Sindiso Mfenyana

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Biographical information

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Date of birth: 
12 March 1940
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Sindiso Mfenyana is descended from the Bhele clan, which is an offshoot of the Hlubi tribe. He traces his roots back to a small town near Alice, where his ancestors most likely arrived with the iMfecane during the mid 1800s, fleeing from the wave of Shaka Zulu's territorial expansion. His paternal grandparents, Isabella (nee Ntshaba) and Samuel Mfenyana, received primary education at Indwe missionary school in the Eastern Cape. They had six children and Sindiso's father, Mtutzeli Naphtali Mfenyana, was born in 1908 along with a twin brother, who sadly passed away when he was just five years old.

Naphtali began his primary education in 1915 but this was disrupted by an outbreak of typhoid fever in 1916. The family then moved towards the Glen Grey District (present day Cacadu).  The family kept cattle and grew sorghum on their new homestead. Sindiso describes his father's upbringing in the present day Eastern Cape as traditional – in the parlance of the time the villagers around him may have been referred to as “Amaqaba” or “red,” which is to say that they held their traditional values to be sacred and were resistant to the urbanisation taking place in the cities of South Africa at the time. Sindiso's grandparents, however, were Christians, and as such they endeavoured to bring Christianity and Western education to their neighbours. They established a church and mobilised for the building of a school in the village too. Napthali went on to complete a teacher training course in 1928 and obtained a teaching post in Machubeni in 1929. He later registered for a Higher Teacher Training course at Lovedale and finally went to Bolotwa to serve as the school principal in 1938. He married Sindiso's mother, a primary school teacher named Nombuyiselo Czarina Makalima, in 1939.

Sindiso was born 12 March 1940, in Bolotwa and spent his early years in Dophu. His early childhood was spent helping to herd cattle and enjoying the perks of a life lived out of doors. His spare time was spent stick fighting with his peers and enjoying traditional Xhosa ceremonies. When he was five years old, his father was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church. Napthali’s first job post was at St. Phillip’s Church in Duncan Village, East London, and this is where Sindiso began his primary education. At the end of 1947, Sindiso’s family left East London for Grahamstown, where they moved into an old mission house, which had been previously occupied by the White priest there. After six months, however, the family had to move again for health reasons, to the railway hub of Noupoort in the Great Karoo. This was in June 1949. Noupoort was to be the site of Sindiso’s first intimation of what Apartheid meant in South Africa. The town was mixed but segregated, with the wealth very clearly distributed unevenly between the various racial groups; Whites with the most; Blacks with the least; Indians and Coloureds with something in between. Sindiso’s father helped to maintain the Anglican Mission there, presiding over services in both Xhosa and Afrikaans, trying to build bridges between the Coloured and Black communities. On 23 May 1951 Sindiso’s mother passed away. His father would, however, marry again in 1952. Sindiso retains fond memories of both women.

The Church Choir at St Agnes Anglican Church in Noupoort, 1955. Sindiso stands 5th from the left back row.

Sindiso’s earliest formal introduction to political thinking arrived in the form of a teacher named Bibi, while Sindiso was still in primary school. The lesson consisted of an alternative presentation of the Great Cattle Killing, the event which all but sealed the fate of Xhosa people in 1856-57. Received wisdom from colonialism-infused textbooks taught children that the Cattle Killing was an act of pure folly, dreamt up out of local superstition and executed with native hubris. The story Bibi told, however, provided a new angle: that at that time the British were trying to force the proud Xhosa into working under terrible conditions in the mines to unearth the country’s newly discovered mineral wealth. Rather than become wage labourers, the Xhosa preferred to remain self sufficient and farm their beloved cattle. The British were also increasingly frustrated by the power of native sangomas, and hence they hatched a plan to convince the youthful and naive Nongqawuse that she had been spoken to by the ancestors and commanded to report back with their bloodthirsty demands. Bibi suggested that the whole prophesy had been devised carefully by the British in order to break the Xhosa resistance. Whether Bibi’s version of events was true or not remains unknown. However, what is true is that for Sindiso, his eyes had just been opened to the fact that the received wisdom from colonial sources could be challenged and the myths, which African schoolchildren were being sold about themselves were often simply untrue.

In January 1952 Sindiso changed schools and enrolled as a boarder at St. James Primary school in Cradock. One of his most vivid memories of Apartheid came when he was back home in Noupoort during school holidays. The Group Areas Act of 1950 had been encroaching on the lives of non-White South Africans ever since its inception, but for Sindiso it only made itself explicitly obvious for the first time half way through that decade. By then it suddenly became apparent in Noupoort that the White people of the town had been indoctrinated into believing that they were innately superior to any other race and even White boys of his own age suddenly demanded that Sindiso now referred to them as “Baas.” [i]

The emergence of a new form of legislated racism in South Africa inevitably led to a new form of activism to counteract it. Thus it was that Sindiso recalls a formative event at school in Cradock, whereby prominent African National Congress members one day came to address the pupils during an impromptu assembly. The speakers described to the pupils the plan for the ANC Defiance Campaign, in which Black people were encouraged to peacefully occupy White spaces in an act of open defiance of racist Apartheid laws. Sindiso remembers this rally as the first political rally he ever attended, and the beginning of his life-long support for the ANC.

As Sindiso got older his father entrusted him with certain of his pastoral duties as a priest, such as visiting nearby farming communities, conducting church services and presiding over funerals upon his father’s instruction. By 1953, he had passed his primary education with flying colours and was sent, under his father’s jurisdiction, to the Anglican St John’s College in Mthatha. Sindiso excelled in the formal environment of St John’s and by 1957 was the only matriculant at the school to obtain a first class pass with exemption.

In 1955, Sindiso began regularly attending meetings of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). By 1957 he had been elected as the ANCYL secretary of St John’s, while his friend, Edmund Mxolisi Mankazana, was elected chairman. This was to be the beginning of a long journey indeed connected to South Africa’s oldest liberation movement. Shortly afterwards, the Congress Alliance (composed of the ANC and its allies), announced the formation of the Freedom Charter, which the government immediately sought to suppress. This, coupled with a state visit by the minister of Native Affairs and future Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, to address tribal chiefs in Mthatha, were more than enough to persuade Sindiso that a radical form of resistance was required if Black South Africans were ever to carve out a means of dignified existence in their country. The next logical step for Sindiso, as an aspirant revolutionary, was therefore inevitably Fort Hare University, the place where the cream of ANCYL was based and the same university that would give the world Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo, AC Jordan, Seretse Khama, Julius Nyerere, Robert Sobukwe, Robert Mugabe, Kenneth Kuanda, Desmond Tutu, Chris Hani, and most famously of all, Nelson Mandela.

The Committee of the Students Christian Association (SCA) at Fort Hare University in 1958. Seated at the extreme right is the author Sindiso, and next to him is Manto Tshabalala, later Minister of Health.

Sindiso entered Fort Hare on a scholarship from the Mthatha Bunga (council of tribal chiefs) in 1957. He enrolled for a B.Sc and took classes in physics, chemistry, zoology, botany, and philosophy. Sindiso’s student career at Fort Hare took place at a complicated time for the university. The government had recently identified it as a hotbed for political dissent and sought to limit its influence. At the same time, a breakaway faction from the ANC was forming under the guidance of struggle stalwart, Robert Sobukwe, calling themselves the Pan African Congress (PAC). For Sindiso, this was an exciting time, but also a dangerous one. On 21 March 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre occurred in which 5000 people gathered outside of Johannesburg to demonstrate against the pass laws. Sixty nine peaceful protesters were murdered by police that day, precipitating the declaration of a national state of emergency and more upheaval. The PAC and ANC were both immediately banned and the ANCYL went underground to continue its activities. In 1960, the Apartheid government also officially took control of Fort Hare, placing it in the hands of the Department of Basic Education. In response, Sindiso, along with many other ANCYL members, began to reconcile themselves to the fact that a peaceful response to the iniquities of Apartheid was futile and if real change were to be affected, it would have to be through armed struggle.

More of Sindiso’s story can be read in his full biography, available for purchase from the SAHO shop


[i] Sindiso Mfenyana “Walking with Giants” (2017). SAHO. Cape Town: p47

Last updated : 13-Jul-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 07-Jul-2017