The legacy of Alfred Xuma implores us to embrace the spirit of ...

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The legacy of Alfred Xuma implores us to embrace the spirit of Jozi

Exclusive to Sunday Times Daily, this is the little-known story of a doctor whose name is synonymous with its heritage

Bongani Ngqulunga
When Dr Alfred Xuma’s beloved Sophiatown was demolished in the 1950s, he elected to remain in Johannesburg.
Chosen home When Dr Alfred Xuma’s beloved Sophiatown was demolished in the 1950s, he elected to remain in Johannesburg.
Image: SowetanLIVE

Alfred Xuma returned to SA in December 1927. He had been away studying in the US and Europe for 14 years. Having left without matric in September 1913, he came back a fully qualified medical doctor, with degrees and diplomas from Tuskegee Institute, Marquette, Minnesota, Northwestern and Edinburgh universities. Going against advice from certain quarters in the state that implored him to open a medical practice in rural areas, Xuma decided to settle in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, where he lived for more than three decades until his death in January 1962.

Xuma’s decision to settle in Johannesburg was motivated by professional reasons in as much as it reflected his world outlook. As a black physician about to establish a medical practice, he thought the city offered the greatest opportunity for success due to population density. Xuma was also attracted by the dynamism, vibrancy and human diversity that Jozi offered. He and other New Africans believed that the spirit of Johannesburg – its openness and welcoming attitude to strangers and people from all walks of life – made it ideal location from which to launch a struggle for the African modernity they all aspired to and laboured to bring about. Crucially, the city symbolised the unity of the African people that they believed was essential for their political salvation and social progress.

In a matter of months after settling in the city, Xuma established a thriving medical practice at 85 Toby Street, Sophiatown, which was his home. It was testament to the success of his labours that his home came to be popularly known as Empilweni, the place that gives life. His reputation as a skilful physician led to his appointment as a part-time chief health officer for Alexandra Township. Xuma and Amanda Mason, a Sierra Leonean woman he married in October 1931, became a prominent couple in the Rand known for its dedication to the welfare of poor black people. The Xumas also distinguished themselves for their dedication to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, an association they had both established while living among African Americans in the US.

Although Xuma was at first reticent to get actively involved in the politics of SA, his election in 1940 as the sixth president of the African National Congress was a turning point. The political reforms he introduced to the ANC, including changing its constitution to allow females to become full members, were invigorating to an organisation that had been in terminal decline for a while. Consistent with his abiding belief in Johannesburg as central to black political salvation, Xuma successfully lobbied that it should be declared the permanent headquarters of the ANC. He sought to reign in centrifugal forces in the provinces that had rendered the ANC disorganised, chaotic and ineffective. 

Dr Alfred Xuma’s house, Empilweni, in Sophiatown, as it is today.
Brick and immortal Dr Alfred Xuma’s house, Empilweni, in Sophiatown, as it is today.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Xuma’s beloved Sophiatown was demolished in the 1950s, he elected to remain in Johannesburg by relocating to Dube Township where he and his second wife, an African American by the name of Madie Hall, lived for several years. And when the bright light of Xuma’s life was extinguished by pancreatic cancer in January 1962, his mortal remains were interred in the same grave at Brixton cemetery in which his first wife was buried in May 1934.

Like all human beings, Xuma’s life was complex and his record was marked by moments of triumph and defeat. Yet, what is striking about his life is his steadfast commitment to a set of important values: human decency, social and political equality, racial cooperation and co-existence, and an outward-looking spirit that celebrated and embraced human diversity. It seems especially appropriate that we recall these values when a virulent strain of xenophobia, tribalism and narrow nationalism appears ascendant in world politics today. Here at home, Xuma’s commitment to closer cooperation and solidarity between South Africans and other Africans on the continent and the African diaspora has encountered numerous tragic episodes of communal violence. 

Over the past few years I have visited Xuma’s house, Empilweni, in Sophiatown, which has been turned into a museum. It is one of the few buildings that was not demolished when Sophiatown was razed. Standing next to the house is the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre, which commemorates and celebrates the life of another Sophiatownian, Father Trevor Huddleston. Although Xuma left the house six decades ago, some paraphernalia of his life are still there. Lurking in the background is the larger spirit of his life and the role he played in the larger community of Sophiatown and SA as a whole. The continued standing of his house appears to communicate a message that political seasons come and go, but a steadfast commitment to good values stands the test of time. These values, the exemplary leadership he demonstrated and the vision he espoused our collective heritage. They should serve as our guide in a tumultuous world.

The exhumation of the Xumas and their reburial far away from their home ... represents a fundamental retreat from the values that Xuma’s life symbolised and the politics he espoused.

Considering the centrality of Johannesburg to Xuma’s private and professional life, as well as the city’s significance as a symbol of our political unity and nationhood, it came as a great shock when his and Amanda’s mortal remains were exhumed from their resting place at Brixton and reburied in a village in early March 2020. The official explanation for this tragic turn of events was that Xuma (and presumably Amanda) were being returned home. This was notwithstanding the fact that Xuma had not lived at the village in question for close to 50 years of his adult life, more than 30 of which were lived in Johannesburg, his chosen home. 

The exhumation of the Xumas and their reburial far away from their home should be looked at as more than a physical act of digging and the removal of bones. Importantly, it represents a fundamental retreat from the values that Xuma’s life symbolised and the politics he espoused. Throughout his life, Xuma was careful and deliberate in projecting an image of himself as not a local political leader, but as an African and a Pan Africanist. It was in recognition of this breadth of vision that Xuma’s biographer, Steven D Gish, titled his biography Alfred B. Xuma: African, American, South African. Xuma’s choice of life partners, first a Sierra Leonean and secondly an African American, is another good example of his outward-looking vision. The modernising vision and broad internationalism he brought to the ANC as its president from 1940 to 1949 serve as a counterpoint to official explanations and motivations for their exhumation.

In a world characterised by the politics of tribal nostalgia and narrow nationalism, Xuma’s life implores us to choose the spirit of Johannesburg: open, vibrant, outward looking and diverse. His house in Sophiatown symbolises the politics of African modernity, which he and his contemporaries stood for and laboured to bring about. Their vision is our precious inheritance that we would do well to preserve and promote.

•  Bongani Ngqulunga heads the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS) at the University of Johannesburg. He is author of the award-winning book, The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, which was the winner of the 2018 Sunday Times Alan Paton prize for literature.