Teacher, first African to pass the Cape Civil Service Examination, court interpreter at the Supreme Court at Grahamstown and later interpreter at the Supreme Court of Griqualand West at Kimberley, insurance agent, author and Genera
Horatio Isaiah Budlwana (Bud) Mbelle was born in Burgersdorp, Cape Colony on 24 June 1870. He grew up in the Herschel district in the Eastern Cape where Sotho and Nguni languages were spoken. He was educated at the Wesleyan Methodist Primary School and from 1886 to 1888 at Healdtown Institution, a Methodist boarding school near Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape, where he qualÂified as a teacher. For the next five years Mbelle taught at Herschel and Colesberg. In the meantime he continued studying and in 1892 became the first African to pass the Cape Civil Service Examination, passing Afrikaans, English, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa and Zulu.
Mbelle then became a court interpreter. His first position was at the Supreme Court at Grahamstown. In 1894 Mbelle became the interpreter for African languages at the Supreme Court of Griqualand West at Kimberley””a post which he held for more than 20 years. On occasion he also had to interpret for dignitaries such as the Earl of Athlone and his wife. Princess Alice, S.C. Buxton (first Earl of Buxton), and even for the Prince of Wales during his visit in 1925.
In Kimberley, Mbelle settled in the Malay camp, a multiracial township where he quickly played a leading role in community life. The upliftment of his fellow Africans was especially close to his heart. He was involved in the establishment of schools for Africans in Griqualand West and served on the school committee of Lyndhurst Road School in Kimberley for many years. In addition he was one of the members of a promotion scheme which strove for the creation of a university college for Africans. This eventually led to the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. Mbelle was a founder member of the South Africans' Improvement Society and of the Kimberley branch of the Young Men's Christian Association. He became known for the furtherance of music among African people and was a founder member and for many years director of the Philharmonic Society of the North-Western Cape. As a faithful churchgoer he became a circuit steward in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Kimberley. Lastly he was a talented rugby and cricket player and he took the lead in the local African community sports activities. When Mbelle's post as court interpreter was abolished at the end of 1915, he raised objections to this, but to no avail. Consequently he moved to JohanÂnesburg where he became an insurance agent.
Seen against the background of the many fields in which Mbelle played a role in Kimberley it is understandable that he would become involved in politics in due course. While in Kimberley he joined the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), renamed African National Congress (ANC) after 1923) and after moving to Johannesburg he became increasingly active and well known in politics. In 1917 he became general secretary of the SANNC. In this capacity he helped to articulate the grievances of his fellow Africans against discriminaÂtory measures, even though he could be considered conservative and moderate in his actions. In 1919 he resigned his position in the SANNC as a result of its internal differences, inter alia about the delegation which was sent to Britain in 1919 to protest against the colour bar in South Africa. Simultaneously Mbelle resigned as insurance agent, and returned to the civil service as interpreter at the head office of the Department of Native Affairs in Pretoria. He remained there until his retirement. In Pretoria he settled in the so-called Cape Location (Marabastad), where he quickly played a leading role in the local church, social and political life. He was a member of the Pretoria branch of the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantu and a founder member of the Pretoria Advisory Council for African affairs. In 1935 he was one of the speakers at the All-African Convention (AAC).
Mbelle was a well-read and well-travelled person. He was the author of the Xhosa scholar's companion and took a great interest in the education of Africans. He was widely regarded as the best court interpreter of his day. He married Maria Johanna Smouse in 1897. Three daughters were born of the marriage; the eldest daughter was married to R.W. Msimang. Mbelle was a lifelong friend of Solomon T. Plaatje who was married to his sister. He died in Pretoria on 16 July 1947.