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Bernard Magubane
My life & times

Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane

Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane


Photographs fall between pages 182 and 183

Preface ix

1 My early life 1
2 A turbulent decade 40
3 University of Natal 74
4 University of California, Los Angeles 104
5 University of Zambia 140
6 Interlude 188
7 University of Connecticut 206
8 The Anti-Apartheid Movement 230
9 Liberal and radical scholarship 249
10 From Kabwe to Dakar 303
11 Homecoming 331

Index 368


Herein lie buried many things, which if I read with patience may
show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the
Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you,
Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the
problem of the colour line. I pray you, then receive my little book in
all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistakes and foible
for the Sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the
grain of truth hidden there . . .
— W.E.B. du Bois, Foreword to The Souls of Black Folks

N ow in the twilight of my life, I feel it is time to look back, reflect

and record, for my children and grandchildren, my personal
experiences of the times I lived in. They were, in Dickensian terms,
the best of times and the worst of times. In my years, colonialism,
imperialism, white supremacy in all their forms and machinations were
running rampant and assaulted the dignity of black humanity every-
where. Struggles that some thought were hopeless were waged under
impossible conditions. These struggles were sometimes individual and
personal to escape one’s worst circumstances, but at other times they
were also organised in political formations. In time, both the individual
and organised struggles merged and became one.

I am a South African, just an ordinary South African. With the
love and support of an ordinary, yet extraordinary, South African family,
I chanced upon a journey that would take me across the Atlantic to the
United States of America, and to a life which offered me the opportunity
to become the person I am. In the US, as in Africa, I found a voice
with which to speak out and speak up for the freedom of the country
of my birth.
This is my story. Look inside carefully. You may well find parts of
your story hidden between the lines too.


My early life

I was born on 26 August 1930 on a farm near Colenso, a town named

after the famous British missionary bishop, John William Colenso,
who came to Natal to convert the ‘pagan’ Zulus, but found himself
sympathetic to their ways instead. The town’s main feature, then as
now, was a major electric power station. From our homestead, we could
walk to town and back the same day. There is a memorial to the
Armoured Train Incident where Winston Churchill, at the time a war
correspondent, was captured at the height of the 1899–1902 Anglo-
Boer War. The memorial is testimony to British imperialism, its
predatory activities and its betrayal of the African people in the
settlement of Vereeniging that ended that war and, as a measure of
appeasement, formalised the partitioning of South Africa between the
British and the Boers.
My grandparents were born in the old Zulu kingdom ruled by our
king, Cetshwayo kaMpande. They lived to see the Zulu kingdom
vanquished and made a part of the Colony of Natal and the British
Empire. The years that followed the Anglo-Zulu War, according to the
historian, Allistair Boddy-Evans, became progressively harder for Zulu
people. Dinizulu kaCetshwayo, who acceded to the throne after his
father, had been held in exile. When the Zulu kingdom was handed
over to the Colony of Natal in 1897, Dinizulu was allowed to return to
his old homestead, but only as a chief and not as a king. Both my
parents must have been born during the years that led to the decimation

of Cetshwayo’s kingdom. If human beings owe their ideas and social
consciousness to the totality of their experiences and social conditions,
the events that left a major impact on the generation of my parents
were the Anglo-Boer War, the Bambatha Rebellion and the passage of
the 1913 Natives’ Land Act.
My father’s name was Xegwana and my mother’s name was
Nozibukutho kaKhumalo. When my parents converted to Catholicism,
my father was baptised and given the name Eliot and my mother was
renamed Ella. They grew up during the tumultuous events that led to
the Anglo-Boer War and lived through the harrowing experience of
the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906–07.
In January 1906, according to historian Hosea Jaffe, Zulu ex-
communal, cheap-labour peasants rose in a class struggle against
squatters’ taxes, raised to fourteen shillings in 1903, and against the
Stock Theft laws, poll-tax raids and land hunger. The final spark was in
1905 with another poll tax imposed on all adult African males by the
British colonial authorities in Natal. A guerrilla struggle ensued in the
Nkandla Forests between Bambatha, a Zulu minor ruler, and his
followers against the military forces of the Colony of Natal. When
Bambatha’s resistance crumbled, fighting extended to northern Natal.
Between 3 000 and 4 000 Zulus were killed during the rebellion. In
addition, 7 000 were jailed and 4 000 sentenced to flogging. The British
executed twelve Zulu rebels on 31 March and 2 April 1906. The
Bambatha Rebellion was the last armed insurrection by Africans. By
1906, the rebellion had effectively closed a chapter in South African
history and ended the Wars of Dispossession that had begun in the
mid-seventeenth century with the arrival of the earliest European
settlers. My grandmother spoke in glowing terms about the bravery of
Bambatha kaManciza. B.W. Vilakazi would later compose one of the
most moving poems about Bambatha, his namesake; the poem was
called ‘Amagcino kaZulu’ – roughly translated as ‘The last born of the
Zulu heroes’.
The cruelty of the British, who suppressed the rebellion so savagely,
left indelible marks in the memories of my parents and others of their

generation. With sore hearts they often talked about the Bambatha
Rebellion. But the most talked-about event in our household was the
1909 betrayal of the British who, with deliberate cynicism, decided to
hand over the fate of Africans to the Boers. This was carried out in
terms of the South Africa Act passed into law without consultation
with Africans or regard for their interests. In the following year, the
two British colonies of Natal and the Cape were united with the two
former Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State to form
the provinces of the new Union of South Africa. But this act of
usurpation did not go unchallenged by the dispossessed Africans.
My father and his friends vividly remembered the formation of the
South African Native National Congress on 8 January 1912 – renamed
the African National Congress in 1923. The convenor of the 1912
inaugural gathering was Pixley kaIsaka Seme, a proud son of the Zulus
who had studied law at Columbia University in New York. They
also remembered and felt very proud that the first president (of)
kaKhongolose (the Zulu version of ‘Congress’) was another Zulu son,
Dr John Langalibalele Dube, who also founded the Ohlange Institute
near Inanda and Ilanga lase Natal (the ‘Natal Sun’ newspaper). The
fact that the chiefs and especially the Zulu king gave their blessing to
the formation kaKhongolose made it easier for all Africans to identify
with it. Indeed, Seme, who himself was a protégé of the Swazi Queen
Regent Labotsibeni, credited the kings and chiefs with being the real
brains behind Congress, the country’s first pan-tribal political
organisation. Traditional leaders nurtured Congress from its conception
as members of the House of Chiefs. My father and his friends often
recited the aims of the organisation, which they knew by heart: ‘To
encourage mutual understanding and to bring together into common
action as one political people all the tribes and clans of various tribes
or races and by means of combined effort and united political
organisation to defend their freedom, rights and privileges.’
The organisation would have an immeasurable impact on the life
of my parents and on many generations after them. My father’s keen
interest to see us educated derived, in part, from his admiration of

Dube and Seme. He would often say to me: ‘I want you to be as educated
as Dr Dube.’ Dube, like Seme, had studied in the United States, and
had been greatly influenced by Booker T. Washington, the head of the
Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. My parents, the first generation of Zulu
people born into colonial servitude on what had been their ancestral
lands, greatly admired Dr Dube’s accomplishments and his
commitment to the political struggles for the emancipation of the
African people.
The 1913 Natives’ Land Act regulated land possession in the four
provinces of South Africa between indigenous African chiefdoms and
kingdoms, and their erstwhile conquerors. The impact of the Act on
the evicted, landless and enserfed African squatters on ‘white’ farms
has been immortalised by Sol Plaatje, first Secretary General of the
Congress, in his book Native Life in South Africa (1914). Overnight, as
Plaatje put it, all Africans became foreigners in the land of their
ancesters. That is how my grandparents and my parents became squatters
on the farm where, in 1930, I was born.
In terms of the Act, Africans could not own land outside the ‘Native
Reserves’ that were but shrunken areas of the land they once occupied
and on which they enjoyed usufruct. The Act empowered white farmers
to evict squatters who refused to work for them as cheap labourers. It
imposed a fine of ten pounds (a year’s wages plus five pounds a day for
cattle left on a ‘white farm’). Land available to Africans now comprised
little more than seven per cent of the total land area of South Africa –
‘increased’ to thirteen per cent in 1936. Through the fact of conquest,
European settlers now ‘legally’ owned eighty-seven per cent of the land
and they believed that legislation such as the 1913 Natives’ Land Act
would perpetuate land ownership in their hands to eternity. My parents
would talk about how, as a result of the Land Act, their parents and
thousands of other African families roamed the country in search of
land to build their homes, and to graze their cattle, sheep and goats.
The right to a piece of land was now restricted, and on top of that, the
Pass laws were enforced so vigorously, there was no escape from them.
If you did not ‘voluntarily’ work for a white man, the alternative was

prison. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England,
through the passage of the Enclosure laws, English peasants had
experienced similar land dispossession which forced them to be
labourers in the new towns and cities spawned by the revolution.
In 1919 my father was about twenty-one years old. During the dry
season, when he was not working on the farm where we lived as squatters
on ‘white land’ in exchange for labour, he would go to Durban to look
for work so that he could pay his taxes. But his movements were severely
restricted by the Pass laws that stipulated where he could live and work,
thus severely circumscribing his freedom to sell his labour to the highest
bidder. In 1919, to rid themselves of these ‘badges of slavery’, Congress
led a Pass-burning campaign in conjunction with the Industrial and
Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), which was formed the same year
by Clements Kadalie. A.W.G. Champion, whom my father and his
friends greatly revered, was the leader of the ICU yase Natal. Champion
was a resident of Chesterville where we later went to live.
My parents’ political consciousness was influenced a great deal by
two political movements: one was the ICU, as I have noted, and the
other was the United Negro Improvement Society (UNIS) in the United
States, a movement formed by Marcus Garvey. Interestingly, both
Garvey and Kadalie were not indigenous to the countries in which
they started these movements. Garvey was born in Jamaica and went to
live in the United States in 1916; Kadalie was born in Nyasaland (now
Malawi) and came to South Africa as a migrant labourer. My uncle,
Elijah Magubane, used to talk about the impact of these two movements
on the development of his own consciousness. He identified with both
movements intimately and passionately.
My paternal grandmother, who lived with us and used to regale us
with stories of her youth, had even more vivid memories of the past,
going back to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 when the Zulu nation lost
its autonomy and became subjects of the British. She told us stories
about Cetshwayo kaMpande’s ‘visit’ to and encounter with Queen
Victoria, so well memorialised in Jeff Guy’s book, The Destruction of the
Zulu Kingdom (1980). Once Cetshwayo signed the surrender terms, the

British divided the land of the Zulu people among themselves and
thus established the fundamental division between themselves and the
landless victims of conquest. This turned the vanquished into virtual
slaves of capitalists. For good effect, they rubbed the noses of the Zulu
people in the dirt by forcing the king to agree to the following terms of

I will not permit the existence of the Zulu military system, or

the existence of any military system within my territory, and
will proclaim and make it a rule that all men shall be allowed to
marry whom they choose, and as they choose, according to
good and ancient customs of my people, known and followed
in the days preceding the establishment by Chaka of the system
known as the military system, and I will allow and encourage
all men living within my territory to go and come freely for
peaceful purposes, and to work in Natal and the Transvaal or
elsewhere for themselves or for hire.

The terms were a deliberate affront to Zulu customs, traditions and

dignity and were designed to break the spirit of a once-proud people –
indeed, to break the spirit of every African who lived during the period
of final conquest. For my grandmother, who lived through the Anglo-
Zulu War, the Anglo-Boer War and the Bambatha Rebellion, these
terms of utter defeat and humiliation were part of her lived experience.
And she talked about them as if they happened yesterday.
Later, as I learned about these events in my classes, I often wondered
what their impact meant in actual practice for men and women who
had been born into a culture with its rules and norms, to be told
suddenly that their society should not only revert to what it was before
Shaka rose to power, but that, in fact, their customs and traditions
were barbaric. Only later in life would I learn why the British wanted
Zulu society to revert to the days before the rise of the Zulu nation. It is
a story that remains to be told. Psychologists acknowledge the deleterious
impact of such a rupture with one’s cultural way of life. In his book,