/ 10 January 2023

Jordan Ngubane – forgotten founding member of the Congress Youth League

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Jordan Khush Ngubane was born near Ladysmith, in a small village called Nkwebebe, on 15 November 1917. In 1933. Photo: Supplied

When the story of the founding of the Congress Youth League (CYL) — the forerunner of the ANC Youth League — is told, usually it is only Anton Lembede, AP Mda and a few others who are mentioned. The several other founding members are seldom brought up and the omission of their names is a silencing of their intellectual prowess and political contribution to the making of the CYL.

Jordan Khush Ngubane is one such voice that has been silenced. He is marginalised when the story of the CYL is told. Perhaps his political fluidity and how he left the ANC in the 1950s is the reason why we hear little about him. Few people match him as an intellectual and programmatic politician. As a journalist, his record remains unmatched.

Who was Ngubane?

Ngubane was born near Ladysmith, in a small village called Nkwebebe, on 15 November 1917. In 1933, he attended Adams College and matriculated in 1937. While at Adams he began studying journalism through correspondence and contributed a few articles to Iso Lomuzi, a student magazine.

Because of the bond between Adams, Natal intellectuals and society in general, his talent caught the eye of Ngazana Luthuli, Albert Luthuli’s uncle and editor of Ilanga (1915 to 1943), who offered him a job at Ilanga lase Natal. Ilanga had been founded by John Langalibalele Dube in 1903 when there was an emergence of African-owned newspapers at the turn of the 19th century.

Ngubane became famous in Ilanga as Jo the Cow, in Gleanings from Life, a satirical column he wrote from 1938 to 1943. He also wrote a column under the pseudonym Mkhaba Kawukhethi. Mkhaba was a fun person who presented serious political issues in an accessible and humorous fashion. It was these columns that drew the attention of many people to the brilliance of Ngubane. He was an important part of Ilanga and its readers, contributing more than 376 articles.

In 1943, Ngubane left Ilanga to join Bantu World as an assistant editor to Richard Victor Selope Thema. On his arrival on 27 March 1943, he was received by editor RRR Dhlomo. At Bantu World, Ngubane wrote a column similar to that at Ilanga — Izindaba Zokuma Komhlaba (World Affairs) covering international politics. While there, he rubbed intellectual shoulders with the likes of Dhlomo, Wallet Vilakazi and Walter and MB Nhlapho.

The founding of the Congress Youth League in 1944

The founding of the CYL in April 1944 at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre was a significant moment for Ngubane. In 1939, together with Manasseh T Moerane, a member of the ANC and secretary of the Natal Bantu Teachers Association, they established a short-lived youth organisation called the National Union of African Youth. Thus, the founding of the CYL five years later was for Ngubane a fulfilment of an idea he and Moerane had long envisaged. 

The CYL tasked Ngubane, Lembede, its first president, and Mda to write the league’s manifesto. According to Mda, it was Ngubane who wrote it and Lembede only contributed a few words. It had “Ngubane written all over it”, claimed Mda. Therefore, there is no proper history of the youth movement of the ANC without mentioning the role of Ngubane, Moerane and the National Union of African Youth. And certainly, no proper history of the CYL manifesto without its principal writer, Ngubane.

Shortly after the founding of the CYL, Ngubane left the Bantu World citing its restrictive editorial policy which did not allow words such as “suppression” etc. He went back to Durban to become the editor (1944 to 1951)  of Inkundla ya Bantu (previously the Territorial Magazine), published in Verulam.

He had been a contributor to Inkundla since June 1942 under the pseudonyms Khanyisa and Twana. The move to Inkundla also proved significant for the CYL. Now it had a mouthpiece, edited by a founding member and the architect of its manifesto. A letter from Mda to Godfrey M Pitje (CYL Fort Hare Leader) shows how the three connived to have Inkundla as the mouthpiece of the CYL.

Mda later suggested that the paper was not their mouthpiece, however, he encouraged the youth leaguers to subscribe to it because of its African ownership. Though Mda was telling the truth, he was speaking from a place of bitterness given his disagreement with Ngubane in 1948.

For Ngubane Inkundla was an essential part of the CYL. When his life was beginning to fail and he had moved from Durban to live in Rosetta, near Escourt, he offered to give the CYL places on the board of directors of Inkundla to make sure the editorial policy remained friendly to CYL activities.

Jordan Khush Ngubane saw himself first as an African nationalist and a liberal. Photo: Supplied

Ngubane the politician

On 4 September 1948, at the Durban Bantu Men’s Social Centre, Ngubane was elected president of the CYL’s Natal branch, with Harry Gwala as his deputy president. This election followed several attempts by different committees to establish the CYL. As president of the CYL in Natal, Ngubane influenced the 1951 election of Luthuli as president of the ANC in Natal, replacing AWG Champion, who had been at the helm since 1945.

Ngubane backed Luthuli because he claimed he understood the meaning of being a “new African”, something Champion did not. This was important for Ngubane, who had long believed Luthuli had the potential to become a leader of the ANC. Luthuli and Ngubane had known each since Adams days and frequently met at the offices of Ilanga in Durban. Luthuli would sometimes spend a night at Ngubane’s house where they would discuss politics.

However, their relationship collapsed in 1955-56 when Ngubane accused Luthuli of being a weak president, used by the communists. Writing in the Indian Opinion, which he worked for as assistant editor (1952 to 1957), Ngubane accused Luthuli of taking the congress to Moscow. Essentially, he was claiming that Luthuli was being controlled by members of the Communist Party of South Africa. This accusation provoked Luthuli and other ANC leaders including Mandela and Ruth First who lashed out on Ngubane. Luthuli’s anger towards Ngubane made him not to ever mention Ngubane’s name ever, including in his autobiography, Let My people Go.

After the Luthuli incident, Ngubane left the ANC to join the Liberal Party of South Africa and became its vice-president. He travelled all over South Africa preaching the politics of non-racialism as he campaigned for the party. In 1958, he was part of the South African delegation to the All African People’s Conference in Ghana, Accra. His nomination as a delegate to this conference was a vote of confidence and recognition of his commitment to the liberation of the African people.

When political organisations were banned in 1960, Ngubane received a letter on 30 August from Congress Mbata, who proposed a meeting of African leaders. Mbata said: “Your contribution to the development of African people and the improvement of their condition is widely known.” A continuation committee was established out of Mbata’s efforts but Ngubane later resigned from it citing the influence of communists.

However, his activities on the committee were not left unpunished by the government. Together with Duma Nokwe, Paul Mosaka, Mbeki, Marks Shope and others, he was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. Joe Slovo of the South African Communist Party represented them in court. Ngubane was eventually sentenced to 12 months imprisonment but appealed the decision and was released pending his appeal.

In 1962, while appealing his sentence, having heard the police were looking for him, he escaped to Mbabane, Swaziland, now Eswatini, assisted by Lencelort P Msomi, a politician from northern Natal. There, he published his first book UShaba: The Hurtle to Blood River (1963). Six years later, In 1969, he was offered a Ford Foundation Grant to attend Howard University in the United States, where he is said to have taught about apartheid South Africa.

He continued his writing career and worked closely with Three Continents Press, a publishing company in Washington, to see the publication of some of his other works, including An African Explains Apartheid (1964), which was banned by the apartheid government.

While in the US, he became close to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and met him regularly in Washington. Through Buthelezi’s efforts, Ngubane returned to South Africa to join the Inkatha Freedom Party but could not make any meaningful impact. He died on 17 September 1985.

A true son of Africa without political borders

Ngubane saw himself first as an African nationalist and a liberal, as Mda defined him. His whole life was dedicated to the unity of African people. He claimed he was a Seme Man, referring to Pixley ka Isaka Seme’s principles that influenced the founding of the ANC in 1912. He campaigned for a non-racial society based on the ideals of individual freedom. He believed the race problem in South Africa was a conflict of minds that hampered the progress of the individual and that conflict was an Ushaba (a proliferation of a problem), which could lead black and white into another Blood River.

He was the first to make famous the South African the concept of ubuntu and theorised about it in one of his writings. Ngubane’s life was remarkable, yet he remains in the margins, his words and activities are silenced by his political malleability which has been misunderstood out of context as inconsistency.

He was a brilliant intellectual and controversial politician without borders, he was fluid in his political commitments but firm in the idea of a non-racial society.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.