The People’s Advocate: Marshall Maxeke

Marshall Maxeke

A mere seven years after the discovery of diamonds and twelve years before the discovery of gold, a child was born to the Maxeke household in the remote village of Middledrift (eXesi) in what was then called the Cape Colony. His parents named him Marshall.

His early schooling was in Middledrift, and then like many sons and daughters of relatively wealthy peasants, Marshall was enrolled at Lovedale Training College.

This was a non-racial, co-educational school, established by Scottish missionaries in 1841 on the banks of the Tyume River near today’s town of Alice. The Tyume river provided a resource of abundant water to all the villages and towns along its route. And in the same way the centres of learning on the riverbank, Lovedale and Fort Hare University, provided South Africa with rich educational resources. Lovedale and Fort Hare nurtured men and women who were to play a key role in the struggle for self-determination and freedom in southern Africa. There is little known about Marshall Maxeke’s time at Lovedale.

Again with the expansion of Johannesburg following the discovery of gold the Maxekes migrated north.

Throwing himself into the bustle of early Johannesburg, Marshall found work with Doctor Tatsi as a harness-maker. It should be remembered that in those days, horses and horse-drawn carts were the major means of transportation.
Outside working hours, Maxeke developed his oratorical skills and became a preacher. Perhaps following in the footsteps of his fellow countryman Tiyo Soga, Maxeke compiled the first Hymn Book for the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

A visiting group from the United States, the MacAdoo Jubilee Singers of America, came to perform in South Africa from 1890 to 1892. The group had a great deal of success, performing in large cities as well as more remote regions. When Maxeke heard the MacAdoo Jubilee Singers of America sing, he was so impressed by their harmonies that he resolved to follow them to the United States to study music.

As a writer he eventually became editor of the weekly Umteteleli wa Bantu (The People’s Advocate), a publication owned by the Transvaal Chamber of Mines. Although called The People’s Advocate and directed at a black readership, this publication was set up jointly with the Native Recruiting Corporation (NRC) following the 1920 African mineworkers strike. Some have even argued that it was set up to effectively strangle the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU)’s Workers Herald. And so Maxeke found himself working for a publication that essentially advanced commercial interests of mining within the black community. He wrote prolifically on a variety of topics ranging from education to politics. Like another fellow writer and journalist, Solomon Plaatjie, Maxeke was also a prominent member of the African National Congress.

Maxeke, like his future wife, Charlotte Manye, eventually went overseas to study at Wilberforce University in Ohio, United States. Among their teachers in this historically black institution was a certain William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B) Du Bois. Du Bois was to play a prominent role in the African-American and Pan-African struggle for liberation as a writer, editor, sociologist and philosopher. He would eventually settle in Ghana where he died in 1963. On returning to South Africa Maxeke and Manye became advocates of what became known as ‘the New Negro and New African Movement’.

At this time of the intellectual history of South Africa, there were two influences among black intellectuals – New Negro and New African.

These were represented respectively by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and the Ethiopian Movement. Maxeke defended the AME Church against what he considered ‘political extremeness’ of the Ethiopian Church. As such he was considered as a moderate and somehow politically conservative among the intellectuals of his day.
Maxeke wrote prolifically, especially opinion pieces in the Ilanga lase Natal. Ilanga lase Natal, was launched and edited by John Dube. Maxeke and Dube somehow became political allies in their hostility to Ethiopianism.

Some have ascribed this to their failure ‘to comprehend that Ethiopianism was a search for the expressive forms of African modernity’. Another instance of Maxeke’s conservatism is to be found in his duel with the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) of Clements Kadalie, Allison Wessels, George Champion and Henry Selby Msimang.
The New African intellectuals were all dedicated to the construction of modernity in South Africa. But this movement contained within itself, both the progressive and conservative outlooks. Maxeke, it is said, belonged to the more conservative strain of the movement. For instance, in his first contribution to Umteteleli wa Bantu under the title “The Middle Course” on the 21st of August 1920, he writes:

“The persistent manner of imparting knowledge by persuading others to adopt certain beliefs constitutes a doctrine. Such doctrine may not perhaps be advantageous to those whom it is intended to impress, but all the same its supporters do their best to keep it alive. Many things in South Africa are said, sometimes unduly passionate, and if we consider the cause, which excites them all, it is the living together of human beings who are not alike. Science teaches us that unlike bodies attract, but how far this applies to South Africans, only students of human affairs can suggest. However, level minded South Africans today are interesting themselves in finding the remedy for each race to gain the goodwill of the other; and the only solution to meet the position is conciliation. The present awakening of the Bantu demands well defined methods to draw attention of those whom we regard as indifferent to our cause. We cannot conceive of the reasonableness of the idea some of our fellows often display regarding our relationships with European races. Even if we aspire we must remember the consequences of the gospel we scatter”.

Apparently it was his advocating for reasonableness, moderation and conciliation, which reinforced his politically conservative outlook. This outlook resulted in a hostile attitude toward the African Garveyism movement and its proponent Samuel M. Bennet Ncwana, of the newspaper The Black Man.

As editor of Umteteleli Wa Bantu, Marshall Maxeke was succeeded by Abner R. Mapanya and Richard Victor Selope Thema. Selope Thema was to play an important role in Umteteleli wa Bantu in the twentieth century transforming the paper to ‘the intellectual forum for theorising the construction of modernity’.

Marshall Maxeke died in 1928 at the age 54 in Idutywa, Eastern Cape. Although he is not as well known as his partner and wife, Charlotte Maxeke, he left a legacy as a writer and editor of Umteteli wa Bantu. He and the other intellectuals of the New African movement sought to give voice to the aspirations of black South Africans in the early part of the twentieth century.