The establishment of the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA) emerged out of increasing racial segregation in the Cape. While segregation had been established early in the history of the Cape, during the course of the nineteenth century racial division was extended and entrenched in the education system. For example, in 1893 mission schools that admitted exclusively white pupils qualified to receive larger grants, and the following year the government began distinguishing between black and white in collecting statistics in education. Legislative bills such as the School Boards Bill of 1896, the School Board and Attendance Bill in 1898 and the School Attendance Bill in 1899 were all failed attempts to implement compulsory white education.The government felt that the missionary schools provided sufficiently for the educational needs of black children, and the government was not prepared to carry the load of paying for the education of Coloured children. The consequent discontent on the part of Coloured people on this and a number of other issues crystallised in the formation of the first Coloured political organisation, the African People’s Organization (APO) in 1902 in Cape Town.

In 1905 the Cape Parliament passed the School Board Act. The Act provided for compulsory education for white children up to the age of 14 (or Standard IV). This further intensified the racial divide and the inequalities of the education system. While the Act set out procedures for the establishment of Coloured public schools, it conversely enacted clauses which ensured that access to public education was very limited. Attempts by a few white liberal politicians and elite members of the Coloured community to have the provisions of the School Board Act extended to Coloured failed.

Actions such as these only increased a sense of exclusion among the Coloured community - particularly the elite - and intensified a collective consciousness which in turn pushed them to organize and fight for their rights. Further, after 1905 segregation at schools was tightened sparking a desire to form a racially exclusive Coloured teachers’ organisation which focused on the Coloured teaching profession and education. As a consequence discontent simmered, and moves were set in motion to establish a Coloured teachers’ association. In 1905 and 1911 attempts to establish a Coloured teachers’ association did not succeed due to logistical problems. This despite the fact that draft constitutions had been written and circulated.

Formation of the TLSA

As indicated earlier, the formation of the TLSA was not the first attempt to form such as an organisation: previous efforts did not succeed. There is no doubt that the APO was involved in the formation of the TLSA. The APO provided the organisational capacity needed to start the TLSA. Historian Mohamed Adhikari notes that:

“The APO's role as midwife in the birth of the Teachers' League was important because it helped the Coloured teaching profession overcome its fragmentation and provided it with the organisational resources necessary to launch the association successfully.”

Plans for a launch were publicised in newspapers, and on 23 June 1913the TLSA was inaugurated in Cape Town. It was established to cater exclusively for the interests of Coloured teachers. Among its leading figures was Harold Cressy, a prominent member of the APO who played a key role as the main organiser of the TLSA’s founding Conference under the guidance and influence of Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, leader of the APO. After the death of Abdurahman the TLSA’s official publication, the Educational Journal, noted that it was under Abdurahman’s influence that Harold Cressy worked to organise the TLSA. Alan Wieder, author of Richard Dudley’s biography, states that Abdurahman admitted in 1934 that the TLSA was “...born at a meeting in his home.”

At its launch the organisation had fewer than a hundred members. However, over time the organisation grew and became influential in Coloured politics, producing some of the Coloured community’s leading intellectuals. Thus the TLSA was a pioneering teachers’ association representing the interests of Coloured teachers in Cape Town. It gradually spread and established branches even in remote villages and towns in the Cape and became home to two-fifths of all coloured teachers in the country. In fact, the TLSA came to represent by far the largest professional group within the Coloured community.

In May 1915 the TLSA launched its publication, the Educational Journal,in Cape Town, with Harold Cressy as its first editor. However, the editor-in-chief and the editorial board was constituted only in 1924, and by 1933 it was producing five copies a year. From 1943 eight editions were published every year.

The Journal became influential in disseminating the ideas of the league. Content included news, opinions, conference proceedings and grievances, amongst other issues. Later the journal was edited by Benjamin Kies, an influential member of the TLSA and a school principal who was expelled from teaching in 1956 for his political views. Helen Kies also worked as the Journal’s editor, and later Willem P van Schoor became its editor.

Adhikari notes that “although the league did not initially exclude racial bars in its constitution, it restricted its membership to Coloured teachers in practice”. Initially, while a limited number of white progressive teachers who had an interest in the advancement of Coloured education were allowed, African teachers were excluded. It was only in 1934 that African teachers in Coloured schools were accepted into the TLSA. The policy of racial exclusion was tacitly endorsed by the Educational Journal, which argued that the Coloured community should be allowed to develop its potential which in turn would “ensure better interracial relations”.

From 1937 onwards the TLSA adopted an increasingly anti-collaborationist stance because of the influence of a number of new members from the New Era Fellowship (NEF).

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After the formation of the Non European Unity Movement (NEUM) in December 1943, the TLSA became an affiliate of the organisation. More members in the organisation vigorously supported non-co-operation with the government and labelled those who co-operated as “traitors” and “quislings”. In 1943 five moderate members of the TLSA accepted seats on the Coloured Advisory Council, a development that resulted in a split on the organisation. Those fiercely opposed to any form of co-operation with the government attempted to isolate the TLSA members who took up seats by taking over the TLSA at the organisation’s Conference in June 1943.

The conflict saw moderate members of the TLSA forming their own organisation, the Teachers’ Educational and Professional Association (TEPA). From 1944 the TLSA’s Educational Journal came under the control of more radical members of the organisation, and subsequently became the mouthpiece of the NEUM and the Anti CAD Movement.

Apart from pushing for better education and working conditions for teachers, the TLSA also engaged in campaigns against the Apartheid government. For instance, in 1952 the TLSA worked closely with the Anti-CAD Movement, the New Era Fellowship and the Society of Young Africa (SOYA) to campaign against the Van Riebeeck celebrations and the impending implementation of Bantu Education. The TLSA urged teachers not allow students to buy Van Riebeeck medallions and instead work towards organising boycotts of the celebrations. The Educational Journal also published a “Van Riebeeck Series” early in 1951 to provide facts about the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and the consequences that followed. All articles supported the boycott.

By the late 1940s membership of the TLSA began to decline and by the 1960s the Apartheid government began banning its leaders. It is also worth noting that the APO, which was an influential founder of the TLSA, collapsed in 1944. Some members of the league began withdrawing from the organisation in the 1950s, fearing state repression. In 1953 Neville Alexander joined the TLSA, and around the same period Dr Edgar Maurice became principal of Harold Cressy High in 1952 and served as vice-president of the TLSA in the mid-1950s. In the early 1960s younger members of the league complained about the leadership and expressed their dissatisfaction by breaking away from the organisation. The TLSA became dormant, and in June 1963 it held its last conference. However, members of the TLSA continued to influence young students who became leading anti-apartheid activists.


The origin of the League was to a significant degree rooted in campaigns against the segregation of schooling at the Cape. This racial divide within Cape society was reflected in the dual education system – of mission and public schooling – that had developed during the nineteenth century. The organisation grew out of discontent which manifested itself in the establishment of the APO; the latter was thus instrumental in establishing the former.


Adhikari, A., (2005), Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South Africa, (Cape Town), pp.79, 95-96, 133-135.|

Adhikari, M., ‘Coloured Identity and the Politics of Coloured Education: The Origin of the Teachers' League of South Africa’, in The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1994), pp. 101-126.|

Wieder, A., (2008), Teacher and Comrade: Richard Dudley and the Fight for Democracy in South Africa, (University of New York), pp.13-15, 22.|

Dick, A. L., (2012), The Hidden History of South Africa's Book and Reading Cultures, (University of Toronto Press), pp.101-104.|

James, W.G., (2009), Mary Simons, Class, Caste and Color: A Social and Economic History of the South African, (New Jersey), p.184.|

Witz, L., (2003),Apartheid's Festival: Contesting South Africa's National Pasts, (Indiana University Press), p.148.|

Switzer, L., (1997), South Africa's Alternative Press: Voices of Protest and Resistance, 1880s-1960s, (Cambridge University Press)|

Ntantala, P., (1992), A Life's Mosaic: The Autobiography of Phyllis Ntantala, (University of California Press), p.149.

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