Sefako Mapogo Makgatho was born at GaMphahlele, in the Pietersburg district in Transvaal (now Limpopo province) in 1861. He was the son of Chief Kgorutlhe Josiah Makgatho of the Makgatho chieftaincy at Ha Mphahlele. Sekhukhune was the paramount chief until 1879 when the British colonial government and the Voortrekkers managed to defeat him and brought some of the minor chiefdoms under their rule. At this stage Makgatho was a young man of 18 and fully aware of developments that were to signal the end of the Pedi polity.
Makgatho began his education in Pretoria where he completed his primary education. In 1882 he left South Africa to study education and theology at Ealing in Middlesex, England. At the time of the Scramble for Africa in 1885, he returned to Pretoria and started his career as a teacher at the Kilnerton Training Institute, a Methodist School for African children living near Johannesburg. Kilnerton Training Institute is known for some of its illustrious students, including Miriam Makeba and Lilian Ngoyi. Makgatho taught there until 1906 when he, together with other teachers in the Transvaal, formed one of the first teacher unions, the Transvaal African Teachers' Association (TATA).
Campbell refers to leading African evangelists whose work drew the admiration of missionaries and colonial officials in Natal, where there were over a thousand local Black preachers, and in the Transvaal, where Boer officials were distinctly hostile to British missionaries. In the 1880s, one “Samuel Mathabathe spent nine years laboring as an unpaid Methodist evangelist in the Zoutpansberg without once being visited by a white missionary”. It was during this time that Makgatho was ordained as a Methodist lay preacher.
As a keen student of South African affairs, Makgatho followed Sekhukhune’s odyssey closely, especially since they were blood relations and the conflict was widely reported in the British press at the time. He also witnessed at close range the politics surrounding the signing of the General Act of the Conference of Berlin in 1885 by Britain, Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and other lesser participants in the scramble for Africa. The Act granted freedom of trade to these European nations in the Basin of the Congo, navigation of the Congo, navigation of the Niger and rules for future occupation of the west coast of the African continent. Following this agreement the partition of Africa was aggressively undertaken.
The last decade of the 19th century brought on new challenges. Whereas the 1880s were marked by attempts within the Pedi polity to come to terms with the destruction of their kingdom and the subsequent penetration of colonial rule and authorities on the one hand and the spread of mission stations on the other, the 1890s saw the growth of the gold mining industry and changing patterns of migration. And it is possible that along with his kinsmen, Makgatho may have straddled the urban and rural spaces in search of converts.
But it was both as a teacher and politician that Makgatho made his mark in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1906 he was inspirational in the establishment of TATA after he resigned as a teacher. He was also the key figure in the formation of the African Political Union (APU) and the Transvaal Native Organisation, both of which merged with the SANNC in 1912.
Makgatho also became involved in journalism, an occupation many African leaders found attractive during this period. Between 1912 and 1914, Makgatho teamed up with Alfred Mangena to establish a political journal, The Native Advocate. Edited by AK Soga, the publication lasted for just over a year until it was discontinued because of a lack of funds. Makgatho collaborated with Pixley ka Seme in launching the SANNC’s Abantu Batho in 1912, which was funded by the Swazi queen regent.
Makgatho was enraged by the passing of the Land Act of 1913. At the time the President of the Transvaal Congress and a National Executive Committee (NEC) member of the SANNC, he added his voice to the growing criticism of the Act. In his view, “this Act is fraught with the most momentous issues, as it infringes on the common rights of the people. In all countries and among all nations worthy of the name of a free people, these common rights to the purchase and sale of lands are recognised as resting upon the elementary principles of justice and humanity, which are the heritage of a free people” ("The Natives Land Act, 1913: The Pretoria Resolutions", Izwe la Kiti, July 2, 1913).
When World War I broke out in 1914, Makgatho was leader of the Transvaal Congress. From his remarks it is clear that he supported the decision to suspend attacks on the British government. He revealed to a gathering organised by the local native commissioner in Marabastad, near Pretoria, that Union Prime Minister Louis Botha had told the British Government he would not be sending men to war as he expected to deal with a major “native” uprising. This sentiment was apparently shared by many in government and the cabinet.
Makgatho became SANNC President at the tail end of World War I, in 1917, during a period in which the movement is considered to have reached its nadir. Some members criticised the SANNC for suspending criticisms of the Union government for the duration of the hostilities. Others, like Albert Nzula, maintained that the SANNC’s loyalty “to empire during World War I was the ‘first act of betrayal’ by the ‘chiefs and petit bourgeois native good boys’, which weakened the liberation struggles of the native people” (Giliomee, H and Mbenga, B) pp. 237 – 238).
For his part, Makgatho told the gathering that Botha’s cabinet should stop slandering us “before the Throne of King George for he is our king as well as yours. We do live under the Union Jack and we are proud of it and we are ready to fight for it today as any white man in the land” (ibid. p.239).
In December 1918, following the end of the war, Makgatho called an SANNC meeting in Johannesburg with the city’s mayor, and delivered the opening address. At the conclusion of the meeting a petition was drawn up to be presented to King George. Numerous demands were made in the petition, including concern about the fate of British Protectorates considered for incorporation into South Africa, and a demand that such a decision not be taken without consultation with the inhabitants of these protectorates. Bechuanaland was one of the British Protectorates earmarked for incorporation into South Africa.
The petition also raised concerns about the fate of German East Africa(Tanzania, formerly Tanganyika) and German West Africa(Namibia, formerly South West Africa). It demanded that these two former German colonies be given to South Africa only on condition that racial discrimination and all legislation promoting it be abolished. And while German East Africa was never given to South Africa to administer as a mandate by the League of Nations, German West Africa was.
As President of the SANNC, Makgatho worked hard to ensure that the movement remained a key factor in the struggle against segregation. It is also rarely acknowledged that during Makgatho’s presidency, the Transvaal SANNNC played a significant role in labour disputes affecting African workers. Between 1918 and 1920 a number of strikes broke out in Johannesburg. First, municipal sanitary workers went on strike in 1918 in what became known as the “bucket strikes”.The Transvaal branch of the SANNC, still under Makgatho’s leadership, was fully behind the action. The following year the branch organised a passive resistance campaign against passes. Thousands of passes were handed as part of a boycott and over 700 protestors were arrested. In 1920 another miners’ strike broke out. Yet again, the Transvaal branch of the SANNC gave active support to the striking workers.
These strike actions, undertaken mainly by Africans in low paying occupations, were frowned upon by leadership at the national level. Men like Pixley ka Seme and Sol Plaatje wanted the SANNC to distance itself from these campaigns. They saw the campaigns as undermining their efforts as they continued to negotiate for the acceptance of Africans, particularly the educated elite, into mainstream society. Makgatho, on the other hand, welcomed this engagement of the government by the lower classes. He was, however, expressly opposed to the use of violence. It is for this reason that the Transvaal branch of the SANNC is considered to have been radicalised at the time when the movement at national level retained its more moderate identity.
It was only two years into Makgatho’s presidency that the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) was established in 1919. It is apparent that, given his disposition of the previous year, Makgatho would have encouraged cooperation between the ICU and SANNC. Yet, between 1919 and 1924 there seems to have been little contact between the two organisations. This was so despite the fact that there was widespread agreement in the SANNC that “the ICU in the mid-1920s was an organisation that had surpassed the ANC in winning the alliance of the African people”.
Despite the lethargy of the national leadership in the creation of links with working African people, Makgatho managed to steer the movement away from its traditional support base of chiefs and African petit bourgeoisie by responding to the concerns of the underclasses, albeit for only a short period in the 1920s. This was particularly evident in the Transvaal, while Makgatho was still President of the Province’s SANNC.
In 1924 Makgatho addressed a group loosely refered to as African Associations on matters relating to draconian new measures under consideration by the PACT government of the South African National Party (SANP)of Hertzog and the Labour Party. One of these measures was the proposed plan to replace African labourers with Europeans. The speech covered a range of topics, reflecting significant changes in Makgatho’s perceptions and thinking on key political matters.
In the seven years he was president of the SANNC (renamed the African National Congress [ANC] during his tenure), Makgatho used the courts to challenge legislation that affected and undermined Africans in the urban areas, particularly laws relating to their freedom of movement. This approach to resistance may be frowned upon today, but in the 1920s and 1930s a range of government laws were challenged in the courts of law. In many cases, courts ruled in favour of litigants. Attempts at slum clearance in the cities in the 1920s for instance, were challenged in the courts and, in many cases, the affected tenants won.
As Transvaal President of the SANNC, Makgatho successfully challenged the law providing for segregation on Pretoria’s pavements. But it was the Transvaal Tax provisions that marked Makgatho as a formidable opponent of the state. Before 1925, the poll tax affecting Africans was the domain of Provincial governments. Tax administration of the Transvaal Province following the establishment of Union reflected the extreme regime put in place during Paul Kruger’s reign. It is for this reason that Makgatho became involved in a campaign for a uniform tax law for Africans across the Union of South Africa. His efforts were rewarded when parliament passed the Native Taxation and Development Act in 1925.
Makgatho was seriously concerned about the fate of African workers in urban centres who were facing the threat of being forced to return to the economically desolate rural areas. Secondly, he had come to the realisation that the African National Congress had no choice but to embrace modernity. According to Makgatho, the black race “had sacrificed, and is sacrificing, precious blood in the mines for the upkeep and maintenance of European civilisation in this country”. Selope Thema commented in Umteteliwa Bantu,(September 27, 1924) that “this was the beginning moment of the ANC taking a new direction”.
Thema was deeply impressed by Makgatho for articulating “a view that was central to his thinking at this time: that for African people there is no turning away from modernity back into tradition”. It was no doubt gratifying to Thema that “the ANC would fully and completely embrace modernity”. Thus it was that when Makgatho stepped down as President of ANC at the end of 1924, he had helped transform the movement from its traditional support base of chiefs and African petit bourgeoisie to one sympathetic to the plight of the African underclasses.
Makgatho’s role in the ANC during his successor the Rev. ZR Mahabane’s presidency is not accounted for. However, he continued to be influential in the Transvaal ANC. Consequently, it was under his guidance that the Transvaal ANC exerted the pressure necessary for the introduction of a uniform tax for Africans across South Africa. Mahabane’s presidency was marked by a growing alliance between the ANC and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).This brought to the fore debates about the “national question” and the application of the “two-stage theory” of revolution in South Africa. There seems to have been little coordinated response to some of the measures passed by the PACT government during Mahabane’s term between 1924 and 1927.
J. T. Gumede’s presidency, from 1927 to 1930, was marked by tensions between the nationalists and those considered to have been influenced by the communists. Gumede was sympathetic to the CPSA, who turned to him after the expulsion of communists from the ICU. It is not inconceivable that Makgatho’s loyalty was with the nationalist faction. If there was any doubt about his role during Mahabane’s presidency, there was none regarding his indifference during Gumede’s term of office. Consequently, when Pixley ka Seme was elected President of the ANC in 1930, Makgatho became the national treasurer.
In the 1930s Makgatho’s illustrious political career was waning. On 17 June 1933, at a Transvaal Native Congress provincial conference, Makgatho lost his position by a vote of 73 to 52 to Simon PetrusMatseke. This election marked the emergence of two factions in the Transvaal Congress, the Matseke/Thema faction on the one hand and the Makgatho/Mphahlele faction on the other. Thema had been Vice President of the Transvaal Congress and, as a Matseke supporter, retained his position. Mphahlele, General Secretary before the provincial congress and a Makgatho supporter, was replaced by a Matseke supporter, ZK Ramailane.
Differences between the two factions came to a head when Seme proposed changes to the structure of the national body. He proposed that the national body be subdivided into 11 regional congresses in place of the four provincial congresses. This would have weakened the Transvaal Congress and it is suspected that Seme intended such an outcome. The entire Transvaal executive – with the exception of Makgatho– opposed the measure.
Makgatho’s support forSeme was frowned upon by his colleagues in the Transvaal Congress. At this stage the ANC was fragmenting along ethnic lines, with the Sotho-Tswana groups in the Transvaal claiming that the Ndebele (a reference to the Zulu and Xhosa) were retarding the movement’s progress. As expected, the Transvaal Congress was weakened following the adoption of Seme’s proposals, and it slid into relative inactivity.
Makgathosawthe inertia that crept into the Transvaal Congress – until then the dominant blocin the ANC, as a result of the Great Depression and conditions of near famine that followed between 1931 and 1933. And as conditions worsened, Makgatho was helpless. Bonner asserts that during this period “the TAC, along with its parent body, went into a state of suspended animation.Nothing happened; no memorable campaigns, no surges of popular mobilisation, no serious challenges to white rule.” (Bonner, P)p1
These developments were compounded by growing perceptions that on the Rand, jobs were given to the “Matebele” ahead of the Sotho-Tswana. Bonner observes that there was an “elite Sotho/Tswana antagonism to educated interlopers, especially ‘Ndebeles' from the Eastern Cape and Natal, into the job market of the Transvaal”. These antagonisms were not restricted to the ANC and the Transvaal Congress. In 1931-32, these sentiments became widespread, becoming the subject of letters to editors. One typical letter to the Bantu World in November 1932 warned that “there are complaints here in Gauteng”¦ These complaints are from Zulu-speakers and Xhosa-speakers who are residents of the Transvaal. A call was made by the Transvaal Sotho-speaking men:
Let's establish a Sotho-speaking congress, its leaders Sotho speaking, even its members restricted to Sothos. We are tired of these Ndebeles."
It is alleged that Makgatho, realising how strong these sentiments had become, seemed to go with the tide. He is said to have acted as chairman in a Sotho-only congress on 23rd October 1932. This seems to be a contradiction, considering that Makgatho was criticised throughout this period for supporting Seme and the national congress. And this support became apparent on the occasion of the December/January 1934 ANC Annual Conference. Delegates to the Conference, led by Seme, endorsed the Makgatho/Mphahlele faction, who featured prominently in Seme’s new national cabinet. In April 1934, a pro-Makgatho faction appointed itself in opposition to the Matseke’s faction. The split in the Transvaal Congress was declared and lasted until Matseke’s death in 1941.
Makgatho was national treasurer until 1933. However, it is known that he continued to be involved in provincial campaigns of the ANC in the Transvaal well into the 1940s. At this stage, aged over 80, Makgatho was still considered one of the leading politicians in the country.
Sefako Makgatho died in 1951, aged 90. In the same year, Nelson Mandela’s son from his first marriage with Evelyn was born. In paying tribute to Sefako Makgatho, Mandela named his son after him.
On the 100th anniversary of his birthday in October 1961, Imvo Zabantsundu reflected on model African leaders in history. The newspaper characterised these men as “versatile and always available when their services were required by other people. Among the most versatile men of his day and generation was Samuel [sic] Mapoch [sic] Makgatho”