Prominent Sotho literary giant
A founder of the first African newspaper in the Transvaal and a mover and shaker in politics, Simon Majakathata Phamotse made his mark in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Simon Majakathata Phamotse was one of the first Basothos to be educated at Lovedale College. He would become a prominent Sotho literary giant and a key figure in Basotho politics at the start of the 20th century. Phamotse even founded the first African newspaper in the Transvaal – Leihlo la ba Batsho (The Native Eye).
Phamotse was a Mosotho born in Ha Simon in Leribe district to Christian parents who were members of Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS) church and believed in educating self.
He was educated in Leribe and Morija where he completed primary education, and then furthered his education in 1896 at Lovedale College, in South Africa, making him one of the first Basothos to graduate at the college with a Junior Certificate. After completing his education at Lovedale he went back to Lesotho (then known as Basutoland) to take up a position as post master in Mohaleshoek.
In 1902, when the Anglo-Boer War ended, Sir Godfrey Lagden took him to Transvaal (now Gauteng province) to work as an interpreter for the Native Affairs department in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) under Mr C.M. Wheelwright. After resigning from that position a year later, his ambition to be a newspaper entrepreneur materialised when he founded and edited Leihlo la ba Batsho (The Native Eye) which was the first African newspaper in Transvaal. It however, ceased to print in 1905. The paper was an intellectual and political platform for the Transvaal Native Vigilance Association (TNVA); the philosophy of Leihlo la ba Batsho and the TNVA predated and was similar with the ANC’s African nationalism philosophy.
When Leihlo la ba Batsho collapsed he moved back to Lesotho to pursue newspaper business. Upon his arrival, Solomon Moone had already established Naledi ea Lesotho, the first newspaper to be published in Lesotho in 1904, and he worked there as editor. The paper was published fortnightly from its inception till 1911 and as a weekly from then to 1937.
His outstanding articles also appeared in English and Sesotho in Leselinyana (Tiny Light) of Maseru and Umteteli wa Bantu newspapers. His writings in Umteteli wa Bantu were against repressive nature of the European modernism vis-a-vis the colonial effects on the African nationalism.
While editing Naledi ea Lesotho Chief Jonathan Molapo entrusted him with the duties of becoming his accountant and official Secretary. It was his stay in Lesotho that led to the founding of Basutoland Progressive Association (BPA) with his contemporaries in 1907. In 1913, after six years as a commoner and member of the Basutoland National Council (BNC) he stood before the assembly and proposed that March 12 be observed as a celebration of King Moshoeshoe which resulted in Moshoeshoe’s Day.
Fourteen years later, Phamotse would resolve a conflict between the commoners and council members by coming up with a resolution. The commoners were unhappy with the high representative of royals over commoners in the Council. He suggested that the people should have direct vote of 76 of 100 representatives of that body.
He continued to be the voice of the commoners when he defended them against the chiefs, who had been using the matsema system to exclude them. The matsema was a system of hierarchical marriage links, which contained privilege and power in small, exclusive networks. The year was 1922.
The South African Native Convention (SANC) convened in Waaihoek, Bloemfontein, 24 to 26 of March 1909, to reject the South Africa Act. Chiefs from all territories did not attend the Convention except for Lekoko Montsioa and Silas Molema. Phamotse could not attend either because he was dissuaded from attending by King Letsie Moshoeshoe who did not want to temper with the imperial Britain as it was the protectorate of Lesotho.
As the next step after the Convention was to journey to the British Parliament to object to the South Africa Act in London, Phamotse played a significant role. He became a representative of Africans in Transkei and Protectorates of Swaziland, Basutoland and Bechuanaland (now Botswana), who were all supportive.
Phamotse worked as a personal assistant to Chief Jonathan and married his daughter, at a time when it was not easy for a commoner to marry a daughter of a chief. His leadership qualities as a promoter of justice earned him praises among Basotho (both black and white) and the chiefs themselves. With the time he spent in Alice while studying, he dreamt of becoming a newspaperman in the Transvaal, an influence he got from his countryman Thomas Mofolo and the Xhosa intellectuals such as Walter Rubusana, Elijah Makiwane, John Tengo Jabavu and Allan Kirkland Soga and became familiar with newspapers of his student days – Imvo Zabatsundu, Umteteli wa Bantu and Isigidimi sa maXhosa.
He passed on in 1928 and S.E.K. Mqhayi paid homage to him when he wrote his biography in African Yearly Register in 1930 and his obituary titled: Umfi Simon Majakathata Phamotse in Umteteli wa Bantu on 21 April 1928.
Mqhayi, S.E.K. 1930. Simon Majakathata Phamotse. African Yearly Register, p.79
Odendaal, A. 2012. The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.
Rosenburg, S., Weisfelder, R.F., Frisbie-Fulton, M. Ed. 2004. Dictionary of Lesotho. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc, pp.324-325.
Simon Majakathata Phamotse. Available at: http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/NAM/newafrre/writers/simon/simonS.htm.