Jacob Nhlapo was born in 1903 to Isaac Hulumeni and Catherina Maseko. He received primary schooling at his birthplace, Reitz, a town in North-East Orange Free State province. After this he gained a first class pass for his Lower Primary Teachers’ Certificate at Bensonvale Institution in the Eastern Cape. Staying in the region, at the renowned Lovedale Institute near Alice, he completed a Primary Teachers’ Higher Diploma with the same results.
Nhlapo returned to Reitz to start his teaching career. Simultaneously he studied privately through the University of South Africa (Unisa): in 1928 he obtained a Junior Certificate (Grade 10), and the year after, his senior certificate (Grade 12). Moving to another teaching post, he taught at Thaba Nchu in the eastern Free State, where he was instrumental in 1930, in founding the Moroka Training Institution, where he was based for ten years. It was here that the formation of his educational philosophy occurred. In his own personal education he became a ground-breaker too: in 1936, when he gained his B.A. degree in journalism, he was the first black South African to be awarded a B.A. through private study at Unisa and the first black South African in the Orange Free State province to qualify at this level.
In 1940 he obtained a Unisa Bantu Studies diploma and became principal of the Wilberforce Institute in Evaton near Vereeniging where he stayed until 1947. The American Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) established the Wilberforce Institute. During this time Nhlapo took a journalism course through the Regent Institute in London. In 1944 he obtained a Psychology doctorate from University of Chicago’s McKinley-Roosevelt Extension College. About this time he came to regard the Americans Booker T. Washington, Washington Carver and J.E.K. Aggrey as mentors. While at Wilberforce, Nhlapo developed an active membership of the African National Congress (ANC), and became propagandist for the National Executive of the ANC, then led by Dr A.B. Xuma. He was also involved in early ANC Youth League organizing, but later drifted from politics.
While an active educator, Nhlapo was elected the Vice-President of the Orange Free State African Teachers’ Association and editor of its The African Teacher.
During the post-war years he became the first principal of the recently founded (1948) Boitshoko Methodist Institution near Ventersdorp in the Western Transvaal. He went on to shape it into an outstanding place of learning. Nhlapo traveled widely across Africa and also abroad.
In 1949 he attained an LLB from the American Extension School of Law in Chicago and a Doctorate in Jurisprudence from Chicago’s Blackstone College of Law. In 1951 he went overseas to assume the William Paton lectureship at the Selly Oakes Colleges Council in Birmingham, England. Twice in 1952 he visited Germany, and thrice to study (societal life and educational systems) and attend conferences and meetings in France and Holland. He returned via Egypt, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Uganda and Mozambique.
In 1953 Nhapo attended a moral rearmament conference in Caux, Switzerland. In the same year he succeeded R.V. Selope-Thema as editor of the Bantu World. Subsequently he became the first black person to be given a seat in the parliamentary press gallery.
During his lifetime he wrote four books. He was a prominent member of the ANC, African Teachers Association and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). With his wife, Winnie, he had one daughter, Pearl Thokozile. He died on 25 May 1957 when he was 53 years old and is buried in Evaton. At his funeral, tributes were paid by Chief Albert Luthuli, President of the ANC, Prof. Z.K. Matthews, vice-president of the ANC; Rev. J.B. Webb, Chairman of Southern Transvaal District Methodist Church of Africa; W.B. Ngakane, Chairman of Institute of Race Relations; Rev. James A Calata, Secretary-General of ANC and President of Interdenominational African Ministers Federation; Dr. W. F. Nkomo from Pretoria; Rev. G. B. Molefe, principal of Newell High School, Port Elizabeth and Presbyterian minister; H.J.E. Dumbrell, Director of Education, Bechuanaland and member of The Bantu World editorial team.
• Skoda, T.D.M. (ed) The African Yearly Register, Johannesburg.
• Sonderling, N.E. (ed)(1999). New Dictionary of South African Biography, Vol. 2, Pretoria: Vista University, pp.163-4.
• The Bantu World of June 1 and June 8,1957.
• The Star, ‘Death of native editor’, 25 May 1957.
• Submissions to SA History Online by a descendant, Lekwa Nhlapo.
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