Remember Muziwakhe Anton Lembede: A Struggle Against Forgetting

Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo

In recent times, the month of July has become epitomised by the ‘Nelson Mandela Day’, the 18th July, which marks the birthday of the late first democratically elected president of South Africa. It was first advocated by the then African National Congress (ANC) president, Jacob Zuma, and later popularised by other structures including the United Nations (UN). The context within which this day came to be has not been fully analysed. The question to ask is: Why did Zuma see it proper to advocate for the Mandela Day after the Polokwane Conference where Zuma was elected president of the ANC?

This move, I submit, was to legitimise himself. Zuma, is also entombed in the discourse of iconhood, particularly through the use of Mandela and the reconciliation enterprise in post-apartheid South Africa which has become associated with Mandela.

The concept of reconciliation in South Africa, especially after a major shift or event, is not new. This can be observed after the South African War towards the turn of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century continuing onto the formation of the Union of South Africa. The use of Mandela’s legacy for political goals by Zuma is a complex phenomenon. The reconciliation project in South Africa failed during the Mandela and Zuma Administrations. There cannot be reconciliation without the ‘unfinished business’ of the past as mirrored in the  book titled, Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth by Dumisa Ntsebeza and Terry Bill (2001), and the attainment of socio-economic and historical justice.

There were also a number of social cohesion and social justice activities that were used as vehicles to accomplish this project. Soon after becoming the president in 2009, Zuma advocated for 18th of July, Mandela’s birthday as a day on which people should dedicate 67 minutes of their time to community development and to promote volunteerism – this in recognition of Mandela’s contribution to the liberation struggle. This move gained momentum as it was supported worldwide and later the United Nations (UN) adopted it as such. To some extent, without over-stretching the meaning of the Mandela Day, as it is known, although it is not a public holiday, a parallel could be made between the way Mandela’s birthday is celebrated and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day which is a public holiday in the United States.

This move by Zuma needs to be viewed in association with his use of Mandela and his legacy to legitimise his presidency and political gains while also mitigating his “political indebtedness”. During the 2009 general elections campaign, Mandela endorsed Zuma and made a special appearance at an ANC rally held in Dutywa, in the Eastern Cape. He also attended his State of the Nation Address in 2010 and various subsequent public events. The advocacy of Mandela Day by Zuma is his gesture of gratitude for his endorsement by Mandela.

Through analysing the observation of the day, it would seem that Nelson Mandela Day, which has now been declared an international day, and the euphoria created by both the media and ANC is not just about promoting volunteerism, community development and serving the people, particularly the have-nots, the elderly and the disadvantaged, as its promoters would like people to believe. On the contrary, as my other work suggests, it is more about the establishment and consolidation of the ANC hegemony, which is an integral part of monolithic and hegemonic historical narrative enterprise which epitomises the post-apartheid memorial complex.

Furthermore, the notion of the Mandela Day should be viewed within the context of the craft of curating the nation by the state (telling us, the citizens, what to remember and how), icon-hood discourse, politics of transition, monolithic and hegemonic master historical narrative – all of which have been peddled in South Africa post 1994. It is all about victor-loser complex and the consolidation of power. Most importantly, the event seeks to sustain the Mandela mythology – the Mandelasation of the South African struggle against apartheid as presented in school textbooks, public history and culture, post-1994 heritage discourse, rewriting of history initiatives and other public scholarship ventures.

The chronicle of the struggle against colonial rule and apartheid predates Nelson Mandela. His contribution must be recognised, but, ought to be viewed and understood within the broader journey of the making of the modern South Africa as epitomised by the struggles against white settler rule and apartheid configuration in South African history.

Since the governing party and its administration and agencies cannot change the past nor completely erase it from shared public memories, they recreate history and reframe the collective public memories. In this process, through a systematic and institutionalised machinery, they must mythicise the South African struggle against colonialism and apartheid. This is nothing more than ‘the myth of the heroism’ (Freire, 1970/1993). This, in essence, is a craft of disremembering the past.  

This approach does not holistically restore the cultural heritage of the previously oppressed Afrikans. In addition, the state archives, heritagisation and museumification of the past “are of great importance for the general, economic, cultural and political history of the newly independent countries” (Makoti in Azania News, April 1983). The current practice is against this spirit of nation-state building.

In a different but related context Neumann and Anderson (2014) penned: “The search for historical justice has become one of the defining features of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. So has the consensus about the need to remember the violence of past injustices and its victims. The search for justice is closely related to a focus on remembrance: the strive for justice relies on memories of injustices, and the public remembering of the past wrongs increasingly considered one crucial means of redressing such wrong”. In the South African context, beside the Mandela Day, July 31st marks an important day.

This day, symbolises the death of one of the pioneers of the modern concept of African nationalism, Pan Africanism, Africa-centred-thinking and disruptor of the inferiority-superiority complex; that is Muziwakhe Anton Lembede – fondly referred to as ‘Lembs’ by his colleagues.

 Afrikanist scholar and political activist, Professor Sipho Shabalala, in delivering his speech titled “Commemorating the National Heroes (African nation) and Heroines Day According to the PAC Calendar of the Africanist” stated that Mziwakhe Anton Lembede believed that: “The divine destiny of the African people is national freedom. The way to freedom lies in an ideology of African nationalism or Africanism” (Shabalala, 31 July 2018). This call epitomised Lembede’s life and struggle against white domination.

In one of the chapters in the book I am currently writing about the meaning and relevance of Sobukwe’s teachings and ideas in a post-1994 South Africa, I examine the dangers of the mythological national consciousness that presents hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion; where Anton Muziwakhe Lembede and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe are marginalised with little or no reference to their contribution in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. 

The term, mythological national consciousness refers to the national awareness of the past as reconstructed in post-apartheid South Africa. It is not about historical facts but rather about the ANC’s account of the past that is framed by the craft of curating the nation and the Nelson Mandela mythology exhibited in a range of settings – rewriting of history, public scholarship, heritage discourse, memorialisation- that is shaped by the ruling party’s reconstructed narrative of the past. 

In post-1994, Lembede is sidelined and his contribution silenced for sustainability of the mythological national consciousness and the Mandela mythology. Perhaps, it is an indication that the presently splashed ANC account of history – official narrative of the past and memorialisation- is anti-African nationalism and Pan Africanism as these philosophical underpinnings are stigmatised, presented as racist or for black domination- which was and is not the case.

Far from his stature as a thinker of note, an Africanist, the engineer of modern Africanism in South Africa, this African philosopher, Anton Muziwakhe Lembede, is presented in a single and narrow view as the founding president of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in 1944. He co-authored the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) Manifesto of 1944 and the Programme of Action of 1949 co-authored by Mangaliso Sobukwe and Godfrey Mokgonane Pitje, remain classic statements of the African nationalist position within the ANC equal to the Africans’ Claim of 1943. 

Lembede through his extraordinary personality and intellect earned the admiration and adoration of his people and peers, as both an intellectual and a passionate political activist. 

His political awakening can be traced to the African Americans’ quest for African-ness and self-help movement. According to Edgar and Msumza (2015), Lembede’s role model was Booker T. Washington, the black American educator, whose ideas on industrial education and self-help had been transplanted to Natal in the early twentieth century by an American trained Zulu, John Dube. Washington’s principles permeated Dube’s own school, Ohlange Institute, and they had a significant impact on the thinking of those in charge of African education throughout South Africa in the decades that followed. 

Most importantly, though, was his friend and peer, Ashby Solomzi Peter Mda – commonly known as AP Mda – who through their discussions sharpened Lembede’s thinking. Mda and Lembede found common ground on many political issues. And out of their discussions with each other and with their peers, emerged a vision of a rejuvenated African nationalism ‘centred around the unity of the African people’ that could rouse and lead their people to freedom” (Edgar and Msumza, 2015). AP Mda is one of the unrecognised heroes in as far as African nationalism and Pan Africanism in South Africa, are concerned. He not only influenced Lembede but had a major impact in shaping Sobukwe’s thinking and the formation of the PAC. The three strategic documents – the African manifesto, code of conduct and the constitution – developed by Mda and Sobukwe for the PAC in 1959 also illustrate the point.

In defining Lembede beyond the linear and narrow popular description of him that is trapped in the Mandela mythology, I can highlight a number of themes/areas/topics, but for the purposes of this piece, I shall focus only on two. These are:

(a) Philosophical Orientation

Lembede’s starting point for his vision of African nationalism is linked to the politics of recognition and identity, and transcending of the reconstructed and reinforced ethnic partitions by colonialism. He recognised this essential political reality at the time as a hindrance that reduces Africans in South Africa to minor political actors.

Lembede’s notion and concept of African nationalism was an anti-thesis of the colonial framing of Africa; and reconstructed and reinforced ethnic divisions. He rejected the usual building blocks of nationalism as language, colour, geographical location or national origin but for him Africans were a spiritual force he called ‘Africanism’. This concept first appeared in his writings in 1944, and was based not only on the fact that Africans shared the same continent but that they had adapted to Africa’s climate and environment. ‘The African natives’, he contended, ‘then live and move and have their being in the spirit of Africa, in short, they are one with Africa’ (Edgar and Msumza, 1996/2015).

In developing his philosophy of African nationalism, Lembede merged his ideas of African nationalism and Africa-centred philosophy with those of other nationalists both on the continent and other anti-colonial struggles of the globe. But he rejected the Afrikaner nationalism on the basis that it was for him, based on culture –‘ common culture’. He was rejected the Afrikaner nationalists as he contended they distorted evolutionary theory to justify white domination. Muziwakhe Lembede probably took special delight in recasting the same ideas to promote African equality with Europeans [and Africans as equals to any other race]. Moreover, his concept of African nationalism was fundamentally opposed to Afrikaner nationalism (Edgar and Msumza, 1996/2015). For him, the goals of Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism were incompatible and at war with each other.

African nationalism (and pan Africanism) are tools to dismantle white colonial rule, domination, and nationalism and superiority. Lembede understood the struggle at two levels: firstly, the socio-economic and political; and secondly, the psychological level. He held the view that in order for Africans to overcome white domination, they had to first overcome psychological disabilities. The latter had had a destructive impact on the self-image of Africans. This negative self-image in the main manifested in Africans’ self-hate, inferiority complex, ‘the worship and idolisation of whiteness, foreign leaders and ideologies’.

According to Lembede, the African people have been told time-and-again that they are babies, that they are an inferior race, that they cannot achieve anything worthwhile by themselves or without a white man as their “trustee” or “leader”. This insidious suggestion has poisoned their minds and has resulted in a pathological state of mind. Consequently the African has lost or is losing the sterling qualities of self-respect, self-confidence and self-reliance. Even in the political world, it is being suggested that Africans cannot organise themselves or make any progress without white “leaders”. “Now I stand for the revolt against this psychological enslavement of my people. I strive for the eradication of this ‘Ja-Baas’ mentality, which for centuries has been systematically and sublimely implanted into the minds of the Africans.” (Edgar and Msumza, 1996/2015).

Beside the end goal of liberation, Lembede through his Africa-centred philosophy identified some immediate initiatives to challenge the inferiority complex and myths about Africa. The intention was to demystify African history to enable Africans to gain back their soul and confidence. Lembede’s ultimate cure for these ills was political freedom, but he prescribed several intermediate steps which Africans could take to reassert an independent identity. One such intervention was reversing the distorted image of their own past. This meant constructing a history that accentuated the positive achievements of African civilizations, praising the heroic efforts of African leaders who resisted European expansion and resurrecting the glories of the African past. His historical vision drew a linear connection between present and past African civilizations, going back to ancient Egypt. His view was that the roots of civilisation are deep in the soil of Africa.

On African cause and the idea of a new Africa, Lembede expressed confidence in the independent and glorious future for Africa. He stated: “My heart yearns for the glory of an Africa that is gone. But I shall labour for the birth of a new Africa, free and great among the nations of the world”. Mda says Lembede had a deep and almost fanatical love for Africa and would, on occasion remark: “I live for the freedom of my people, and I shall die for Africa’s freedom” (extract from the African National Congress Youth League. Statement during the Anton Lembede Memorial Lecture, University of Fort Hare, 10 October 2002).

For him African nationalism was the vehicle to liberate Africans from the shackles of colonialism and later apartheid, white domination and the inferiority complex. It is in this context that the non-official historical account of Lembede magnifies the narrow presentation of Lembede from that presented by the ANC post-1994, as simply the founding president of the ANCYL. This presentation of Lembede, the lawyer and intellectual of note, includes his African-centred philosophy BS his vision of African nationalism (Africanism). 

The legacy that Lembede has left for his peers and generations after him is of his quest and eloquent articulation of an Africa-centred philosophy of Africanism, mental emancipation and a free Africa. For him, it was through African nationalism that Africans would be able to advance the liberation struggle. Furthermore, he believed that it is through self-introspection that Africans would overturn the colonial system that is built on white supremacy, privilege and domination.

Lembede’s three years political writings from 1944 to 1947 illustrate his immense obsession with crafting and modernising his philosophy of African nationalism, Africa-centred thinking and free Africa.

There is no ambiguity in my mind that Lembede would have been disappointed by his organisation’s paradigm shift from the 1950s, with the adoption of the new constitution, proliferation of the liberal congress alliance politics and corporation, and the adoption of the freedom charter in 1955. All these indicators are contrary to the strategic document he co-authored or played a prominent role in developing – Africans Claim of 1943 and the ANCYL Manifesto of 1944. This disappointment is no different from that experienced by Sobukwe and other Africanists who were disgruntled and rejected this paradigm shift.

(b) Struggle for the Soul of the ANC/ANCYL

Lembede had a problem with whites leading the national cause and the class based communists approach. His views were based on his comprehension of the South African political landscape – including rejecting cooperation with the communist party – and white domination. At times, his views were against those of the ANC and Youth League communists and those who later promoted the liberal congress alliance politics in the 1950s.

This contestation, the struggle for the soul of the ANC, its philosophies and approaches, was also experienced by Sobukwe and his generation in the same way as Lembede. At least at a strategic level it would seem that the Programme of Action of 1949 was a guiding document of the ANC up until the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955. However, in practice that was not the case as it was consistently compromised. For instance, for Sobukwe the 1952 defiance campaign did not follow correctly from the programme of action. According to Sobukwe, in an interview with Gail Gerhart: “By this time the Program was already being compromised. The struggle was always to bring the ANC back to the Program. During the 1950s it strayed far away. If the Program had been followed we would all be living different lives today. Deviation began with the strikes in 1950. These were concocted by the left wing. We felt that they had nothing to do with us but were merely protests at the banning of the Communist Party. A split was already beginning in our ranks; the Youth League was on the decline. Some were going over to the Communists.

“The main thing we didn’t like about the Defiance Campaign was the leadership role taken by Indians and whites. It was a lesson we had learned, that whenever these groups were involved in any action, you had the Africans just “taking a back seat,” sitting back and letting these people run things. We felt this had to be overcome and that Africans had to learn to take the initiative, to do things for themselves. I recognized there were some non-Africans who fully identified with us and were prepared to sacrifice, but as a matter of principle we couldn’t let these people take any part because of the bad psychological effect this had on our people.

“The signs of irreconcilable ideological split – between the Africanists, the Communist party and the liberal congress alliance politics -within the ANCYL and its mother body began in 1950 and was also exacerbated by the competition between JB Marks and S Thema for leadership” (Gerhart in an interview with Sobukwe, 1970 in Kimberly).

Commemorating Anton Muziwakhe Lembede

After Lembede’s untimely death, Mda created his own footprints within the ANCYL in terms of policy direction and building provincial chapters, and the adoption of the 1949 Programme of Action by the ANC. In this period he also memorialised Lembede by giving lectures on Lembede. However, a formal Lembede commemoration only took place in the mid-1950s. It was also in this period that Sobukwe advocated for honouring Lembede by calling the day of his death, 31st July, as the national heroes day.

The Africanists also held Lembede memorials and used their journal/newspaper – ‘The Africanist’ whose editor was Sobukwe in 1957 – to reprint some of Lembede’s writings as well as pay tributes to him and his ideas.

Promoting the Africanist views became critical after 1949 as the Youth League and the mother body, ANC, started fragmenting into two major groups; those who retained their commitment to the African nationalism text and those who were prepared to forge alliances with political organisations representing other racial groups and the Communist Party. The former was labelled the ‘Africanists’ and it was this group that in the official dominant narrative of the reconstructed South African past, is presented as the faction that eventually ‘broke away’ from the ANC to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959.

In post-1994, however, there has not been a gesture to honour Lembede, besides the renaming of Smith Street after him in Durban and his reburial on the 27th October 2002 at Madundube in Umbumbulu, KwaZulu Natal.

Borrowing from Ngugi wa Thiongo, we “should honour those who died that we might live”, Lembede ought to be honoured and celebrated not just for his contribution in a leaner and narrow presentation, but importantly, in his totality and for a comprehensive understanding of resistance against colonialism and later the struggle against apartheid South African.

Lembede represents self-affirmation, self-consciousness, African nationalism, free Africa, dismantling of inferiority complex and white supremacy and nationalism. If his holistic presentation deficit continues through the mythological and disjointed national consciousness and history which has been reconstructed by the ANC, future generations will judge us harshly. 

What Lembede left incomplete was to be completed by Sobukwe in his own way. Furthermore, what Sobukwe left unfinished is a challenge for the present generation of Africa-centred thinkers to complete. This call informs the struggle for a ‘new’ Africa, a regenerated Africa, an Africa reborn and free from all forms of neo colonialism and exploitation. Lembede may be gone but spiritually and ideologically he’s with us in our hearts. 

Lembede died in 1947, on the eve of the introduction of the apartheid era but his influence and ideas permeated through the apartheid years to the present. His ideas, teachings and political philosophies are timeless and resonate even in the present.

Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo, is a historian, heritage studies specialist, museologist and a Fulbright Scholar at Cheyney University (USA). He is the Director and Head of the Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies at the University of Fort Hare. He writes in his personal capacity.

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