BORN: 1891
DIED: 1985
PRESIDENCY: 1949 -1952

James S. Moroka was the President-general of the African National Congress from 1949 to 1952. A prestigious physician from a prominent landholding family in the Orange Free State, he had the status and boldness required for national leadership in the ANC but lacked the political astuteness to always guide the organisation forcefully during his presidency. He was born in 1891 in Thaba Nchu, a great-grandson of the Tswana chief Moroka who gave military protection to the Voortrekkers in the 1830s. After attending Lovedale, Moroka went to Scotland in 1911, and in 1918 graduated from the University of Edinburgh in medicine.

First entering politics at the time of the Hertzog Bills, Moroka was immediately accorded a leadership role and accompanied the delegation of the All African Convention (AAC) that confronted Hertzog in early 1936.

When some in the delegation apparently expressed a willingness to give the prime his opposition to any compromise and thereby established a reputation for militancy that was eventually to carry him to national leadership in the ANC.

When the AAC was organized on a firm basis in 1936, he became its treasurer. Believing that the way to expose the hypocrisy of the Natives’ Representative Council (NRC) was to get on it and then denounce it, Moroka stood as a candidate in 1942 and was elected from the Transvaal-Orange Free State constituency, thus dissociating himself from the AAC boycott policy.

In 1946 he was in the forefront of those denouncing the NRC and the government; but he did not resign his NRC post until late in 1950, a delay that caused intense controversy in African political circles.

By this time he had already served a year as President-General of the ANC, elected on the pro-boycott platform of the Programme of Action.

Moroka’s election as president-general was, strictly speaking, unconstitutional, since he was not at the time a member of the organisation. The Youth League, however, could find no other willing and suitably distinguished candidate to challenge A. B. Xuma, and at the last moment they agreed on Moroka and persuaded him to stand.

Unlike Xuma and many other members of the “old guard” generation, Moroka believed in militant action and made no attempt to prevent Congress radicals from proceeding with plans for the implementation of the Programme of Action.

Insofar as he could, given the isolation of Thaba ‘Nchu and its distance from ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, Moroka took part in the planning of the Defiance Campaign and used his considerable popularity with the African public to promote the new militant image of the ANC. Because Moroka lacked a sufficient grasp of political complexities in the Transvaal, he blundered into several situations that caused dissension in the ANC and eventually led to his removal as president-general. In March 1950 he agreed to preside at the left-inspired Defend Free Speech Convention and in so doing inadvertently committed the ANC to support of the controversial stay-at-home of May 1.

In early December 1952, when African and Indian leaders went on trial at the height of the Defiance Campaign, Moroka-perhaps taken aback at being charged under the Suppression of Communism Act and wary of the possible material consequences—dissociated himself from the other accused, engaged separate counsel, and entered a plea in mitigation that stressed his long friendship with and assistance to the Afrikaner people.

At ANC’s annual conference of mid-December 1952, Moroka was defeated for re-election, with only the Orange Free State delegates giving him support against Albert Luthuli.