Saul Msane

A robust writer and chess boffin

He took pleasure at beating opponents in chess, was not shy to publicly challenge the ANC president and took a newspaper to court for unfair dismissal.

Saul Msane was an intellectual, newspaperman and political activist – and a keen chess player.

He took on and usually beat his challengers. He displayed his skills during the long boat journey to England in 1913, when he was part of a deputation travelling to Britain to present African grievances about the over the Natives Land Act of 1913.

According to reports at that time it was difficult for some white passengers to accept that a black man could beat them at chess.

He did not shy away from controversy and while Secretary General of the South African National Native Congress (the forerunner of the ANC), he publicly went against the President, John L Dube.

It was during the black miners’ unrest in 1918 that he attempted to lead an unsuccessful march to calm the workers’ belligerent feelings and acquired a nickname Isitha sa Bantu – enemy of the people.

As a media player, around 1910 he and Levi Thomas Mvabaza co-edited the English/Xhosa weekly newspaper Umlomo wa Bantu (mouthpiece of the nation), which was based in Johannesburg.

Umlomo merged with other relatively small newspapers in 1912 to form Abantu Batho, the mouthpiece of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC). The paper was distributed country-wide. Msane was appointed editor in 1915 but his editorship was short lived as he was fired around the middle of the year in 1916.

However Msane remained the most recognised and “one of the best Zulu writers,” says Christison. He was born in 1856 at Edendale Mission Station. His father, Matthew (circa 1816 to 1904), was born and lived in Zululand around the time King Shaka ruled. He was a well-respected resident of Edendale in the 20th century.

Msane was accomplished at a very early age. He started schooling at Edendale Mission where Robert Grendon was a teacher in Maritzburg, now known as Pietermaritzburg, in KwaZulu Natal before moving to Healdtown Institution in the Eastern Cape.

In 1881, he received an Elementary Teacher’s Certificate. In 1892, he led a Zulu choir group on a concert tour in Europe. In 1895 he worked as a compound manager at Jubilee and Salisbury Gold Mining Company in Johannesburg. While in Johannesburg he compiled the Miners’ Companion in Zulu for the use of white mine workers.

As a newspaper man

In 1896 he locked horns with John Tengo Jabavu, and threatened to launch a rival newspaper to Imvo. Inkanyiso yase Natal was running and was being edited by Solomon Khumalo (died 1904) who was a friend to both Msane and Grendon. Conceivably, Msane’s threat meant that the publication could be handled by him in Johannesburg and Khumalo in Natal as a way to make it a national newspaper.

In 1910 or 1911 he teamed with Levi Thomas Mvabaza in the launch of Umlomo wa Bantu (People’s Mouth). Umlomo sought to “unify all African tribes into one people,” says Christison. This was the same vision that would propel Pixley ka Isaka Seme to start Abantu-Batho as a national newspaper.

Soon after joining Abantu-Batho the paper published Msane’s first piece – an essay – in 1914. Two years later Ilanga, March 1916, wrote that founders of Abantu-Batho Cleopas Kunene and Cleopas Mabaso were fired and that Msane had become the isiZulu editor. Once he was an editor he became polemic to the Congress. In one meeting of the Congress in Kroonstad he challenged Dube in public with regard to his style of management when it came to finances. It was later reported that he humiliated the president.

Msane along with Grendon were dismissed in mid-1916 for being polemicist. Seme had banned them from publishing further articles about corruption within Congress. Both Msane and Grendon brought a lawsuit against the paper on the grounds of unfair dismissal or unpaid salaries. It was scheduled for hearing on 28 July. Ilanga reported their case was settled out of court.

As a Politician

Msane had founded the Natal Native Congress (NNC) on 1 June 1900 together with Mark Radebe who became its Secretary, before becoming part of the SANNC formation and subsequently joining the ANC. NNC aimed to educate Africans about their rights and acted as a platform for them to raise their concerns.

It was at the annual congress of SANNC in 1913 that Msane was assigned to gather and publish objections by Africans to the Natives’ Land Bill of 1913, putting it on record that the government of the day under Prime Minister Louis Botha was racist.

When SANNC held a special meeting in February 1914 in Kimberley, a final decision was reached to send a deputation to Britain to oppose the Union of South Africa which excluded blacks. The deputation was to urge Britain to stop the 1913 Native Land Act. The deputation that comprised Msane, Sol Plaatje, Thomas Mapikela, Walter Rubusana and John Dube did not succeed.

According to archival records, Msane died at Dr Tittlestad house, at Nkandla, eMpandleni on 6 November 1919.

Additional Research: Phindile Xaba


Christison, G. 2012. ‘We of Abantu-Batho’: Robert Grendon’s Brief Controversial Editorship. In: Limb, P. Ed. The People’s Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp.151-173.

Limb, P. 2012. The Introduction: The People’s Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho. In Limb, P. The People’s Paper: A Centenary History and Anthology of Abantu-Batho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp.2-47.

Odendaal, A. 2012. The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa. Auckland Park: Jacana Press, pp.268-278.

South Africa History Online. Saul Msane. Available at: