“South Africa belongs to all the people who inhabit it by RIGHT and NOT by MIGHT” – A.P Mda (1955)
As a young boy, Ashby Peter Solomzi Mda listened attentively as his grandmother related tales of how his family trekked from their home in the Qumbu region of the Transkei to where he was born in the Hershel district of the Lesotho border. The Mdas belonged to a Mpondomise clan called ooJolinkomo (the royal tasters at traditional feasts). The name Mda came from an ancestor who was one of the Mpondomise chief Mhlontlo’s warriors. It means a ‘scratch’ or a ‘mark’ and signifies a person adept at stick fighting. However, the Mpondomise were uprooted after the Cape parliament passed the euphemistically named Peace Preservation Act in 1879, ordering Africans in the Eastern Cape, Transkei and Lesotho (the Basutoland) to give up their guns. That same year, many African societies, including the Mpondomise, rose in rebellion against white rule.
A British official who gained notoriety for zealously carrying out disarmament was Hamilton Hope, who had been appointed magistrate in 1877 over Chief Moorosi of the Baphuti in the Quthing region of Lesotho. Hope ignored the advice of British resident officer to use diplomacy rather than high-handed methods and aggressively undermined Moorosi’s authority, provoking a series of crises. A protestant missionary in Lesotho, Frederic Ellenberger, characterised Hopeas an irascible and impatient character feared by the Baphuthi because of his free and lavish use of the sjambok on them. Although Hope was transferred out of the district, the policy of disarmament embroiled his successor in a fierce war with Moorosi in late 1879, after killing Moorosi in battle, Cape soldiers cut of his head – with the intention of sending o tot a London hospital for display – impaled his body on a spear and paraded it around camp.
Despite Hope’s reputation as a tactless bungler, the British dispatched him to the Qumbu region as the resident magistrate of the Mpondomise. Convinced that the Basotho were colluding with other African leaders to organise a joint uprising, Hope’s brief was to win over the Mpondomise chiefs as allies. Thinking that he had gained the consent of their senior chief Mhlontlo to join forces with him in quelling the Basotho resisters in the matatiele area, he accepted Mhlontlo’s invitation to attend a war dance at his great place at Sulenkana in October 1880. Expecting Mhlontlo’s cooperation, Hope and his entourage arrived with several hundred rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition as a gift. They expected a friendly welcome, but Mhlontlo had other plans. Hope and his two junior British officials were killed. Knowing that the British would hunt him down, Mhlontlo and a band of his followers left soon for sanctuary several hundred miles away, in the same Baphuting area of Lesotho where, a short time before, Hope had left a lasting impression.
The Mdas were among the refugees who settled at a place called Mphaki. A.P Mda’s father Gxumekelana Charles was born shortly before the killing of hope and he made the journey to Lesotho on his mother’s back. Years later the Mdas went to live in Hershel along the borders of Lesotho and Eastern Cape, where A.P Mda was born on 15 April 1916. He was the second of six children and was christened Ashby to commemorate his birth on “Ash Wednesday.” He took the name Peter when he joined the Catholic church and was popularly known as A.P as an adult.
His father believed his sons should learn practical skills. As a result, he taught them how to make and mend shoes, but for both his parents, educating their children was priority and took them to St Theresa and because of A.P.’s promising showing, Catholic fathers awarded him a partial scholarship to St Francis in Aliwal North before going to a Catholic Teachers’ Training college. In his youth, Mda wanted to become a policeman or a priest, the latter which his parents also encouraged him to be, but he opted to become a teacher instead.
After initially struggling to find employment in the Cape, he moved to Johannesburg in 1937 on the advice of a friend and yet still struggled for work. He became a garden boy at a white family’s house but kept his qualifications under wraps. He eventually landed a post at a Germiston school and secured another position the following year at a Catholic primary school in Orlando Township where he would remain for the next ten years.
Being in the Witwatersrand, a hotbed of political activity at the time accelerated Mda’s political consciousness. Coming from the Cape, Mda’s thoughts and views on politics could be classified as Cape Liberalism which mission-educated black people often fell prey to. This ideology was based on the premise that black people’s progress in life depended on how well they assimilated into western values and how effectively they discard their Africanness. This was to change swiftly though as in the 40s Mda became a fully-fledged follower of the ANC after initially supporting the All African Convention. He was disillusioned by the AAC and the 1936 laws, which restricted black personal advancement and promoted segregation along racial lines. With this status quo, Mda threw his support behind the newly appointed President Dr A.B. Xuma of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was at this time going through a process of revival. Mda believed that the ANC was the only independent organisation that could advance the concept of African Nationalism and the interests of Africans. On African Nationalism, Mda warned that the idea should not be used to justify African acceptance of segregation and separate development path.
Congress Youth League
In 1944, an assembly of young leaders who would later become struggle icons namely, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede, and Ashby Peter (A.P.) Mda. While much has been written on the others, relatively little attention has been paid to Mda, the Youth League president from 1947 to 1949. His peers regarded him as the foremost political, intellectual and strategist of their generation. His sound political mind meant he was known for his passionate advocacy of African nationalism, guiding the ANC into aggressive forms of protest, and pressing activists to consider turning to armed struggle in the early 1950s. They appealed to A.B. Xuma, then president of the ANC and he reluctantly gave them the go-ahead.
In '49 Mda would draft the famous 1949 Program of Action (POA) which would later become the cause of friction in the ANC when they adopted the 1955 Kliptown Charter. The POA was an exposition of the African Nationalism that Mda pioneered. However in the '50s due to poor health, he took a step back from national politics, styling himself as a backroom political theorist.
Mda was against the fragmentation of black political struggle and initially opposed the breakaway of the PAC, but after founding president Robert Sobukwe explained the reasons, he gave them his blessing, even attending some of their meetings. Mda, however, was not an official member but served as more of an advisor.
In the '60s he was in exile in Lesotho after receiving a tip-off that he will be arrested soon. He practiced his law career in Lesotho and famous for charging affordable prices, refusing to charge exorbitant fees for his services. His son, literary giant Zakes Mda writes in one of his works that life was more challenging than was necessary because of the principled man his father was.