How a cattle herder became the first Black politician elected to office in colonial South Africa

Mildred Europa Taylor September 24, 2021
Walter Rubusana. Image via Wikimedia Commons

South Africa’s Walter Rubusana carried so many titles — a minister, political activist, a doctor, a writer, and a teacher. Growing up herding cattle in the Somerset East district of the then Cape Colony (British colony in what is now South Africa), Rubusana would become South Africa’s first Black parliamentarian. He was the first and only Black South African elected to the Cape legislature and the only Black South African elected to one of South Africa’s governing bodies until the advent of democracy in 1994, according to one account.

While helping his people overcome the barriers of racial oppression, he did also play an instrumental role in the creation of the African National Congress (ANC), which was later led by Nelson Mandela. So how did Rubusana, in the face of racism, achieve so much, including becoming the first Black politician to be elected to office in colonial South Africa?

Born on February 21, 1858, to a father who was a senior counselor to a paramount chief, Rubusana started his education when he was 16 after meeting Reverend Richard Birt while working in the stables of a rural mission station in the Cape Colony. Rubusana enrolled and acquired primary education at the mission house led by Birt in Peelton. With support from Birt, Rubusana went on to study to become a teacher at the famous missionary school of Lovedale College, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.

Lovedale would become known for leaders like Thabo Mbeki, Steve Biko, and Chris Hani who fought against racism and oppression. It was therefore not surprising that Rubusana would become politically active, writing and publishing several works after being educated at Lovedale.

Besides working as a journalist, he contributed greatly to African literature through his book Zemk’ inkomo Magwalandini, which is a rich collection of isiXhosa poetry, clan praises essays and proverbs. The title of the book means “there goes your heritage, you cowards”. “It is a clarion call to Africans for African renewal as far back as 1906,” the Presidency of South Africa writes.

Rubusana in 1885 was ordained as a Congregationalist minister. He got married during that time and had 12 children. He did help Birt, who had become his father figure, to operate the mission station at Peelton for so many years. When Birt passed away, Rubusana should have become his successor but thanks to racism, that position went to a white missionary. Rubusana, while still serving as a clergyman, became a teacher in the city of East London in 1892. Five years later, he helped found the newspaper Izwi Labantu (the Voice of the People), a report by JSTOR Daily said.


Becoming a co-founder of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which later became the African National Congress, Rubusana in 1909 accompanied the SANNC’s deputation to Britain to petition against the color bar clauses in the South Africa Act. The following year, he decided to put the liberal policies of the Cape Province to the test. With support from the Progressive Party, he ran for the Cape Provincial Council and was elected for the constituency of Tembuland, thus becoming the only African ever to sit on a provincial council in South Africa.

Rubusana at the time believed that Black people of South Africa should represent themselves. And so in spite of the criticism he faced, even from his own Black folks who argued that his move would ruin the “open door” policies that had been offered to Black politicians, he went on to run a successful campaign. Apart from placing adverts in the local papers and giving speeches, he urged Black voters to give him the vote. He argued that there should be compulsory education for Black children while those who could not afford it should be given free education.

Voters listened, and Rubusana won, even getting votes from White voters. Serving on the Cape Provincial Council for four years, he played a huge role in the efforts of Africans to stop the passage of the 1913 Natives Land Act, which was passed to allocate only about 7% of arable land to Africans and leave the more fertile land for Whites.

Rubusana also helped to bring a telegraph service to the district of Thembuland while fighting against racial discrimination in teachers’ examinations, according to JSTOR Daily. The political activist, teacher and minister twice attempted to recapture the seat after 1914 but failed. In 1919, Rubusana helped draft the SANNC constitution before retiring from active politics. Before his death in 1936 at the age of 78, he helped build schools in the Eastern Cape, most of which were demolished by the apartheid government.

Today, Rubusana is remembered by many South Africans for his pioneering spirit of activism that paved the way for other Black leaders including Mandela. As the Presidency of South Africa puts it: “Dr Walter Rubusana was not only a gifted intellectual with many talents; he was also a political activist who put his intellectual aptitudes to the service of his people. In the face of racialist dogma and state-sanctioned discrimination, he never tired of helping his people overcome the barriers of racial oppression and lack of education.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 24, 2021


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