Thomas Levi Mvabaza, had a short but impactful life. He made his mark in journalism, business and politics. At a young age he designed the ANC flag that became a worldwide symbol of the struggle for freedom.
The African National Congress’ entrenched visibility as a brand is in part owing to the genius of the visionary architecture of its flag.
The flag with its prominent colour configuration – black (for the African people), green (for the land) and gold (for the mineral riches) – was conceptualised and suggested by a highly politicised and young Thomas Levi Mvabaza during the organisation’s 1925 annual conference held in Johannesburg. His proposal was unanimously adopted.
The New Dictionary of South African Biography, in an excerpt by Verwey (1995) described Mvabaza as an uncompromisingly radical leader whose life was dedicated to the inclusion of African people in political systems and the education of African children. He was born in 1910, in Grahamstown.
His political conscience and activism did not start in 1925, and was not confined to his birth place of Peddie near Grahamstown. He travelled the country to receive his education at St Matthew’s College (Assamoah Kwame St Matthew’s High School) at Keiskammahoek and then proceeded to Zonnebloem College in Cape Town, before moving to Port Elizabeth and then Johannesburg in the Transvaal to work as a journalist and a political activist.
While in Johannesburg, Mvabaza and his friend Saul Msane got together in 1910 to form and edit an English-Xhosa weekly Umlomo wa Bantu (Mouthpiece of the Nation). The policy of Umlomo, according to Skota, was “the unifying of all African tribes into one people, and to improve and expedite the education of the African children.”
In 1911 Mvabaza attended executive committee meetings of the South African Native Congress (SANC – precursor of SANNC) where the constitution of the SANC as well as the formation of what would become the organisation’s official mouthpiece national newspaper would happen simultaneously. Out of that meeting he was nominated to a committee whose focus was to bring solutions to conflict between politically conscious Africans in the Transvaal. This led to the spirit of reconciliation as a solution and the subsequent birth of the Transvaal Native Congress (TNC).
Mvabaza would become a prominent figure in the founding of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC, African National Congress (ANC) after 1923) which succeeded the SANC. In 1912 he attended the inaugural meeting of the SANNC in Bloemfontein, and delivered one of the speeches on the programme.
In 1912 he attended an inaugural meeting of the SANNC in Bloemfontein and was one of the speakers. After the meeting Umlomo wa Bantu and some of the other newspapers amalgamated to form Abantu Batho, which became the official mouthpiece of the SANNC. Mvabaza became co-editor alongside Saul Masane and was later appointed managing director of the company which was formed to publish the newspaper. He worked at Abantu-Batho until 1931.
In March 1913, at the first annual SANNC conference, he was elected as part of a delegation that departed from the Transvaal for Cape Town to plead with the government to disband the Draft Bill of the Natives Land Act of 1913. But nothing came of it as General Louis Botha, the then Prime Minister and Native Affairs Minister, rejected their proposal.
Following the criminal prospection of the Johannesburg sanitary workers who participated in the so-called Bucket Strike, in June 1918, Mvabaza was at it again leading a campaign for their release. He and four other congress members were arrested for inciting the workers. However, the court found that they had exerted a moderating influence on the strikers, thus the case against them was dropped. Mvabaza continued to take the lead in organising Africans in the Witwatersrand, working tirelessly to prepare for a general strike of African workers. He came to the fore as one of the more radical leaders of the TNC. Unfortunately the strike would be thwarted by the Great Influenza Epidemic in 1918, on which the police capitalised and forced the fragmented workers to return to work. The epidemic led to the hospitalisation and death of many South Africans.
Again in 1919 Mvabaza was a member of the SANNC delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference and the British government. Their bottom line was relaxation of the imperial Union rules for Africans in South Africa. Again, they came back empty-handed.
Two years later, in 1921, he was elected assistant treasurer of the TNC. ZR Mahabane admitted Mvabaza to his ‘cabinet’ as Minister of Land and Locations. Mahabane at that time, was President-General of the ANC between 1924 and 1927.
When Pixley ka Seme stepped in as the ANC President-General in 1930 he also took Mvabaza in. In 1932 Mvabaza was selected a member of the ANC’s ‘revival committee’ appointed to save the ANC from its apathetic state at that time.
Under President-General DDT Jabavu of the All African Convention (AAC), Mvabaza was again elected to the executive committee of the ANC in December 1936. In 1943 he became part of the working committee when ANC Transvaal was reorganised.
He became a member of the National Anti-Pass Council during the anti-pass campaign of 1944-1945. During the 1930s Mvabaza participated in the protests against the so-called JBM Hertzog Draft Bills, viz. The Natives’ Trust and Land Bill which played a role in taking land away from the Africans and the Representation of Natives Bill which ensured the removal of the Cape black voters from the common voters roll. Frustration mounted in the AAC in Bloemfontein in December 1935, with Mvabaza acting as one of the organisers.
Mvabaza and his wife Sina had two sons and a daughter. He died in Pimville in 1955.
Mvabaza owned a small shop in Klipspruit, before parts of it became Pimville.
Additional Research: Phindile Xaba
Limb, P. 2012. ‘Only the Bolder Spirits’. In: Limb, P. A Centenary of Abantu-Batho: The People’s Paper. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp.49-80.
Lowe, C. 2012. The Swazi Royalty and the Founding of Abantu-Batho in a Regional Context. In: Limb, P.A Centenary of Abantu-Batho: The People’s Paper. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, pp.174-200.
Vervey, E.J. 1995. New Dictionary of South African Biography, Volume 1. Pretoria: HSRC Publishers, pp.193-195.