Dr Jotello Festiri Soga, the first South African of any race to obtain a degree in veterinary medicine, was born in 1865 at the Mgwali Mission in the then-Transkei (now Eastern Cape), into a distinguished Xhosa family. He was the fourth son of Janet Burnside Soga, who was from Scotland, and Reverend Tiyo Soga, South Africa’s first Black ordained Presbyterian clergyman and an early advocate of Black pride and racial equality who was one of the people who inspired the founding of the African National Congress (ANC – formerly known as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC)) in 1912.
Following the death of his father in 1871, the family moved to Scotland where Dr Soga and his six siblings completed their education under the protection of the United Presbyterian Church (Church of Scotland). Dr Soga completed his matric at the Dollar Academy, then from 1882 studied veterinary medicine at the Scotland Royal (Dick) Veterinary College at the University of Edinburgh, qualifying in April 1886 aged twenty-one as a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MRCVS), earning a gold medal for his studies in botany.
Upon returning to South Africa, Dr Soga worked as a veterinarian in private practice in the Cape Colony from 1886 to 1889. After this, he joined the Cape Colony’s Civil Service in November 1889 as an Assistant Veterinary Surgeon under the colonial veterinary surgeon of the Cape Colony, Dr Duncan Hutcheon. First stationed at Fort Beaufort, Transkei, where he was responsible for the surrounding districts, Dr Soga played an important role in the vaccination campaign against contagious lung sickness (CBPP – contagious bovine pleuropneumonia). He performed his own inoculation experiments on lung sickness, yielding great results as his vaccination method was accepted as standard use.
With a particular interest in plant poisonings, he pioneered research in the study of toxic plants and their effects on animals – looking at their poisonous and curative properties. In July 1890, he proved experimentally that krimpsiekte (nenta poisoning) in goats is caused by the plant Cotyledon ventricosa. The results of this investigation were published in the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope in 1891.
After working with the bacteriologist, Dr Alexander Edington, at the Colonial Bacteriological Institute in Grahamstown, Transkei, Dr Soga was appointed as District Veterinarian and was transferred to King William’s Town, Transkei, in 1894, where he worked on foot-and-mouth disease, redwater, and biliary fever. Assisting Professor Andrew Smith with investigations into the medicinal properties of South African plants, he is mentioned in Smith’s third revised edition: A contribution to South African materia medica (1895). It was during this time that he was appointed as Assistant Veterinary Surgeon and worked for the Veterinary Department of the Cape Colony and the former British Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
Other than his research, Dr Soga’s most notable contribution to his field is the essential role he played in eradicating rinderpest (also called ‘cattle plague’) – the highly contagious and fatal disease that nearly destroyed South Africa’s cattle stock in the late 19th century. The plague, which first hit the country in 1896, was so devastating to the cattle industries that it forced the Afrikaners and the British to work with Black South Africans to eradicate the disease, which was no minor thing given the tension that existed between the British and the Afrikaners.
Dr Soga played an active role in fighting the disease in the Cape Colony and the former Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana). When the disease entered the present-day Northern Cape, he was ordered to Mafikeng (now Mahikeng), Transvaal (now North West Province), where he worked tirelessly to control the disease in that region. He and the other role players continued to combat rinderpest until 1899. During this time, he also did research on inoculating cattle against the disease at Herschel, near Aliwal North in Transkei.
Even before the plague struck, Dr Soga was the first amongst his peers to warn against rinderpest in 1892. He predicted its gravity when he asserted in the Agricultural Journal of the Cape of Good Hope that the disease posed a great danger to farmers’ herds and that other diseases did not compare to it. As the only Black member of the small team of dedicated animal health professionals who worked in both the Afrikaner and British –controlled areas of South Africa to fight the infection, Dr Soga was particularly important because his ability to speak isiXhosa enabled him to convince Xhosa farmers to cull their herds for the purpose of controlling the disease. Xhosa farmers had extremely large herds and although they were concentrated in the former Transkei, some of their cattle were bought and sold among farmers from all over the country.
Their efforts finally prevailed and by 1903, rinderpest was eradicated, although its aftermath was a staggering loss of stock – more than a million cattle died either from the disease itself or from being deliberately slaughtered in order to contain the disease. The result was a devastating impact on the country’s agrarian economy. South Africa’s successful cattle and dairy industries today can be traced back to this team of veterinarians of which Dr Soga was a vital member.
While the British authorities recognised Dr Soga’s role in combating the rinderpest epidemic that swept across the country, the racism that prevailed in the country denied him a permanent position as a veterinarian in the colonial government. However, despite the constant racial discrimination he had to navigate through, Dr Soga continued with his work, conducting important research on animal health and frequently writing articles on veterinary medicine for professional journals.
An excellent promoter of practical veterinary work, coupled with his pleasant personality, Dr Soga won the confidence and esteem of both White and Black farmers in the Cape Colony and elsewhere. He was a highly sought-after speaker at veterinary and farmer conferences, including those organised by Afrikaner agricultural groups, and lectured farmers on the different ways to control and treat livestock diseases. He also frequently served as a judge at horse shows at the East London Agricultural Show.
As his health slowly deteriorated, he was eventually forced to retire from the Cape Civil Service towards the end of 1899 in consequence of the exhaustive fight against rinderpest and returned to private practice in 1900. Following the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), Dr Soga was employed by Carl H Malcomess to supervise his cattle on the Itala farm in the Stutterheim district, later moving to the farm of the veterinary farrier, AB Fitchett, at Amalinda near East London (both in Transkei), where he continued with his small veterinary practice. In 1905, Dr Soga co-founded the Cape of Good Hope Veterinary Medical Society, which later became the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA).
Dr Jotello Festiri Soga died on 6 December 1906 (at forty-one years old) in Amalinda from an overdose of laudanum. Subsequently, his Scottish wife, Catherine Watson Chalmers, whom he married on 9 July 1892, returned to Scotland with their three daughters.
After his death, D Soga’s invaluable contribution to veterinary research was wiped out from public view due to racial discrimination. The fact that the country’s first qualified veterinarian was a Black man was not something the colonial authorities would have liked to make public knowledge. Consequently, very little to nothing was known about him in public spaces until in 2007, when American journalist, Jesse Lewis, wrote an article about his life and career for the daily Afrikaans-language newspaper, Die Burger. Subsequently, the University of Pretoria in Gauteng named the library of its Faculty of Veterinary Science on its 100th anniversary in honour of Dr Soga in May 2009. A bronze bust of Dr Soga was unveiled during the event as well. Additionally, in recognition of his original research work, the Jotello Soga Ethnoveterinary Garden was created at ARC-Onderstepoort Veterinary Research Institute next to the Veterinary Museum in Pretoria, Gauteng.
In 2019, Lewis filmed a documentary that not only explored Dr Soga’s extraordinary life but also brought to the fore the accomplishments of other Black South Africans from the 19th and 20th centuries who also fell victim to their contributions never being fully recognised as a result of the racial inequality that plagued the country.
A noteworthy role model and pioneer for the Black community, his legacy serves as an inspiration, being someone who defied the odds of a racially discriminatory society to become the country’s first veterinarian. His skills as a trained veterinary doctor enabled him to play important roles in South Africa’s response to not only rinderpest but other animal diseases which threatened to decimate farmers’ stocks.
- Dollar Academy. (2019). Upcoming documentary on the extraordinary life of South African Dollar FP. [online]. Available at: https://www.dollaracademy.org.uk/news-and-events/news/upcoming-documentary-on-the-extraordinary-life-of-south-african-dollar-fp/. (Accessed on 16 June 2021)
- Heyne, H. (2020). Soga, Mr Jotello Festiri (veterinary science). [online]. Available at: https://www.s2a3.org.za/bio/Biograph_final.php?serial=2647. (Accessed on 22 June 2021)
- Lewis, J. (2019). Jotello Festiri Soga (1865-1906). [online]. Available at: https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/jotello-festiri-soga-1865-1906/. (Accessed on 16 June 2021)
- No Author. (n.d.). Obituary for Dr Jotello Festiri Soga (1865-1906). [online]. Available at: https://www.savc.org.za/pdf_docs/Dr%20Jotello%20Festiri%20Soga.pdf. (Accessed on 22 June 2021)
- University of Pretoria. (2009). Veterinary Faculty Library names after the first South African who qualified as a veterinarian, Dr Jotello Festiri Soga. [online]. Available at: https://www.up.ac.za/faculty-of-veterinary-science/news/post_1653024-veterinary-faculty-library-named-after-the-first-south-african-who-qualified-as-a-veterinarian-dr-jotello-festiri-soga. (Accessed on 16 June 2021)