between the founding fathers of the ANC in 1914 and the leaders of ‘The Struggle’ and thus to everyone in the post-revolutionary movement including President Zuma (Z as in Zulu).

Xuma’s written statements and his vision of the future also anticipated the intellectual basis of the Black Conscious Movement, long before Steve Biko’s birth.

Dr Xuma preceded Chief Luthuli as President-general of the ANC.   Then with broad vision, idealism and hard work, Xuma rebuilt and modernized the African National Congress in the 1940s; carried it through the WW2 years and beyond the fall of his prime enemy, the Smuts Government, then into direct conflict with the first Apartheid regime.

Xuma’s rebuilding of an ANC dedicated to a just and honest society is in stark contrast to the Zuma government’s corruption and lack of vision.

Xuma quietly resuscitated the ANC in the 1930s by firing those office bearers who were incompetent or peddling their own interests and seeking out and personally recruiting black intellectuals – although he knew they might rival him for leadership.

It was he who created an ANC Youth League and the party’s Women’s League at the same time as he was, in private correspondence, challenging ‘General’ Smuts’s government at home, and ‘Field Marshal’ Smuts’s ventures abroad.

Few whites (and only a very small minority of blacks) heard Xuma express his simple, but deep concepts concerning Africa’s future as he synthesized the ANC’s policies and modernized its structure.

For a politician he was remarkably silent. Yet his private correspondence reveals his character and the way he dealt with big issues and small. His written protests of injustice to Africans went directly to his targets: including the UN and SA premier, Jan Smuts.

What a privilege it would have been as a political reporter to have discussed Dr Xuma’s favourite issues with him – and to have repeated his remarks to General Smuts and to have observed his reactions to Xuma’s barbs! But it could not happen.

It was different in 1946 when Smuts was still in power, and Xuma saw him for the first time at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In a protest to the UN Xuma wrote:

“I have had to fly 10,000 miles to meet my Prime Minister. He talks about us, but he won’t talk to us.”

And he informed the United Nations that Field Marshal Smuts, in less than a year after signing the UN charter on fundamental rights, had allowed the introduction at home of an Asiatic Land Tenure Act which was appalling in its racial discrimination.

“There is something that seems to lift the Prime Minister’s spirits abroad and depresses them at home,” Xuma wrote.

He offered other barbs which contributed to a widespread South African view that Smuts had left SA to govern itself while he concerned himself with ‘lesser’ (i.e.international) issues.

*    *    *

In 2012 Xuma’s autobiography and selected works (edited by Peter Limb of Michigan State University USA, author of a number of works on South African recent history) were published by the Van Riebeeck Society* and these tell us a great deal about the remarkable Dr Alfred Xuma.

He completed his teacher training at Clarkesbury Institute (which Mandela later attended) at a time when several qualified African barristers were returning from America – including the founder of the ANC, Pixley le Seme. Earlier people like the first chairman of the ANC, the Reverend John Dube, and Charlotte Maxeke had also returned from studying in American universities.

“They stimulated me into action,” wrote Xuma, and set off to better himself in the outside world.

Auspiciously, he left from and Cape Town home of Walter Rubasana, who had just become the first African Provincial Councillor ever elected in South Africa. Xuma departed in 1911 for the United States with very little, and returned to Rubansa’s home in 1927 as a doctor of medicine with added qualifications in obstetrics, gynaecology and surgery gained at the Mayo Clinic and other institutions in the USA and at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Budapest.

He set up his practice in central Johannesburg, right opposite the Magistrates’ Courts. He settled in Sophiatown (only to be forcibly removed years later, under apartheid rules, and re-settled in Dube, Soweto.)

He quickly became a successful figure; a cosmopolitan who (like Mandela, later) had once been a herd-boy, and a victim of apartheid.

Yet Xuma transcended all local politics and the fighting within the African political movements. In the 1930s he refused to join the ANC as he considered it passive and ineffectual, and became vice-president of the All Africa Convention instead.

Finally he assumed leadership of the ANC and re-built the almost moribund organisation from scratch into a significant democratic movement in which he emphasised the roles of women, youth, and civic society outside of mainstream tribal law.

He led the ANC for a decade until – ironically – he was snubbed in 1949 for being “too conciliatory”. He resigned as president of the ANC because he refused to entertain violence as a political policy.
His basic, unchanging, uncompromising philosophy had gone far beyond the ideas of the founders of the movement. This was clear in 1945, three years before apartheid was introduced, when Xuma wrote an article for Cabinet Minister J H Hofmeyr’s Forum giving his vision of a future, post-war South Africa. It reads, quite astonishingly, like a summary of the SA Constitution that was triumphantly (but painfully) negotiated half a century later.

Yet he had earlier named all its principles – with one addition: “(It must be) a South Africa in which all the people will be prepared for full and useful citizenship through a sound system (my italics) of compulsory state education.”

“Education above all else” he wrote in another declaration on what South Africa needed.

Mandela, who towered physically over tiny Xuma, said of him years later: “He has an air of superciliousness… (This said perhaps with Xuma’s reference once to Mandela in the Youth League as one of my ‘kindergarten boys’) But Mandela also rejected Xuma’s outdated regard for ‘British fair play’ in a different world.

“Everything was done in the English manner, his idea being that despite our disagreements we were all gentlemen,” said Mandela, adding that, though devoted to the ANC, “Xuma’s medical practice took precedence.”

Oliver Tambo (like Mandela) believed that Xuma had encouraged them in their political careers and thus prepared them for The Struggle. Walter Sisulu and Chief Luthuli praised Xuma for pulling the ANC together. But Luthuli thought that by the time D.F. Malan came to power in South Africa, the situation could be summed up as: “Congress was urgent, Xuma cautious.”

Sadly, Dr Xuma had become – like gentle men everywhere – an anachronism in politics. (Chief Luthuli was ousted as head of the ANC for the same reason).

Xuma was not an orator. But he was a powerful and constant writer addressing every issue to its source in unequivocal terms. Thank goodness, therefore, that some of his wide-ranging and prolific writing has now been assembled and immaculately published.
It tells us what all of us ought to know about him and his role in South Africa’s history. It constantly keeps prompting that question: “If X, why Z”?

If Xuma could resuscitate and clarify the idealism of ANC founders such as lawyer Pixley Seme, journalist Solomon Plaatje, and the great teacher Rev John Dube; if Luthuli, Mandela, Tambo and Mbeki (despite his odd notions on the 21st century challenge of HIV-Aids) could foster the ideal of a democracy of equal opportunity, justice and freedom of the press – why should Zuma’s stewardship collapse so quickly into chaotic non-delivery and corruption?

Corruption spread, under Zuma, at an astonishing rate, even for a government whose power had ruled unchallenged for two decades.

The Black Press

There is something else to treasure in Dr Xuma’s writings. It is his links and constant support of black journalists; together with his links and constant jousting with some superb representatives of liberalism in a highly conservative society.

The press people with whom he was in contact included Betty Radford, a Cape Times journalist from Britain who founded the left-wing Guardian in 1937. Ruth First was one of its contributors. Both joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) and used the Guardian to publish the SACP’s views without it becoming the Communist’s official organ. The Guardian also supported the ANC, through the war years, though ANC President-General Xuma was explicitly wary of undemocratic as well as Stalinist communism. The communistl Guardian was often banned in the 1950s and it closed down in 1963.
Xuma meanwhile, supported black journalism and was admired by black journalists such as Henry Msimang, co-founder of the ICU; by Bloke Modisane of Bailey’s Drum, where all journalists showed their support of Xuma, and by Richard Thema, the intellectually-inclined editor of the white-owned Bantu World for 20 years.

The World , totally subsidised by the Argus Company when I was editing The Star, was finally forced to closed by Government decree in 1977.. But it re-appeared in the precisely the same form with the same editor and proprietor within a year, when a formally registered title of a small ‘community paper’ The Sowetan, was unearthed for the African newspaper to continue under apartheid ‘law’).

The liberals

Dr Xuma’s relationships and his correspondence with many of South Africa’s active liberals is of considerable interest to historians because while he deeply respected democratic and liberal concepts – he strongly disagreed with his liberal acquaintances because he perceived a primary need to emphasise ‘Africanness’.

His now published letters are a reminder of the fundamental role active liberals played in South Africa in mid-20th century; people with dedicated purpose and cultured minds such as Margaret Ballinger, J. H Hofmeyr and others whom many we might have forgotten without some help from Xuma and the American who has researched his life.

The few of Xuma’s liberal contacts that I happened to know in the late 1940s and early 150s were all exceptional, idealistic yet singularly dedicated people. They included: Prof R.F.A. Hoernle of the SA Institute of Race Relations; H. P. Junod, the white-maned Swiss missionary who came to Pretoria to wage an indefatigable fight for prison reform in South Africa; Prof  Z. K. Mathews of Fort Hare, who might not have wanted to be seen as ‘a liberal’,   and Senator Edgar Brookes of the Liberal Party, later professor of politics and history at Natal University in Pietermaritzburg, where he was on an anonymous panel of leader-writers for the Natal Witness… a conjunction we young professional journalists disapproved of on principle… though the issue doesn’t seem to bother me today as it did in those tense times.

One other of Dr Xuma’s correspondents with whom he seemed constantly at odds was the Secretary for Native Affairs, Dr Douglas Smit, whom Xuma accused of habitual racial discrimination… unlike his war-time United Party predecessor in Parliament, Deneys Reitz the Minister of Lands who had complimented Xuma years before on his “damning indictment of the white man’s policy in Africa”.

But if Dr Smit was conservative, he was a lamb and a liberal compared with Dr de Wet Nel, the naïve apartheid Minister of Bantu Affairs.
Smit was being called upon to help implement the recommendations of the previous government’s Fagan Commission in expectation of Smuts’s return to power. The first aim was to house the millions of black people who flocked to towns and cities during urgent urbanization and industrialization during five years of war. Vast slums were a WW2 phenomenon that suddenly pertained, not only to Johannesburg and Durban, but to post-war Rome and Naples and other cities around the world.

Urbanisation and workers’ housing required particularly urgent attention in SA, but the United Party had been slow in the years immediately after the war to provide it; almost as slow as their contemplation of even a qualified vote for Africans.

To give prime minister Verwoerd his due, at least he had a plan – an impossible, mad, plan of racially dividing the nation in the manner in which post-war India was divided, and he also ‘solved’ the slum clearance and housing problem by swiftly and efficiently providing sub-economic housing of a quality in excess of that produced even 60 years later. But he did so while simultaneously banning all free movement of people and removing tens of thousands from towns and cities.

Dr Smit, representing the defeated United Party in Parliament and Dr de Wet Nel, representing the new apartheid government, clashed in Parliament regularly when I was in the Press Gallery in the 1950s. Each was always in the House of Assembly, ready for battle, as the other spoke.

Both elderly spokesmen, however were very deaf.
When the Minister of Bantu Affairs rose in the government benches to speak, the ex-Secretary-General for Native Affairs, would ostentatiously take off the huge pair of earphones he needed to hear properly, and rest his head on his desk in feigned – or possibly deep – slumber.

Next day, it was the turn of Dr Smit to deliver on behalf of the Opposition his crushing response to apartheid policy (he would obviously have read the parliamentary Hansard transcript of the Minister’s speech by then). The Minister of Bantu Affairs would pick up a similar giant pair of headphones, listen for a moment, then clatter them down with disgust and start studying his Bill.

In my parliamentary gallery reports in the late 1950s I dubbed this amusing, but repetitiously childish exchange as “the silent war of the old brigade.”

But I wonder what Dr Xuma would call it?

*A. B. Xuma. Autobiography and Selected Works edited by Peter Limb, published by the Van Riebeeck Society of South Africain its Second Series no 43.