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In 1910, Walter Rubusana was elected to the Cape Provincial Council in South Africa. Rubusana was born in 1858. He grew up in a little-known corner of the British Empire, herding cattle, but would become the driving force behind the creation of the African National Congress (ANC), later led by Nelson Mandela.

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Rubusana began his education at the age of sixteen, when he met Reverend Richard Birt while working in the stables of a rural mission station in the Cape Colony. After a conversation, Birt realized Rubusana had distinctive intellectual capabilities. With Birt’s help, Rubusana would go on to study to become a teacher at the famous missionary school of Lovedale College, in the Eastern Cape.

By the 1880s Lovedale, as the sociologist Xolela Mangcu states, “had become a center of a ‘new consciousness.”’ Lovedale educated some of the most famous names in South African anti-racist history, from Rubusana, to Z.K. Matthews, to Govan and Thabo Mbeki, to Steve Biko, to Chris Hani.

Like many pupils of Lovedale, Rubusana went on to become politically active, writing, translating, and publishing several works. Besides working as a journalist, he helped to translate the Bible into isiXhosa and compiled a collection of poems, histories, and folklore into a 570-page volume called Zemk’inkomo Magwalandini (literally, “The Cattle are Running Away, You Cowards,” but often translated as “There Goes Your Heritage, You Cowards”).

In 1885, he was ordained as a Congregationalist minister. At this time he also married Nomhaya Deena Nzanzana who had been educated at the prestigious Dollar Academy in Scotland. The couple had 12 children, six of whom survived to adulthood. For several years, Rubusana helped Reverend Birt run the mission station at Peelton. And when Birt died, it was generally expected that Rubusana would become his successor. However, as a result of the growing racism in the colony in the 1890s, the role was handed to a white missionary, and Rubusana was removed from his position. From 1892, Rubusana, although continuing to serve as a clergyman, worked as a teacher in the city of East London. In 1897, he helped found the newspaper Izwi Labantu (the Voice of the People).

Racialized Voting Laws

To understand just how Rubusana became the first Black politician to be elected to office in a segregated and white supremacist South Africa, we have to go back to the Cape Colony. In 1853, five years before Rubusana was born, a small group of liberal-minded white colonists had pushed through a non-racial constitution. This constitution stated that all men, independent of color, could vote so long as they lived on a property worth £25.

In real terms, in the elections from 1854 until the 1880s, somewhere around ten percent or one third of the male population over the age of twenty-one had the vote in the Cape Colony, of which a small minority were Black voters. As the historian Kirsten McKenzie put it, “women and a mostly black underclass remained disenfranchised.” In the 1890s, however, Black voting rights were further damaged and distorted by the Cape’s most famous prime minister, Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes’s Franchise and Ballot Act (1892) increased the voting qualification from £25 to £75 in an attempt to exclude Black voters.

Delegation of prominent Cape politicians to protest against the racist provisions of the draft South Africa Act. Seated from left are John Tengo Jabavu, A Abdurahman, former PM William Schreiner, Walter Rubusana and Matt Fredericks. Standing at the back Thomas Makipela, J Gerrans, Daniel Dwanya and DJ Lenders via Wikimedia Commons

However, in the 1890s, despite Rhodes’s best efforts, several parliamentary seats in the Cape Colony, particularly in the Eastern Cape, were decided by what was then called “the Native vote.” Furthermore, nowhere did the Cape laws state that a Black politician could not run for parliament. However, in social practice, which was still one dominated by racism, this was never considered. Instead, several liberal white politicians like James Rose Innes became famous for being voted into parliament by Black voters. And these white politicians, at the end of the nineteenth century, worked with the two most famous Black journalists of the day: Tengo Jabavu and Walter Rubusana. In fact Jabavu was one of the best-known election agents of the 1890s, working closely for many years with Rose Innes on his election campaigns. Jabavu would prove a particular thorn in Cecil Rhodes’s attempt to win the 1898 election when he came out in support of Rhodes’s liberal adversaries, W.P. Schreiner, John X. Merriman, and J.W. Sauer. The Black vote would prove one of the deciding factors in that election, which Schreiner’s party won by a hair’s breadth.

Jabavu and Rubusana were, however, fierce political rivals who quite often promoted white politicians from rival parties. This politics and practice, however, came under threat when the Cape Colony joined the Transvaal, the Orange River Colony, and Natal to form the Union of South Africa in 1910. Earlier, at the National Convention (1908-09), which drew up the legislation for the Union, the Cape Colony’s delegates had argued for their voting laws to become the blueprint for the voting laws across the country. But they were merging with three colonies whose racial laws and segregated practices where some of the most extreme in the British Empire.

Outnumbered, the liberal Cape delegates agreed on a compromise. The voting laws of each colony at the time of union would be retained. The Cape would be allowed to keep its non-racial franchise, while the other colonies would retain their racist ones. The three other colonies also demanded that a clause be written into the constitution that only persons of “European descent” could become members of parliament. But after a long debate, the National Convention agreed that the Cape Provincial Council would allow a male person of any race to run for office. Outraged by these compromises, Rubusana’s newspaper, Izwi Labantu, referred to the Cape Delegates as a “pack of hucksterers and huggermuggers.” It predicted (correctly) that one day an “ignorant Boer” would propose the rescinding of the African franchise entirely.

Rubusana and Jabavu Take Action

Rubusana and his rival Tengo Jabavu, despite their dislike for one another, soon realized that there was little hope of a non-racial franchise developing in the rest of the country. And their franchise was under distinct threat in the Cape. What was widely referred to as “the Cape liberal tradition” had been badly damaged with the addition of the words “European descent” into the constitution.

They went to W.P. Schreiner, the ex-prime minister of the Cape Colony, who was deeply sympathetic to the Black political cause. Schreiner, Rubusana, Jabavu, and the Glasgow University-educated Abdullah Abdurahman then set off for Britain in 1909 in an attempt to persuade the British parliament, which needed to ratify the South Africa Act, to stop the passing of these racial laws.

This delegation also coordinated with Mahatma Gandhi, who was in Britain at the same time protesting the same laws. Gandhi had been living in Natal and the Transvaal since 1893 and had taken up a strong opposition to the racial laws he encountered there. While in Britain, Rubusana asked “for the deletion of those color clauses of the Act which should never have been allowed in the Draft Constitution.” However, despite Rubusana, Schreiner, Abdurahman, Jabavu, and Gandhi’s best efforts, the British Parliament voted 615 to 55 to recognise the South Africa Act, thus bringing into being the first racial laws of a united South Africa.

As Gandhi warned the non-white politicians of South Africa, “the days are past, so it seems, when something could be gained by making speeches.” Rubusana returned home to the Eastern Cape deeply disheartened. But shortly after this, he had a discussion with Schreiner’s brother Theo, the MP for Thembuland. The seat of Thembuland in the Cape was unique in that it had 1597 black registered voters to 1447 white voters. Both Schreiners then confirmed that there was nothing legally holding back Rubusana from standing for the Cape Provincial Council.

Rubusana’s Election

With the election of 1910 just around the corner, Rubusana realized that now was the moment for the Black people of South Africa to represent themselves. And Thembuland was the perfect constituency to run for. Rubusana also was aware that the white vote in Thembuland would be divided by the fact that he would be running against two white candidates: the Unionist Party’s J.T. Houghton-Grey (who had British imperial sympathies) and the explicitly racist W.J. Clark.

Once Rubusana threw his hat into the ring as an independent, he drew considerable criticism from all sides. Clark soon stated that it would be “deplorable” if a Black person was elected to the Council. All the local newspapers, both liberal and racist, expressed displeasure with his decision. The Territorial News, in a piece of absurd logic, argued that if Rubusana won, this would close the “open door” that had “so generously” been offered to Black politicians. Some well-known liberal politicians argued that his actions might cause a backlash. It might even, they argued, lead whites to “more vigorously support efforts to reduce and eventually remove the African franchise.” And his old rival Tengo Jabavu could not help himself: Jabavu called, in his newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu, for all Black voters to vote against Rubusana.

Rubusana, despite the criticisms from both Black and white newspapers, ran a vocal campaign, giving speeches and placing adverts in the local papers. He stated repeatedly that he would work for all of Thembuland’s constituents, regardless of race. He appealed to Black voters by saying that he had always fought for their cause. He argued for compulsory education for Black children and free education for those who could not afford it.

At the last minute, Houghton-Grey attempted to make a deal with Clark to join forces, however Clark refused to cooperate. And with the vote split between three candidates, Rubusana won the election, gaining 766 votes to Houghton-Grey’s 741 and Clark’s 235. As the South African historian Andre Odendaal puts it, despite the “unpleasant notes” that the election campaign had elicited, “there is no doubt that Rubusana’s win came as a powerful psychological boost for Africans.”

Perhaps the most surprising element of the election was that more white voters voted for Rubusana than Black voters, and more Black voters voted for Houghton-Grey.

The writer and fellow founder of the ANC Sol Plaatje’s newspaper Tsala es Becoana praised Rubusana for having “infinitely superior intellectual capacity, educational qualifications, eloquence, common sense and manners” than most of the other (white) members of the Cape Provincial Council. It would take Gandhi to point out the tragedy of the situation. As he wrote in the Natal-based Indian Opinion newspaper: “That Dr. Rubusana can sit in the Provincial Council but not the Union Parliament is a glaring anomaly which must disappear if South Africans are to become a real nation.”

The Natives Land Act

It would take another 84 years of violence, imprisonments, and almost unparalleled racial discrimination for this kind of political equality to become a reality. After 1910, South Africa began to develop some of the most racist legislation ever written into law. Several white Cape liberals, believing this to be only a temporary period before reform, went along with them. Henry Burton and J.W. Sauer, who had fought so hard for non-white rights in the Cape Colony, voted for the infamous Natives Land Act (1913). They mistakenly believed that progress would inevitably drive the country towards non-racialism. The Natives Land Act restricted Black land ownership to 7% of the country, despite Black people being 80% of the population.

The South African Native National Congress delegation to England, June 1914. Left to right: Thomas Mapike, Rev Walter Rubusana, Rev John Dube, Saul Msane, Sol Plaatjie. The delegation tried to get the British Government to intervene against the Land Act but the outbreak of the First World War thwarted their hope via Wikimedia Commons

In 1929, Burton and James Rose Innes formed the Non-Racial Franchise Association. The association attempted to help people like professor D.D.T. Jabavu (Tengo Jabavu’s son) to agitate for a broader non-racial franchise. In his opening speech, Rose Innes stated that, in 1910, he had hoped that the Cape liberal tradition would “gradually leaven the mass. That hope has not been realised, the tendency has been the other way.”

The association achieved little in the face of radical racism. Slowly, the South African parliament began to rob the non-white voters of the Cape of their voting rights. In 1936, the same year Rubusana died, the Black voters in the Cape were struck off the voters’ roll. This would ultimately help the even-more-radical, apartheid-creating National Party to be voted into power in 1948.

Rubusana’s political career ended in tragedy. He served with distinction on the Cape Provincial Council for four years, during which time he helped found the South African Native National Congress (which later changed its name to the ANC). On the Council, he strenuously opposed the Natives Land Act. He also helped to bring a telegraph service to the district of Thembuland and fought against the racial discrimination in teachers’ examinations.

He ran for the seat again in 1914, but Tengo Jabavu, almost inexplicably, ran against him. This split the Black vote, and the white candidate slipped in ahead of them.

Rubusana made a final attempt to recapture the seat in 1917. This time Jabavu came out in support of him, but to no avail. Rubusana then drifted away from ANC politics. He spent the rest of his life helping to set up and build schools in the Eastern Cape. Most of these were demolished or left to fall into ruins by the apartheid government during the period of forced removals, in the 1960s and 70s. However, as Xolela Mangcu states, “in a longer historical sense Nelson Mandela’s political lineage goes back to a tradition of self-determination started by Rubusana.”

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