Great People

We Remember Anton Lembede: Africanist, First President Of The ANC Youth League, Born 21 January 1941

"The Hour Of Youth Has Struck"

Anton Musiwakhe Lembede (21 January 1914 – 30 July 1947) was a South African activist and founding president of the ANC Youth League. He has been described as “the principal architect of South Africa’s first full-fledged ideology of African nationalism.” Lembede was unapologetically Africanist. The Pan African Congress (PAC) observes 31 July as Heroes Day/Lembede Day. This day was initiated a month after the adoption of the Kliptown Charter in June 1955 (Freedom Charter) when “the Africanists staged a memorial service to Anton Lembede and used this occasion to honour the heroes of the African past”. This day is celebrated every year to remember those men and women who served, sacrificed and suffered for the liberation of this country and the continent.

He was born into a family of farm labourers in present-day KwaZulu-Natal. His mother, who had passed Standard V (current grade 7) taught him up to Standard II (grade 4) and he then passed Standard IV, V and VI in a country school at Umbumbulu. By virtue of a first class pass in Standard VI he was able to obtain a scholarship to Adams College.

He trained as a teacher while concurrently pursuing his junior certificate through private study. He obtained both his teacher and junior certificate in 1935, and secured his matriculation certificate in 1937, with a distinction in Latin.

Although he was unable to attend the University of Fort Hare because his family depended on his income as a teacher, he secured a BA through private study at the end of 1940 and obtained his LLB two years later.

In 1945 he obtained his MA from the University of South Africa after submitting his thesis The conception of God as expounded by Great Philosophers from Descartes to the present-day. He knew Latin, German and Dutch and began learning French.

When he completed his law degree, he abandoned teaching and moved to Johannesburg, where the veteran politician, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, employed him as a law clerk and later made him a partner. He was admitted to the bar in 1946. Seme was preparing to sell him his law firm when Lembede developed intestinal complications and died unexpectedly at the age of 33.

Speaking at Lembede’s reburial in 2002, former President Nelson Mandela said: “This reburial ceremony also reminds us on a personal level of the shock of his sudden death in July 1947. We were together discussing matters of the Youth League when Anton complained of feeling ill. We drove him to Coronation Hospital where he died that same evening at the young age of thirty-three.

“As mentioned elsewhere, I cannot pinpoint a precise moment when I became politicised and knew with a sudden blinding flash that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle. It was rather a process growing out of the oppressive realities of ones life coupled to the formative influences of a variety of people.

“At the house of Walter Sisulu I met with many of those who would have such formative influence; amongst them was Anton Lembede whom I first met at Walter’s place in 1943.

“From the moment I heard Lembede speak I knew I was in the presence of a dynamic and original thinker and his ideas immediately struck a chord in me.

“What I particularly remember from the ideas put forward by Lembede in those vigorous and stimulating discussions was his insistence that black people should rid themselves of a debilitating inferiority complex. This inferiority complex he saw as the greatest barrier to liberation”. http://”

During his short political career, Lembede developed the idea of Africanism, a doctrine calling for a government of Africans, by Africans, for Africans and the psychological emancipation of Africans to rely on themselves for liberation. His outlook was Pan-African and he believed that Africa had a divine destiny and would take her rightful place among the peoples of the earth in due time.

On Easter Sunday in 1944 at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg, Lembede together with Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Ashby (A.P.) Mda and others founded the ANC Youth League, believing the mother body needed to become more radical.

As the league’s founding president, and later as a member of the ANCs national executive, his writings not only formed the backbone of the Youth League Manifesto but also influenced ANC policies. He was a leading advocate of more militant strategies and tactics in the ANC, and even though he died before its adoption, he was later considered an architect of the 1949 Programme of Action.

By the mid-1950s Lembede’s ideas were contested within the ANC Youth League, but continued to strongly favour an Africanist faction, that later coalesced into the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Lembede was laid to rest at the Croesus cemetery in Johannesburg on 3 August 1947. His pallbearers and speakers represented a broad spectrum of black political and educational leaders, including Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Oliver Tambo, Yusuf Dadoo, Ashby Mda, Sofasonke Mpanza, Jordan Ngubane, Alfred Xuma, William Nkomo and Benedict Vilakazi.

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