When writing in 1983, Donovan Williams said that the legacy of Tiyo Soga was ‘badly neglected by historians of southern Africa [and that his] writings are deserving of a better fate than their present obscurity. More than a century has elapsed since his death – and even the centenary of the latter went unnoticed. His grave at Tutura is neglected and overgrown. The time has come for resurrection’1. A total of 28 years has elapsed since this call by Williams and today it is being answered by the unveilingof his memorial after 140th year since his passing.

The year of his birth, 1829, was like an end of an era and a beginning of a new one. It was preceded by the death of two Xhosa warriors in 1828, Chief Ndlambe and his son Mdushane. The year 1829 marks the death of Chief Ngqika, the son of the great-house of AmaRharhabe. The colliding of Tiyo Soga's birth year to that of Ngqika's death is of interesting significance because Soga's grandfather, Jotello, was one of the leading counsellors of Ngqika. Tiyo as a first western educated black person was going to play a critical role in shaping, preparing and ushering Ngqika's and the Xhosa into the inevitable influence of European modernism. He first left South Africa for Scotland at the age of 17 when the Eastern Cape was in flames caused by the Seventh War Of Dispossession (The War Of The Axe, 1856-7) between the Xhosa and the English. At this time it was clear from both the Scottish and some humanitarian missionaries of the London Missionary Society that black people had to learn new rules of engagement in order to define their destiny in a colonial world. He came back from Scotland in 1848 after two years of studying and began teaching at two missionary stations. When the War Of Mlanjeni (The Eight War Of Dispossession, 1850-3)irrupted in the eastern frontier he left for Scotland again to pursue theological studies. It was during his second stay in Scotland that he got married to a white Scottish woman by the name of Janet Burnside and blessed him with four sons and three daughters. It is believed that when he landed back in South Africa in 1857 his theology was already carrying blackist sentiments and it was during this time that he wrote his famous hymn, 'Lizal' Isidinga Lakho Thixo Nkosi Yenyanisa'(Fulfil Your Promise, God, Lord Of Truth'. This was a major paradigm shift on Soga's side and it is expressed more emphatically when in the same hymn appeals to God saying, 'Oh! Lord, bless the teachings of our land, please revive us, that we may restore goodness'.

A.C. Jordan, the writer of Ingqumbo Yeminyanya places Soga in the period that he calls 'literary stabilisation' of Xhosa literature and refers to him and William Gqoba as 'dominant figures' of this period. The Soga and Gqoba period follows that of 'early writers' who had no formal western education but were influenced by Ntsikana and missionaries of the Glasgow Missionary Society2.

Soga is credited to be the first South African to develop ideas on black consciousness which were later perfected by the likes of Steve Mbiko. His blackist and Afrocentric thoughts focused mainly on the following three areas:

  • The promotion of ubuntu values infused with Christian spirituality

  • Respect for traditional leadership

  • Promotion of black cultural identity

  • Serious concern over alcohol abuse by black people

Soga's views on the above subjects are better expressed in a letter that he sent to the King Williams Town Gazette in 11 May 1865. He was responding to a letter sent by his biographer, John Chalmers, to the same publication suggesting that black people were destined for extinction if they do not 'rise in the scale of civilisation and play an important part in the history of [the] colony'. The following is an extract from Soga's article:

I find the Negro from the days of the old Assyrians downwards, keeping his 'individuality' and 'distinctiveness', amid the wreck of empires, and the revolution of ages. I find him keeping his place among the nations, and keeping his home and country. I find him opposed by nation after nation and driven from his home. I find him enslaved – exposed to the vices and brandy of the white man.....I find him exposed to all these disasters, and yet living- multiplying 'and never extinct”.

Soga's black consciousness even drove him to write a document entitled, The Inheritance Of My Children, where he urges them to take their place in the world “as coloured, not as white man' and that for their own sake they must “never appear ashamed that [their] father was a Kafir and that [they] inherit some African blood”. When the sickness that ultimately killed him started in June 1871, he was on his way to establish a new mission outstation where we think more blackist-theology was going to be preached and propagated. When he returned to his base at Tuturha (Centane), he was more sick and he died on the 12th of August 1871.

In his letter of 1865 to the King Williams Town Gazette where he was defending the black race Soga states, that “had the silver and gold of the world been theirs, they would have done vastly more, and with greater results”. Are we today as black people an expression of the confidence that Soga had on black people 140 years ago or are we an embarrassment to his memory?.