New Books | A Political Biography of Selby Msimang

As a founding member of what would become the ANC and an outspoken advocate for the rights and dignity of African people, Selby Msimang is a key figure in the liberation struggle.

Sibongiseni M Mkhize explores the life of the South African political leader, starting with his staunch opposition to the Native Land Act of 1913 and charting his changing allegiances through 70 years of political turmoil.

This is an edited excerpt of Sibongiseni M Mkhize’s Principle and Pragmatism in the Liberation Struggle: A Political Biography of Selby Msimang (HSRC Press, 2019).

The first national conference of African people was held in the Wesleyan church in Waaihoek township, Bloemfontein, on 8 January 1912. This was a milestone in the history of African nationalism. The South African Native National Congress (SANNC) was founded at that historic four-day meeting, attended by approximately 60 delegates, including church leaders, traditional leaders and representatives of various nationalist organisations from the different provinces and the protectorates of Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana. The objects of the new body included the promotion of unity; mutual cooperation between the government and the “abantu races of South Africa”; socioeconomic, educational and political advancement; promotion of mutual understanding between native chiefs and their loyalty to the British crown; and “safeguarding the interests of the native inhabitants of South Africa by seeking and obtaining redress for any of their just grievances”.

The SANNC’s aims were centred on trying to advance Africans’ political rights within the existing South African Constitution. The founders of the SANNC wanted to demonstrate the fitness of educated Africans to be included in the new South Africa. Selby Msimang was among the founding members and was appointed assistant secretary to Sol Plaatje, the secretary-general, who was based in Kimberley. The Rev JL Dube of the Natal Native Congress (NNC), founder of the Ohlange Institute and editor of Ilanga, was elected in absentia as president.

Pixley Seme was elected as the first treasurer. Msimang’s position as a clerk in Seme’s office during the founding of the SANNC, as well as his role as assistant to Plaatje, led to his being involved in many of the day-to-day developments of the new movement. He was responsible for the labour portfolio of the SANNC. He also played a prominent role in collecting funds for a delegation that visited Britain in 1914 to protest against the Natives Land Act (No 27 of 1913). Msimang, as the “youngest of the club”, worked closely with Plaatje, and served as recording secretary and interpreter at SANNC conferences.

Defending the African people

He told an interviewer during the 1970s, “I was good with administration, strategies and the organising of meetings.” In his autobiography, he mentioned that in 1913 he also assisted Seme in providing secretarial services to the exiled King Dinuzulu, who was living on a farm in Middelburg in the Eastern Transvaal. Seme asked Msimang to spend time with the ailing paramount chief when Dinuzulu visited Johannesburg to record the history of the Zulu kingdom. Msimang’s interviews with Dinuzulu and his chief induna, Mankulumane kaSomaphunga Nxumalo, produced two notebooks on Zulu history, which he gave to Seme. It was in these years that Msimang began to make his mark as a defender of the rights and dignity of the African people.

A letter sent to The Transvaal Leader newspaper in February 1912 serves as an example of this. In it, he criticised the members of the white Agricultural Union who had made statements during a meeting of their congress, which denigrated Africans by suggesting that they were unhygienic and carried lice, and should therefore not travel first-class on trains. Msimang lashed out: “The Dutch people require a thorough polishing of the brain,” and accused them of “turning a blind eye to many lice-laden poor white people who were wandering on the streets of Johannesburg”. This was a fiery statement for an African person at the time.

The fact that he robustly challenged the Agricultural Union attests to his courage and determination to challenge insults to African dignity. Even at this early stage of his political career, Msimang assumed the role of mouthpiece of his people, a role he would perform with distinction again and again in the future. He continued to demonstrate this when he became a “special commissioner” – a position equivalent to editor – of the SANNC’s newspaper, Abantu-Batho, founded in 1912 with financial assistance from Queen Labotsibeni of Swaziland, who had attended the founding of the SANNC.

Pariahs in the land of their birth

A year after the founding of the SANNC, the government passed the Natives Land Act, which effectively legalised land dispossession (a process that had started long before 1913), outlawed sharecropping, and put an end to African land purchase. By 1912, discussions on the Bill had already started in Parliament. The threat posed by the Bill, which would negatively affect African ability to purchase land outside the reserves, led the SANNC to discuss the subject of “Native Lands and Reserves” at its inaugural meeting. Not surprisingly, the delegates were strongly opposed to it. Msimang had this to say about the legislation: “The ravages of the Natives Land Act took the form of wholesale evictions, especially in the Free State and some parts of the Transvaal. One could see a man, his wife and children driving their livestock listlessly, not knowing where to go. Some lost their livestock and gravitated to industrial areas.”

Although recent scholars have argued that “land alienation was not the major intention and outcome of the Act, but that, by and large, dispossession had already taken place after the colonial wars of the 1800s”, the Act came as a shock to Africans, who, in the memorable words of Plaatje, woke up to find themselves “pariahs in the land of their birth”. Msimang was one of those who had no illusions about any benefits that might accrue to Africans from the Act. In an interview in 1977, he still expressed his dismay with the Act, and said, “Our people had truly become victims of a devilish conspiracy to destroy our economic independence and compel us to submit to a pernicious form of slavery.” These views demonstrated his unwavering belief that the Act was meant to codify dispossession and accelerate the impoverishment of the African people.

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The SANNC attempted to oppose the Act by means of deputations to the South African government as well as to the imperial government in London, but to no avail. Msimang argued that the SANNC did its best, even though it was still in the process of constituting itself properly. Dube convened an emergency meeting of the executive committee in July 1913, a month after the passing of the Act. Delegates recounted their observations of the devastating effects of the Act. They had seen for themselves white farmers driving black families out of the land on which they were either tenants or sharecroppers. They resolved to appeal to the king and the British Parliament because they believed that constitutional options needed first to be exhausted before any idea of protest action could be contemplated. According to Paul Rich, “The leaders of the SANNC were rather unclear over the objectives of the campaign against the Act, though they were generally afraid of resorting to strike action for fear that this would alienate support from missionary and liberal circles in South Africa.”

In 1913, Msimang was appointed secretary of an SANNC committee formed to collect evidence to expose the harmful effects of the Land Act and to raise funds to fight it, in particular by sending a deputation to London.

Uniting factions

Msimang accompanied Dube on a countrywide tour, which took them as far as Sekhukhuneland in the northern Transvaal, where they alerted chiefs to the threats posed by the Natives Land Act. He also travelled on horseback to Kokstad, Umzimkhulu, Bizana, Flagstaff, Lusikisiki and Mount Ayliff. In this part of southern Natal and the Eastern Cape, they encountered some isolated pockets of opposition among some of John Tengo Jabavu’s supporters who were in favour of the Act. Msimang attributed this opposition to Jabavu’s failure to promote African unity across tribal lines “and the prevalent thinking among the Africans in the Cape that they were ‘civilised’ earlier than the other tribes”, in part because he and many of his Cape followers still had access to the franchise. Msimang accused Jabavu of “thinking like a white person”. He alleged that Jabavu was supported by white people who funded his newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu, paid for his son DDT Jabavu’s education, and also offered him money to stand in the Transkei against Walter Rubusana during elections for the provincial council.

Msimang would later credit the Natives Land Act with galvanising the SANNC and for giving it political direction. Prior to the enactment of this legislation, the SANNC lacked a clear programme of action or plans to mobilise its following. In his view, what had motivated African leaders in 1912 to form the SANNC was their feeling of marginalisation because of their exclusion from the establishment of the Union and the need to achieve unity between different ethnic groups. He argued that “tribal animosity” was still rife during the early 1900s and that any attempt to oppose white people would have been futile without first addressing the scourge of tribalism. Fortunately, according to Msimang, the SANNC’s task of uniting “tribal groups” was made easier by the Natives Land Act, which “quickened the amalgamation of tribes, the coming together of tribes, and the mutual sympathy between the tribes”.

All the same, internal divisions and organisational immaturity militated against the SANNC’s efforts to oppose the Act. It seems that there was a different reaction to the Natives Land Act in the southern provinces of the Cape and Natal to that in the northern provinces of the Transvaal and Free State. The African petty bourgeoisie in the Cape and Natal had a long history of land purchase and they wanted to acquire more land; the circumstances of Africans in the Free State and the Transvaal, however, were less propitious, and many of them had been reduced to being sharecroppers and tenants.

Opposing the Act

In 1914, the SANNC convened a special conference, which was held at St John’s Hall in Kimberley from 27 February to 2 March. The aim was to devise a plan to challenge the Natives Land Act and finalise preparations for the deputation to England. Msimang attended in his capacity as the secretary of the Organising Committee of Protest established to oppose the Act.

In the end, like previous deputations, the 1914 one had limited success in highlighting the plight of African people in the wake of the Natives Land Act. Some of the protest activities between 1914 and 1917 were overshadowed by World War I. During this period, the SANNC focused its energy on documenting the ravages of the Natives Land Act and on drafting its first constitution. By 1917, the SANNC seemed largely out of touch with the people whom it regarded as its “followers”. In addition to the SANNC’s lack of funds, the separation of its executive members by long distances made organisational coordination extremely difficult. Moreover, its national leadership was split into rival factions, largely as a result of internal debate over the Natives Land Act.

The Transvaal branch of the ANC, known as the Transvaal National Congress (TNC), was then gaining political ascendancy over the Cape and Natal groups. Its leaders, Saul Msane, Alfred Mangena and Levi Thomas Mvabaza – abetted by Seme, who controlled the SANNC mouthpiece Abantu-Batho – tried to unseat Dube, a Natal man. Ostensibly, equivocation within the SANNC over the issue of segregation caused the dispute. While some members opposed the Land Act, others believed that if the land scheduled for Africans in terms of the Act was increased, the policy of segregation might become workable. The absence of a constitution, as well as the squabbles between Dube and Seme over the running of the SANNC, did very little to inspire confidence. Dube also faced internal challenges in Natal.

The leaking of Dube’s correspondence with the paternalistic Aborigines’ Protection Society in London, in which he had expressed some support for the Natives Land Act, compromised his integrity. Consequently, doubts about his leadership on the issue of the Land Act and the unfruitful London trip led to his removal during an extraordinary meeting of the SANNC in Bloemfontein in July 1917. Dube was succeeded by Sefako Makgatho as president of the SANNC, an ascendancy that resulted in Transvaal-based activists emerging as a major force in SANNC politics. One of their number was Selby Msimang.

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