Builders of Botswana “Rustless Steel” (Z.K. continued)
by Jeff Ramsay
We have been discussing the late great Z.K. Matthews with reference to his mentorship of Seretse Khama. But who was this mild-mannered Motswana Professor who earned the distinction of being charged as South African Treason Trialist number 1? As befits a great intellect, his worldview defies easy typecasting. ??It would not be wrong to describe him as having been cosmopolitan liberal who valued his indigenous roots; he thus called his home away from his Gammangwato homeland “Phuting”. He was also a genuine non-racialist and pioneer Pan-Africanist, as well as a staunch Christian who was open to the beliefs of others. Although he was often down to earth in his analysis, his outlook was never simple. He consistently acknowledged many influences, while wrestling with conflicting ideas of how to advance “Freedom for my People”, the title of his posthumous memoir. ??Monica Wilson, an academic colleague of Z.K.’s who was later asked by his widow, Frieda Matthews (a giant in her own right), to edit the memoir, observed that: ?? “Z.K. Mathews was a man with a shadow (nesithunzi in Xhosa), that is a man of dignity and authority, the sort of authority that derives from an integrated personality.
The man who loses his identity cast no shadow, he has no force. Z.K.’s authority was recognized by black and white alike, in South Africa and abroad. His concern to further African education, his determination that black South Africans be recognized as full citizens in their own country on an equal footing with whites, and his deep religious conviction were all of a piece: there were no contradictions.”??We also have Nelson Mandela’s many scattered insights, including a passage he penned in 1970 during his incarceration on Robben Island. As a “Class D” prisoner Mandela’s correspondence was at the time limited to writing just one letter every six months, which had to be addressed to a relative. One such occasional recipient was his “beloved aunt” (“Ra(k)gadi O(o)rategang”) in Gaborone, Frieda Matthews. ??Sadly unbeknownst to either of the two, all of Frieda’s letters to Madiba between 1970 and 1985 were withheld by the prison authorities. The two only caught up during her landmark visit to him in 1987, following his transfer to Pollsmoor Prison. A heavily censored letter to Frieda, dated 1 October 1970, contains the following: ??“I have reason to believe that the debt we owe Z.K. has been the subject for oration and prose of the highest order. Many people knew him as a prominent educationalist and Vice-Principal of Fort Hare.
To others he was a moderate politician who was associated with the Native Representative Council, Institute of Race Relations and the Church... [lines removed] Each particular group may be justified in choosing its own premise for evaluating his achievements and there may be evidence to support such a view... [lines removed]??“As a lecturer at Fort Hare he played an important role in producing a generation of trained thinkers in Eastern and Southern Africa who were to serve as pioneers in many fields of endeavour and who today form the nucleus of the statesmen, diplomats, civil servants and technicians who are displaying tremendous initiative in the task of national development and reconstruction in the new African states. Many of us associate him with crucial turns on questions of principle and tactics in the course of political evolution... [lines removed]??“Z.K’s influence is clearly seen. He was one of the principle architects of the ‘African Claims’ in 1944, which embodied the views of the people of South Africa on the Atlantic Charter. He led the resolution Committee which drafted the 1949 Programme of Action – our blue print on questions of strategy and tactics... [lines removed] Unlike many highly qualified intellectuals Z.K. had no anti-left prejudices and worked in harmony with lovers of freedom from all schools of thought. ??“There are some people inside and outside the movement who were critical of his cautious attitude. But I am not sure whether they were not wild...[lines removed] I believe there is something of rustless steel in a man who, in spite of being a holder of lucrative and secure post...[lines removed] The question of whether Z.K. was a liberal, conservative, or agitator becomes a purely terminological one, which we must leave to academicians.
Ragadi we remember him with much affection”??One hungers for the missing lines! Yet even if one were to focus on Z.K. for the next 52 weeks one could scarcely do more justice in contextualizing the man’s multifaceted contributions. His output as a scholar and policy advisor alone, as reflected in his diverse publications between 1932 and 1967, are worthy of more than one thesis, as was his influence as both a political activist and mentor. Besides being a guru to the ANC Youth League, he was a father figure to founders of the nationalist movements in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, along with Lesotho and Swaziland.??In addition to his influence on peers such as Tshekedi Khama, Bathoen II, Peter Sebina and the Molema brothers in Mafikeng, one suspects that Z.K.’s Botswana legacy is further reflected in the lives of Fort Hare graduates. In addition to Seretse Khama, alumni include Gaositwe Chiepe, Moleleki Mokama and Leonard Ngcongco, as well as prominent couples such as Lekalakes, Ntetas and Setidishos, along with his own son-in-law Dr. John Letsunyane. ??Z.K.’s own introduction to politics occurred when as a school boy he attended meetings of the Bechuanaland and Griqualand Provincial Congress under the wing of another cross border Motswana, Sol Plaatje, who was a kin to Matthew’s maternal Barolong relatives. The founding ANC Secretary-General and pioneer Setswana newspaper editor’s influence is further manifest in Z.K.’s shared passion for Setswana historical traditions and praise poetry.