Tiyo Soga: Dove of the Nation
He insisted that whatever the destructive fury of imperialism and colonialism, and the attendant racism, which he experienced throughout his lifetime, the peoples of Africa would never be destroyed or subjugated, but would, in time, reclaim Africa as their historic and sovereign matrimony.
President Thabo Mbeki
- Unveiling the Tiyo Soga Memorial September 2011
It was a bright summer day when we buried my uncle Themba Tshabalala. On a hillside in Sebokeng the small crowd sang Lizalis’ Idinga Lakho mournfully. This Tiyo Soga hymn has been part of our family life for as long as I can remember.
My first encounter with Soga was in my grandmother’s tiny living room in Sebokeng. My Gogo Nonhlanhla Tshabalala, was a staunch Presbyterian. She spoke of the great “Reverend Tiyo” as if he were an old friend. His name was uttered with endearment, although none of us had ever met him. At my grandmother’s insistence my cousins and I learnt the words diligently to Soga’s Lizalis’ Idinga Lakho (Fulfill Thy Promise Father). We sang proudly with our wobbly childhood voices.
We sang it every day before evening prayers. On Sundays at church we’d go back to that page in the hymnbook. And, like an old family friend it was there at the funeral of my grandfather’s brother, Themba Tshabalala.
Lizalis’ idinga lakho, (Fullfil/realise your promise)
Thixo Nkosi yenyaniso! (Lord, truthful God)
Zonk’ iintlanga, zonk’ izizwe, (Each clan and every nation)
Ma zizuze usindiso. (Should attain salvation)
The hymn, speaks of a just and truthful God. It gives us a peak into Soga’s passion for human rights. For much of his short life (he died at 42) Soga, straddled two worlds. From being a traditional Xhosa boy in Thyume he went on to establishing himself as a young man studying in Glasgow, Scotland. Infusing African tradition into modernity was a theme that flowed like a strong river through Soga’s life.
The Thyume River flows all along the eastern boundary of the quiet university town of Alice. Down in the valley lies the modest village of Mgwali where Tiyo Soga came into the world in 1829.
Tiyo was a true pioneer. He was the first black South African to be internationally educated and to be ordained as a priest in the Presbyterian Church. He was an Editor of the monthly Xhosa newspaper Indaba (The News) in its early years.
Messenger of the Nation
Writing in Indaba, Soga adopted the pseudonym Nonjiba Waseluhlangeni (Dove of the Nation). A dove is a symbol of peace but the nom de plume could also refer to its role as harbinger in some cultures. In Indaba, Soga established himself as a prolific messenger of the nation.
Indaba, established in August 1862, was an unusual choice for someone as free thinking as Soga. Founded by the Glasgow Missionary Society, the monthly publication was intended to give African teachers and students at Lovedale College a forum for free expression. But from its inception the paper had rigid parameters. One-third of the publication had to be published in English. The missionaries saw this as necessary for the “intellectual advancement” of the students and teachers. Another restriction stated: “Local and party politics should be avoided as far as possible.”
But despite the curbs Soga’s writing – amusing but also reflective – gave an insight into colonial rule and the influence of Christian missionaries. For him a newspaper was a powerful weapon in the struggle to reassert the identity and pride of the African people. Writing in the first edition, Soga articulated poetically the role of his paper in building communities:
I see this newspaper as a secure container that will preserve our history, our stories, our wisdom. The deeds of the nation are worth more than our cattle herds, money and even food. Let the elderly pour their knowledge into this container. Let all our stories, folk and fairy tales, traditional views, and everything that was ever seen, heard, done, and all customs, let them be reported and kept in the national container.
Excerpt from Indaba editorial by Tiyo Soga, Issue 1 August 1862
Soga’s marriage to Scotswoman, Jane Burnside, gave him added insights for writing about race relations in a way that was illuminating for the settlers as well as the local people. The following extract, taken from a famous piece directed at his children, helps us understand the basic prejudices he was up against:
If you wish to gain credit for yourselves – if you do not wish to feel the taunt of men, which you may sometimes well feel – take your place as coloured, not white men; as Africans, not as Englishmen…For your own sakes never appear ashamed that your father was an African, and that you inherited some African blood. It is every bit as good as that which flows in the veins of my fairer brethren.
Soga is regarded by some as an intellectual who sowed the seeds of black consciousness and liberation theology in South Africa. He challenged the narrow views of the missionary establishment about the meeting point between Christianity and African spiritual traditions. For Soga, religion, tradition and modernity could all coexist. He saw tradition as a force that complemented his own contemporary beliefs.
We want to know if you greet your chiefs with their traditional salutations – you who are converts to Christianity, you the dwellers in Mission stations. If you no longer do this what caused you to abandon this fine practice? Raise your hats to chiefs and respectable people.
To White gentlemen bow your heads gently even though you do not utter a word. Do that to White people who deserve this.
This ‘Morning Sir’ of the Xhosa people whenever they see a White face is very annoying.
– Indaba column by Tiyo Soga, June 1864
Soga’s stint at the Indaba newspaper coincided with the period when he was leading his own congregation at Mgwili village where people nicknamed him the “black Englishman”. Almost in defiance of the tag, Soga shook his world with his take on Pan Africanism, unity among the tribes, race relations and theology.
Soga was committed to preserving the history of his people, the amaJwara as well as that of South Africa. When not preaching at Mgwili or writing for Indaba, he would interview elders on fables, legends, customs and the genealogy of chiefs.
In the first edition of Indaba, Soga called stridently for a journalism that respected heritage:
Did we not form nations in the past? Did we not have our traditional leaders? What has happened to the wisdom of these leaders? Did we not have poets? Where is their poetry? Was there no witchcraft in the past? Did we not fight wars? Who were the heroes? Where is the distinctive regalia of the royal regiment?
Did we not hunt? Why was the meat of the chest of the rhino and the buffalo reserved for royalty? Where are the people to teach us our history, our knowledge and our wisdom? Let even the spirit of the departed return to bless us with the great gift of our heritage, which we must preserve!
— Indaba editorial by Tiyo Soga, Issue 1 August 1862.
Indaba did not last long and ceased to be published in February 1865. Indaba carried mainly general interest stories as well religious news.
Several churches have been named in honour of Tiyo Soga as well as a branch of the African National Congress. His life is commemorated in a stained glass window of the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in King William’s Town which he helped to establish.
At the age of 42 Soga died. He was a complex-man full of ideas and contradictions. His influence as a music composer, preacher, intellectual and storyteller still lives on in my family. And I have now come full circle from singing his hymn in my short trousers to singing his praises for the benefit of modern journalism.