Address by Deputy Minister Ntombazana Botha, at the Launch of a Book on Early African Intellectuals

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
27 Sep 2007

Programme Director
Esteemed members of the families / Descendants
          of our African Intellectuals we honour today
          (of the Soga, Rubusana, Mqhayi, Jabavu and
          Ntsikana families)
Executive Mayor of Amathole District Municipality,
          Honourable Saki Somyo
Vice Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare,
          Prof. Derrick Swartz
CEO of the NHC, Adv. Sonwabile Mancotywa
CEO of the SAHRA, Mr Phakamani Buthelezi
COO of the NHC, Dr Somadoda Fikeni
Distinguished Authors and members of the
Honourable Parliamentarians and Councillors
Government officials

Greeting to you all in the spirit of Heritage Month.

It is, indeed, a privilege and an honour for me to address you this morning as we launch a book on the 19th and early 20th century African Intellectuals.

This work on African intellectual history is yet another compelling demonstration that arts, culture and heritage is far more complex and nuanced than the way it is often perceived, that it is only about “song and dance”.

It is also highly significant that this book is officially launched during Heritage Month in the Eastern Cape, a region that gave birth to the intellectuals that we celebrate today.

Prominent figures such as Ntsikana ka Gaba, Tiyo Soga, John Tengo Jabavu, Mpilo Walter Benson Rubusana ( aka W B Rubusana) and Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (aka S E K Mqhayi) are some of the great minds that left indelible footprints in our intellectual landscape. Their works remain influential in present day society.

These intellectual lived in the harshest of times and survived under the most gruesome conditions when our country was subjected to colonialism. At that time formal education was only acquired through missionary schools.

Institutions such as Healdtown, Lovedale and Fort Hare University College played a pivotal role in moulding these African Intellectuals, who were later to establish themselves and excelled in various fields.

Having read the manuscript, I can say, without hesitation, that this work will to some extent fill the gaps and correct the distortions that exist in our African intellectual history which understates or undermines the contribution that Africans made in the evolution of this society, particularly in the area of knowledge production.

I am, therefore, very excited about this initiative, and would like to congratulate the NHC, the HSRC, the Amathole District Municipality and the University of Fort Hare for producing this outstanding work.

More particularly, I wish to thank Mcebisi Ndletyana who is the editor of this book as well as a contributor, Vuyani Booi, Mcedisi Qangule and Songezo Ngqongqo who also contributed to this book. Thank you also to Barney Pityana who wrote the foreword.

As this 2007 Heritage Month draws to a close, we are reminded of the strategic value of our heritage as well as our arts and culture. As President Mbeki indicated in 2004, when he appointed Dr Pallo Jordan and I to lead the Ministry and Department of Arts and Culture, that we had actually not paid much attention to this very important sector during the first decade of our democracy.

We have, in the first 10 years, focused more on the political and economic challenges that our country faces and less on the strategic value of heritage as an important asset which could be used to address challenges such as social cohesion, cultural diversity, nation-building, moral regeneration, national reconciliation and national identity.

Current debates around revival of positive societal values such as ubuntu, promotion of indigineous languages, changing of place names, promotion of national symbols and the promotion of cultural industries demonstrates how serious we are about arts, culture and heritage in this country. It is, therefore, a challenge to every one of us to make a contribution towards the total transformation of our society and the building of a truly united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, peaceful and prosperous nation.

The dominant image portrayed in our history books, particularly about the history of colonial conquests and missionary experiences, was that of an African wielding a spear and a shield, a warrior whose pre-occupation was war and nothing else.

This book makes a great contribution and begins to challenge this one-dimensional view about Africans. It introduces an alternative view (the other side of the story) of a more nuanced and sophisticated African who is a deep and critical thinker, a prophet, a poet, a scholar, an intellectual.

This work also reflects the rich heritage of this region and the contribution it made to our entire nation. It is a fascinating story of African intellectuals who were caught up between modernity and tradition but, at the same time, it succeeds in correcting many of the falsehoods and misconceptions of the documented history about us by foreigners. It will assist us a great deal in counter-balancing the stories as told by authors like Charles Brownlee, Theal and many other colonial administrators, anthropologists and missionaries who wrote from the perspective of the colonisers’ agenda.

This work dovetails with other projects of our Department of Arts and Culture. Amongst these is one project which seeks to reprint and distribute classical works of African writers with the aim of popularizing their work and also encouraging the culture of reading and writing. Another is the Oral History Project which seeks to document the stories that are told by ordinary people.

Today we will also be launching the Mdantsane Women’s Oral History Project because we would like to document and profile the works of women, as well. As you may have observed, this book we are launching today only captures the works of our fathers and none of the works of our mothers. In trying to correct the imbalances of the past, we are mindful of unintended consequences. We should be careful not to perpetuate the discrimination and marginalization of the past. The role played by women and the contributions they have made through their writings should also be acknowledged and popularized.

In conclusion, let me, once again congratulate the institutions who worked together to successfully complete and produce this invaluable book, a treasure indeed. I hope it will be widely distributed and reach all the corners of our country, particularly the rural areas, in order to enrich the knowledge of our younger generation, “expose them to the power of ideas”  as Vice-Chancellor Swartz said earlier and inspire them to embark on similar projects.

I thank you.

The central role played by these institutions is highlighted in the historic “I am an African” speech by Pixley ka Isaka Seme, which he made at the University of Columbia in 1906. Addressing the subject of “The Regeneration of Africa”, Pixley ka Seme asserted, “The brighter is rising upon Africa. Already I seem to see her chains dissolved, her desert plains red with harvest, her Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and her Zululand the seats of science and religion, reflecting the glory of the rising sun from the spires of their churches and universities”.

While they were the products of missionary education, which obviously put more emphasis on Western values, the early African intellectuals sympathized with their people. Many of them fought for the liberation of our country from the bondage of colonialism. Through various aspects including education, journalistic and literary writing, and religion, among others, these intellectuals enlightened the African community and gave hope that one day we will attain our freedom.

The influence of religion can best be illustrated through the life of Ntsikana, who became the major proponent of Christianity among the African people. Ntsikana was a pioneer Christian convert in the Xhosa community. He even composed hymns in which he fused the Western and African elements.

When talking about Ntsikana, Vuyani Booi rightly observes: “His hymns lived on and continue to be popular to this day and his adaptation of Christianity to African beliefs was to inspire what later came to be known as Black Theology”.

Many of you would know the hymn “UloThixo Omkhulu”. It is the first hymn in the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa hymnal. Even today we still hear different versions of this song played on the radio and sung in choral music concerts.

Another intellectual who emerged through religion is Tiyo Soga. Tiyo Soga was the first African (Native or non-European as we were called then) to be ordained as a Minister of Religion by the Glasgow Missionary Society on his return to South Africa in 1857.

Tiyo Soga was instrumental in sowing the seeds of Black Theology which spread throughout the Continent. It is through the works of intellectuals like Tiyo Soga that we can understand the relationship between American Black Power Movement and the Sophiatown Literary Renaissance in the 50’s and 60’s, as also the Black Consciousness Movement of the late 60’s and 70’s in South Africa.

According to Mcebisi Ndletyana, Tiyo Soga was also one of the first people to identify literary culture as key to the upliftment of Africans in this country.

One of the leading early African intellectual, whose classical works are still widely read, is the renowned poet, author and historian, SEK Mqhayi. Some of his works have been adapted for TV screening. SEK Mqhayi was born on 1 December 1875 (three years after my father was born). Mqhayi died on 29 July 1945.

One of Mqhayi’s famous poems “Ukutshona kukaMendi” (The sinking of Mendi), commemorates the disaster that befell the S S Mendi submarine when 607 Black troops drowned during the First World War