Mpilo Walter Benson Rubusana: Man of many talents

Doctor, minister, writer, teacher, and politician

In modern times, it is obvious to most how a doctor, a minister, a writer, a teacher, and a politician can bring change and progress to a culture. However, when one man embodies all of the above for a culture and nation struggling with the concept of modernity itself, the task is more difficult.

Why would a young aspirant journalist like me be inspired by someone who passed on in the mid-1930s? I didn’t know of Mpilo Walter Benson Rubusana until I saw his famous picture with his peers – John Langalibalele Dube, Saul Msane, Sol Plaatje and Thomas Mapikela. I wondered how it could have been possible for one man to carry so many titles – political activist, a doctor, a minister, a writer, and a teacher. In my research it soon became evident that his life is that of a complex inter-disciplinarian, canvassed by a colourful public life. His was a consistently conflicted existence between colonial modernism and the independence of African people. His personal struggles documented over 62 of his well lived 78 years became an inspiration to a young journalist like me.

This larger than life figure and his pioneering spirit of activism did not only reside in the Cape Colony, part of what is now known as the Eastern Cape, it permeated the length and breadth of this country as he traversed the landscape to engage Africans in educational, religious and political matters, in a bid to better their lives.
In fact, I discovered that Rubusana was quite comfortable with the complexity of his life. In one of his letters he firmly maintained that advancement didn’t mean abandoning one’s culture:

“But I would go further and endeavour to expel the fallacy that the native is discontent with his race or colour and aspires to become a European. There is nothing in his conduct to justify this implication, for, in his pride of race, he has not forgotten in the past to comport himself with the dignity and indifference to European women that is remarkable in those who are too frequently looked upon as savages. If there is any deterioration in his manner of which we hear complaints in the streets and side-walks, the fault must be attributed to the influence of association or contact with the bad manners, degraded habits, and social vibes which are copied from those who plume themselves on their superior civilisation and which were foreign to him in his tribal state.” – A letter, called the Native Question, South African Review 5 July1901, page 25.

Rubusana, the visionary, launched a one man crusade that “brought about a resurgence of Xhosa literature with his newspaper and his personal poetry and translations”, (Pressberg, E). While he is to be celebrated, I could not help but notice that he is a typical subject of analysis for many who believe his colonially motivated vision of inclusive politics was selling out on Africans, and therefore his life was not devoid of controversies. Armed with sound missionary education, his religion and the might of the pen, Rubusana set out on a sojourn to leave the world a better place for all.

Rubusana was born in 1858 in a small town of Mnandi, Somerset East, to a father who was a senior councillor (umphakathi) to the Paramount Chief, Sandile Nggika. He was first exposed to formal institutionalised education at age 16, when he enrolled and acquired primary education at the mission house led by missionary Reverend Richard Birt in Peelton. Birt would later become his father figure and role model, during his brief stay there.

His interaction with Birt was a catalyst as it inspired him and shaped his desire to further his education. He moved to Lovedale in 1876 where he was admitted to the Free Church of Scotland mission school on the banks of the Tyhume River. There, under the tutorship of Dr James Stewart, he studied for the Cape Teachers’ Certificate, passing the final examination with a distinction in 1878. Instead of going out to teach, he remained at Lovedale University to study Theology under the guidance of Dr Stewart and the Reverend Andrew Smith. In 1880, Rubusana left Lovedale to take up a teaching post at the Peelton mission station, where he also worked as assistant Pastor. It was at this post, in 1883, that he met and married Deena Nzanzana; together they had five daughters and a son. He remained at Peelton until his ordination as a minister of the Congregational Church in 1884, at which time he was transferred to East London, which was to be his home for the rest of his life (SAHO).

It is my understanding that Rubusana was not only gifted as an intellectual, he used his many talents, and his intellectual aptitudes as a political activist, to the service of his people. In the face of racism and discrimination, he never tired of helping his people overcome the barriers of racial oppression and lack of education. So, I set out to retrace his footsteps backwards. I discovered that Rubusana’s life was anchored by three pillars – education, religion and politics, and his writing was inspired by all three.

A distinguished Educator

Rubusana started teaching at Peelton in 1879 and soon distinguished himself as his involvement went beyond teaching and he became a committed educational activist. He found an ideological home in the Native Education Association, led by Elijah Makiwane. The Association confronted broad-based socio-political issues including franchising Africans, land related matters as well as the pass laws, amongst others. He also assisted in the establishment of more than 10 schools in and around East London. Many of these schools only went as far as Standard Six (Grade 8 by contemporary terms). These efforts were intended to provide formal education to African children not only to improve their prospects of employment, but also to increase the number of black graduates qualifying for the franchise in the Cape Colony.

Rubusana advocated for compulsory education, but he also went one step further than many, in advocating mother-tongue education. He believed that children had a far better chance of learning if they were instructed in their mother tongue in the early grades of school. He took to writing in Xhosa, as a way of promoting African literature, history and grammar.

Author and Journalistic Contributions

One of the formative anchors in Rubusana’s life was his religion, as a dedicated minister at his Congregational Church he was involved in its councils and was active in proselytising its message to the African people. He translated a number of Congregational texts into Xhosa, through his appointment to Congressional Union of South Africa in the Board of Revisers of the Xhosa Bible. For 20 years he dedicated himself to translating the Xhosa Bible into English. As a recognised authority on the Xhosa language, he was then appointed to serve on the Xhosa Bible Revision Committee, set up to refine the translation that was earlier, in the 1850s, supervised by Tiyo Soga. He was seen as the right man for the job to fill the late Soga’s void, and Rubusana took it in his stride – personally supervising its publication in Britain when he accompanied the Thembu king, Dalindyebo, to attend the coronation of King Edward VII in 1904. During this first visit and his stay in London he killed two birds with one stone and also published his first book, Zemk’ Inkomo Magwalandini (Defend Your Heritage), an anthology of traditional epic poetry, didactic Christian essays and Church history. As one of the earliest collections of the oral poetic tradition, the book has inestimable historical and literary value (Pressberg, E).

Again, Zemk’ Inkomo Magwalandini reflects Rubusana’s political thinking and his commitment to western education and religion. His contributions to literature and history earned him an honorary PhD from the McKinley Memorial University in Louisville, Kentucky, in the United States, in 1906.

Rubusana’s journalistic involvement happened within the context of a burgeoning of African journalism in the Eastern Cape.Thi s new form of self-expression for educated Africans had grown out of missionary journalism, which no longer met the political needs of the developing middle class. Rubusana had written for Isigidimi and the Christian Express while also acting as an agent for Jabavu’s paper, Imvo Zabatsundu, by corresponding for the newspaper, and selling it. In 1897 Rubusana and other political and civic leaders launched their own ill-fated newspaper, Izwi Labantu, which was intended to give a clear voice to the political aspirations of Africans in the Eastern Cape in the late nineteenth century.

Rubusana’s Political Life

In the early 1900s Rubusana turned his attention to political activities. His political ideology had been principally shaped by missionary education. His advocacy was that education is an equaliser between colonialists and Africans. Hence, his disappointment when on two occasions of attempting to engage Britain on matters related to land and extending a helping hand during the World War II, both were rejected.

This rejection was despite having helped Britain to victory during the Anglo-Boer War. He and other ministers of religion saw no future for an African beyond British Imperialism. They rallied support behind Britain organising African labourers, wagon drivers, scouts and hundreds of other non-combatants to contribute towards the British victory, which came in 1902.

Rubusana’s political life took a turn for the better when he became recognised as one of the leading black politicians throughout South Africa, at the end of the century, only second to John T Jabavu. He stood for the presidency of South Africa Native Convention (SANC) in Bloemfontein in 1909, and won the seat. This catapulted him to the helm when Jabavu abstained from SANC activities. This victory would see him make another trip to London in June of 1909, not as a missionary, this time as leader of an historic united front of Africans and Coloureds to pursue common objectives – reversal of the ‘colour bar clauses’ and preventing the incorporation of the three British territories (Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland) into the Union until the white public foreswore racism.

Rubusana’s delegation was constituted by Dr A. Abdurahman, leader of the African People’s Organisation (APO), D Dwanya, Matthew Fredericks, John T Jabavu, D J Lenders, Thomas Mapikela and one white parliamentarian, W P Schreiner on the deputation. Alfred Mangena, who at the time was living in London, also joined the deputation. He returned home unsuccessful. White South Africa duly marked the unification of the four colonies with great pomp and ceremony in May 1910. Everyone they met listened with a sympathetic ear, but the Act of Union was passed, with the ‘colour bar clauses’ intact. They did have a minor victory they were successful in preventing the absorption of the High Commission territories.

Rubusana was relentless. That very year he announced his candidacy for the Thembuland constituency in the Cape Provincial Council. He ran a successful campaign, using his church contacts, SANC branches and the newspaper Ilizwi Labantu to rally supporters. He became the first African ever to serve as a member of the Cape Provincial Council. While the event caused a stir in South Africa, his sight was on playing on the global stage.

In 1911 Rubusana made his third trip to attend the Universal Races Congress in London. The conference, organised by the Ethical Culture Society to discuss race relations throughout the world, had attracted numerous participants from the United States, Asia and other parts of Africa. He was in good company as he rubbed shoulders with luminaries such as Dr. W E B du Bois, the father of Pan-Africanism. At the time he was engaged in setting up the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in the United States.

This time he returned home convinced of the need for a national organisation. The idea of setting up a national organisation had been placed before the deputation to London in 1909 by Pixley Ka Isaka Seme and was implemented in late 1911. Rubusana was one of the hundred delegates who went to Bloemfontein on 8th January 1912 to attend the inaugural conference of the African National Congress. As an experienced political campaigner, he was appointed on to the constitutional commission chaired by Richard Msimang, and elected as one of the Vice-Presidents of the ANC.

Rubusana was involved in every aspect of the Anti-Land Act Campaign which was an attack on the Native Land Bill of June 1913. He featured prominently in every stage of its development. When the deputation to London was chosen he was amongst them. Rubusana and others arrived back in South Africa shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.

In 1914, Rubusana experienced a personal political defeat. When his term of office in the Cape Provincial council expired that year he decided to contest the seat once more. However on this occasion an old colleague John Tengo Jabavu, took the field against him. The two men had been opponents in many campaigns and had experienced numerous differences of opinion over the years. John Tengo Jabavu was awarded the position.

During the First World War (1914-1919), Rubusana personally offered his services to recruit 5,000 men provided the government was prepared to train them in modern warfare. The ANC leaders undertook to suspend all their campaigns and mass agitation for the duration of the war as a demonstration of loyalty. Smuts, on behalf of the government, thanked them for their declarations of loyalty but declined Rubusana’s offer with words to the effect that since this was a “White man’s war” he saw no reason why the Africans should take a hand in the fighting. One thing I learnt is that Rubusana was never broken by all these experiences, he lived for his convictions and most he accomplished.

In the end I felt that Rubusana has lived a full and very balanced life of a man whose convictions were his compass. A life well lived indeed, and in 1936, nature took its course and took away a principled man whose history must live on.

Additional Research: Phindile Xaba


1) Excerpts from Songezo Joel Ngqongqo in a chapter titled: Mpilo Walter Benson Rubusana in: African Intellectuals in the 19th century and early 20th century South Africa by Mcebisi Ndletyana. Ed., pp.45-55. Published by HSRC Press. 2) Walter Rubusana (1858– 1936 ) Supreme Counsellor of The Order of Luthuli in Gold - 3) Dr. Walter Benson Rubusana 1858 - 1936 - 4) Erica Pressberg - Walter Benson Rubusana: A Missionary for his People -