Alfred Bitini Xuma

ANC President 1940-1949

Dr. Alfred Bitini Xuma served as ANC president from 1940 to 1949. He was born in 1893 to an aristocratic Xhosa family at Manzana Village, Engcobo District, in the Transkei, Eastern Cape Province. He was the seventh child of Mr. Xuma, a lay Methodist preacher and his wife, a traditional practitioner of medicine. He was educated locally and rose from herd boy, houseboy, horse trainer, teacher, shipping clerk and hotel and train waiter, to one of the country's most influential black thinkers and leaders.

 At the age of seven, he entered the Wesleyan Mission School at Manzana. In 1908, he rose to the next scholastic level at Clarkebury Boarding School where, in 1911, he qualified as a primary school teacher. After he completed his local primary school education Bitini went to the Maritzburg Training Institute to study teaching. He taught at various schools, earning fourteen pounds a term, and as was the custom, gave his entire salary to his father.

After working as a teacher, he went to study in the US, the UK and Europe, where he completed a number of academic degrees.

In 1913, a small Wesleyan Mission scholarship took him to the United States, to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he studied for several years. Having no funds, he left day school to find a living doing odd jobs in Birmingham, while attending night classes at Tuskegee. He stayed in Birmingham, laboring 14 – 16 hours a day until his unpaid school fees and lodging debt to Tuskegee was fully discharged.

In 1920 he graduated, with an honors degree in Science and  entered medical school at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After two years, he transferred to Northwestern University in Chicago where, in 1926, he graduated with an M.D. degree.

He moved to the world renown Mayo Clinic and then off to Europe to Budapest, Hungary, where he performed general surgery and gained experience in women's diseases and midwifery under the tutelage of famed Professor Emil Sciapedes at the Women's Hospital at Pecs University. He studied complex surgery at New St. Johns Hospital, in Budapest.

In 1927, he removed to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to sit for his qualifying examinations and licenses to practice in the then British Empire. Finally, upon successful completion, he was fully qualified in his specialties of gynaecology, obstetrics and surgery. He was awarded a Ph.D., again with high honors, in Tropical Diseases and Hygiene from the London School of Tropical Medicine, being the first black person to obtain a doctorate at the School of Tropical Medicine in London.

On his return to South Africa in 1927, Dr Xuma settled in Sophia town where he opened up a surgery.

In 1931 he married Priscilla Mason of Liberia, West Africa. Priscilla died three years later, while giving birth to their second child. In 1940 he married Madie Beatrice Hall in Cape Town.

After his freelance political activities in the 30s, Dr Xuma was elected president of the ANC in 1940. He set about rebuilding a scattered organisation against great opposition.

Dr Xuma signed a pact with Dr Dadoo of the SA Indian Congress for a united front between Indians and Africans. When more conservative members of the ANC complained that the Indians were "shrewd" and might dominate the ANC, Dr Xuma retorted: "if you cannot meet the next man on an equal footing without fearing him, there is something wrong with you. You are accepting a position of inferiority to him."

As ANC president, Xuma worked hard to turn the organisation into a mass movement. He introduced a new constitution in 1943 which afforded membership to people of all races, eliminated the House of Chiefs and gave women equal rights in the organisation. He acted as unofficial delegate of the African people at the United Nations in 1946. Although he was responsible for bringing a large element of young people like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo into the organisation, by 1949 Xuma was found  he was not radical enough  to satisfy the ANC’s Youth League  and was ousted as president . He was replaced by Dr J.S. Moroka.

Because it was a large three-bedroom house, which was regarded as a mansion in the early Sophiatown as it occupies two plots, whereas most residents of the old suburb lived in terraced or semi-detached houses,  Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma’s home was declared a national monument. His house in Toby Road, Sophiatown (called Triomf by apartheid rulers who proclaimed it a white area in the 50s), was declared a historical site.

Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma died in January 1962.

--> 'use strict';