The Emergence of the Africanists

When the ANCYL , BCP and PAC were eventually formed, they were
continuations of the 19th century process of state building, not attempts
to participate in white political structures’ B. Leeman


Ali Hlongwane

Zeph became more active in African nationalist politics and joined the major political organization of the time, the African National Congress (ANC). He took membership of the ANC in 1943 whilst teaching at Orlando High. This was a critical turning point for the ANC, characterized by the emergence of youth militancy. Zeph’s choice of the ANC was inevitable. As a teenage, he had had an opportunity to witness the mobilization campaigns of the organization. Also, during his traveling on school vacations from Johannesburg to Daggakraal, he had had the rare opportunity of being in the company of one of the leading lights of the ANC, Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, who was running his legal practice in Johannesburg. During the train rides he had become exposed to Seme’s views.

His uncle, Charles Lekaje who also lived in the Township of Orlando was also active in the ANC. Also in another part of the Orlando neighborhood, just across the Phomolong railway station lived Zeph’s former “intimate chum” at St. Peters, Peter Raboroko. Raboroko like Zeph had taught at Orlando High School. He had also been active in the Transvaal African Teachers Association and played an important role in laying the foundation leading to the formation of the ANC Youth League. It is on record that, “in October 1943, Raboroko convened a meeting at the Domestic and Cultural Workers Club Hall in Diagonal street to plan the formation of a Youth League.”

A year later, the Youth League was established at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg, Zeph and his friend Raboroko became members. They shared the view of other Youth Leaguers that the mother body, and the old guard, needed to be shaken up. This was a conviction that had taken hold in the youth of the time. There was also a strong desire to push the mother body onto a militant path.

A contemporary of Zeph, Anton Muziwakhe Lembede , became the Youth League’s first President. He then set about evolving the League’s ideological outlook, later considered the beginnings of the Africanist tradition. The core of Lembede’s African nationalist views was articulated in an article that Lembede wrote for Inkundla Ya Bantu of May 1946. In this article, he argued that ‘Africa is a black man’s country’. This meant that only Africans are the natives of Africa and therefore Africa belongs to them. He saw Africans as a homogeneous national that will emerge as one out of the heterogeneous tribes. This coming together would constitute the basis of national unity that would cut across ‘trial connections, social status, educational attainment, or economic class.’

The vehicle for realizing and interpreting this ‘nationalistic feeling’ would be a national movement with all Africans as members. Lembede was also of the view that an African leader had to ‘come from the loins of the Africans’. This meant that no ‘foreigner’ could be a true leader of the Africans. And anyone who tried to act as one had to be denounced and rejected, in Lembede’s view. His vision of the future was that there had to be freedom first and then socialism would follow. The latter would be possible because Africans were naturally socialistic.

It seems that Zeph and Lembede were well acquainted with each other. They were part of the same neighborhood, Orlando. During the period of Lembede’s leadership of the ANCYL, Zeph was already a member, having joined in 1941. They both taught, though at different times, at Orlando Secondary School. One encounter between the two was to be recalled by Zeph’s fellow prisoner on Robben Island, Zolile Hemilton Keke some years later:          

“…Zephania Mothopend…narrated to me…of his visit with Lembede to the library at the University of Witwatersrand. Uncle Zeph said Lembede asked him to ask about the contents in any book Zeph was seeing on the shelves. When Zeph did that,

Lembede would tell him everything in the book. Zeph showed that Lembede was well-read.”

Who was Lembede? He was born in the Georgedale area of Natal, in 1914, a year earlier than Zeph. Like Zeph, he studied at Adams Teacher’s Training College in Natal. His family was ‘desperately poor, and his colleague Jordan Ngubane (the author of An African Explains Apartheid) described him as the ‘living symbol of African misery’. In 1937 he passed matriculation with a distinction. He further completed B.A. and LL.B. degrees by correspondence. The University of South Africa awarded him a degree of Master of Arts in Philosophy after his presentation of his thesis entitled ‘The Conception of God as expounded by, or as it emerges from, the writings of great philosophers—from Descartes to the present day.’

The emergence of Lembede and the ANC Youth League enhanced ‘Africanist efforts to stimulate a sense of African self-confidence and self-reliance in seeking both an end to colour discrimination and a positive role in the molding of South African society.’ This also marked the emergence of a critical outlook towards alliances with leftist whites and Indians. It was now unacceptable to Zeph’s generation that the ANC should be an ‘ideological omnibus stopping’ so the argument went, ‘at every station to pick up all sorts of passengers.’

In 1945 the Africanist line dominated the drafting of the 1949 Programme of Action. Zeph of later years, looking at the past, was to write that this programme had appealed to his generation because it embodied ideas such as:

  1. ‘The abolition of all government political institutions the boycotting of which we accept and to undertake a campaign to educate our people on this issue and, in addition, to employ the following weapons: immediate and active boycott, strike, civil disobedience, non-cooperation and such other means as may bring about the accomplishment and realization of our aspirations
  1. Preparation and making of plans for national stoppage of work as a mark of protest against reactionary policy of the government.
  2. Congress realizes that ultimately people will be brought together by inspired leadership, under the banner of African nationalism with courage and determination.’

Zeph went further to note that this marked a shift in the ANC’s orientation and saw a movement that: ‘discarded earlier … timid calls for the abolition of legal discrimination and for equality of opportunity.’ He added:

            ‘It now demanded no less than freedom from white domination and the attainment of political independence. This meant total rejection of segregation, apartheid, trusteeship or white leadership which are all invariably motivated by the ideas of white domination or domination of whites over the Africans. Africans had no illusions that the claim of the right of self-determination was to be achieved under African Nationalism.’

Zeph indicated that the 1949 Programme of Action had inspired the Defiance Campaign of 1952. This was followed by the rise of militancy and change of strategy away from pleading with authorities and sending deputations to them. The campaign mobilized some 8,000 volunteers whose agenda was to invite arrest by defying ‘unjust laws’. It boosted the membership of the ANC from 7,000 to 100,000. Zeph is remembered as campaigning around Orlando with Dr. Jongwe who had come from the Western Cape to address rallies in the Transvaal. In those rallies Zeph led in the singing of freedom songs.

A number of activists from the ranks of would be ‘Africanist’ groups participated in the Defiance Campaign. Sobukwe was fired from the teaching profession for issuing public statements in support of the campaign. P.K. Leballo was also arrested for his role in the Defiance Campaign. Among those who appeared in the Treason Trial was A.B. Ngcobo from Natal, who would later become the Treasurer-General of the PAC. From the Eastern Cape there was Elliot Mfaxa, who later became the national organizer of the PAC in 1959. From the Transvaal there was Vus’umuzi Make, of the Evaton bus boycott of 1955-56, who later

became a PAC representative in Cairo and Chairperson of the PAC in exile. Also from the Transvaal was Joe Molefi of the Evaton bus boycott. He joined the PAC in 1959 and went to exile in Lesotho in the 1960s.




At the same time as the Defiance Campaign was in progress, another section of ‘Africanist’ Youth Leaguers ‘scattered across the country mulled over the implications of the Programme of Action, debated the issues raised by the ANC’s new association with the South African Indian Congress, and confided to one another a growing dissatisfaction with the ambiguity of the ANC’s ideological course. According to Zeph, the group felt that:

            ‘The ANC (was) under pressure from the white middle class. The result was the de-emphasizing of the national character of the struggle. The belief was actively promoted that the National Party alone was primarily responsible for segregation, apartheid and all manner of the oppressive legislation rather than that it was the racist ruling class as a whole.’

The death of Anton Lembede in July 1947 did not cripple the evolution of Africanist thought in the ANC. The challenge was taken up by A.P. Mda, who continued where Lembede left off. He expanded the Youth League base beyond the Transvaal. It thus took root in Natal and in some parts of the Eastern Cape, where it reached its climax with the formation of a branch at Fort Hare in 1948. Mda authored the Basic Policy of the Congress Youth League and became a critical mover for the adoption of the 1949 Programme of Action. It has, however, been observed that though ‘Lembede and Mda are often paired as the Romulus and Remus of African nationalism, they did have differing visions of nationalism.’ Mda shifted slightly from some of Lembede’s stances, which were considered extreme. He took the view that African nationalism must not be too

narrow, leading to discrimination against other groups. Mda is on record as arguing to the Youth League that:

            ‘Our Nationalism has nothing to do with Fascism and Nationalism [sic] Socialism (Hitleric version) nor the imperialistic and neo-Fascist Nationalism of the Afrikaners (the Malanite type). Ours is the pure Nationalism of the Afrikaners (the Malanite type). Ours is the pure Nationalism of an oppressed people, seeking freedom from foreign oppression. We as African Nationalists do not hate the European—we have no racial hatred:--we only hate white oppression and white domination, and not the white people themselves! We do not hate other human beings as such—whether they are Indians, Europeans or Coloureds.’

Mda was a son of a shoemaker and an elementary school teacher. He attended Catholic schools and graduated as a teacher at Mariazell in the Eastern Cape. Subsequently, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Africa (UNISA) in 1946. In 1948 he commenced studies in law, eventually qualifying as an attorney in 1960. After coming to Johannesburg in 1937, Mda became involved in African nationalist politics and also took a teaching post in Orlando. When he took the mantle from Lembede it was not to be for long, as ill health would force him to decline re-election.


With A.P. Mda at the helm of the Youth League, this grouping of ‘Africanist’ oriented ANC members constituted themselves into a Bureau of African Nationalism. Its formal emergence was first in the Eastern Cape, around January 1952. The authorship of the first issue of the Bureau of African Nationalism’s publication the Bulletin is credited to A.P. Mda. Similar circulars followed throughout the period of the Defiance Campaign. Apart from A.P. Mda, other Youth League members who contributed to the bulletin were: T.T. Letlaka, Robert Sobukwe, C.J. Fazzie, and J.N. Pokela. These pamphlets were circulated to selected Youth Leaguers around the country.

In Orlando, where Zeph was staying with his wife and children, Potlako Leballo became a recipient of the Bureau’s Bulletins. In March 1954, Leballo was elected as the Chairperson of the Orlando Youth League and rallied around him a circle of members of this Africanist core. Zeph became part of this group of Africanists within the ANC. So did his former schoolmate and now his close friend, Peter Raboroko, who was also beginning to emerge as a prolific writer and ideologue of Africanism. Membership was ‘select, by invitation only, and on the recommendation of two other members. As the activities of this group became visible, the ANC became uneasy.

Potlako Leballo was the first to fall foul of the ANC leadership’s uneasiness with the Africanist tendency, following his criticism of the role of the Indian Congress in the Defiance Campaign. He called for the return to the fundamentals of the Programme of Action as well as denouncing the Youth League leaders who accepted invitation to the World Youth Festival in Bucharest in 1953. Leballo’s sympathizers, including Zeph, began to call themselves the Africanist Central Committee or cencom. In 1954 this formation released its first journal The Africanist, which was printed from Leballo’s house in Dube.



The adoption of the ‘Freedom Charter’ was to be another sore point among the Africanists in the ANC. However, it is important to explain how the ‘Freedom Charter’ came about, before discussing this point. A.K. Mathews made a call for the ANC to consider the question of a National Convention, a Congress of the People, to draw up a Freedom Charter. The proposal was accepted and a National Council with equal representation from the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, the Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Organization was established to prepare for the Congress of the People. Teams of ‘Freedom Volunteers’ went about collecting suggestions on the content of the Freedom Charter. The information was then brought to a subcommittee of

mainly members of the Congress of Democrats, amongst them Joe Slovo and Rusty Bernstein, who then wrote the draft version of the Freedom Charter. The congress took place at Kliptown, where the Charter was read aloud, section for section, to cries of Mayibuye’ (Come Back Africa).

The Africanists were unhappy with the ‘Freedom Charter’. They felt that the ANC already had a nation-building programme in the 1949 Programme of Action. They argued that the ANC was a majority organization yet it was given equal representation with smaller organizations  like the Congress of Democrats. Jordan Ngubane was to comment: ‘The ANC, as the largest organization in the movement and the one representing the biggest section of the nation, had as many votes as the COD, which was supported by no ore than 500 people in the white community.’ Zeph was to describe the Freedom Charter as ‘a notorious document of unknown origin.’ Indeed, it is on record that: ‘In 1955 Dr. Wilson Conco, Chief Luthuli’s deputy in the ANC, chaired a meeting at Kliptown, Johannesburg at which the “Freedom Charter” was produced. Dr. Conco is said to have seen this document for the first time at Kliptown.’ Jordan Ngubane further observed that when Dr. Conco returned to Durban to give Chief Albert Luthuli a report, it emerged that: ‘He had seen the document for the first time at the conference. And Luthuli himself had not known who had drafted the charter. To the Africanists this did not bode well for the struggle to self-determination.

The Africanists attacked the preamble of the ‘Freedom Charter’, particularly its claim that it was a declaration made by: ‘The people of South Africa, black and white together—equals, countrymen and brothers.’ To the Africanists it was naïve to regard the ‘subject Africans as equals to their European overlords.’ They further took issue with the postulation in the ‘Freedom Charter’ that said: ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it.’ They responded by arguing that the

supporters of the Freedom Charter were ‘surrendering the country of the African people and their wealth to the notorious descendants of Jan van Riebeeck.’ To say South Africa belonged to all who lived in it meant it belonged to ‘the alien dispossessor and the indigenous dispossessed, the alien robbers and their indigenous victims.’ The Africanists were of the view that ‘the interests of he subject peoples who are criminally oppressed, ruthlessly exploited and inhumanly degraded, are in sharp conflict and in pointed contradiction with those of the white ruling class.’



Tension between the Charterists and Africanists reached boiling point at a conference held on November 1 and 2, 1958. Alert Luthuli, President of the ANC, spoke at the conference. He wasted no time in raising the alarm at what he referred to as ‘white panderings to racialism’ by the Nationalist Party. This tendency, in his view, led some in the ranks of the oppressed to ‘emulate the nationalists in claiming exclusive control of South Africa. We have seen developing—even though in its embryonic stage—a dangerously narrow African Nationalism.’

These remarks, clearly directed at the Africanists in the conference, provoked a fierce debate. Can Themba, who was writing for Drum magazine at the time, reported:

            ‘Mr. Z. Mothopeng is the first speaker. He says that he does not care about a  multi-racial society. In this country the people are divided into two groups only: the oppressor and the oppressed. There can be no cooperation with oppressors.’

Later, a dispute arose around credentials. Most of the branches with Africanist leanings were disqualified. ANC volunteers ‘openly wielding sticks, clubs, and sjamboks’ ensured that the targeted faction cold not enter the hall and be part of the conference. The Africanists held a caucus outside the hall. They resolved that

the time had come for the parting of ways. This was related to the conference in a letter signed by Selby Ngendane, which in part read:

            ‘It has, however, come to our notice that armed thugs have been brought in great numbers, at the invitation of the present ANC leadership for the specific purpose of murdering certain Africanists who are regarded as leading persons in the movement. Ours, Mr. Speaker, is a political battle aimed against the oppressor. We are not a para-military clique, engaged in the murder of fellow Africans … We are launching out openly, on our own, as the custodians of the ANC policy as it was formulated in 1912 and pursued up to the time of the Congress Alliance.’

Rossette Nziba was chosen to be the emissary of the Africanist message to the congress. However, he was unable to deliver the document as he was sent flying out of the conference hall.


            MOTHOPENG (1913 to 1990).
             (Master of Arts Thesis submitted to the University of Witwatersrand)