Dr James Sebe Moroka

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Biographical information

Synopsis:

Medical doctor, AAC Treasurer, President of the African National Congress from 1949 to 1952.

Title: 
Dr
First name: 
James
Last name: 
Moroka
Date of birth: 
16 March 1892
Date of death: 
10 November 1985
Position Held:

President (1949 - 1952)

Dr. James Sebe Moroka was the great grandson of Chief Moroka I of the Barolong, from Thaba Nchu in the then Orange Free State.

Moroka was born on 16 March 1892, in Thaba-Nchu. He attended the Wesleyan Church school in the Ratlou village until he passed standard 4. Thereafter he attended high school at the Lovedale Institute in Alice in the Eastern Cape, where he met Mr MacDonald, a church minister from Scotland. MacDonald was planning to educate young Black students in Scotland, and although Moroka’s parents were not keen to send him overseas, MacDonald convinced them that it would be a great opportunity for their son.

Moroka then had the task of finding money to fund his overseas education. At the time, he was the owner of a farm which he inherited from his grandmother. Piet Steytler, a friend, agreed to take care of the farm and gave Moroka £800, and Moroka left Cape Town for Southampton in 1911 on the Caledonian Castle, under the care of MacDonald.

In Edinburgh, Moroka was examined at a local school to ascertain his level of education, and the results showed that he did not have the knowledge necessary to be accepted at medical school. MacDonald came to his rescue by securing the assistance of a local graduate Mr Fairweather and his wife to tutor the student.  The ‘crash course’ lasted for two years, after which Moroka passed his Matric exam, and became eligible to enter medical school.

Moroka excelled at medical school at the University of Edinburgh and passed his final examination in 1918 with ease. With no family members able to attend his graduation ceremony, fellow South African Silas Modiri Molema, who was a student at Glasgow at the time, accompanied his friend.

Before returning to South Africa, Moroka worked as an assistant in a country practice in England. Although he was offered a partnership, Moroka returned to South Africa soon afterwards.

Medical Career

Moroka found Thaba Nchu provincial and, against the wishes of his mother, planned to make his way to Johannesburg. Instead, she persuaded him to set up a practice in Thaba Nchu. She prepared a rondavel for him to use as a surgery and gave him £30 to stock his dispensary. The medicines were supplied by James Reid, also an Edinburgh graduate, who lived in Bloemfontein. Reid gave Moroka £300 worth of medicines and allowed him to pay it off when he could.

Moroka opened his practice in 1918 on a farm just outside Thaba Nchu, where he served both the Black and White communities. In 1936, he moved his practice to the town of Thaba Nchu, where he continued until he retired in 1976.

Moroka married Chief Fenyani’s daughter Maggy soon after his arrival in South Africa, but she died after a few years later. Moroka later married Susan Motshumi, who gave birth to 10 children – six boys and four girls, all of whom did well academically.

In 1933, Moroka decided to return to Europe to pursue postgraduate work in Vienna, where after three years he qualified as a surgeon. But he was never able to put his training to use as the colour bar laws of the time prevented him from using the only available facilities in the hospital in Bloemfontein.

Moroka’s practice flourished, with both white and black patients consulting him. Ministering to a sizeable number of Afrikaner patients, Moroka, like white doctors of that period who had mixed patient constituencies, provided separate entrances and waiting areas for the white clientele. Moroka was noted for his skilled diagnoses, especially by white patients, who attributed his skill to ‘some magical native power’.

The pull of Moroka's professional abilities offset the whites’ racial prejudices. While at first a few white patients visited him at night, their numbers increased later, although many scratched out the doctor’s name on the medicine bottles they took home. Moroka noted that many whites came to him when they contracted venereal diseases because they were too ashamed to visit their usual doctor.

Moroka helped secure a site for the Moroka Missionary Hospital in Thaba Nchu, now known as the Moroka Community Hospital. This was the only training hospital for Blacks in the Orange Free State. 

Moroka’s Politics

Moroka’s political career began in the 1930s when he became involved in Black resistance against the JBM Hertzog’s draft bills– the Natives Trust and Land Bill, which sought to limit Black ownership of land outside the reserves; and the Representation of Natives Bill, which sought to remove Cape Black voters from the common voters’ roll.

When the All African Convention (AAC) was formed to oppose these laws Moroka attended the first meeting, held in Bloemfontein, in December 1935.  Moroka made a firm stand against the Hertzog Bills and his militant reputation got him elected as treasurer of the AAC as well as member of the 1936 AAC delegation to the government to convey African feeling regarding the draft bills.

Although Moroka was extremely critical of the Bills, he made himself available to take part in the Native Representative Council (NRC), which was formed as a result of the new legislation.  Moroka believed the hypocrisy of the NRC could be exposed by denouncing it from within.

From its beginnings, the AAC, under the leadership of DDT Jabavu and AB Xuma, was closely tied to the ANC, sometimes working with it and sometimes against it. Many members of the AAC were also members of the ANC, and the relationship between the two organisations was competitive. While it breathed new life into Black politics, it also served to reignite the ANC, and a sort of division of labour existed between the two organisations. Moroka was one of the AAC members who also belonged to the ANC, having joined the latter in 1942.

Moroka later began to distance himself from official AAC policy. By 1946 Moroka played a leading role in the NRC’s confrontation with the government and he continued his opposition to the constitution of the structure. The clashes brought the council’s activities to an end, but controversy set in when Moroka delayed his resignation to the last day of 1950.

In October 1948, Xuma called a meeting of 12 African leaders to end the divisions between the ANC and AAC. Moroka represented the AAC during reconciliatory talks, but the talks failed to produce positive results, even though the gathering committed itself to greater unity.

Moroka in the ANC

Moroka’s involvement with the ANC began in 1942, while he was a member of the AAC, and in 1943 he became a member of the Atlantic Charter Committee of the ANC. The committee released a statement on the charter, called the African Claims, and drafted a Bill of Rights after studying and discussing problems that arose out of the Atlantic Charter in so far as it related to Africa.

The ANC at the time was headed by AB Xuma, who served for three terms as ANC President-general from 1940 to 1949. But from the mid-1940s, a new force emerged within the ANC when the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) was formed, and its radical leaders called for more effective tactics to end racial discrimination. After the victory of the National Party (NP) and the beginnings of apartheid, the League drew up a Programme of Action in 1948. The programme was sent to the provinces and accepted as ANC policy in December 1949, against the wishes of Xuma.

Xuma's leadership was confronted by a series of problems in the ANC: organisational malaise, indecision over forms of protest, and debates about the way forward. Xuma believed that increased membership and better provincial organisation were prerequisites for mass action, while the Youth League, with its Programme of Action, believed instead that mass support would follow a sustained protest campaign.

In 1949, with the support of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and others in the militant ANC Youth League, Moroka was elected president-general of the ANC. Although Moroka was not a member of the ANC itself but a member of the ANCYL, and his election would be unconstitutional, the Youth League was struggling to find a candidate who could challenge AB Xuma. The League, failing in its attempt to get ZK Matthews to stand against Xuma, settled on Moroka, who accepted the Programme of Action in its entirety,and Moroka was persuaded to take up the challenge.

According to Nelson Mandela, writing in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom

'Dr Moroka was an unlikely choice. He was a member of the All African Convention (AAC), which was dominated by Trotskyist elements at that time. When he agreed to stand against Dr Xuma, the Youth League then enrolled him as a member of the ANC. When first approached, he consistently referred to the ANC as the African National “Council”. He was not very knowledgeable about the ANC, neither was he an experienced activist, but he was respectable, and amenable to our programme. Like Dr Xuma, he was a doctor, and one of the wealthiest black men in South Africa. He had studied at Edinburgh and Vienna. His great-grandfather had been a chief in Orange Free State, and had greeted the Afrikaner Voortrekkers of the nineteenth century with open arms and gifts of land, and then been betrayed. Dr Xuma was defeated and Dr Moroka became president general of the ANC.’

According to Peter Walshe, ‘the radicals of the Transvaal left-wing and the Youth League had acquired a more malleable president, even if he lacked the national stature of Xuma and the latter's capacity for diligent if frustrated attention to the detailed matters of Congress organisation'. Walshe also notes that Moroka's new Executive failed to improve the organisational workings of the ANC, and in the period leading up to the Defiance Campaign the ANC underwent further organisational 'stagnation': its finances were depleted, inadequate provincial reports were submitted, tensions were rife in the Natal and Transvaal branches, and the continued existence of the national headquarters was in jeopardy.

During Moroka’s three-year presidency, the ANC, now dominated by the radicals of the Youth League, became a more militant organisation. Moroka found it challenging to exercise control over the organisation, based as he was at Thaba Nchu, which was far removed from the central political arena of the Witwatersrand. Despite his failures, Moroka did not hesitate to work with other militant organisations such as the Communist Party of South Africa(CPSA) and the South African Indian Congress(SAIC).

However, Moroka’s distance from the centre prompted critics to say he lacked an understanding of Transvaal politics, which led to blunders. Critics described many of his actions as naÁ¯ve and short-sighted, and as contributing to dissension within the ranks of the ANC.

Moroka presided over the ANC in one of its most active and effective phases. The ANC began to consider implementing the Programme of Action, anda Council of Action – including Moroka, Gaur Radebe, Godfrey M Pitje, CS Ramohanoeand Oliver Tambo– was appointed in February 1950, tasked with deciding on methods of protest.

The year proved to be turbulent for Moroka and the ANC. By 1950, the Transvaal branch of the ANC had split into three factions. In a hotly contested election, JB Marks, a communist, was elected Transvaal President. The nationalist bloc, under the leadership of Selope Thema and Ramohanoe, opposed Marks's 'foreign ideology', and insisted that all members proclaim their allegiance to African Nationalism. Moroka's National Executive examined the issues and called for a new election. But the nationalist faction refused to cooperate, claiming that Moroka was biased, and that the ANC was being hijacked by forces opposed to nationalism.

In 1950, Dr Yusuf Dadoo and Sam Kahn, both members of the CPSA,were banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. In response to the new apartheid legislation and the bannings, the CPSA launched a Free Speech Convention. Moroka, without consulting the ANC, agreed to preside over the convention, set for March 1950. He declared that he made the decision in his private capacity. At first individual ANC branches, including the Transvaal branch, sent delegates to the convention.

When the convention, which was dominated by the CPSA, called for a day of protest set for 1 May 1950, Transvaal ANC President Ramohanoe opposed the decision, and the Transvaal ANC withdrew from the convention. The nationalists in the ANC saw the convention as detracting attention from the Programme of Action.

Dubbed the Freedom Day strike, the protest was a great success, even though the government had banned all meetings for 1 May. More than 70 percent of African workers stayed at home. In Orlando West, where Mandela and Walter Sisulu were present, police fired on the crowd, and 18 Africans were killed and many wounded. The ANC decided to hold a Day of Protest against the shooting, and also against the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act. The Day of Protest, set for 26 June 1950, was the ANC's first attempt to hold a strike on a national scale.

At the ANC’s National Conference in December 1950, Moroka spoke of the last 300 years in which Africans had been unequal partners in a dishonourable contract of master and servant. Later Moroka and ZK Matthews agreed to resign from the NRC, which they did shortly before the NRC was abolished under the Bantu Authorities Act. Moroka caused some controversy when he waited till the last day of the year to resign.

The Defiance Campaign

After a meeting of the ANC National Executive on 17 June 1951 to consider a response to the new apartheid legislation, a resolution was passed to invite the South African Indian Congress and the (coloured) Franchise Action Council to a joint conference, where Indian, African and Coloured leaders decided to pursue a campaign of passive resistance. A Joint Planning Council was set up to coordinate the campaign, and Moroka, JB Marks and Walter Sisulu served alongside Yusuf Dadoo and Yusuf Cachalia.

The December conference in 1951 decided on a timetable for the Defiance Campaign, the date to coincide with the tercentenary of Jan van Riebeeck's arrival in South Africa. The Joint Planning Council called on the government to repeal the Suppression of Communism Act, the Group Areas Act, the Separate Representation of Voters Act, the Bantu Authorities Act, the pass laws and the stock limitation laws, and it demanded that these be abolished by 29 February 1952. The leaders of the ANC drafted a letter to President Malan. Although Moroka had not helped write the letter, it was to be submitted under his name, as ANC president-general. Mandela was told to deliver the letter to Moroka, and he drove to Thaba Nchu. Mandela had an accident on the way to Moroka, and arrived the next morning. Moroka approved the letter and Mandela returned to Johannesburg.

The letter addressed to Malan informed him of the ANC's plan to mount demonstrations if the six laws were not repealed by the end of February, explaining that the protest was not against any race or group, but against degradation that apartheid laws visited on the non-white population. 

The letter reads: 'Posterity will judge that this action we are about to begin was in the interests of all in our country and will inspire our people for long ages to come. We decide to place on record that, for our part, we have endeavoured over the last forty years to bring about conditions for genuine progress and true democracy.'

Malan wrote a curt reply, threatening state action if the campaign went ahead.

The Defiance Campaign began on 6 April 1952 with a ‘preliminary protest’, and Moroka delivered a speech at Freedom Square in Johannesburg. But the main campaign began on 26 June 1952, and reached its peak during August, September and October, by which time 8577 passive resisters had been arrested.

On 30 July, 1952, 21 leaders of the ANC were arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act, including Moroka, Mandela, Sisulu, JB Marks, Dadoo, and Ahmed Kathrada.

Moroka was severely criticised when he distanced himself from the other accused, choosing to have his own counsel and entering a plea of mitigation. Nelson Mandela gives an account of the episode:

“The trial should have been an occasion of resolve and solidarity, but it was sullied by a breach of faith when Dr Moroka, the president-general of the ANC and the figurehead of the campaign, shocked us all by employing his own attorney. The plan was for all of us to be tried together. My fellow accused appointed me to discuss the matter with Dr Moroka in an attempt to persuade him not to separate himself. The day before the trial I went to see Dr Moroka at Village Deep, Johannesburg. At the outset of our meeting, I suggested alternatives to him, but he was not interested and instead aired a number of grievances. He felt that he had been excluded from the planning of the campaign. Yet Moroka was often quite uninterested in ANC affairs and content to be so. But he said the matter that disturbed him more than any other was that by being defended with the rest of us, he would be associated with men who were communists. Dr Moroka shared the goverment's animosity to communism. I remonstrated with him and said that it was the tradition of the ANC to work with anyone who was against racial oppression. But Moroka was unmoved.

The greatest jolt came when Moroka tendered a humiliating plea in mitigation to Judge Rumpff and took the witness stand to renounce the very principles on which the ANC had been founded. Asked whether he thought there should be equality between black and white in South Africa, Moroka replied that there would never be such a thing. We felt like slumping in despair in our seats. When his own lawyer asked him whether there were some among the defendants who were communists, Moroka actually began to point his fingers at various people, including Dr Dadoo and Walter Sisulu. The judge informed him that that was not necessary.

His performance was a severe blow to the organisation, and we all immediately realised that Dr Moroka's days as ANC president were numbered. He had committed the cardinal sin of putting his own interests ahead of those of the organisation and the people. He was unwilling to jeopardise his medical career and fortune for his political beliefs, and thereby he had destroyed the image he had built during three years of courageous work on behalf of the ANC and the Defiance Campaign.”

The accused were found guilty of 'statutory communism', and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour, which was suspended for two years.

This spelt the end of Moroka’s leadership, and at the annual conference in December 1952, he was defeated by Albert Luthuli. Moroka showed that he could accommodate himself to changing political climates, and later he even supported the Bantustans, believing that it would give blacks a stable home that could not be taken away from them.

Moroka died on 10 November 1985.


References:
• Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 1994, Macdonald Purnell
• Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa, 1970, C Hurst & Company, London.
•  Olivier, LR. and Kriel JR., (1978). ‘A job well done ”“ a short history of Dr James Moroka’ in South African Medical Journal, Vol 54, No.8, pp.431-451.
• Ncayiyana, Daniel J., (2007). ‘From Edinburgh to Thaba Nchu : the stories of early Black doctors in South Africa in South African Medical Journal, Vol 97, No.4, pp.219.
• Digby, Anne., (2007). ‘Early doctors in South Africa’ in South African Medical Journal, Vol 97, No. 8 pp 252.
• New Dictionary of South African biography, volume 1[online]. Available at http://books.google.co.zaPretoria: HSRC, pp. 182-184.
• Sisulu, E., (2002). ‘Walter and Albertina Sisulu : in our lifetime, (Claremont: David Philip)
• The Editor., (2012). ‘ Moroka, Mahabane receive Gold Orders of Luthuli’[online]. Available at http://theweekly.co.za[Accessed May 2012]
• The Editor., (2012). Centennial torch receives overwhelming reception’[online]. Available at http://www.bloemfindit.co.za  [Accessed May 2012]
• Moroka High School [online]. Available at http://www.historicschools.org.za[Accessed May 2012]

Last updated : 06-Jul-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 06-Sep-2011