Teacher, court interpreter, minister and first President-General of the ANC
Richard Mahabane was born in Thaba Nchu, Orange Free State (now Free Stae Province), on 15 August 1881. His parents were Christians and prosperous farmers. After his primary school education in Thaba Nchu he was send to Morija Mission Institute in Basotholand (Lesotho) where he qualified as a teacher in 1901. He soon gave up teaching and became a court interpreter. In 1908 he began theological training at the Lessyton Theological school near Queenstown. He was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1914.
Richard Mahabane was born in Thaba Nchu, Orange Free State (now Free Stae Province), on 15 August 1881. His parents were Christians and prosperous farmers. After his primary school education in Thaba Nchu he was send to Morija Mission Institute in Basotholand (Lesotho) where he qualified as a teacher in 1901. He soon gave up teaching ad became a court interpreter. In 1908 he began theological training at the Lessyton Theological school near Queenstown. He was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1914.
Mahabane's first congregation was at Bensonvale near Herschel. From there he was transferred to Cape Town where he quickly became politically active. In 1919 he was elected as president of the Cape provincial branch of the South African Native National Council (SANNC, African National Congress (ANC) after 1923). He also became vice-president of the Cape Native Voters' Convention. His first term as president-general of the ANC (1924-1927) was a quiet period in the history of the organization.
Mahabane increasingly tried to attain Black unity. With the Coloured leader Dr A. Abdurahman he organised the so-called Non-European Unity Conferences between 1927 and 1934 where Africans, coloureds and Indians discussed their common grievances and ideals.
By the end of the 1920s Mahabane was anxious about the growing black following of the communist ideology and the pro-communist tendencies of his successor as ANC president-general, J.T. Gumede. From 1929 to 1930 he was therefore instrumental in ousting Gumede from his leadership position. Simultaneously Mahabane was closely involved with black resistance to the so-called J.B.M. Hertzog Draft Bills that, amongst others, were considering the removal of the Cape black voters from the common voters' roll. In order to oppose Hertzog's legislation, the All-African Convention (AAC) was formed in 1935, with Mahabane becoming one of the AAC leaders. At its first meeting in December 1935 he was elected to its executive committee and was part of the delegation that conveyed the AAC's grievances and proposals to Hertzog in Cape Town. The resistance was in vain but the AAC continued to exist and Mahabane served as vice-president until 1955.
Mahabane's second term as president-general of the ANC lasted from 1937 until 1940. He was still involved with the ANC after that and as senior chaplain was a member of the committee that had to investigate the revision of the ANC's constitution. In 1943 he was made lifelong honorary president. During the 1940s he became increasingly involved with the AAC that, with Mahabane's assistance and together with certain coloured organisations formed the basically Trotskyite Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) in 1945. Mahabane was its first chairperson and later president until his resignation in 1956. In October 1948 he was the AAC delegate at a meeting with the ANC where a vain attempt was made to end the dissension between the two organisations. He was not a participant in the Defiance Campaign of 1952.
In October 1956 Mahabane attended the National Conference of Black Thinkers in Bloemfontein to discuss the Tomlinson Report (Report of the Commission/or the Socio-Economic Development of the Bantu Areas) organised by the Interdenominational African Ministers' Federation (IDAMF). It was one of the most representative rallies of black people since the AAC meetings of the mid-thirties, and it rejected the commission's findings.
During the 1950s Mahabane increasingly applied himself to the problems of Christianity and its place in Africa. He put across his thoughts in this connection at various conferences in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa. He played a prominent role in the development of the Methodist Church in South Africa and helped to draw up the church's constitution and to define the equal status of all in the church. In addition he was one of the first three Africans to acquire an official position at the Methodist Church's conference. At the interchurch level he also held a leading role in the IDAMF. In 1927 and 1937 he attended international missionary conferences in Belgium where African affairs were discussed.
Mahabane was described as a diplomatic, slow-speaking and calm man, who combined politics and Christian ethics to fight racism. He was keen to unite all blacks into one firm and positive political front. Through the ANC he constantly tried to educate Africans about their rights and made frequent representations against the colour bar.
Mahabane lived and worked in Kroonstad for most of his long career. The colour bar in South Africa (Lovedale, 1923) was his only publication. He was married to Harriet Mantoro. The couple had three daughters and two sons.