A short man with tall deeds
John Knox Bokwe was a prominent Xhosa intellectual who made his mark in the colonial period as a composer, newspaperman and a clergyman. He was known among his peers as Umdengentonga – which means a man with a big mind. He was a pacifist who believed everyone is equal despite ethnic tensions between the Mfengu and Xhosa people.
Bokwe was born on 15 March 1855 and was named after the Scottish Presbyterian churchman John Knox, and he ended up a clergyman. This self-fulfilling prophecy came to life when Reverend Dr James Stewart took young John Knox Bokwe under his wing and mentored him.
In 1866 when Bokwe was 11 he went to preparatory classes at Lovedale Institution and then went on to study for the next seven years until he completed his secondary schooling.
During the time he was in school he worked in the Stewart’s household as a stable assistant, and then graduated to become a clerk for the Kaffir Express which Stewart had established. He was also very musical, learnt how to play the organ and the piano from his mentor’s wife.
Bokwe became an understudy of the Principal of Lovedale Reverend Dr James Stewart and started working as his clerk. Stewart ran the missionary paper, Kaffir Express which was known in Xhosa as Isigidimi samaXhosa. The paper was founded in October 1870 when Bokwe was 15. Stewart was the editor, with Xhosa columns handled by the African students who helped with translations.
The Kaffir Express aimed to create a generation of African readers by exposing them to different subjects such as the war between the French and the Germans as well as the discovery of diamonds in Kimberly in 1867. The paper also focused on promoting the missions in a non-sectarian fashion.
In 1892 Bokwe visited the United Kingdom at the invitation of his friend and preached in different sermons while enlightening the Britons about the work he did at the Lovedale mission.
Bokwe stayed on in Lovedale and only moved five years later, in 1897, to join John Tengo Jabavu in the establishment of Imvo Zabantsundu in King William’s Town.
Bokwe’s two years’ stay in Imvo did not pan out as he had thought and his interest in journalism petered out. At the beginning of the Anglo-Boer War he left the paper to follow his childhood dream of becoming a minister of the church. At age of 51, he was ordained minister of United Free Church of Scotland and relocated to Ugie, in the Eastern Cape. Upon his arrival at Ugie there was no school which inspired him to establish schools with no help from the government. The Ugie community flourished with schools and church which Bokwe was instrumental in building but the Native Private Location Act forced him to close down schools he built.
In 1905 in memory of the late Reverend Dr James Stewart, Bokwe and others became part of the committee comprised of United Free Church of Scotland members and Africans. The plan of the committee was to found a university in the Cape Province. Nine years later, in 1916, Fort Hare University was established.
Music was his passion. In his times in Lovedale he joined the Lovedale Brass Band. When he was 20 years old, in 1870, Bokwe composed and sang hymns in his melodious tenor, and even wowed social gatherings in the United Kingdom during his visit there. Nine years later when he was twenty nine, in 1884, he contributed to religious music of the Xhosa people, he composed a great hymn of Ntsikana, Ulothixo Omkhulu and wrote the biography of Ntsikana, the great Xhosa prophet and hymn writer. A year later he published his own hymn books, Amaculo ase Lovedale or Lovedale Music. He also wrote Ntsikana’s Bell, Vuka Deborah, Heavenly guide and Wedding song.
On 22 February 1922 at the place of his birth, Ntselamanzi in Lovedale, Bokwe passed on.
Odendaal, A. 2012. The Founders: the Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana Publishers.
John Knox Bokwe available at: http://www.dacb.org/stories/southafrica/bokwe_john_knox.html. Accessed on 06 August 2015.
The image is courtesy of Dictionary of African Christian Biography. Available at: http://www.dacb.org/stories/southafrica/bokwe_johnknox.html.