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Anton Muziwakhe Lembede

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ANC Youth League founding president, 1914-1947

Elected president at the founding of the ANC Youth League in 1944, Lembede died suddenly in 1947 at the age of 33.

In a tribute to his lifelong friend, AP Mda wrote in the Ilanga lase Natal “Young Lembede, one of the most brilliant students that this land has produced, died ‘before his prime’. . .on the threshold of a scholastic, legal and political career, that might have been unparalleled in Black Africa.”


Early Days
MaLuthuli, mother of Anton Lembede. Photograph courtesy of the family
Anthony Muziwakhe Lembede was born on 21 January 1914 into a peasant family living on a farm near Nkambathaweni in the Georgedale District, near the town Eston in Natal. His father, Mbazwana Martin Lembede of the amaChunu tribe, married his mother Martha Norah MaLuthuli, while she was teaching at Mgwarumbe. They settled at Nkambathaweni where they worked as farm labourers. It was here that Anton was born as the eldest of seven children. His mother taught him at home until he completed Std II. In 1927, after completing his elementary education, his family relocated to KwaMphepheta in Mbumbulu. One of the reasons for the relocation was that Lembede should get a formal education.
Education
Lembede at Nkanyesi Catholic School. Photograph courtesy of the family
He started his formal school at the age of 13 at the Catholic School Nkanyezi. Because of his excellent performance in class, his teacher would teach him a lesson and later have him instruct others. He was passionate about his studies and more often than not would be found engrossed in his books, even while herding the cattle.

After completing standard three, Lembede worked briefly in a kitchen to raise funds for him to buy books and pay school fees at Mbumbulu Government School, today known as Tobi HP School. At the Mbumbulu Government School he passed Std VI with a first class. The local inspector Mr Hamilton Makhanya, impressed by his performance, secured him a scholarship from the close by Adams College. At Adams College he trained as a teacher from 1933 till 1935. One of his teachers at the Adams College was Albert Luthuli, who later left for the Groutville Mission Reserve to take up his position as Chief. Those who were with him at Adams College spoke highly of his devotion to duty and of his amazing brilliance. Makhanya was convinced that great things were in store for this promising young man; his thoughts were echoed by Jordan K. Ngubane, editor of the Inkundla and a lifelong friend of Lembede.

Lembede the Teacher 
At the age of 29, upon qualifying as a teacher, he started teaching at Utrecht, Natal and later on transferred to Newcastle. Two years later in 1937 he passed the matriculation equivalence examination via correspondence, with a distinction in Latin. From Natal Lembede moved to Parys in the Orange Free State as principal of the Bantu United School, where he also learnt Sesotho and Afrikaans and enrolled at the University of South Africa (UNISA) for a BA degree. From here he moved to the Heilbron Secondary School, where he also completed his undergraduate studies.
Lembede in Newcastle. He is seated on the far left in the middle row. Photograph courtesy of the family
He obtained his BA degree in 1943 and subsequently added the LLB degree to his qualifications. In 1945 after submitting a thesis entitled “The Concept of God as expounded by and as it emerges from the philosophers from Descartes to the present day”, UNISA conferred an MA in Philosophy on him. At the time of his death in 1947 he was studying towards a doctorate in law.
Lembede the Writer

Between 1934 and 1939 Lembede published several journal articles with a strong focus on educating the youth in becoming self-reliant and improve their socio-economic situation. Titles include ‘The Importance of Agriculture’ Iso Lomuzi, IV, 1, (1934), ‘What do we understand by Economics’, Iso Lomuzi, IV, 1, (1934), ‘Language Study and the Bantu Student’ Iso Lomuzi, IV, 1, (1935) and ‘Trees and their Value to Human Beings’ Native Teachers’ Journal XVIII, 3 (1939). He expressed strong views on the tendency of educated black people to “despise manual labour” and to regard it as inferior – the resultant ignorance in agricultural technology leading to irreversible soil damage and the reduction of arable land to a state that renders it useless for crop production. In his paper on Economics he pronounces “ Our rural communities suffer greatly from poverty because Native people are lazy to work. They are also ignorant of working methods”. He impresses upon his people the importance of healthy food, the dignity of labour and the value of education as critical to the upliftment of their socio-economic status.

His later writings included various newspaper and journal articles on the ANC Youth League activities as well as debates with other organizations. In the period 1944 to 1945 he wrote on the relationship between the ANC and the Christian Church and completed a philosophical dissertation on the Concept of God for his MA degree.

Lembede the Lawyer
Lembede with his lifelong friend AP Mda. Photograph courtesy of the family
In 1944 Lembede changed his profession from teaching to law. He moved to Johannesburg to serve articles under Dr. Pixley ka- Isaka Seme, an attorney of long standing an a veteran ANC leader . In 1945 he qualified as an attorney and partnered with Seme. At the time of his death he had practised for almost a year and had already gained prominence along the reef as a rising lawyer of notable competence. He was known to take exceptional care in preparing his cases and had won many interesting ones. A Roodepoort magistrate expressed his admiration for Lembede on account of a case which he defended there in fluent Afrikaans. A great number of Springs and Vereeniging residents were loud in their praises of his legal prowess.
Lembede the Catholic

While baptized as an Anglican, he converted to Catholicism before his family relocated to Mbumbulu. He was baptised by Rev. Father Cyprian, C.M.M. on 10 September 1927 at the Catholic Church, Georgedale, on the same day as his father and his brother Nicolaus. The Church played a pivotal role in his life and throughout his life he was deeply religious. Older Mbumbulu residents still remember him as their Sunday School teacher. His Christian faith formed the basis of his earlier writings on rural economics, education, the importance of being industrious and the harmony between religious and economic activities. Significantly he chose a religious theme for his Masters dissertation and titled it ‘The Conception of God as expounded by or as it emerges from the writings of great Philosophers from Descartes to the Present Day’. In 1944 he published an article ‘African National Congress and Churches” in Umteteli wa Bantu (19 July 1944) and in 1945 an article ‘African Nationalism and the Christian Church” in ‘Ilanga lase Natal’ (12 September 1945).

Lembede the Man

Anton Lembede was kind, humble and generous of nature. Among his wide circle of friends were some of the humblest and simplest folk, he himself admitting to his friend A.P. Mda ”I am proud…of my peasant origin.” His tastes were also quite simple, the foibles, fads and fashions of sophisticated urban life not appealing to him. Although he discouraged beggary, he was known to give alms to the poor, especially during the winter months.

In her biography on Oliver Tambo, Luli Callinicos described Lembede as a " brilliant young scholar, ... an articulate, intense young man with expressive eyes - highly strung...". He was known to suffer from bouts of depression. Some people mistakenly attributed his gloomy moods to arrogance, but what-ever may have been the cause, they were only temporary phases. By nature he was a happy soul with a dynamic personality which influenced everyone who knew him well.

His friends remembered him for his loud and hearty laugh; he could see jokes in the most unexpected places. His humour was of a direct, simple and sincere type that went straight to the mark. In the biography written by Luli Callinicos, Tambo expresses intrigue by Lembede's rather rigorous approach to requirements for a wife and life partner.  While he had a strong spiritual disposition and a healthy respect for women, his mind was set on finding an educated woman who would be his match and companion in all respects, "the most brilliant woman he could find". Following his philosophy of African national unity, he was also looking for someone from a different ethnic group.

Political Life
Lebede as lawyer in Johannesburg. Photograph courtesy of the family
Upon his arrival in Johannesburg Lembede revived his friendship with his old friends Jordan Ngubane and AP Mda. In 1943, Ngubane and Mda initiated Lembede into ANC politics. He was instrumental in the formation of the ANC Youth League in 1944. While he was in the Orange Free State, Lembede was exposed to Afrikaner Nationalism. This experience of Afrikaner Nationalism together with his readings of European philosophy left Lembede well versed in the principles of nationalist ideology. His association with Mda led him gradually to integrate these ideas into African Nationalism.

Lembede became part of the National Provisional Committee, which was formed in 1944 to oversee the process of the formation of the ANC Youth League. On 10 September 1944 the Youth League was officially constituted and Lembede took over the leadership of the Youth League from William Nkomo, who served as the Provincial Chairperson since the beginning of 1944. As the founding President of the ANCYL, Lembede contributed immensely in drafting the Youth League Manifesto. He also served in various ANC positions and in 1944 he was elected ANC Provincial Assistant Secretary in the Transvaal. Two years later Lembede was seconded to the ANC National Executive Committee and National Working Committee under the leadership of Dr Xhuma.

In 1945 Lembede, Water Sisulu and Oliver Tambo almost succeeded in persuading the Transvaal Congress to expel the communists from its membership as they were viciously attacking Africanism. He was at the forefront of the campaign by the ANC Youth League to destroy the Native Representative Council and boycott elections under the Native Representatives Act of 1936. This earned him the respect of ANC leaders such as J.B. Marks. He was regarded as the architect of the 1949 Programme of Action. In 1947 Lembede was involved in efforts to build a partnership with the Natal Indian Congress, Transvaal Indian Congress and the coloured African People's Organisation, representing an important element of the ANC's non-racial tradition.

His Philosophy of African Nationalism

Anton Lembede belonged to a generation that infused a new militancy to the spirit of African Nationalism, and gave the liberation struggle a new impetus and focus. Like his peers, he believed that freedom was the divine destiny of the Africans whom he believed were the principal force in the struggle for national liberation. Lembede believed that the leadership of the African people had to come out of their own loins, to become the incarnation of their own wishes and aspirations. He asserted the right of the Africans to revolt against political, social, economic and psychological enslavement.

He loved and believed in Africa so thoroughly that he would be heard saying that, “I am one with Mother Africa’s darkest soils. I am Africa’s own child”, and, “My heart yearns for the glory of Africa that is gone. However, I shall work for the future Africa, free and great among the nations of the world”. So deep was his belief in and commitment to overarching national unity that he remarked to Ruth First  "our stupendous task is to organise, galvanise and consolidate the numerous African tribes into one homogenous nation".

Lembede’s Opinions on the Liberation Struggle

The African National Congress is a fundamental feature of a stage in the evolutionary process of the African people – a stage when the Africans have become conscious of their glorious past, of their subsequent liberation struggle from serfdom and colonial rule and of the great role they can play in, and the substantial contribution they can make to the progress of humankind in the future. This is the African Spirit which the ANC underwrites.

He, like his peers in the Youth League, believed that the ANC was the African people’s national unity front that had a “great purpose and mission” and hence to create rifts and splits on this national unity front was unpardonable because this could not be afforded at any stage of the struggle.

Lembede believed that it “…is specially necessary that young people be imbued and indoctrinated with Congress spirit based on African Nationalism – the ideology underlying our struggle for national liberation-[because] the leaders of tomorrow will be recruited from the youth of today”. Thus it is no wonder that many of his strong views on the Africanness of the struggle are captured in the 1944 Manifesto of the ANC Youth League. The Manifesto proclaimed that "Africans must struggle for development, progress and national liberation". It called on African youth to be united, consolidated, trained and disciplined. He was convinced that “…under the banner of Congress, African youth will triumphantly march to freedom – freedom within our lifetime”. He believed that “the League is the product and child of Congress and has no alternative but to carry out the policy and programme of the Mother Body”.

A Message to the Youth of South Africa

Lembede was of the opinion that the African youth needed to learn intensively, improving their standard of education in order that Africa may, after what has been a long lull, conquer knowledge and the world. His message to the African youth was: “We are not called to peace, comfort and enjoyment, but to hard work, struggle and sweat. We need young men and women of high moral stamina and integrity; of courage and vision. In short, we need warriors. This means that we have to develop a new type of youth of stoical discipline, trained to endure suffering and difficulties. It is only this type of youth that will achieve the national liberation of the African people”.

His Death
Lembede's new grave at the family homestead at Esijwini, Umbumbulu, Natal. Photograph courtesy of the family
Anton Lembede died in the early hours of 30 July 1947 in the Coronation Hospital, Coronationville, Johannesburg. After a post mortem the cause of death was certified by doctors as cardiac failure, with intestinal obstruction as contributing factor. He was 33 years of age. (Source: Lodge, T. Black Politics in South Africa since 1945, p 21.) The burial took place at the Orlando-Croesus Cemetery on Sunday 3 August 1947. Pall bearers included Dr P. ka I. Seme, Mr N. Lembede (brother) and Messrs Moretsele, Tambo, Mndaweni, Ntwasa, H.M.S. Makhanya, Dr Y. Dadoo and others. Rt. Rev. Fr. Martin and the rev. K.M. Nkabinde conducted the service. In 2002 his bones were exhumed and re-buried at the family homestead at Madundube in the Mbumbulu District.

Journalist Govan Mbeki described Lembede's death in the newspaper Inkundla ya Bantu as a grievous national loss "in which the African public has lost one of its most zealous and determined sons who dedicated his short span of life to the cause of his people. In his selfless struggle for the national cause he has built himself a monument in the hearts of his people," wrote Mbeki.

Information taken from various sources.


Video: An Introduction to Anton Lembede

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