Alfred Bitini Xuma was born on 8 March 1893, in Manzana, Ngcobo District, in the Eastern Province (now Eastern Cape). Xuma was the seventh child of Abraham Mangali Xuma and Elizabeth Cupase Xuma, devout members of the Wesleyan Church. 

Abraham, a lay preacher at the Enduku Methodist Society of the Bojane Mission, was a respected tribal councillor.  

Xuma and his brothers were responsible for herding and milking their father’s livestock and learned to work the fields with an oxen-led plough.

Horses were an important mode of transport in the Transkei, and the young Xuma participated in horse races at a Manzana track. His other pursuits as a boy included stick fighting and hunting small game and birds in the nearby wooded areas.

Xuma began attending the local, Anglican-run primary school when he was six or seven years old. By the time he was 14, he had already passed standard five and had completed his primary school.

Xuma was almost 15 when his father encouraged him to enrol at Clarkebury, a Wesleyan missionary institution, in January 1908. Clarkebury was among the oldest missions in the Transkei.

His first-year marks were high enough for his admission to the teacher-training course in 1909. Besides undergoing teacher training while at Clarkebury, Xuma began to study Latin with the help of a private tutor. He participated in debating competitions and conducted one of Clarkebury’s music groups.

Clarkebury’s principal during those years, the Rev Arthur J Lennard, exerted a strong influence over the ethos of the school. The school authorities recognised potential in young Xuma and invested him with extra responsibilities. Although he was among the youngest students at the institution, Xuma was asked to serve as a monitor for one of the campus dormitories. Eventually the Clarkebury administrators appointed Xuma as the official timekeeper of the school, requiring the sounding of the school bell at precise intervals throughout the school day and night.

Toward the latter part of 1911, the Cape Education Department decided to make a distinction between the teaching certificates granted to Europeans and Africans who had completed teacher-training courses. A number of students believed that this discriminated against Africans, and they began to organize their peers at Clarkebury to plan a response. Years later, Xuma recalled that he played a leading role in what came next. Almost all of the Clarkebury boarders staged a walkout to protest against the inequities plaguing African education, and in doing so virtually abandoned the institution.  Although Xuma and his fellow students were back at Clarkebury within a matter of days, they had made their point.

Xuma’s father brought him back to Clarkebury by horseback and ensured that his son apologised to the Principal, Rev Lennard. Lennard agreed to re-offer the youth a place at the school, unaware that young Xuma was one of the leading figures behind the strike. Six weeks after he was readmitted to Clarkebury, Xuma passed the provincially administered ‘P.T.3’ exam, qualifying him to teach in the higher primary standards. He was 18 years old.

Between 1912 and 1913, Xuma taught at two primary schools; one in a settlement known as Ntibani; the other at Newala, earning a salary of £14 per term.

Some time between his last few years at Clarkebury and the 18 months he spent teaching, Xuma decided to continue his quest for education in the United States of America (USA).

The Webster literary society, University of Minnesota (1919). Alfred B. Xuma appears in the top right-hand corner. Source: Alfred B. Xuma, African, American, South African by Steven D. Gish

Hard Times: Studies in the USA

Xuma turned to two individuals to counsel him as he weighed his choices. Henry Poswayo, an overseas graduate in law, had once taught at Xuma’s primary school in Manzana and helped answer his many questions. Especially helpful to Xuma was the Rev JZ Tantsi, of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Africa. Tantsi had spent time at Wilberforce University in the United States and had presided over the opening of Wilberforce Institute in the Transvaal in 1908. Seeing that Xuma was interested in America’s educational offerings, Rev Tantsi gave him all the information and encouragement he could muster.

Xuma decided to enrol at Tuskegee, the foremost Black tertiary educational institution in Alabama in the USA.  

Finances were a problem for young Xuma, but by carefully saving he was able to travel to the USA to pursue his education. In August 1913, Xuma left home for East London where, accompanied by his friends Edmund Kamnqa and Robinson Sondlo, they set sail for America.

Xuma and his two travelling companions arrived at Tuskegee on 20 September 1913. 

Upon arrival at Tuskegee, his friend Kamnqa was in danger of being turned away due to a lack of finances when Xuma agreed to assist him. Xuma learned that if he helped his friend with living expenses, both of them could afford to attend Tuskegee’s night school. Xuma secured work on the Institute’s farm and made plans to spend his first year at Tuskegee studying agriculture. It was a demanding routine. He was required to spend two hours per weeknight in the classroom after a full day at work.

Xuma enrolled in Tuskegee’s Normal School, which offered the Institute’s advanced students a four-year curriculum and the equivalent of a high school education.

Xuma ranked third in his class at the end of the 1916 academic year, and was asked to address the students  – an honour bestowed upon the school’s top three graduates. Xuma addressed the 25 May 1916 gathering on ‘Problems in Poultry Raising’.

On 13 July 1916, Xuma left for Birmingham, Alabama, in search of a job that would enable him to pay his outstanding debts to Tuskegee. He found work at the American Cast Iron Pipe Company, where he remained until late October 1916. Then, Xuma set off for St Paul, Minnesota to seek admission at the University of Minnesota’s College of Agriculture. Because he arrived at the University halfway through the fall semester, Xuma set about studying for the college’s entrance examinations and securing on-campus employment. Despite achieving only mixed results in the exams ”” he passed in English and American history, but failed the mathematics test – Xuma was admitted to the College of Agriculture in February 1917.

Xuma’s poverty almost forced him to abandon his higher education altogether. Paying the university’s entrance fees had rendered him virtually destitute. The Tuskegee ethos of self-help, plus a great deal of assistance from sympathetic Whites, allowed Xuma to continue.

After explaining his dire circumstances to the College of Agriculture’s Superintendent, Xuma secured a job in exchange for accommodation in an attic room. He earned his meals by washing dishes in a campus cafeteria and by helping a senior student with odd jobs. The Dean of the College contributed by giving Xuma clothing. By the end of his first two years at the University, Xuma had waited tables on trains and in restaurants, shovelled coal, groomed horses, milked cows, and fired boilers to earn his keep.

William Riley, Head of the Department of Entomology and Economic Zoology in the College of Agriculture became Xuma’s mentor. For the next two years, Xuma worked as Riley’s laboratory assistant, preparing museum specimens, setting up class demonstrations, and assisting with experiments. Riley quickly developed a keen interest in promoting Xuma’s education. Deeply impressed with the young student’s character and ability, he would be instrumental in bringing Xuma into the patronage networks of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

While at the University of Minnesota, he joined the St James African Methodist Episcopal Church and taught Sunday school.  Xuma built up a solid academic record as an undergraduate. Early in his senior year at Minnesota, he had begun mailing out inquiries to medical schools. Among the institutions he contacted in 1919 was the University of Toronto. Xuma also considered returning to South Africa as his undergraduate education neared its end. He made inquiries as to whether the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Board of Foreign Missions had any job openings in his home country, but received a negative response.

On 17 June 1920, he received his Bachelor of Science degree from the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Home Economics. Xuma applied for admission into the University of Minnesota’s medical school and was offered a place at Minnesota’s medical school in 192O.

Xuma’s first semester marks in anatomy and physical chemistry were too low for him to continue without remedial course work. Granted an ‘honourable dismissal’ by the medical school, he went to Chicago in the hope of remedying his academic deficiencies and finding work.

Xuma spent nine months in Chicago in 1921. Again, support from White Christians provided him with much needed encouragement. The wife of a Bishop helped Xuma land a job as a shipping clerk at a Methodist book concern and a Dr Justus Matthews of Minneapolis helped with his medical school tuition. The generosity of such White Christians left a deep impression on Xuma.

Intent on attending the University of Minnesota’s medical school, Xuma enrolled at Chicago’s Lewis Institute and took evening classes to improve his results. Despite his efforts, Xuma’s request for readmission to Minnesota was denied. He applied to other medical schools, but in most cases his applications failed either because they revealed a lack of necessary academic credits or because they were filed too late. Eventually Xuma was accepted at Marquette University’s medical school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1921.

Faced with limited financial reserves, he worked as a domestic servant for a White Milwaukee couple in exchange for room and board, using his small savings toward his medical school expenses at Marquette. He was the only Black among the first year class of 1921.  Xuma now settled into medical school and achieved good results.

When Xuma returned to begin his second year of medical school, he was down to his last few dollars.  He would have been forced to abandon his medical studies altogether were it not for the continued support he received from a handful of White American Christians and other well-wishers. Without this assistance, Xuma would have been forced to withdraw from Marquette.

After two years at Marquette, Xuma decided to apply for a transfer to Northwestern University medical school in Chicago. After initially rejecting Xuma’s application, Northwestern reversed this by mid-1923 and admitted him to the medical school.  When Xuma began medical studies at Northwestern in 1923, he was one of only three Black students and three international students in the junior class.

To raise funds for his studies Xuma worked at a variety of jobs in between terms, including as a waiter on the Northern Pacific Railway line between St Paul and Winnipeg and continued to receive assistance from his White sponsors. Xuma’s plight received widespread attention in July 1924 when a nationally syndicated newspaper published a story about him under the headline ‘Poverty May End College Career of Young African.’

The article described Xuma as a poverty-stricken African tribesman whose dream of returning to his homeland as a physician was on the brink of failure. This led to several offers of assistance with his studies.

In 1925  Xuma passed his last medical school examinations. He then served a one-year internship at St Louis City Hospital, beginning on 1 July 1925.

As his medical internship progressed, Xuma gave thought to his return to South Africa. In 1925, he wrote to the editors of the South African Outlook to inquire about opportunities for black physicians in South Africa.

In 1926, the Secretary of the American Board of Foreign Missions (ABFM) wrote Xuma from Boston about the organization’s plans to support the construction of a new hospital in Johannesburg. Xuma expressed an interest in the prospective hospital and was offered the post of superintendent. 

Xuma completed his internship in June 1926 and received his medical degree from Northwestern during the same month. Xuma decided to seek support for advanced training in gynaecology and obstetrics in Europe. Again, his American friends and well-wishers assisted him.  Xuma’s encounters with White Americans left him with an enduring belief in multiracial partnerships.

On 1 September 1926, Xuma set sail for Europe after almost 13 years. Xuma proceeded to Hungary for six months of advanced training in medicine. Here he studied gynaecology and obstetrics.  Next, he travelled to Budapest and interned as a surgeon at New St John’s Hospital.

In 1927, Xuma headed to Britain in order to prepare for the qualifying examinations in medicine and then decided to go to Edinburgh, Scotland, to which he proceeded in April. In October 1927, Xuma passed his medical examinations.  He set sail for South Africa in November 1927.

Return to South Africa

Xuma arrived in South Africa on 4 December 1927. The South African immigration authorities were initially reluctant to let the young physician return home. They suspected that Xuma was a Black American and only approved his entry once his family in the Transkei confirmed his citizenship. Xuma’s first stop after clearing customs was the East London home of Rev Walter Rubusana.

When members of the white South African medical establishment learned of Xuma’s impending return home in late 1927, they offered the young doctor advice on how and where he should begin his career. While still in Edinburgh, Xuma had received a visit from Dr James McCord, medical superintendent of the McCord Zulu Hospital in Durban. McCord invited Xuma to become part of his staff and participate in the training of African ‘medical aids’ at the hospital. Sensing that the medical aid scheme would relegate Africans to a programme of inferior medical training, Xuma declined McCord’s offer. The issue of medical training for Africans would increasingly concern Xuma in the years to come.

He then decided to establish his medical practice in Johannesburg. By January 1928, Xuma had moved to the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown, where he would remain for the next 30 years. He was the first and only western-trained African physician in Johannesburg. By the time Xuma settled there, primarily African, Indian, and Coloured South Africans lived side by side in Sophiatown.

In order to become licensed to practise, newly trained doctors in South Africa were required to obtain the backing of at least two established physicians who would support their registration. Xuma secured the willing sponsorship of two of Johannesburg’s most prominent White physicians: Dr RP MacKenzie, superintendent of the Johannesburg Hospital, and one Dr Herbert, secretary of the South African Medical Council. Xuma opened his first medical office in early 1928 in a building opposite the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court.

As Xuma set about building his medical practice, he seized the opportunity to speak out against schemes to offer Africans ‘practical’ rather than complete health care training. His address before a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Johannesburg on 31 July 1929 was the first major speech of his South African career. In it, he argued that provisions for the ‘practical training’ of African ‘medical aids’ would seriously undermine the health profession in African communities. There was no acceptable substitute for fully trained African doctors and nurses as far as Xuma was concerned. He appealed for the establishment of a medical school in South Africa that would open its doors to Africans. Until then, he argued, prospective African medical students needed government assistance to pursue their studies overseas.

Xuma also identified what he saw as the special value of African physicians in the South African context ”” their ability to wean their communities away from ‘traditional’ medicine in cases where ‘modern’ treatments might be more effective. Because of their inherent understanding of African belief systems, Xuma maintained, African doctors were uniquely qualified for such a task.

Liberal Politics

Between 1928 and 1929, Xuma met several leading political figures, but hesitated becoming a member of any political organization. Clements Kadalie invited Xuma to join the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU); Pixley Seme offered him the position of assistant treasurer of the African National Congress (ANC). In both cases, Xuma declined, preferring instead to concentrate on his medical practice.

His connections to South Africa’s white liberal community were established shortly after he set up residence in Johannesburg. Xuma sought the advice and assistance of two men in particular ”” Howard Pim and JD Rheinallt-Jones, both pillars of white liberalism on the Rand. Pim chaired the Johannesburg Native Welfare Society in the 1920s and was a leading figure in multiracial associations such as the Johannesburg Joint Council for Europeans and Africans. Rheinallt-Jones, founder of the South African Institute of Race Relations in 1929, took a keen interest in Xuma’s practice and general welfare from the very start.

Convinced that African miners suffering from respiratory diseases were being denied adequate compensation from their employers, Xuma launched a personal effort on the miners’ behalf. He expressed his concern to members of the Johannesburg Joint Council of Europeans and Africans, and eventually gave evidence before the Miners’ Phthisis Commission. Xuma’s growing political awareness also led him to participate in multiracial discussion groups around this time.

On 21 September 1929, Xuma participated in a debate – on segregation – before a Black and White audience in Pretoria. Sharing the podium with Xuma were RV Selope Thema, Edgar Brookes, and H Selby Msimang. Xuma chose to side with the debate’s anti-segregationist forces.

In 1929, Xuma officially became a member of the Johannesburg Joint Council for Europeans and Africans. The Joint Council movement had been launched in 1921 at the behest of Thomas Jesse Jones and James Aggrey, representatives of the American-based Phelps Stokes Commission. Rheinallt-Jones set up the Johannesburg Joint Council as a discussion group to promote racial cooperation and improve African welfare. It was through the Joint Council movement that Xuma cemented his ties to South Africa’s White liberal world. By 1930, Xuma had been appointed to the Johannesburg Joint Council’s executive board and enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Council’s leading white members.

In June 1930, he was part of a deputation to see the Johannesburg Native Affairs Commissioner. Xuma shared the deputation’s concerns about police raids and the pass laws, but took pains to stress the group’s ‘moderation’.

The Bantu Men’s Social Centre (BMSC) was the focus of social and cultural activities in Johannesburg for over 30 years. In 1931, Xuma was invited to become patron-in-chief of the BMSC’s  Reds Football Club, the first of many official positions he would assume within the Centre.

Protests against Segregation

Xuma’s reputation as a leading figure among educated Africans arose from a speech he delivered at Fort Hare in 1930. He was one of 300 delegates invited to attend the Conference of the European and Bantu Christian Student Associations at the University College of Fort Hare between 27 June and 3 July of that year. The Black and White student delegates from South Africa, Europe, and the USA met to discuss topics ranging from economics to the Christian approach to the ‘race question’. Until the Fort Hare conference, such interracial student gatherings were virtually unheard of in South Africa.

Xuma entitled his talk ‘Bridging the Gap between White and Black in South Africa’. He called on the Government to abandon its policies of segregation and provide a common citizenship to all South Africans regardless of race. Xuma ended by calling for greater multiracial dialogue in South Africa and suggested that educated Africans play a leading role in this dialogue.

Xuma voiced concerns about Africans in the urban and rural areas. In his 1931 testimony before the Native Economic Commission and Liquor Commission he deplored the conditions faced by urban African workers, describing their location compounds as ‘suggesting either slavery or prison life’. He stressed the need for improved wages, an end to the industrial colour bar, and a host of other measures. African women were particularly vulnerable to the harsh realities of urban life, Xuma argued. Because their husbands earned so little, many urban African women augmented their household income by illegally selling home-brewed beer. He blamed the system under which they lived and said that it had to be changed.

Concerned about Africans in the rural areas, he recognised that severe land shortages and excessive taxation were seriously undermining the ability of rural Africans to support themselves. In his recommendations to the Government, he called for the opening up of more land for African farmers; increased state loans and irrigation assistance; improved agricultural education; and better working conditions for African farm labourers. Only once these steps were taken would the African influx to the cities slow to an acceptable level.

On 29 October 1931  Xuma married Amanda Priscilla Mason, who was originally from Liberia.  At the time of her engagement to Xuma, she was the headmistress of a School for Girls in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In South Africa, she worked on child welfare schemes on the Rand and was actively involved in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

In February 1933, he became an official member of Wilberforce Institute’s Board of Trustees, a school in the then Transvaal (now Gauteng).

Xuma’s growing reputation as a skilful physician had begun to bring a steady stream of patients into his Johannesburg clinic. Although most of Xuma’s patients were Africans, he treated White patients as well. The idea of a ‘native’ doctor treating ‘European’ patients was anathema to many white South Africans, but it was a right Xuma strongly defended. Writing in a South African medical journal in 1931, he argued that ‘to put any artificial barrier or restriction between a European patient and an African practitioner is to make potential criminals of both, because the patient will go to this doctor if there is confidence in him, even at the risk of imprisonment’. Taking such a stand appears not to have alienated Xuma from the White South African medical community, even if some of its members disagreed with him. Xuma was equally adamant about the superiority of western medicine over traditional African healing practices.

In 1930, municipal officials asked him to become the part-time Medical Officer of Health for Alexandra, a poverty-stricken township north of Johannesburg. Xuma agreed and would remain in this post for more than 25 years.

By the early 1930s, Xuma was regularly being invited to speak before White organisations on the Rand. In his May 1932 address, ‘Reconstituting the Union of South Africa’, to the Bantu Studies Club at the University of the Witwatersrand, he called upon White South Africans to re-evaluate their country’s discriminatory legal order. After his appearance before the Wits Bantu Studies Club, leading liberals Howard Pim and Edgar Brookes helped get his speech published. Deneys Reitz, a prominent Afrikaner politician, acknowledged that Xuma’s address had made a strong case for rethinking the country’s ‘native problem’.

In his address on ‘The Indispensable Work of a Teacher’, delivered before the Orange Free State African Teachers Association in October 1933, Xuma implored teachers to act as role models for African youth. 

In October 1932, Xuma joined Rheinallt-Jones, Edgar Brookes and Charlotte Maxeke on a South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) deputation to the Minister of Native Affairs in order to discuss deteriorating African living conditions. The following July, Xuma gave a paper on ‘Native Taxation’ at the SAIRR’s national conference in Bloemfontein.

In the early 1930s, Xuma undertook to establish a library for Africans, since they were barred from using the Johannesburg Public Library. He appealed to South African and American institutions to help him provide appropriate reading matter for the larger African public.

On 29 April 1934, Xuma’s wife passed away following the birth of their second child.

Since taking power in 1924, the Hertzog Government had intensified South Africa’s system of legalised racial discrimination. By the early 1930s, Black political organisations were in disarray. Xuma viewed the accelerating pace of segregation with anxiety. He reacted by becoming more outspoken. In his 1935 statement to an official committee on African education, Xuma accused the Government of shirking its responsibilities toward the Black community.

The imminent passage of the Native Bills helped spark a sudden renewal of African political activity. Africans had expressed opposition to the proposed Bills since the 1920s, but the Government continued to work for their enactment.

The All African Convention

Xuma, ZR Mahabane, and Bantu World editor RV Selope Thema began to organise a national convention of Africans to coordinate opposition to the Native Bills. Xuma travelled to Fort Hare and gained DDT Jabavu’s enthusiastic support for the proposed All African Convention. Besides adding his voice to the chorus of protest against the Native Bills, Xuma had joined an organised African political movement for the first time in his career.

The All African Convention (AAC) held its first conference in Bloemfontein between 15 and 18 December 1935. Under the leadership of DDT Jabavu (President) and Xuma (Vice President), the conference condemned not only the proposed removal of the Cape African franchise, but the entire system of racial discrimination in South Africa.

Jabavu led the AAC’s first deputation to Cape Town in early February 1936. Prime Minister Hertzog refused to shelve the Native Bills, but he did offer the deputation a compromise. Instead of eliminating the Cape African franchise, Hertzog offered to place Africans on a separate voters’ roll so that they could elect three White representatives to Parliament. Jabavu and his associates decided to adjourn and consider the merits of Hertzog’s proposal. Upon hearing of the compromise plan in Johannesburg, Xuma became alarmed. When the Government summoned him to Cape Town to join in the negotiations, Xuma seized the opportunity. He quickly boarded a train for Cape Town, determined to persuade his colleagues to repudiate Hertzog’s proposal. Xuma and his fellow Convention members met with the Prime Minister during a second round of talks between 12 and 14 February. They formally rejected the compromise plan on February 15, but it did little good. Hertzog reaffirmed his commitment to the Native Bills, satisfied that he had offered African leaders a reasonable concession.

In April 1936, the Union Parliament passed the Representation of Natives Act. Africans were eliminated from the common voters’ roll in the Cape, but given the right to elect three ‘Native Representatives’ to the House of Assembly and two members of the Cape Provincial Council. Four White senators would represent Africans in the Union as a whole in parliament. The act also created the Natives Representative Council, a forum through which selected Africans could ‘advise’ the government on ‘native affairs’. In May, the Government passed the Native Trust and Land Act. This legislation increased the size of the African reserves from 7.5 per cent to 13.7 per cent of the Union’s total landmass.

Following the Bloemfontein conference, Xuma became actively involved in efforts to extend the AAC’s influence on the Witwatersrand.

By early 1937, his role in the AAC had catapulted him into the front ranks of African political leadership. However, Xuma turned down a request by some Africans in the western Transvaal that he run for a seat on the newly created Natives Representative Council.

At this time, Xuma decided to enrol at London University’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for a course in public health beginning in September 1937. At the same time, he sought American funding for five projects:

  1. The upgrading of Fort Hare’s library and scientific laboratories;
  2. The establishment of a scholarship fund for Fort Hare graduates to travel overseas ‘to prepare them for leadership’ in South Africa;
  3. The creation of a similar fund for black South Africans wishing to study medicine overseas;
  4. The establishment of an African-run press; and
  5. Funding to support overseas research conducted by black South Africans.

With high hopes and an ambitious agenda, Xuma set sail for the United States on 28 May 1937.

By the end of his American tour, Xuma felt understandably disappointed. He had failed to raise money to support black South African education and research.

He left for Britain on 15 September 1937 to begin his degree course in public health.  Xuma successfully completed a three-month internship in hospital administration at London’s North Western Hospital.

Xuma’s interest in the future of Britain’s southern African protectorates linked him to the wider Pan African movement in London in the 1930s. London was the centre of the Pan African movement in the 1930s and afforded Xuma a number of opportunities to confer with fellow black nationalists from other parts of the world.

In October 1938, Xuma finished his studies in London and left for home. Two months later, he would become the first African from South Africa to be officially awarded a Diploma of Public Health.

On 18 May 1940, Xuma married Madie Beatrice Hall, an African American.

President of the ANC

ANC Secretary General James Calata expressed an interest in seeing Xuma assume the African National Congress (ANC) presidency in 1937. Rev Calata invited Xuma to attend the ANC’s conference in Durban in December 1939. Xuma accepted and served as the conference’s Deputy Speaker of the House.

At the ANC conference in Bloemfontein on 16 December 1940, Xuma was elected President of the African National Congress (ANC). Within six months of taking office as ANC president, he outlined his vision for Congress in a document entitled ‘The Policy and Platform of the African National Congress’, which called for the ANC to rekindle the spirit of African political initiative in South Africa.

During his early years as ANC President, Xuma set about rebuilding Congress almost from scratch. He travelled extensively to spark interest in the ANC.

In 1943, Xuma worked at drafting a new ANC constitution with the help of Calata, Prof ZK Matthews, Bram Fischer, and William Macmillan, a former history professor at Wits University. The ANC at its December 1943 conference in Bloemfontein ratified the constitution. The new constitution abolished the upper House of Chiefs, established a working committee to administer Congress on a day- to-day basis, and extended equal membership rights to women for the first time.

In December 1943, Xuma opened the ANC’S first national office on Market Street in central Johannesburg.

In 1943, he asked former ANC Presidents John Dube, SM Makgatho, ZR Mahabane, and Josiah Gumede to serve as honorary Life Presidents of the ANC in recognition of their past contributions. 

Although Xuma abolished the ANC’s House of Chiefs, he actively sought to build an alliance with South Africa’s traditional leaders. Xuma’s vision of a revived ANC also included building a women’s section within the ANC. A Bantu Women’s League had been established within the ANC in 1913, but its members were granted only ‘auxiliary’ membership in Congress, not full membership. By the mid-1930s, the Bantu Women’s League had faded. At the ANC’s December 1943 conference, women were granted full membership in Congress for the first time and given the right to vote and participate in the organisation at all levels. Madie Hall Xuma became president of the ANC Women’s League .

Xuma’s greatest success during his early years as ANC President was as a fundraiser.  Between 1942 and 1943, he secured grants totalling several hundred pounds from the Bantu Welfare Trust. Lt Col James Donaldson, a retired Johannesburg businessperson who had made a fortune in the gold and diamond mining industries, had established the Trust in 1936. Donaldson endowed the Trust with £50,000, invited Xuma and a handful of other prominent South Africans to become trustees, and awarded substantial sums of money to organisations that promoted African welfare. The Trust would become a steady source of funds for Congress in the 1940s.

Xuma and his colleagues agreed that African participation in the World War II war effort could be used as a rallying cry for equal rights. Xuma believed that if he could demonstrate African loyalty to the state, the state would respond in kind.

In March 1942, Xuma organised a deputation to see Deputy Prime Minister Reitz in Cape Town. The delegates touched upon a number of issues related to their community, but singled out the treatment of African soldiers and the pass laws for particular criticism. He later wrote: ‘Accomplished certain things in one day which the parliamentary representatives and even the members of the NRC could not achieve in five years under the Native Representative Act.’

At the ANC’s December 1942 conference in Bloemfontein, he established a special committee to study the Atlantic Charter’s relevance to South Africa and to draft a South African Bill of Rights for presentation to the peace conference at the war’s end. ZK Matthews played a crucial role in helping Xuma coordinate the committee’s work.

The document emerging from the conference, entitled ‘Africans’ Claims in South Africa’, represented the most comprehensive statement on African rights ever issued by the ANC. It proclaimed that Africans would accept nothing short of full and equal citizenship at the war’s end. In his preface, Xuma portrayed the Charter as having global ramifications, especially where it affirmed the right of all peoples to choose their own form of government. The document’s Bill of Rights envisioned a new order for South Africa. Besides demanding full citizenship rights for all, it called for the post-war government to improve the socio-economic position of Africans and abolish all discriminatory legislation. ‘Africans’ Claims’ was unanimously adopted at the ANC’s annual Conference in December 1943. Xuma was elected to a second three-year term as Congress President.

Africans dissatisfied with the ANC’s constitutional strategies began to question Xuma’s leadership as the war wound down, particularly from late 1943 onwards. In the face of government obstinacy, many Black South Africans called for more militant forms of protest. One of the first challenges to Xuma came from the African Democratic Party (ADP). Formed in September 1943 by Paul Mosaka, a member of the Natives Representative Council, and Hyman Basner, one of the White representatives for Africans in the Senate, the ADP issued a manifesto criticising the ANC for its alleged inactivity and endorsed the use of strikes, passive resistance, and boycotts to press for African demands. Xuma drafted a statement condemning the ADP and its leaders.

The Challenge of the Youth League

However, a much more serious challenge for Xuma arose from the emerging ANC Youth League (ANCYL), whose founding members included Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, AP Mda, Jordan Ngubane, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo, and sought to push Congress in a more militant direction. They viewed the ANC’s approach toward the government as inadequate, and proposed that Congress join hands with the African masses and adopt new strategies of non-cooperation.

In December 1943, the ANC conference formally endorsed the establishment of the ANCYL. In February 1944, representatives of the ANCYL gave Xuma a draft of their group’s official manifesto, which subjected the ANC to severe criticism over various organisational issues. The League began to pressure Xuma to endorse a militant programme of mass action.

In December 1943, the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) was established. Xuma was repeatedly asked to participate in unity discussions with NEUM officials in 1945, but refused to become involved. Although Xuma wanted to keep the ANC strong and independent, he began to consider the merits of cooperation with Indian and Coloured South Africans for the first time.

 He wrote to the African People’s Organisation (the Coloured peoples’ organisation) and the South African Indian Congress requesting a meeting, suggesting that the ANC could cooperate with these organisations on issues of common concern, including segregation, the Pegging Act, and voting rights. He envisioned that the disenfranchised could make a stronger case if they cooperated with one another to a greater extent. He viewed the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) as both a potential ally and a potential rival. Xuma encouraged communist involvement in the ANC. Moses Kotane, the General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1945, a valued adviser, at one point urged Xuma to take a more active role in promoting unity between Africans, Indians, and Coloureds. In July 1945, Xuma appointed a communist,Dan Tloome, to the newly created post of ANC secretary-bookkeeper. He also worked with prominent Communists JB Marks and Edwin Mofutsanyana

By the end of 1945, Kotane, Marks, and Tloome had been appointed to the ANC’s national executive. The growing communist presence in Congress, though still relatively small, alarmed the ANCYL.  Its members called for the expulsion of all Communists from Congress, but Xuma overruled them. Despite his ideological differences with the Communists, he insisted that the ANC serve as a forum for a diverse range of opinions.

Xuma presided over a national anti-pass conference held at Johannesburg’s Gandhi Hall on 20 May 1944, which drew more than 500 participants. A working committee with Xuma as chair and Yusuf Dadoo as deputy chair was established. By late 1944, the anti-pass campaign had lost momentum. The initial plan to present the petitions to parliament by August 1944 was shelved and the date moved to January 1945 and then early March. The number of signatures was falling far short of the hoped for million.

 In April 1945, Xuma chaired an emergency conference of the anti-pass committee attended by Bopape, Dadoo, Kotane, Kadalie, Marks, and Mosaka, among others. As Xuma noted, apathy, government repression, and financial problems had virtually ground the campaign to a halt. The committee agreed to launch a final signature drive and confront the government with the results. However, when Dadoo and Thema travelled to Cape Town in June 1945 to present the petitions, Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hofmeyrrefused to see them.

Xuma built a solid relationship with trade unionists, regularly consulting with their officials from the Council of Non-European Trade Unions(CNETU)and sought to include them in the ANC fold. The CNETU invited him to address trade union conferences throughout the 1940s, despite their ideological differences.

In April 1946, the African Mine Workers’ Union (AMWU) issued a set of demands, including a minimum wage of ten shillings per day, family housing, paid leave, and repeal of War Measures Act 1425, which prohibited gatherings of more than 20 workers on mine property. When neither the government nor the mine owners responded, plans for a strike quickly gained momentum. Between 12 and 16 August 1946, more than 70,000 African mineworkers walked off their jobs on at least 12 mines, triggering the largest strike South Africa had ever seen.

Sixteen hundred policemen were called in to confront the strikers, and in the resulting clashes, 1000 miners were arrested, more than 1200 injured, and at least nine killed. Devastated by such a brutal crackdown, the African Mine Workers’ Union disintegrated without seeing its major goals achieved.

Xuma supported the mineworkers’ strike, and called for immediate negotiations between the government, Chamber of Mines, AMWU, Transvaal Council of Trade Unions, and the ANC to defuse the situation.

On 26 July 1946, he wrote to all the members of the Natives Representative Council (NRC) urging them to adjourn unless the government reversed its course.

On 6 August 1946, the NRC unanimously agreed to accept Xuma’s proposal of adjournment; nine days later, the Council put all its business on hold indefinitely.

In September 1946, Xuma initiated plans for an ‘emergency conference of all Africans’ to determine the next step in the campaign for full citizenship. He pressed for the widest participation possible at the conference. The emergency conference, held in Bloemfontein on 6-7 October 1946, drew 511 participants from across the country. Delegates rejected a proposal from ANCYL President Anton Lembede that NRC members resign permanently, but approved the Council’s temporary adjournment.

South West Africa (now Namibia) had been administered by the South African Government since the end of World War I, when the League of Nations gave the Union a mandate over the former German colony. Following the Allied victory in World War II, Prime Minister Jan Smuts announced plans to seek incorporation of South West Africa at the United Nations (UN). Arguing that Africans in both South West Africa and South Africa were denied political rights and were subject to a host of discriminatory laws, Xuma voiced his opposition to incorporation in a January 1946 cable to UN General Assembly Chairman Peter Fraser. He insisted that South Africa needed to put its own house in order before it could claim to govern other territories.

The government’s passing of the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act in June 1946, which prevented Indians in Natal from moving into White residential areas and expanding their trading activities, sparked a dramatic new campaign of passive resistance led by Indian leaders Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker. Xuma expressed strong support for the Indians’ passive resistance campaign. The campaign immediately followed the announcement of Smuts’ planned visit to the UN to press for South African incorporation of South West Africa. Both Xuma and leaders of the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) saw their chance. They would follow Smuts to the UN and seek to mobilise international opinion against South Africa’s policies of white supremacy.

Xuma left Johannesburg for the United States on 21 October 1946, having appointed AWG Champion to serve as acting president general of the ANC in his absence. South African Indian leaders HA Naidoo and Sorabjee Rustomjee were also travelling to the United Nations, along with Hyman Basner, the Senator for Africans in the Transvaal and Orange Free State.

Xuma at the United Nations

While Xuma was busy canvassing support in New York, Smuts was presenting his case before the United Nations. On 4 November 1946, Smuts formally voiced his government’s request before the UN’s Committee on Trusteeship at Lake Success, New York. He argued that South West Africa was an integral part of South Africa and that both Europeans and Africans in the territory favoured incorporation. Once debate began on the South African motion, Smuts found himself on the defensive. Representatives from the Indian delegation were particularly critical of the plan, condemning Smuts’ Asian Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act and questioning the right of such a segregationist government to acquire more territory. Widespread doubts had also been raised about the legitimacy of the Smuts government’s survey of South West African opinion on incorporation. Smuts, adamant that South Africa’s internal policies were of no concern to the UN, suggested that his country would continue to administer South West Africa even if his incorporation request was turned down.

Xuma began to lobby General Assembly delegates privately in early November, thus becoming one of the first Black South Africans to protest the Union’s racial policies at the United Nations. He also expressed his opposition to Smuts’ plan in a meeting with UN Secretary General Trygve Lie. Xuma’s primary objective at the UN was to circulate a detailed memorandum he had written opposing South West Africa’s incorporation, later published under the title ‘South West Africa: Annexation or United Nations Trusteeship’.

In his report, Xuma showed the many ways in which Smuts’ rhetoric in the UN Charter regarding human rights and freedoms was contradicted by his Government’s own policies. The rights of Black South Africans had been steadily whittled away, Xuma argued, disproving the Government’s claim that it represented the best interests of the region’s indigenous inhabitants. He also pointed to the Government’s recent moves to restrict Indian residential and trading rights and cast doubt on the legitimacy of its survey of South West African opinion. For the first time, South Africa’s racial policies were subjected to international scrutiny, and Xuma was playing a decisive role. His efforts, together with those of the Indian delegation, seriously undermined Smuts’ case.

In the end, Smuts suffered a major defeat. Stunned over the rebuff, Smuts returned to South Africa empty-handed.

The Doctors’ Pact

Xuma returned to South Africa ready to forge new alliances in the struggle for equal rights. He was particularly anxious to build a partnership with South African Indians. Xuma had initially joined forces with Indian leader Dadoo in 1944 during the national anti-pass campaign. Two years later he voiced support for the Indians’ passive resistance campaign, and in turn, Indians had helped finance Xuma’s trip to the United Nations. By the time Xuma arrived back home in late 1946, he and South African Indian leaders had developed a warm and trusting relationship

On 9 March 1947, Xuma signed a joint declaration of cooperation with Doctors Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker, respective leaders of the Transvaal  (TIC) and Natal Indian (NIC) Congresses. The ‘Doctors’ Pact,’ as the agreement came to be known, called for Africans and Indians to cooperate in a ‘vigorous campaign’ to improve conditions for black South Africans. In accordance with the agreement, the ANC and the Indian Congresses would retain their distinct organisational identities but would join forces in matters of common concern. It was an unprecedented step for both Xuma and the ANC. For the first time, Congress prepared to work jointly with another racial group in the fight against discrimination.

Xuma was more enthusiastic about such cooperation than some of his colleagues were. At a February 1947 meeting of the ANC executive, some Congress activists expressed concerns about co-operation with Indians. Those in the Youth League and the Natal African Congress held particularly strong reservations about cooperating with Indians. Despite murmurings of disapproval from some quarters in Congress, Xuma stuck by his decision. Xuma continued to maintain political ties with Indian leaders following the Doctors’ Pact. In April 1948, he was invited to deliver the opening address at the annual conference of the TIC. In his speech, Xuma paid tribute to the work of Doctors Dadoo and Naicker, who had recently been jailed for their anti-government activities. These leaders’ only crime, Xuma maintained, was their steadfast refusal to submit to discrimination and racial oppression. Besides being ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘anti-Christian’, their imprisonment seemed startlingly reminiscent of the fascist desire to crush all opposition. Xuma closed his address by casting the Indian struggle in a broader perspective:

‘In your struggle, you are not fighting for the Indians alone. You are fighting for the freedom of all South Africa ”” White and Black. The Europeans in South Africa cannot be free while three-fourths of the population ”” the Non-Europeans ”” are not free. You are fighting to make South Africa a democracy. You are fighting to save our country from committing national suicide.’

The Durban Riots

On 13 January 1949, an altercation between an Indian shopkeeper and a young African sparked a vicious race riot in Durban that resulted in the deaths of 50 Indians and 87 Africans. Horrified at the violence, Xuma quickly arranged to travel to Durban in an effort to mediate. He and a delegation of Indian and African leaders from Natal and the Transvaal met in the city on 20 January 1949. While condemning the rioting, Xuma noted that it sprung from an African sense of frustration and an accumulation of grievances. His call for a broader roundtable conference between Indian and African leaders received widespread support from representatives of both communities.

Leaders representing the ANC, the All African Convention, and the South African Indian Congress attended the conference in Durban on 6 February 1949. In a joint statement, Xuma and his fellow delegates strongly protested the exclusion of Africans and Indians from the judicial commission appointed to investigate the riots. They rededicated themselves to political partnership, calling upon their respective groups to work together to achieve ‘national liberation’ and ‘mutual political, economic, and social advancement and security’. The assembled leaders also agreed to establish new joint councils to promote goodwill between Africans and Indians. As it turned out, the February conference in Durban eased tensions somewhat but not entirely. Leaders in Natal such as AWG Champion continued to view Indians with suspicion and hesitated endorsing further cooperative efforts. Xuma, on the other hand, continued to participate in a dialogue with Indian political and cultural groups during the remainder of his ANC presidency.

 Xuma was re-elected to a third term as Congress President in December 1946, but his election came despite the objections. The Communists and members of the Youth League began to call for much stronger forms of protest. The resolutions passed at the December 1946 conference reflected the impatience of the militants. The conference labelled the Smuts government’s policy of trusteeship ‘a thinly veiled disguise for the continued exploitation of the African people’. Delegates called upon the ANC national executive to conduct a ‘powerful and nationwide campaign’ for the boycott of all elections under the 1936 Representation of Natives Act. The conference also encouraged Africans to boycott the British royal family’s upcoming visit to South Africa.

Xuma began his third term as ANC President with a flurry of political activity. Besides making a pact with South Africa’s Indian leaders in early March 1947, he prepared to launch a major new ANC organisational and propaganda drive.

He followed up this effort by presiding over a mass rally in Johannesburg on 4 May 1947. Jointly sponsored by the ANC, the Transvaal Indian Congress, and the African People’s Organisation, the rally celebrated recent UN decisions on Southern Africa and addressed the plight of African squatters and shanty dwellers. Hundreds of Africans, Indians, and Coloureds assembled at Newtown’s Market Square to participate in the open-air meeting.

Under attack from the South African White community and the White Press for being too radical, African militants were criticising Xuma for not being radical enough, complained one editorial. Other articles published in newspapers between April and June 1947 expressed similar frustration.

The Youth League turns up the heat

At a February 1947 meeting of the ANC national executive, ANCYL President Lembede urged Congress to endorse a boycott of government-sponsored political institutions for Africans rather than continue to pursue constitutional channels. Under such a plan, Congress would ask Africans to refrain from participating in elections for the Natives Representative Council, local advisory boards, native representatives in Parliament, and the Transkei Bunga. Lembede’s colleagues in the Youth League and the Transvaal African Congress voiced strong support for the boycott, but Xuma and the senior leadership were still undecided.

By mid-1947, the ANCYL began to devise ways for implementing the boycott, leaving Xuma and others behind. The division over the boycott plan reflected the growing divisions within Congress. In October 1947, Youth Leaguers Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo were elected to the executive of the Transvaal African Congress, along with Communists Dan Tloome and David Bopape. In October 1947, Secretary General James Calata warned Xuma that the Communists would attempt to oust him as ANC president at the annual conference.

Communists within the ANC had grown increasingly frustrated with Xuma. Many viewed him as too passive. Other Communists charged Xuma with failing to display decisive leadership on the proposed NRC boycott in 1947. Xuma had cooperated with the Communists in the past, believing that the Communists were pressuring the ANC to move too quickly, beyond the people’s capacity to respond.

While working to encourage African unity, Xuma continued to criticise, publicly, the policies of the Nationalist government. In mid-1949, Xuma drafted his most sweeping statement against Apartheid as ANC President in a paper, ‘The State of the Nation Under Apartheid’, where he outlined the consequences of Nationalist rule after the party’s first year in power.

Following the Nationalist victory in 1948, leading Youth League members began pressuring Xuma to prepare a programme to achieve ‘national liberation’.  The old forms of protest ”” deputations, memoranda, and resolutions from ANC conferences – had become entirely discredited.

The Programme of Action

At the ANC’s December 1948 conference in Bloemfontein, the Youth League introduced a ‘Programme of Action’, calling for the use of civil disobedience, strikes, and boycotts in the struggle against apartheid. For the first time, the senior ANC leadership was forced to re-evaluate the strategy of constitutional action. Xuma’s reaction to the Youth League’s Proposal was that he did not rule out non-cooperation in the future, but felt that the first order of business was strengthening the ANC’s organisational machinery.

The Youth League’s patience was running out. Mda expressed fears that the ANC was drifting aimlessly and recommended that the Youth League attempt to make support of their Programme a condition for Xuma’s re-election to the ANC presidency.

On 5 December 1949, less than two weeks before the ANC conference, ANCYL members Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo met with Xuma at his Sophiatown home in order to brief him on the League’s position. The League would support Xuma’s re-election to the ANC presidency, provided that he formally endorse the Programme of Action, including its call for a boycott of the advisory board system, local councils, native parliamentary representatives, and the Natives Representative Council. As Mandela later recalled, the Youth League wanted Xuma to lead mass action as Gandhi had done and be prepared to go to jail. He turned down the Youth League’s proposal immediately.

He opposed the Programme of Action because he felt the African masses were not yet sufficiently organised to undertake such a campaign successfully. Further, he did not take kindly to being ‘dictated to’ by his juniors, especially those who had not yet completed a suitable period of political apprenticeship.

At the outset of the December 1949 conference, the Youth League still considered supporting Xuma, despite the rebuff he had dealt them earlier in the month. Some of its members had asked ZK Matthews to run as their candidate for President General, but he too had refused to commit himself to the Programme of Action. Xuma’s Presidential address must have encouraged the Youth League to continue their search. In his speech, Xuma urged Africans to refrain from boycotting government-sponsored political bodies. Instead, he suggested that Africans seek to control those institutions. On 17 December 1949, after days of feverish lobbying by the Youth League, the ANC conference finally voted to adopt the League’s Programme of Action, thus committing the organisation to a campaign of boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience, and non-cooperation. It was a major defeat for Xuma and many senior colleagues.

James Moroka, a prominent physician of Xuma’s generation, had expressed support for the Programme of Action and agreed to run as the Youth League’s candidate for president general. Despite losing the presidency to Moroka, Xuma was retained on the executive.  This, however, would last only a few months.

Xuma transformed the ANC Presidency into a position of national leadership. Perhaps Xuma’s most important legacy as ANC President was his revitalisation of Congress. One of Xuma’s greatest achievements was that of fundraising. Having inherited a bankrupt organisation with outstanding debts, Xuma devised new strategies to bolster the Congress treasury. He brought in a steady stream of revenue that was used to support ANC activities and expansion.

The Final Decade

In March 1950, just three months after being defeated in his bid for a fourth term as Congress president, Xuma abruptly resigned from the ANC national executive. In a press release published in the Bantu World on 18 March 1950, he wrote that he was stepping down, both because he objected to the Youth League’s election tactics ”” which he described as smacking of ‘bribery and corruption’, and their proposed boycott of government-sponsored institutions such as the Natives Representative Council.

Although retired from active politics he continued to take an active role in African community life in South Africa. The Xuma African National School Fund was set up to provide for the growing numbers of African schoolchildren and compensate for inadequate government funding of African education.

Following the state’s crackdown on the 1952 Defiance Campaign, Xuma decided to issue a public statement on the civil unrest. He called upon the government to begin immediate consultations with Black South African political leaders.

Xuma was deeply troubled by the Congress of the People and the ensuing formation of the Congress Alliance. Although he himself had cooperated with Indians and Whites in the past, he had always insisted that the ANC remain an independent organisation.  It could not remain so if it joined a multiracial alliance, he reasoned, especially one that involved Whites. Xuma’s opposition to the Congress of the People (COP) was based on his long-held animosity toward white paternalism.

Xuma drafted a detailed statement of his criticisms of the COP and forwarded it to the ANC’s December 1955 conference. The letter expressed Xuma’s deep reservations about the ANC’s evolution since 1949.

A breakaway Congress group, the Africanists, subsequently used Xuma’s letter at the conference to support their arguments. Led by Robert Sobukwe, they opposed the multiracialism enshrined in the Freedom Charter and the Congress Alliance, and they favoured militant mass action against apartheid. This grouping went on to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

In early December 1957, Xuma participated in a multiracial conference at the University of the Witwatersrand at which more than 600 delegates participated. Between December 1958 and February 1959, Xuma met with representatives of the South African Bureau for Racial Affairs (SABRA), a pro-apartheid Afrikaner research organisation established in 1948. SABRA members had organised a series of meetings with prominent Africans during this period in an attempt to establish links with African leadership. Xuma was one of several Africans who said that further discussions with SABRA would be pointless while the organisation maintained its support of apartheid.

Following the protracted Alexandrabus boycott that began in January 1957, a private meeting between several ‘moderate’ African leaders and members of the Johannesburg City Council was convened on 1 February 1957. Xuma was among those invited, along with African businessmen and town councillors. Despite making it clear that they did not represent the boycotters, Xuma and his fellow Africans agreed to engage in exploratory talks about how the boycott could be ended. The leaders of the boycott found this unacceptable. In a statement released to the national press, they quickly dissociated themselves from the activities of Xuma’s delegation. The statement was signed by Alfred Nzo, one of the leaders of the boycott and ANC chairperson for Alexandra.

 By agreeing to participate in these closed-door meetings, Xuma created the impression that he was being co-opted by the government.

Xuma defended himself in the World, Johannesburg’s largest African newspaper. In a lengthy letter published in the paper on 9 March 1957, he lashed out at ‘irresponsible persons who [had] spread false rumours’ about his role in the negotiations. While confirming his participation in the meetings, Xuma insisted that he had done so with the ‘blessing and full knowledge’ of the boycott leaders. His goal, he explained, had been to encourage the government to engage in a dialogue with these leaders. ‘All intelligent and responsible people know that it takes an outsider to bring a dispute to a harmonious settlement or to judge their case objectively,’ Xuma wrote.  

On 5 December 1956, police arrested approximately 140 South Africans of all races on suspicion of treason and eventually pressed charges against 156 individuals. The government, which had been building its case for years, viewed the accused as part of a massive, communist-inspired conspiracy to overthrow the state by force. The ensuing Treason Trial would last for more than four years. When the indictment was first issued in December 1956, Xuma was listed among 86 ‘co-conspirators’, but he was not among those arrested and formally charged.

Xuma was never arrested or banned in the 1950s, but the South African security police occasionally monitored his activities. He was also subjected to new and cumbersome passport-control procedures.

Officials from the Native Affairs Department were not as sceptical. They viewed Xuma as a pillar of moderate African opinion and contrasted him with some of the more ‘hot-headed, irresponsible elements’ that lay behind the recent anti-removal and bus boycott campaigns. Once Native Affairs Secretary D Groenewald issued his positive assessment, Xuma’s application to travel was approved on 3 December 1957. He was afforded privileges far outside the grasp of key ANC leaders, many of whom were restricted, on trial, or under heavy police surveillance. Xuma left South Africa a day after his passport was renewed and travelled to Britain, Ghana, Liberia, and probably Nigeria and the Congo as well.

Xuma maintained his African connections following his December 1957 trip to West Africa. Within a month of his return, he had a well-publicised meeting with Rowland Simpson, the first representative of independent Ghana to visit South Africa. In December 1958, Xuma hosted Dr Hastings Banda at his Sophiatown home, and in so doing, attracted the attention of the South African security police. Around the same time, Xuma also communicated with East African nationalists Julius Nyerere (Tanganyika) and Tom Mboya (Kenya).

Xuma drew up plans for another extensive overseas trip in early 1960. He was interested in studying the social, educational, and health conditions prevailing in under-developed countries, and hoped to travel to North America, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa. He also wished to attend a conference of the AME Church in Los Angeles scheduled for May 1960.

Government officials asked none other than the Commissioner of the South African Police himself to assess Xuma’s passport renewal request. His report reflected the paranoia of a force under siege. The Commissioner admitted that Xuma had refrained from taking part in ‘subversive activities in public’, but viewed Xuma’s behind-the-scenes activities as particularly threatening ”” especially his meetings with Pan Africanist Congress members and his friendship with the recently arrested Nyasaland leader Hastings Banda.

Sharpeville and After

On 21 March 1960, police in Sharpeville opened fire on a crowd of several thousand Africans demonstrating against the pass laws, killing 69 and wounding 186. The massacre elicited worldwide condemnation and threw South Africa into a state of crisis. In the days following 21 March, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the shootings, and South Africa’s financial markets teetered on the verge of collapse. Africans proclaimed 28 March a nationwide day of mourning and staged a massive stay-away that crippled Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth. Two days later, the mass march of 30,000 Africans into central Cape Town sent a wave of panic throughout white South Africa.

The Nationalist government responded to the crisis with an unprecedented show of force. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd declared a state of emergency on 30 March 1960 and ordered an immediate crackdown on all dissent. A police sweep resulted in almost 20,000 arrests. On 8 April 1960, the government banned both the ANC and the PAC.

On 8 April 1960, Xuma left for London and New York. Representatives of the South African Government closely monitored Xuma’s movements during his stay in the United States. On 26 April 1960, a member of South Africa’s Permanent Delegation to the United Nations sent a secret telegram on Xuma’s activities to the Union’s Secretary for External Affairs. In it, he noted that Xuma had met privately with a number of UN officials but had refrained from advocating any UN action against South Africa.  

The Government’s demolition of Sophiatown began in 1955, and many Africans were forced to move.  In mid-1959, after virtually everyone else had vacated Sophiatown, Xuma was forced to leave his home of almost 30 years. His house was one of the few structures left standing when the area was rebuilt as a white, predominantly Afrikaner suburb named Triomf.

While still living in Sophiatown, Xuma signed a contract to have a new house built in Dube. His spacious new brick house at 1401 Mtipa Street was constructed by an Italian builder at a cost of £5,857, making it the most expensive home in the area.

On 12 January 1961, Xuma, Dr WM Nkomo, and KT Masemola accepted a Government invitation to meet with UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, who was on a brief tour of South Africa to assess conditions and confer with government officials and government-appointed chiefs. Although Xuma pressed Hammarskjold to meet with Black South Africa’s genuine leaders, such as Chief Albert Luthuli and Sobukwe, his agreement to meet the Secretary General put him in a compromising position. Xuma’s role as an intermediary between the authorities and the people’s ‘real’ leaders opened him up to charges that he was being ‘used’ by the government.

Xuma and the two other members strongly criticised Apartheid in their meeting with Hammarskjold, but it did not seem to matter.  Johannesburg newspapers were soon filled with reports expressing indignation at the meetings.

Xuma’s last known contribution to public debate in South Africa centred on Bantu education. He conducted a thorough study of the system in early 1961 and submitted his findings at a Cape Town conference sponsored by the Institute of Race Relations. While not romanticising the past, Xuma praised the earlier system of missionary education for training a whole generation of highly skilled Africans who worked to serve their communities. Bantu education, as his well-researched and persuasive text illustrated, was nothing more than education for inferiority. At the close of his essay, Xuma appealed for new thinking on the part of White South Africans.

In May 1961, Xuma’s health took a turn for the worse, effectively ending his role as a public figure. He had developed cancer of the pancreas. On 27January 1962, Xuma passed away.


Gish, S.D. Alfred B. Xuma African, American South African. MacMillan Press, London (2000)|African National Congress (n.d.).Alfred Bitini Xuma ANC President (1940-1949)African National Congress. [accessed 4 March 2004]|Joyce, P. (1999). A concise dictionary of South African biography, Cape Town: Francolin Publishers|Saunders, C. & Southey, N. (1998). A dictionary of South African history, Cape Town: David Philip

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