Thapelo Mokoatsi

[intro]Sefako Mapogo Makgatho’s 90 years on earth spanned the 19th and 20th century. He contributed in the fields of theology, education and media and rose to the presidency of the African National Congress in the 30s. The Journalist provides a glimpse into a life well lived.[/intro]

The iconic Sefako Mapogo Makgatho whose legacy lives on, was first and foremost a theologian and an educationist. He later on in life acquired titles such as an esteemed politician and newspaperman.

It is no surprise that his quote, that became prominent as a result of his presidential address of May 6, 1919, lingered long in the minds of his contemporaries and to this day is referenced by ANC generations that he predated,

“We ask for no special favours from the Government. This is the land of our fathers,” said Makgatho.

The Early years

Makgatho was born in 1861 at Ga-Mphahlele in Pietersburg district (now Polokwane), Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo province). In 1882 when he turned 21, he was enrolled in Ealing, Middlesex in England where he studied Education and Theology for three years.

In 1885 when he was 24 he returned home and took a teaching post at Kilnerton Institution which was under the Methodist Church in Pretoria. In 1906, after dedicating 19 years to teaching, and in the process forming Transvaal African Teacher’s Association (TATA) with his peers, he took a job as an estate agent following his resignation as a teacher.

During his stint in the United Kingdom (UK) he read a number of articles written in the British press. Amongst other pressing issues, they reported on the journey of King Sekhukhune of the Marota people, also known as Bapedi in Sekhukhuneland (Limpopo), whom he was related to. He also witnessed the politics around the signing of the General Act of the Berlin conference on February 26 1885. The act was a legal document that allowed signatories – Norway, Turkey, Russia, Sweden, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Spain, the United States of America, Germany and Britain, who has been called together by German Chancellor Otto von Bismark to negotiate control of Africa. All of this would shape his political outlook.


In 1923, aged 62 he established and edited TATA’s journal, The Good Shepherd. The political journalism journey took centre stage in his life when eleven years prior, in 1912 (until 1914) he and lawyers Alfred Mangena and Allan Kirkland Soga (as editor) started the newspaper, Native Opinion in Pretoria. The newspaper started after Izwi of Walter Rubusana and AK Soga collapsed in the Eastern Cape. The Native Opinion survived only for 24 months. Makgatho also worked together with Pixley ka Isaka Seme in launching the SANNC’s (South African Native National Congress) Abantu-Batho in 1912 with financial help from the Swazi queen regent, Labotsheni ka Mdluli.


In 1906 he formed a political party known as the Transvaal Native Political Union (TNPU) that was the precursor to Transvaal Native Congress (TNC) of which he served as its president until SANNC was formed in 1912.

While in SANNC as one of the founding members, he continued to be a member of TNC until the mid-1930s, at which time he was about 69.

In 1917 he was active in a high wages strike and he succeeded John Langalibalele Dube as the president of SANNC, becoming its second president until he was succeeded by the clergyman ZR Mahabane in 1924.

A shrewd leader

During his presidency that spanned seven years he fought and won several legal battles on behalf of African people. He disputed segregation on the street pavements in the city and he prevented the rise in poll tax in the Transvaal. As a result, a review on the Africans’ tax position was done and led to the cancellation of the adoption of uniform systems of taxation for Africans in South Africa under the Native Taxation and Development Act of 1925. He also led a campaign against the extension of pass laws that would include African women.

In 1919 he won trading rights for Indians after negotiating with the Pretoria authorities. He further raised funds for the SANNC representatives to Britain to petition for an all-inclusive dispensation.

After his term as president of the ANC he served as National Treasurer under the presidency of Seme in the 1930s. He continued to be influential in the Transvaal Congress on the provincial level in the 1940s.

Throughout his busy schedule as a community leader he never forgot to dedicate time to church related matters. The Methodist church was his home and support base when he was troubled by the imperial government of the day. Again the church became his political mobilisation platform. The members saw Makgatho as one of their own considering he taught at Kilnerton Institute, a school the church ran.

He married Matjie Priscilla Kekana and they were blessed with a son. When Sefako Makgatho died in 1951 aged 90, the epitaph on his grave echoed the African proverb, “when an elderly person dies, it is like a whole library has burnt down.”