BORN: 1890
DIED: 1962
PRESIDENCY: 1940 – 1949

Dr. Alfred Bitini Xuma was born into an aristocratic Xhosa family in the Transkei in 1893. 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.

When he had 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. Bitini read about the opportunities for education through self help in America.

In 1913 he sailed for New York, where he entered various institutions and universities. He studied at night while he worked at the Alabama Steel Mills.

After graduating as a Doctor of Medicine, he went to Europe where he specialised in gynaecology and studied further in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

On his return to South Africa in 1927, Dr Xuma opened the surgery in Sophiatown and 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.”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 to be too slow and moderate, and was replaced by Dr J.S. Moroka. Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma died at Baragwanath Hospital, Johannesburg, in 1962.

Source: The Fifties People of South Africa, compiled and edited by Jurgen Schadeberg, 1987.