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The centenary of Lovedale’s John Knox Bokwe: A forgotten and neglected legend

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Vusumzi ‘Vusie' Mba is a researcher for the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders. He writes in his personal capacity.

The year 2022 marks a century since the death of Reverend John Knox Bokwe in 1922. In addition to being a celebrated hymn writer, an enthusiastic singer and a choirmaster, he was a diligent clerk who assisted with the publication of Lovedale’s The Kaffir Express (Isigidimi) magazine in the 1870s and was later a member of staff for Imvo Zabantsundu newspaper. He was also a proficient bookkeeper, an assistant to missionary physician Dr James Stewart, a teacher, a postman, a cashier, a capable interpreter and a private secretary at the Lovedale College of South Africa.

Lovedale College, where Rev Bokwe’s career and legacy began, is in the small town of Alice, near the flourishing valley of the Tyhume River and near Sandile’s Kop. The mountain is sometimes referred to as the Mountain of Somgxada after the local name given to Dr James “Somgxada” Stewart. The graves of Dr Stewart — a white, religious and liberal champion of black education who was Rev Bokwe’s mentor — and his wife are situated here.

Across the Tyhume River from the graves, on land initially bequeathed to the Scottish missionaries by Chief Tyali, is the Alma Mata of Nelson Mandela, the historic University of Fort Hare which is still nicknamed kwaNokholeji because of its past as the South African Native College.

Acting as a resource for great and distant African countries, Lovedale College became the main feeder institution for black students who wanted to further their studies at kwaNokholeji after Fort Hare’s establishment in 1916, thanks to the influence of the Lovedale authorities, the missionaries who were there and the committee for the establishment of a college of higher education which included Rev Bokwe. As a result of their work, Fort Hare was opened in 1916.

Behind Fort Hare, on the route to Fort Cox College is the grave of the legendary late King Sandile of AmaRharhabe.

Rev Bokwe’s career as a hymn writer started in 1875, just a few years before he left Lovedale to join another giant in the form of John Tengo Jabavu in King William’s Town, and began to work for the Imvo Zabantsundu newspaper. The intellectualism that became the hallmark of the alumni of Lovedale College in the struggle against apartheid can be seen in the legacy of alumni such as Thembisile Martin “Chris” Hani and its expellee Bantu Stephen “Steve” Biko. This intellectual heritage was also demonstrated by Rev Bokwe in his hymns and in the writing of the prophet Ntsikana’s biography.

As leading Lovedale alumni, Hani and Biko went on to become some of our most notable struggle heroes. Hani became the commander of Umkhonto weSizwe, a leader of the African National Congress and the Secretary-General of the South African Communist Party and was hailed as the second most popular political leader after former president Rholihlahla Nelson Mandela. Biko founded the Black Consciousness Movement and led the student movement in South Africa as the inaugural president of the South African Students’ Organisation. These leaders were noble sons of the Eastern Cape.

There have been several efforts, notably by alumnus and former president Thabo Mbeki, to revive the culture of the intellectualism of Lovedale College and to capture its history, in the hope that this would multiply the creation of legendary figures such as Rev Bokwe, alumnus Rev Tiyo Soga, and alumnus Rev Dr Mpilo Walter Rubusana, among others. However, these efforts at renewal have failed over time.

The lack of infrastructural development and maintenance of the original Lovedale College and the dilapidated state of the college in Alice is worrying. The untended gravesite of Rev Bokwe, just a stone’s throw from the current campus of Lovedale College on the way from Alice to Ntselamanzi, the village of his birth and death, illustrates how unrecognised and unappreciated are the legacies of legends and legendary institutions by the current government. We should not be fooled by government officials’ repetition of the slogan that the Eastern Cape is the “Home of Legends” because it is not coupled with actions.

The centenary of Rev Bokwe is a reminder to the government, civil society structures, the Presbyterian Church and the people of the Eastern Cape that soon Lovedale College, which was established in 1824, will be commemorating 200 years of existence. We dare not starve of credence the coming commemoration of two centuries of existence — Lovedale was the first school to admit black learners for secondary schooling in southern Africa. The land that the son of King Ngqika, Chief Tyali of amaRharhabe (the Right-hand House nation of amaXhosa that is in the former Ciskei region), gave to the Scottish Presbyterian Church allowed the church to establish the institution.

This year, 2022, should provide a moment of reflection for all, where we ask the authorities to answer these questions:

  1. Why is Lovedale dirty and run down?
  2. What are the plans to make Lovedale great again?
  3. When will the legacy of Lovedale College be given the recognition it deserves, including the legacy of Rev Bokwe?
  4. Why was Lovedale Press closed? And what are the plans to revive it?
  5. What effort will be put into the revival of Lovedale while there is talk of reviving, revamping and revitalisation of historical schools such as Healdtown, Mariazel High School and others?

Rev Bokwe’s legacy should guide us as a nation in how to navigate our way through our current social, economic and political challenges. He did not let rubbing shoulders with the greats he encountered — such as the first and second ordained black clergymen — go to his head. He remained humble in his village of Ntselamanzi. His was a great example to our leaders to remain with the people, whether they have attained high office or not.

When Rev Bokwe started an independent black Presbyterian Church of Africa his source of support came from the people to which he remained humble. His relationship with Rev Dr James Stewart was maintained although he had broken from the United Free Church of Scotland. If our leaders can also sustain their bond with people, they will not be alone in dark times and they will always have the feedback to pay attention to what is necessary and needed by the people.

In journalism, music and all his endeavours, Rev Bokwe allowed himself to be guided spiritually. It is important for a leader to have spiritual guidance. This is essential, whatever the deity or religion in which a leader may believe. If this was more widely the case, maybe we would not be dealing with the astonishing allegations of corruption and the gory testimonies we heard at the Zondo Commission. Possibly, too, the current leaders would be paying attention to the infrastructural problems at Rev Bokwe’s grave and at Lovedale.

A culture of spirituality, non-racialism, tolerance for difference and the value of intellectual discourse are elements of the environment to which Rev Bokwe was exposed at Lovedale College. It is no wonder that despite the diverse spiritual and ideological positions of the former students of Lovedale College, their passion in the struggles for non-racialism and land, and their commitment to African patriotic intellectualism are common features among them.

With its long history that includes wars of dispossession alongside prestigious educational development and prosperity, and where the roots of ubugqobhoka (educational advancement) in South Africa can be found, the land of amaRharhabe where Lovedale and the University of Fort Hare are situated is a key geographical area in the mainly sad colonial story of the country.

Former President Thabo Mbeki, as quoted in the book The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser, described Lovedale as a symbol of hope and failure, where one was forced to make the necessary grades or leave the premises without a qualification and knowledge, with the expression: “Out of the white gates you go.”

The high standards at Lovedale, as evidenced by the use of standardised tests to match those of their white counterparts, produced the brightest and the best of many generations. Students at Lovedale wrote the same exams as their white contemporaries at St Andrew’s and Kingswood colleges in the former Grahamstown (now Makhanda) because the college standards were equivalent to theirs.

Sadly, today Lovedale is a place of the past, a heritage site and a museum with a dwindling reputation. It is presently located across three sites in the province as an inefficient Technical, Vocational Education and Training college with three struggling campuses. The institution has ceased to be an intellectual hub and is no longer a fountain of black intellectual life that is worth the aspirations of South Africans because it has been turned into a dumping site for those who have not achieved well in their matric results. Without the shadow of a doubt, Rev Bokwe would shed tears of sorrow at the sight of it all.

As the Eastern Cape contemplates Rev Bokwe’s legacy, we must debate the situation in the province, particularly in the education and economic sectors, in order to reaffirm its place as a centre of intellectualism and guided struggle in the country. If we can achieve this, we will be providing guidance to those who are in leadership who have neglected our late legends, who lack a clear vision, and who lack the will and courage needed to develop the province for the better. DM

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