Lessons from our ancestors: Walter Rubusana and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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Nelson Mandela and his future first wife Evelyn Mase in the bridal party at Walter and Albertina Sisulu's wedding on 17 July 1944. Mandela was best man. Mandela and Mase were to marry three months later, 5 October 1944.

Zemki inkomo magwalandini – The cows are going, you cowards! These were the words of Walter Rubusana. In the context in which we are living, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is marching on, you cowards! This is a clarion call for Africans to remember and hold onto their heritage and a timeless appeal for African renewal. It was this message that sparked the ANC’s formation. As President Cyril Ramaphosa put it in 2018, “His intellect was one of those that conceptualised the formation of the ANC.” 

Along with John Langalibalele Dube, Sol Plaatje and others, Rubusana was a man who understood the inherent tension that existed between colonialism and the need to assert the independence of African people. While this came decades before the ANC would eventually assume power, dismantling what was left of the apartheid regime, it was an essential reminder of the importance of identity and one’s convictions.

Rubusana grew up in Mnandi in the Somerset East district of the then Cape Colony during the Xhosa kingdom’s defeat in both military and economic sense, which had long been brewing. His espousal of some Western values is none more apparent than his time at the Free Church of Scotland mission school, where he studied education and theology. 

Through a long journey of theology bounded to the notion that racism was fundamentally unchristian, there is much we can learn from his life. As his contemporary Pixley ka Isaka Seme put it, “The records which he left behind (at Lovedale), both in scholarship and on the athletic field are great enough to illuminate ten other college lives and make them all.” He was the co-founder of the Xhosa language newspaper publication, Izwi Labantu, which was funded by Cecil John Rhodes. In a way, in this regard, Rubusana epitomised what would later be described in international relations as “having no permanent friends nor permanent enemies.”  

On a trip to London, he supervised the translation of the Xhosa Bible, after becoming a recognised authority in the isiXhosa language. Rubusana admittedly had some missteps. During the Anglo-Boer War, Rubusana threw his support behind Britain. He was not a radical in the contemporary mould of the Economic Freedom Fighters. He was moderate in the image of his contemporaries. It was normal then that educated Africans supported the British more than the Afrikaners. In this vein, he enlisted African labourers, drivers and other non-combatants to contribute towards the British victory. 

As Jordan put it, “Though we may, with the wisdom of hindsight, fault his judgement on occasion, there can be no doubt that he was a man of immense personal courage and integrity committed to the democratic ideal of a free South Africa.” He became the first Black person to be elected to the Cape Council in 1909. He started the Native Education Association (NEA) that contributed towards the formation of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912. The SANNC was later renamed the African National Congress in 1923. He was chosen as the President of NEA, cementing his role in South African politics.  Rubusana led the black delegation to London representing South African Native Convention (SANC) to protest against the exclusion of Africans in the negotiations about the formation of the Union of South Africa. This marked the first occasion that Africans and Coloureds formed a united front.

While in the end, this campaign orchestrated by Rubusana was unsuccessful, it was a crucial moment in the politics of our country. Rubusana did not let these setbacks rattle him. Instead, he took valuable lessons from this and continued his fight against the oppressive regime. It is clear that while we have no crystal ball to envision the future, we do need to begin reimagining our society given the changes propelled by our current pandemic, radical shifts to the 4IR and other disruptions.

You may wonder what this has to do with remembering Rubusana. Delving into his history, the characteristics that stand out are adaptability and agility. He was a man with many roles including being a political activist, a minister, writer and teacher. As cataclysmic changes affect us, we need to remind ourselves of the inherent value of our past heroes. These are lessons that can shape our ability to respond today with the same adaptability, skill and agility. It will allow us to learn how to respond to our present and shape our future.     

This is not the only lesson. As we face unsurmountable challenges as a nation, there is much we can heed from the intellectuals of our past. The pandemic, which has necessitated a national lockdown, has had a far-reaching impact and will devastate our already weak economy. Early estimations are that the economy to contract by 7% if you look at the more optimistic forecasts or almost 17% if you look at the more pessimistic estimates. At the same time, projections from National Treasury warn that unemployment could rise to 50% with expectations of 7 million job losses. We find ourselves once again divided, this time along the lines of inequality and inequity. We once again find ourselves as a nation fighting a scourge and looking to our forefathers for guidance.

These conversations remain essential. One of my legacy projects at the University of Johannesburg is to put together at least 12 biographies on prominent South African figures, including that of Rubusana. It is the act of reading biographies of our past heroes that allows us a view from the shoulders of giants. Our understanding of Rubasana is that here was an ordinary man who achieved extraordinary things. Louis Fischer said, “Biography is history seen through the prism of a person”. South Africa has not begun to scratch the surface in terms of telling the stories of our heroes. This gap in available literature can skew our history as it leaves a vacuum, which needs to be filled. Rubusana created a medium for communication through the establishment of a newspaper, understanding the value of using isiXhosa as a way of communicating as opposed to the dominant language.

A summary of his life, which should not detract from his many achievements, includes a man of his time who placed in the historical context of the time found his raison d’etre, his reason for being. What is notable is his reading of the political environment and participation in protest movements and actions, especially against the infringement of human rights. He ensured that he represented the plight of his people by participating in commissions overseas, he voiced the struggles of his people. His legacy is layered in religion, literature and politics. This contribution remains invaluable, particularly now, as we navigate our new normal. We need the modern-day Walter Rubusanas.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.  He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.