The relentless activism of Dan Qeqe, the man who transformed Port Elizabeth

The relentless activism of Dan Qeqe, the man who transformed Port Elizabeth
Dan Qeqe with the extended Mbolekwa family, his wife’s family from East London, in the early 1980s. (Photo: Courtesy of the Qeqe family, Port Elizabeth)

In this excerpt from a people’s history of the Eastern Cape city, Buntu Siwisa captures the struggles and triumphs of a man who insisted on upgrading township schools and ferried anti-apartheid fugitives.

Dan Qeqe’s role in upgrading schools to matric level in the New Brighton and KwaZakhele townships:

Qeqe took the mantle from Molefe, and at first they put their trust in the advisory board to commit to the educational upliftment of the black child in New Brighton. They were, however, bitterly disappointed. When their repeated requests were not heeded, both Qeqe and Molefe felt stifled. A marked difference in modus operandi between Molefe and Qeqe was Molefe’s rigid insistence on centralising church structures when it came to raising funds for this exercise. Nozuko Pikoli, who witnessed Molefe’s work, recalled, “You see, Molef… used to galvanise funds, especially from the church”.

Qeqe’s aim was to upgrade Cowan and KwaZakhele secondary schools into high schools, and to achieve this he broke ranks with Molefe’s tradition. This was not due to any radical ideological shift, but because of the local state’s refusal to assist in the schools’ upgrading project, and the incapability of the parents to commit to funding. Other challenges communicated to Qeqe were apparently structural. Mpumelelo ‘Sbhidla’ Majola remembered that “there was some regulation that in the townships one could not build a double-storey building. They said that the land in the township was not suitable for that. So, this is one of the things that led Cowan to not be upgraded into a high school.”

By the mid- to late 1970s, Qeqe and his associates on the advisory board had grown discouraged by the half-measures and ill-willed attempts of the Cape Midlands Bantu Affairs Administration Board to commit to this project. In 1975, they openly chided the local state, pointing out that the education of African children in the Port Elizabeth townships was “badly planned”. They “expressed concern at the slow rate of progress being made by the Cape Midlands Bantu Affairs Administration Board in building more schools and additional classrooms and they were also deeply concerned at the sudden change of policy in allocating new school buildings”.

Dan Qeqe in the 1980s. (Photo: Evening Post)

In 1973, Qeqe and Molefe condemned the less-than-adequate improvements made to a township school. Referring to the new building that had been added to Mzontsundu Junior Secondary School at KwaZakhele, Qeqe objected to the construction of cement floors, saying, “We don’t want this new school with cement floors because it will destroy the lives of our children”.

Molefe further pointed out that he and his colleagues on the advisory board were disappointed at finding out that the new school building would only have 10 classrooms. No provision had been made for a principal’s office, a science room or a homecraft room. The local state’s response, received via a letter from the Department of Community Development, informed them that “the loan authority had precluded the building of specialist classrooms at the school”.

Qeqe criticised the report given by the chairman of the Education Committee of the advisory board and the officials of the Department of Education, claiming that they had not delivered on what they had promised: the building of 102 additional classrooms before January 1976. Qeqe was “deeply disturbed” to learn from McNamee, the former New Brighton superintendent, that only one higher-primary school with 16 additional classrooms was scheduled to be built. Also, he was concerned that six classrooms for Loyiso Secondary School and four for Inqubela Higher Primary School in New Brighton were to be added before school opened the following year in 1976.

The Eastern Province Bantu Rugby Football team, 1947. (Photo: Courtesy of Jacana Media)

Qeqe had come to the realisation that the local state did not intend to upgrade the two secondary schools to high schools. Realising the futility of relying on the local state and the New Brighton community, Qeqe dug into his own pocket, donating R2,000 to the project, and requested that parents donate a similar amount. He also reached out to a few black businessmen, such as Mr Jonas and Mr Khabani, and Cowan Secondary School’s principal, Frank Thonjeni. Mpumelelo “Sbhidla” Majola recalled that Qeqe and the people he recruited to the project “upgraded the school by force, very much against the wishes of the whites”.

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Teenage Mkhuseli Jack, when he moved to Port Elizabeth in 1975 and was looking for a school, found himself in an overflow intake of 300 to 400 pupils. This overflow, which was meant to be accommodated at Cowan, took their classes outdoors, in the absence of classrooms. Jack recalled:

And Dan Qeqe, at the time, I noted him coming into the school… Nineteen seventy-five [1975], coming into Cowan High School with his pick-up bakkie or a bakkie, a truck. And he was busy, you know, transporting, cutting cement, bricks and wood, and so on. And he was busy extending two classes, so that they could accommodate the overflow of Cowan. We were new, this group I’m talking about. So, but then, he was wearing shorts, and came there himself [and] work and push and so on. This was really impressive.

Fort Beaufort cricket club executive members, 1968 to 1969. (Photo: Courtesy of Jacana Media)

Eastern Province Rugby Football Club, 1978. (Photo: Courtesy of Jacana Media)

Sloti pointed out that Qeqe worked relentlessly, back and forth, his modus operandi to ensure that he upgraded Cowan and KwaZakhele secondary schools more or less at the same time:

They started building one class at KwaZakhele High School, which became Form 4 the following year for the children who had passed Form 3. He moved on to Cowan, adding one class. He went back to KwaZakhele and added one class for Form 5. It was two, two, the classes they built at that time. Then those schools ended up being upgraded because of the classrooms they had built.

The Eastern Province Bantu Rugby Union team in the 1957 President Giants Tournament. Dan Qeqe’s club did not contribute players to the team. (Photo: Courtesy of Jacana Media)

By 1979, Qeqe’s efforts had won the support of the Department of Education and the New Brighton community. Molefe, reporting on the progress of the project undertaken by a special committee headed by Qeqe, commented on the “great enthusiasm” shown by parents.


Dan Qeqe’s role in the political activism of the 1970s in Port Elizabeth:

Qeqe’s political activism, which saw him play a direct role in student politics, featured prominently in the trial of Saki Macozoma and his fellow student activists. He was then a student at KwaZakhele High School, and had been one of the leaders in the student uprisings of 1977. Following the arrests in 1977 of Saki Macozoma, Shepherd Ngakumbi and Mike Xego, Qeqe became pivotal in providing financial assistance and logistical support to the incarcerated students and their parents.

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The trial of these students, heard in the High Court in Grahamstown, proved to span a lengthy two years. Free of charge, Qeqe routinely put out his Frans, Ngwendu, Qeqe (FNQ) buses, transporting parents from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown throughout the two-year period of the trial. His services even extended beyond the time of their conviction, and throughout the five years of their incarceration on Robben Island, he continued to ferry their parents from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. At times, when he visited them in prison, he mediated between them and their parents on various matters. McKenzie Sloti remembered:

He organised his bus under the company FNQ. There was a bus that came out every day, going to Grahamstown, taking parents of the detained schoolchildren, so that they would stay for a long time in Grahamstown. They stayed in Grahamstown for long periods because court officials kept on postponing the case. Parents moved from Port Elizabeth in the FNQ bus, organised by DDQ, for free, going to Grahamstown, until the case was through after they were sentenced for five years on Robben Island. He didn’t leave it there. Even after they were arrested on Robben Island, he made plans and visited them now and then, also encouraging their parents. There were meetings held between him and parents… Means were made for their parents to visit their children on Robben Island, that is, for those parents who wanted to visit their children. Even then, DDQ organised, mobilising parents whose children had been arrested at that time. There were a lot of things that DDQ did.

Delivering a tribute to Qeqe at his funeral in 2005, the parent of one of the 1977 arrested students revealed Qeqe’s selfless contribution, one of many that he kept to himself and took to the grave. Of this tribute, Phumla recalled that:

There is a mother, Mrs Gongxeka, I was there mos, at KwaZakhele High School at that time. So what happened, her son was also there. She said she’ll never forget. He transported them, and when they got there in Grahamstown, he bought them food. And then the case was postponed for tomorrow. He secured accommodation for them there. He made them food. And she will never forget. There were twenty-two, aah, nhe?

Wilson F Ximiya (right), Dan Qeqe’s mentor in sports administration at the New Brighton Native Advisory Board. (Photo: Jumartha Milase Majola)

The radicalisation of Qeqe’s political activism is symbolised in the leading role he played in ferrying political fugitives into exile, among them Vusi Pikoli, Phakamile Ximiya, Thozamile Majola and Sizwe Kondile, sought by the Security Branch for the distribution of subversive literature. Mrs Majola recalled that they, including her own son, Thozamile Majola, undertook their political work under her nose in the guise of participating at the Ivan Peter Youth Club that she headed. She recalled that, “I didn’t know that, here at the club, as they used to frequent there at the club, they were in the struggle. To me, they were just youth.”

The Ivan Peter Youth Club was started in New Brighton in April 1970, initiated by John Kani, Mrs Jumartha Milase Majola and Mr Nyamie Pemba. In its founding papers, the club noted that the year of its founding “marked a turning point in the history of New Brighton’s social life”. It focused on social group work in New Brighton and Zwide, purporting to be supporting the Bantu Affairs Administration Board’s motive of lifting the moral standards of the youth and blotting out “vulgarism”, which the board viewed as threatening peaceful coexistence in black townships. Regarded as a “small woman with a mighty heart”, Mrs Majola had put together a youth programme involving boxing, karate, judo, ballroom dancing, chess and choral singing. In the activities of the Youth Week of 1977, Phakamile Ximiya – one of the youths with whom Vusi Pikoli had skipped the country into exile – participated as one of the judging officials in the table tennis competition.

Crosby “Winky” Ximiya, who was one of the people who drove them into exile, admitted, “Thozi Majola, all those guys I used to ferry them, and I’ll go to exile, to Lesotho and Botswana. So now, the system picked up on me here. So I also got locked up.” Qeqe orchestrated the entire process, working with his trusted and closest associate, Feya Sobikwa. Pikoli remarked, “Baas Dan is that type of person who would say something out of place, like, ‘Hey, Feya, I’ve got a parcel for you to keep’. He’s not asking you. He’s not requesting you. Feya just had to do it. And those parcels are people.” DM168

Rugby, Resistance and Politics: How Dan Qeqe Helped Shape the History of Port Elizabeth by Buntu Siwisa is published by Jacana Media.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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