He trained as a teacher at Healdtown Institution, a Methodist boarding school near Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape. Ngcayiya left the teaching profession after a few years, and became an interpreter in the magistrate's court in Aliwal North. In the 1890s he was ordained as a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC), but after a split in the AMEC he joined the Ethiopian Church in South Africa and by 1910 served as the secretary of that church.
Later he held the post of president of the church for more than sixteen years.
Ngcayiya's political involvement started shortly after the South African War (1899-1902). In 1907 he served on the executive committee of the Orange River Colony Native Congress. Two years later, after he had moved to the Transvaal, he served on the executive committee and was secretary of the Transvaal Native Congress (TNC). In 1911 he was a nonofficial observer at meetings of the South African Native Convention (SANC) executive committee.
During these meetings the establishment of an African political organization was discussed. This led to the foundation of a new country-wide congress. Ngcayiya attended the inaugural meeting of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC, African National Congress (ANC) after 1923) in Bloemfontein on 8 January 1912 and was elected as assistant chaplain.
At a mass meeting of African organizations in Cape Town in March 1918 the increasingly discriminatory legislation of the government was severely criticized. Ngcayiya attacked the discriminatory measures in the Urban Areas Bill of 1918. He said that the compulsory residential segregation was "indicative of a suspicion that Natives were suffering from some contagious disease against which the white race must be protected".
Ngcayiya was not an official member of the 1919 SANNC deputation to the Versailles Peace Conference and the British government that tried to obtain a better dispensation for Africans in South Africa. However, as president of the Ethiopian Church of South Africa he joined the deputation as representative for Nyamanda, the eldest son of Lobengula*, to petition the land issues in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Nyamanda's claim to his father's throne.
During the TNC congress in Pietersburg in 1921 Ngcayiya was elected chaplain of the Transvaal branch of the SANNC. Simultaneously he was elected to a special committee of the TNC that had to investigate the eviction of Africans from farms. The eviction resulted in families wandering around poverty-stricken, bringing their livestock along with them.
Z.R. Mahabane*, president-general of the ANC (1924-1927), accepted Ngcayiya into his 'cabinet' as chaplain-general. When J.T. Gumede* succeeded Mahabane as president-general at the annual national congress of the ANC of 1927 Ngcayiya was elected to the national executive committee.
He was known as a friendly, magnanimous and energetic person. He was married and his eldest son was a teacher in the United States of America.
Please note: This biography is a modified extract from the following source: Verwey, E.J. (1995) New Dictionary of South African Biography. Volume 1. Pretoria: Human Science Research Council. Pp 201-202. If you would like to contribute to this biography please click on the contribute tab.