This week we take a closer look at Zachariah Keodirelang “Z.K.” Matthews. Known as the father of the Freedom Charter, Z.K. was proud to identify himself as a son of Serowe, a status officially confirmed by the certificate he carried, which affirmed his status as a tribesman of the Bamangwato Reserve. Addressing a wider audience he described his tribal roots as follows:
“My father’s family lived at Shoshong, in the North, on the edge of the arid Kalahari Desert. Their land was on a plateau, perhaps 4,500 feet high. It was not good land for farming, since it lacked regular rainfall, but it was good cattle country, and his people, like the Bamangwato today, were great cattle keepers. They live in large concentrated villages, more like towns. Their capital Serowe, where my grandfather lies buried, is today a town of over 40,000, the largest traditional town in Southern Africa.
“My grandfather became involved in a dispute over succession to the chieftainship and left Shoshong with his family to settle among the Barolong, a related chiefdom south of the Bamangwato. He married a Morolong woman, became a Christian and adopted the name Zachariah Matthews. His African name was Keodirelang, and that is my middle name too, for I am named after him. He gave his children Christian and African names. My father, whose name was Motsielwa, was called Peter.”
With the encouragement of his uncle Tshekedi, Seretse Khama became a regular guest at Z.K. and his wife Frieda’s home during the 1940s when he completed his secondary education at Lovedale before entering Fort Hare University, where Professor Matthews became directly involved in his studies.
In 1941, while in Form V at Lovedale and serving as a senior prefect, Seretse was credited with preventing a student riot. Both Tshekedi, who regretted his contrary role in fanning the flames of the Lovedale riot twenty years earlier, and Z.K. were pleased.
Empathetic but firm, ZK’s message to all of his students was clear, institutions like Lovedale and Fort Hare should be defended, not vandalised, for they existed as sanctuaries of black freedom and intellectual development. In this respect emotional violence was in his view as likely to inflict further suffering on its perpetrator as the target of the anger. Nothing, moreover, could make the enemies of black advancement more pleased than to watch blacks vent their frustration against their very own people and institutions.
While Seretse had a special place in the Matthews household, he was not alone. A whole generation of Southern Africa’s best and brightest, including virtually the entire ANC Youth League of the 1940s, were also guided by Z.K.’s word and example.
Referring to Peter Mda, who succeeded Anton Lembede as the intellectual founder of the revived Youth League, Nelson Mandela later recalled:
“Mda believed the Youth League should function as an internal pressure group, a militant nationalist wing within the ANC as a whole that would propel the organisation into a new era…Mda quickly established a branch of the Youth League at Fort Hare under the guidance of Z.K. Matthews and Godfrey Pitje, a lecturer in anthropology. They recruited outstanding students bringing fresh blood and new ideas. Among the most outstanding was Professor Matthews’s brilliant son Joe, and Robert Sobukwe, a dazzling orator and incisive thinker.”
It speaks volumes of Z.K.s enduring influence that notwithstanding their ideological diversity virtually all of the future leaders who interacted with him during his time at Fort Hare, including Seretse, continued to seek his guidance in the years that followed.
For his part Z.K. was not so much a pacifist, though he remained the staunch advocate of non-violent direct action, as a believer that the key to success in a liberation struggle, at any given stage, rested on exercising organisational discipline.
Z.K. was thus in many ways the guru behind the Defiance Campaign as well as the Congress Alliance. At each stage his “moderation” proved to be a source of strength, not only in confronting the white racist regime, but also in allowing him to often act as a key mediator across ideological tendencies and generational cleavages within the movement. Fiery youth and traditional Chiefs, alongside liberals, communists and Africanists, as well as Alliance partners of all races, all trusted him even when they too often despised one another.
In 1949 Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo together approached ZK to take charge by assuming the Presidency of the ANC with Youth League backing. But the Professor did not think the time was yet ripe for them or him. He was already wrestling with how to mobilise a wider coalition to confront the increasingly vicious Apartheid regime. He came to a conclusion after a sabbatical in America. As Mandela again recalls:
Several months after Chief Luthuli was elected president of the ANC, Professor Z.K. Matthews returned to South Africa after a year as a visiting professor in the US, armed with an idea that would reshape the liberation struggle. In a speech to the ANC annual conference in the Cape, he said: ‘I wonder whether the time has not come for the African National Congress to consider the question of convening a national convention, a congress of the people, representing all the people of this country irrespective of race or colour, to draw up a Freedom Charter for the democratic South Africa of the future.”