Remembering EL’s early struggle icon, Dr Rubusana

Saturday April 17 marked the 85th anniversary of the passing of Dr Mpilo Walter Rubusana, an East London local who had a number of leadership roles in the early liberation struggle in the Eastern Cape.

PROUD ACTIVIST: Dr Mpilo Walter Rubusana passed away in 1936 and was honoured with a statue outside the BCM City Hall

Rubusana was born in February 21, 1858, in Somerset East. After completing primary school, he was admitted to the Lovedale Missionary Institute, a mission school run by the Free Church of Scotland.

Here he studied for his Cape Teachers’ Certificate, which he achieved with distinction in 1878.

After completing his certificate, he remained at Lovedale to study theology before leaving in 1880 to teach at the Pelton mission station, where he also served as an assistant pastor.

It was here that he met Deena Nzanzana, whom he would marry in 1883. The couple would have five daughters and a son together.

In 1884 he was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, after which he transferred to East London.

The city would remain his home until his death in 1936.

Rubusana was always involved in politics, going so far as to join with fellow ministers to support the British during the Anglo-Boer War. He helped enlist a number of labourers, drivers, scouts and other non-combatant staff.

Following the end of the war in 1902, Rubusana turned his attention to his work in the Congregational Church.

He helped translate church material into Xhosa, and also took part in the Native Education Association (NEA) which was led by fellow priest Elijah Makiwane.

His expertise in the Xhosa language earned him a spot on the Xhosa Bible Revision Committee, which had been set up to examine the then-current Xhosa Bible which had first been translated by Tiyo Soga in the 1850’s.

In 1904, Rubusana joined Thembu king Dalindyebo to attend the coronation of King Edward VII in Britain. While overseas, he also published his first book, Zemk’ Inkomo Magwalandini (Defend Your Heritage).

The book is an anthology of traditional poetry and essays on theology and Church history.

Rubusana returned to politics in 1909, when he was chosen as president of the SA Native Convention. In this capacity, he led a deputation to London in June that year to argue against “colour bar clauses” in local laws as well as the incorporation of Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland into the Union of South Africa.

Sadly they were unsuccessful and had to return home in September, defeated.

Rubusana announced his candidacy for the Thembuland constituency in the Cape Provincial Council in 1910, and won the seat in September 21. This made him the first ever African to serve as a member in the council.

He made his third trip to London in 1911 in order to attend the Universal Races Congress, hosted by the Ethical Culture Society.

The statue of Dr Rubusana which stands outside the East London City Hall

The congress was attended by delegates from all over the world, including famous US activist Dr WEB du Bois.

Back in South Africa, Rubusana attended the inaugural conference of the ANC in Bloemfontein on January 8, 1912, and was elected as one of the party’s vice-presidents.

He would go on to involve himself heavily in the Anti-Land Act Campaign. This campaign targeted the 1913 Native Land Bill, which forbid those classified as ‘native’ by the government from buying land in most of the country.

Once again, he was part of a deputation to London in 1913 to argue the cause.

Rubusana passed away in East London on April 17, 1936, at the age of 78. A statue of him stands outside the East London City Hall.


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