Umdengentonga – a man with a big mind. A pacifist who believed that everyone is equal despite the tensions between the Mfengu and Xhosa people. A Black man with great intellectual prowess who created a name for himself in the harrowing era of colonised South Africa as a composer, journalist, and clergyman.
“… many lives have passed away. And in many homes, there are children crying now…”
John Knox Bokwe’s hymn A Plea for Africa still resonates in 2022 as the world finds itself in the midst of war, ever-present racism and the never-ending trauma South Africans face daily due to rising fuel prices, loadshedding and overwhelming mortality rates caused by ailments such as depression and other causes. Father, journalist, and composer John Knox Bokwe was born on March 15th 1855 in Ntselemanzi near Lovedale, southeastern Cape Province (Eastern Cape). The pioneering penman is one of South Africa’s most celebrated Xhosa hymn writers. His most popular compositions, being Vuka Deborah, Plea for Africa, and Marriage Song make him the first composer to adapt John Curwen’s Tonic Sol-fa* system to Xhosa music. Another of his compositions was the great hymn of Ntsikana, the great Xhosa prophet. He also wrote Ntsikana’s biography. As Sibusiso Lundi Mnyanda has argued, Ntsikana was the genesis of a new African identity in a globalising colonial world – a man who stands shoulder-to-shoulder in stature with the likes of Makhanda Nxele, Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, Isiaih Shembe, Ma Nku and many more. Without a doubt, John Knox Bokwe’s documentation of Ntsikana’s life plays a pivotal role in tracking the evolution of the Xhosa (African) spiritual lineage in the face of Christian colonialism.
In 1870, Bokwe co-published iNdaba, a Xhosa newspaper produced at Lovedale. Bokwe served at the Lovedale Mission for over 24 years. In 1897 he collaborated with John Tengo Jabavu in co-founding the Xhosa newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu (The African Opinion). Bokwe had a cultural, political, and spiritual impact on South African history – but he has not been honoured as he deserves. 22-02-2022 marked the centenary of John Knox Bokwe’s death. The John Knox Bokwe Foundation’s mission is to promote empowerment in the areas of education, environment, evangelism, employment, and entrepreneurship.
Culture Review interviewed chairperson of The John Knox Bokwe Foundation, Mr. Zingisa Bokwe (great-grandson of John Knox Bokwe).
1.When was the foundation established?
The Foundation was established this year (2022). Registration number 272-258 NPO (Department of Social Development)
2.What would you say are the foundation’s achievements thus far?
Since it has just started, the foundation does not have many achievements but so far has managed to convince the government to recognise the contribution Rev JK Bokwe made to our history. That’s why this year has been dedicated to the life and times of Rev JK Bokwe.
3. What is the future you envision for the foundation?
We envision working partnerships with the government and private sector in the development of the area of Alice, with special emphasis on Ntselamanzi township, where Rev. JK Bokwe was born, in the areas of education, service delivery and rejuvenation of the nation.
4.Would you say John Knox Bokwe’s legacy has received its due reverence and recognition from the South African government?
In the past I can say no, but this year the government took another turn and listened to the Foundation when it indicated that the legacy of Rev JK Bokwe needed to be recognised and they (government) did that.
5.What are the plans for this year’s birthday celebrations for John Bokwe?
There are so many activities lined up for this year. For a start, the wreath-laying that took place on the 22nd of February at the gravesite of Rev JK Bokwe, and the media briefing on the Centenary Celebrations that will happen on the 21st of March kwaNtselamanzi in recognition of the role Rev. JK Bokwe played in the country at large. On the 15th of March 2022, there will be a webinar hosted by the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, with the guest speaker Rev Prof Graham Duncan, at 18h00 until 19h00. The webinar will highlight the life and impact of Rev JK Bokwe. Zoom link below:
There will also be an event in Ugie, where Rev JK Bokwe also stayed and opened the first multi-racial school. There are many more activities planned for the forthcoming years.
6. What would your message to your great-grandfather be?
We would like to thank you for the life you led, not only for you, but for all who followed in your footsteps, and we promise not falter in any way.
7. What do you think John Knox would say about the present-day socio-political landscape of South Africa?
He would definitely say there is much to be done without fighting each other for political positions. There needs to be more emphasis on key societal fundamentals; to help us grow positively.
8. Would he have marked these times as times of moral decay?
Yes, because the level of decay in our communities is evident in the killing of innocent children, women abuse (GBV) and the high unemployment rate – which breeds abuse of drugs and other stupefying escapes as a means of temporary relief from the terrors poverty.
9.What do you think the echo of his Plea for Africa is today?
The echo is for Africa to unite and stop the xenophobic attacks amongst each other. The sentiments are for growth and the success of the African continent.
10.What has the Eastern Cape government planned to commemorate the 100 years of JKB’s passing?
As mentioned above, the EC government has identified this year as the year of Rev JK Bokwe. As a starting point they have put aside the 21st of March, Human Rights Day, to commemorate the life and times of Rev JK Bokwe. There will be other activities lined up for the whole of this year.
11.What would you say is the significance of remembering prominent colonial Black intellectuals today?
It is very significant because they were a phase in the liberation struggle, just like the phase of the Wars of Dispossession that were fought by our Chiefs in defence of our land. Black intellectuals entered the fray by utilising their writing skills and abilities, to forge ahead with the struggle left by the vacuum of the incarcerated chiefs like Maqoma. They used their writing to emancipate the minds of the people.