Pen for hire: General Agent SM Bennet Ncwana
Journalist and political hack General Agent Samuel Michael ‘SM’ Bennet Ncwana, wrote for a prolific number of South African newspapers and was a known propagandist who used his role as a journalist to support one cause: Jan Smut’s South Africa Party (SAP) – a pro-business, pro-British parliamentary coalition.
One notable propagandist of the 1920s was Samuel Michael ‘SM’ Bennet Ncwana, who wrote for a prolific number of South African newspapers. Ncwana faced vehement criticism from his peers and rivals alike, for his political volatility. At various times he was a member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), South Africa’s first major black trade union, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), the Cape Native Voters’ Association (CNVA) and the Ex-Serviceman’s League, amongst others. Yet, as a mercenary ‘general agent’ he consistently, across the 1920s, supported one cause: Jan Smut’s South Africa Party (SAP) – a pro-business, pro-British parliamentary coalition. Though an inescapably ‘ignoble’ figure, in his role as a journalist and political hack, Ncwana helps us explore the uncomfortable and contradictory political milieu of the segregationist period, when many black South Africans endorsed segregation and hoped that key organisations like the ANC and ICU would fail.
Early rise to prominence
Born in 1890, ‘SM’ Bennet Ncwana first came to the attention of the authorities when he petitioned the queen of England to fund his education in 1913, in the hope of becoming a lawyer. Working as a Rand mine policeman, he had little money, but already closely identified himself with British imperialism and in 1916 signed up for the South African Native Labour Contingent.
On his return to Johannesburg in 1918, Ncwana established an “agency business” and attended Johannesburg’s exclusive African Club. Soon, though, he found himself embroiled in controversy. During the commission of inquiry into the 1918 ‘Rand disturbances’, Isiah Bud M’belle – the general secretary of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), fellow member of the African Club and Native Affairs Department clerk-interpreter – opposed black workers’ demand for a one shilling increase in wages. Condemning M’Belle’s statement, the other members of the African Club rescinded his membership, and the opportunistic Ncwana put himself forward as the man to notify the SANNC general secretary. Bud M’belle, in response, “threatened to blow [Ncwana] to smeethereens”.
At the same time, however, a more dubious side to Ncwana’s “agency business” was also emerging. On May 9, 1919, he was charged in Johannesburg with “[c]onversion and sentenced to 2 months imprisonment”, for “conducting an Agency for the sale of Native products” which “defrauded several natives”. Having ‘absconded’ to Cape Town, he was forcefully returned to the Rand and imprisoned for 11 months.
On his release, Ncwana returned to Cape Town to study, and quickly became close friends with a young man from colonial Nyasaland (modern day Malawi) called Clements Kadalie. Swept up in the transatlantic enthusiasm and race-pride of Garveyism, Ncwana joined the UNIA and, together with Kadalie, started the Marcus Garvey-inspired Black Man Company with a publishing outfit, The Black Man. In it Ncwana penned some of the country’s first, and most evocative, Garveyite tracts. In these heady early days, Kadalie enthusiastically wrote to Ncwana in 1920 that his “essential object is to be a great African Marcus Garvey”.
Ncwana also became heavily involved in a new expanding black trade union, the ICU (which Clements Kadalie was the general secretary of). Ncwana soon became the “Chairman of Propaganda” and promoted the cause of black workers through The Black Man. When Bud M’Belle heard that he was prominently involved in the ICU, however, the “arch-enemy” of Ncwana “at once took a special train journey to Cape Town on his important mission of having [Ncwana] abdicated”. Telling the ICU’s officials that Ncwana “was a very dangerous character”, M’Belle successfully ensured he was expelled. It is probable that Ncwana had not told his comrades of his previous convictions, but it is clear that his expulsion caused bitter resentment.
Kicked out of the ICU, Ncwana gravitated towards a rival black trade union, the Industrial and Commercial (Amalgamated) Workers’ Union (or ICWU) – a federation led by Henry Selby Msimang and Impey Ben Nyombolo. Now writing for the pro-ICWU paper, The African Voice, run by IB Nyombolo, Ncwana wrote a number of articles attacking Kadalie.
At the same time as the ICU expanded rapidly after 1922, however, the ICWU faced ridicule for being “a non-existing Organisation”. With few members and less money, Ncwana appears to have reduced his commitment to the Msimang-led ICWU in 1923 and, instead, focused on work as the secretary of the Cape Native Voter’s Association (CNVA).
As “the organiser of the native voters in the Cape Province for the South African Party” during the 1924 general election campaign, Ncwana and the CNVA were employed to tour throughout the Cape speaking on behalf of SAP candidates. Echoing SAP hopeful Major Ballantine’s assurance that the SAP “were all opposed to labour from outside”, Ncwana caused controversy when he wrote that black South Africans “would shed no tear if the Asiatics were to be cleared out of the country tomorrow.” The SAP went on to a humiliating defeat.
Combatting ‘Bolshevism’ and the ICU
Ncwana also wrote and influenced a prodigious number of anti-Kadalie publications. ‘How I Left the ICU’, serialised in Izindaba Zabantu, attacked “the infallible Idol of the ICU” as a vain man who had no knowledge of book-keeping. Kadalie also faced mounting criticisms of corruption – with Ncwana and Nyombolo helping both ex-ICU secretary George Lenono publish a damning pamphlet and a number of ICU officials draft a ‘Clean Administration Manifesto’. Most threateningly for Kadalie, Ncwana also corresponded extensively with the ICU’s Natal Provincial Secretary, AWG Champion, and wrote for his paper, Udibi lwase Afrika.
The final touch of the smear campaign was a publication by Ncwana himself, The Activities of the ICU: An Exhaustive Enquiry into the Affairs and Policy of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa, both to Trades, Squatters, Farm Labourers and the Manipulation of the People’s Funds. Opening with a foreword by ex-ICWU president Henry Selby Msimang, the pamphlet called for the wholesale reorganisation of the ICU along sectional lines. It closed with the assertion that: “The only solution of the problem as far as I am concern[ed] is the deportation of the Nyasaland leader as the Union leaders are quite capable of solving the problem confronting the workers of the Union.” As the Natal section of the ICU split under the leadership of AWG Champion, the slogan of the secessionists was “Clements Kadalie Must Go!” Divisive, but as much a part of political debate as his more ‘exemplary’ contemporaries, many of Ncwana’s more caustic, SAP-backed anti-immigrant arguments continue to reappear in South African politics today.
Many black political activists underwent huge economic and political hardship in pursuit of their ambitions. Ncwana abandoned such high ideals and avoided self-sacrifice, where possible, much like his nemesis I Bud M’bele. By pursuing his own lucrative agenda of personal revenge, and profit, he instead offered himself up to the highest bidder, the SAP, as a pen for hire.