Celebrating the intellectual legacy of AC Jordan

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Philden Ndlela (photo: www.unizulu.ac.za)


The paucity or dearth of scholarship around AC Jordan’s contributions as teacher, visionary, scholar and political activist in South Africa is as disconcerting as it is disillusioning. This paper seeks to take AC Jordan’s rich and eclectic oeuvre from the peripheral position which it seems to occupy in contemporary academic discourse in his motherland, to the centre. It unearths his lesser known poems as well as some of his other literary gems such as his public address in his capacity as president of the Cape African Teachers’ Association (CATA). This contribution aims to accord Jordan his rightful place as one of the key figures in the advancement of the black literary tradition within the borders of South Africa and beyond.

This paper is a tribute to the late Archibald Campbell Jordan (1906–1968), who would have turned 108 this year. Seemingly forgotten, this teacher, visionary scholar and political activist was one of the key figures in the advancement of the black literary tradition in 20th-century South Africa and beyond its borders. Not only that: he was also a novelist, a literary historian and an intellectual pioneer of African studies. Jordan was the sort of intellectual who seamlessly found the synergy between his teaching responsibilities and political activism.

In an essay entitled “The responsibility of intellectuals” Chomsky (2011:1) defines the concept intellectuals in the following terms:

The concept of intellectuals in the modern sense gained prominence with the 1898 “Manifesto of the Intellectuals” produced by the Dreyfusards who, inspired by Emile Zola’s open letter of protest to France’s president, condemned both the framing of French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason and the subsequent military cover-up.

The Dreyfusards’ stance conveys the image of intellectuals as defenders of justice, confronting power with courage and integrity. But they were hardly seen that way at the time. Just like the Dreyfusards, Jordan was vocal and courageous in speaking truth to power and questioning state authority and injustice.

The formative years
Jordan was born on October 30, 1906 in a small administrative area of Mbokotwana in the Tsolo district in the former Transkei. He grew up in that district and received his primary school education there. He acquired his Junior Certificate education at Lovedale, and later proceeded to Fort Hare for his Joint Matriculation Board certificate, which he passed in 1930. Between 1932 and 1934 he was at Fort Hare pursuing his studies for the BA degree, which he completed in 1934, majoring in English and ethics. His study of these subjects was significant in that the teaching of language and literature dominated his contribution to humanity throughout his life.

While teaching in Kroonstad between 1934 and 1944 Jordan mastered Sesotho, became president of the African Teachers’ Association, and started his writing career with the publication of poetry in the newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu (Black Opinions). He also started work on his magnum opus, the classic Xhosa novel  Ingqumbo Yeminyanya (1940), later translated by the author and his wife, Phyllis Ntantala, into English as The Wrath of the Ancestors (1980). This novel, which has been hailed as one of the classics of Xhosa writing and South African literature in general, has been translated into many languages,  with an Afrikaans translation, Die Toorn van die Voorvaders, published in 1990 and a Dutch translation, Die Wraak van het Voorgeslacht, which appeared in the classic African Writers Series in 1999.

After a year of teaching at Fort Hare University Jordan was appointed as a lecturer in African languages and literature at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1946. It was there that he began a new method of teaching isiXhosa to non-mother-tongue speakers, which he published as Practical Course in Xhosa (1966).

The Carnegie scholarship
In 1961 Jordan was offered a Carnegie scholarship to do research in the United States, but was refused a passport by the South African government. As a result of political pressure he was forced to leave South Africa on an exit permit. The apartheid government’s obstructionist tactics were consistent with the modus operandi of all repressive and undemocratic establishments, whose actions are best explained in the following terms by Chomsky (2011:10–11):

It seems to be close to a historical universal that conformist intellectuals, the ones who support official aims and ignore or rationalize official crimes, are honored and privileged in their own societies, and the value-oriented punished in one or another way. The pattern goes back to the earliest records. It was the man accused of corrupting the youth of Athens who drank the hemlock, much as Dreyfusards were accused of “corrupting souls, and, in due course, society as a whole”, and the value-oriented intellectuals of the 1960s were charged with interference with “indoctrination of the young”. In the Hebrew scriptures there are figures who by contemporary standards are dissident intellectuals, called “prophets” in the English translation. They bitterly angered the establishment with their critical geopolitical analysis, their condemnation of the crimes of the powerful, their calls for justice and concern for the poor and suffering. King Ahab, the most evil of the kings, denounced the Prophet Elijah as a hater of Israel, the first “self-hating Jew” or “anti-American” in the modern counterparts. The prophets were treated harshly, unlike the flatterers at the court, who were later condemned as false prophets. The pattern is understandable. It would be surprising if it were otherwise.

Self-realisation of responsibilities
Jordan ranks as one of those “value-oriented” intellectuals who were maligned by the establishment for daring to speak the truth. He consciously deployed his scholarship to advance the cause of the underdog, the voiceless and the marginalised. He settled in America, where he was appointed Professor in African Languages and Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, and later moved, in a similar capacity, to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Other important publications by Jordan include a groundbreaking critical study entitled Towards an African Literature: The Emergence of Literary Form in Xhosa, published in 1972, and a collection of short stories entitled Kwezo Mpindo Zetsitsa, published as Tales from Southern Africa in 1973.

Jordan was born with a basketful of gifts. He ensured that his work and his world found each other all the time. As a writer he gave the Xhosa language, as noted above, a classic – Ingqumbo Yeminyanya, in which he explores the tension and schism between tradition and modernity.

As a humanist, he always worked assiduously to better the lot of the underdog. During the Poqo disturbances, the military had moved in and the people in Langa and Nyanga locations were reported to be starving. Jordan awakened to his responsibilities. It was he and his wife, Phyllis, who took the matter up with the Red Cross Society, and supplies quickly reached those in the locations to alleviate their plight. As a non-racialist, he worked hand in hand with all the so-called racial groups. Before leaving for the United States, he held executive positions in the non-European Unity Movement, which had as its members Europeans, coloureds, Africans and Indians. As a citizen he blossomed and joined a group of intellectuals who recast and reoriented his thinking. He also joined a branch of the Cape African Teachers’ Association (CATA), taking an active part in liberating and fine-tuning its ideas and ideals, and in persuading it to join in what was then called the general struggle for liberation.

Jordan was beyond category. During his memorial service in 1968 one of his former students and an eminent scholar, Harold Scheub (1968:194), offered the following insights on his former teacher:

He loved his students, and his students reciprocated with an affection that was profound and respectful.

In the classroom and outside, Professor Jordan was able to create and exploit a remarkable rapport with his students, a relationship that was compounded of his brilliance, his warmth and his accurate insights.

Wit, charm, scholarship, a splendid combination of gentleness and selfless interest, a richly romantic man of vision, a deeply contemplative man who belonged to no routine, who seemed limited by no physical time ...

He was that rare teacher who knew how to listen, not because he had perfected the art of listening, but rather because he was genuinely interested in, excited by, the ideas of others.

Jordan was no fence-sitter. At a time when the apartheid government was hell-bent on enacting a series of disabling and dehumanising laws he came up with the poem “You tell me to sit quiet” – a poem which in many ways speaks to the impossibility of adhering and kowtowing to a futile, unworkable  and immobilising imperative: acquiescence.

Crusade against Bantu Education
In a poem entitled “To Zambia”, which is in epistolary form and which falls under the rubric of post-colonial literature, Jordan argues for that country’s renaissance. In the opening part of the poem he defines Zambia as “the heart of Africa”, implying that it is central to the functioning of Africa as it was one of the earlier recipients of British independence. In lines 1–5 he writes:

      You are the Heart of Africa! –
A mother once full-breasted, fertile, proud,
But over centuries humbl’d and made barren,
By the cold and hunger of a soulless world.
Awaken with the din of joyful drums. (1964:9)

The words “mother”, “full-breasted”, “fertile” and “proud” provide a portrait of a Zambia that was self-sufficient, rich, resourceful, taking care of its people and independent. I argue that Jordan paints a picture of pre-colonial Zambia. The line “But over centuries humbl’d and made barren” refers to the colonisation of Zambia and the plundering of its natural resources by foreign elements.

 “Awaken” in line 5 speaks to a renaissance, a shaking off of the chains of subjugation and dependence so that Zambia is able to reassert its identity and dignity; to stand on its feet again. In the poem Jordan seems to yearn for lost glory, a paradise lost. Nostalgia seems to be the spur behind his thoughts here. The words “to feed once more these bloodless veins, these withered breasts; so Africa’s hungry children shall survive” in lines 7–9 speak to the centrality of Zambia’s renaissance and the sort of responsibilities and obligations that are attached to its revival – it has a moral responsibility to feed Africa’s famished and impoverished children – so its revival is an Africa-wide imperative. In the last three lines he writes:

And gain new strength to build a brighter world
Untrammell’d by the wiles of endless strife
Created by the ravenous kings of gold. (ibid)

These lines once more reinforce the importance of Zambia’s renaissance. A “brighter world” in this context is a world free of subjugation, a world in which the people of Zambia and, by extension, Africa, are free to determine their own identity, a world free of the plundering of its resources by foreigners who have no legitimate claim to them – what Jordan refers to as “the ravenous kings of gold” – stealers of African peoples’ inheritance. The poem falls squarely within the rubric of post-colonial literature.

Jordan was also very vocal on black education matters in apartheid South Africa, and gave several illuminating public addresses at teacher conferences. In his presidential address delivered at the 33rd Annual Conference of CATA, which was held in East London from 23 to 25 June 1954, he gave an incisive and diagnostic view of black education and the apartheid government’s modus operandi. Outlining CATA’s mission and vision he declared:

Is there a man or woman in here who doubts the correctness of our IDEAS and STAND? If so, let me address myself briefly to him or her. The CATA stands four-square for democracy in education. We reject once and for all the idea that in any given society you can put up various systems of schools and schooling. If education is for full citizenship, then all the members of that society must get the same kind of education. The CATA is fully aware that as long as there is no democracy in South Africa so long will there be no democracy in education. That is why we have ceased to address ourselves to the herrenvolk but have turned our faces to the people. That is why resolutions to the Department of Education are now a thing of the past with us.

We have moved away from professional isolation and have joined the people’s organisations in order to fight in there for full democracy. (Jordan 1954:6)

In the excerpt quoted above, Jordan seems to argue that education and democracy are not antithetical. He also points out that the notion of segregated schooling is unworkable and self-defeating, and that his association (CATA) does not embrace such a myopic and exclusionist model.

He projects CATA as an integrationist association that espouses the principles of engagement, inclusivity and collectivism – it shuns elitism and individualism, and recognises that the battle against segregated education will be enriched through joining like-minded formations of people’s organisations. This is a voice of courage – but it is also a voice of savvy politics, visionary leadership and pragmatism – a voice reflective of Jordan’s commitment to black education.

He continues:

We have our men who are sadly ignorant. Few of us, perhaps are fully aware of the almost unique position in which we are. In most such struggles, where humanity moves towards freedom, the intelligentsia guides and directs mass action. But, in our case, we have masses that feel the pangs of oppression but cannot supply the remedy; masses that feel the weight of chains, but lack the where-withal with which to snap and break them. For some time, therefore, we shall have to supply both brain and the brawn of the struggle. We shall have to supply both the inspiration and the motive power. It is therefore our humble duty and obligation to brace ourselves up and take the dusty road to freedom. (Jordan 1954:5)

Jordan here reminds his audience of teachers of their privileged status as professionals and of their responsibilities to the broader society. To them, neutrality cannot be an option while the oppressed and disenfranchised black majority continues to get a raw deal from the apartheid government. This extract calls on teachers to play an active role in their peoples’ lives; to guide the thoughts and actions of their people; to be their voice; and to use that voice in order to articulate the dreams and aspirations of their less privileged folks.

They are also being reminded of their vantage position as professionals, which they have a moral and ethical responsibility to exploit for the benefit of the masses.

One can therefore see that Jordan was no passive intellectual and that to him being a teacher and being an activist for change constituted no contradiction. He was able to marry, integrate and execute those two roles seamlessly.

When Jordan was not addressing CATA conferences on the anomalies of South African society, he also took to the pen and deployed it as yet another vehicle of his activism. In a poem entitled “Open the door”,1 whose tone is full of righteous indignation, Jordan lays down the paradoxes of the South African situation – the deliberate and unjust exclusion of the indigenous people from their birth right, their entitlement. Living up to the expectation of the intellectual being the voice of the voiceless, Jordan boldly writes:

United we come, as children of the soil,
Hoping to take our place and claim our share;
They showed us the door, closed it in our face,
And the nations gathered to apportion the wealth.

The notion of unjust exclusion is ubiquitous in this stanza. Not only that; it also speaks to the idea of being locked out, humiliated, rejected and dehumanised. The stanza speaks directly to the notion of the stealing of the indigenous peoples’ material wealth.

The theme of injustice and inequality is also palpable and manifest in the succeeding stanzas, where Jordan writes:

We break our backs building big palaces,
Palaces that make us homeless squatters;
We hew the fire-logs; we dig the coal mines,
For fires to warm these in the big palaces,
While we shiver with cold in our windy shacks.

The stanza speaks to the idea of an unequal and unjust society which is characterised by yawning gaps of extreme wealth and poverty as suggested by his reference to “palaces”, “squatters”, “warm”, “shiver”, “shacks” and “homeless”. It also highlights the exploitation and lack of appreciation for the labour, sweat and commitment of the proletariat who had no recourse to any proper living conditions.

In the final stanza Jordan’s tone is forthright and unambiguous:

All the nations glory in their wealth,
All the nations are immersed in light,
All the nations have acquired wisdom,
All, all the nations have a place and a share,
But where, where is the share of the children of the soil?

Again, here, he harps on the peculiarities of South African society in which exclusion, rejection, unequal distribution of resources are regarded as a way of life. The plea: “But where, where is the share of the children of the soil?” is followed by a stentorian injunction: “Open the door”, echoing the title of the poem.

The lack of appreciation and devaluation of the indigenous people’s labour that Jordan highlights in this poem is a sore point that the great African-American scholar WEB Du Bois addressed in the following terms in his magnum opus, The Souls of Black Folk, in the American context:

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song – soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the spirit. (Du Bois (1990:189)

A futile unworkable imperative
“You tell me to sit quiet” is probably Jordan’s most celebrated and widely anthologised poem. It is made up of five eight-line stanzas, and reads in part:

You tell me to sit quiet when robbed of my manhood,
With nowhere to live and nought to call my own,
Now coming, now going, wandering and wanting,
No life in my home saves the drone of the beetle!

          Go tell the worker bees,
True guards of the hive,
Not to sting the rash hunter
Who grabs at their combs.

You tell me in spite of the riches of knowledge
Unveiled all around, replenishing the earth,
To live here forever enslaved by the
darkness of ignorance, abject and empty of mind!

         Go tell the drooping grass,
Frost-bitten and pale,
Not to quicken when roused
By the warm rains. (Jordan 1963:111–3).

Commenting on this poem, renowned author and scholar Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane writes:

The English version cannot conceivably do justice to the original. It does not carry the suggestion of such a dismissive Xhosa phrase as “Hamb’okunya!” (“Go and shit!”), which is clearly conveyed by the phraseology and tone of the Xhosa rendition in the first line of each quatrain – “Go tell the worker bees … Go tell the drooping grass …” The idiom of the Xhosa is fraught with sinister innuendoes.

In his appreciation of the poem Dan Kunene suggests that the poem shows Jordan’s immersion in South African politics and his anger in a situation where one is “told to sit quiet” or face the dire consequences. The statement and response format of Jordan’s poem derives from the African Ingoma (Song).

The last stanza conveys Jordan’s own frustration at conditions in South Africa, especially after the introduction of Bantu education, which sought to exclude Africans from the pool of knowledge. (Mzamane 1984:151–2)

Rising to the challenge through action
“You tell me to sit quiet” was initially written in isiXhosa and later translated into English by the author himself. In an unquavering and assertive voice Jordan argues for volubility and action. He gallantly stands up for his principles. He is able to see through the apartheid government’s underlying intentions and consequences.

The entire poem is written in the spirit of non-capitulation. In his forthright tone Jordan boldly argues that being asked to “sit quiet” is contrary to nature, contrary to instinct, and that the oppressed are being called upon to sheepishly participate in the deformation of their nature – the denial of their instincts. He is against acquiescence. 

On the basis of the aforegoing discussion it seems plausible to infer that Jordan was a supremely intelligent, courageous and far-sighted intellectual – his impressive and ground-breaking oeuvre attests to that. To him education meant service to Africa and the world. During his lifetime he raised his voice. He spoke truth to power. He put his scholarship to the service of humankind. His was a voice that would not be silenced.

Wa Thiong’o (1993:86) expresses himself as follows on the role of the activist for change:

My own view is that scholarship will be able to contribute to the development of African literatures only if scholars manage to free themselves from limiting angles of vision.

To accomplish this they will have to adopt a social base that enables them to see, smell and taste more accurately. And I would hope that as a result of adopting that kind of social base, they would also form attitudes that would encourage them to raise their voice in real life against the repression of scholars, writers and artists in Africa today, be it in neo-colonies like Kenya or in the older colonies like South Africa and Namibia.

Jordan was indeed a courageous man who remained true to the spirit and letter of being a “value-oriented” intellectual. In modern-day parlance, “he walked the talk”. He remained true to his calling and responsibilities, as Chomsky (2011:11) delicately argues regarding intellectuals:

As for the responsibility of intellectuals, there does not seem to me to be much to say beyond some simple truths. Intellectuals are typically privileged. Privilege yields opportunity, and opportunity confers responsibility. An individual then has choices.

What follows below is an account or testament from AC Jordan’s wife and fellow traveller, Phyllis Ntantala, which is taken from her gripping autobiography, A Life’s Mosaic:

I learnt much from AC about what makes a good teacher, and what co-operation and co-ordination can do in the classroom. I was an apt pupil, and in that first year I realised that teaching was my calling and that I was going to make a good teacher.

Working closely with him, I began to see the good qualities in him – warm though never demonstrative, kind, patient. Concerned about others, he demonstrated humility in his concern for those students who could not always pay even the low fees. AC was a scholar whose breadth and depth amaze me even today, an intellectual whose pursuits were limitless. (Ntantala, 2009:95)

The paucity of scholarship on AC Jordan’s legacy in South Africa remains a sore point to those who are aware of the impressive body of scholarship that he churned out in his lifetime. How many memorial lectures are devoted to his immense and copious contribution? How many centres of African Studies are there in South Africa that bear his name? How many lecture halls, auditoriums, faculty buildings have been named after him? In a country whose landscape is permeated by the names of dead and living politicians, this anomaly and this injustice are morally and ethically indefensible. In a country that seems determined to valorise mainly the politician, this glaring omission is a salient feature of a fractured body politic whose glaring hallmark is a selective, conscious and sectarian recognition and conferment of excellence and status.

Jordan was blessed with an incisive mind. He never wavered in his convictions, he never relented in his pursuit of freedom, even in faraway lands. He remained resolute, unshaken. Racists viewed him as a threat to their hegemony – not only in South Africa but also in the United States – a country that became his sanctuary, a country in which his scholarship flourished. Yet, he also experienced local threats, as evidenced by the following article entitled “African scholar fire bomb target” that was published by the Capital Times in the United States on 26 September 1967:

Jordan, who came to the US four years ago from Cape Town, South Africa, has been at WISCONSIN since then. He is an expert on Xhosa, the tongue-clicking language of the Bantu people. He said he had been subjected to threatening calls. The latest incident occurred Friday at about 9:15 pm, Jordan reported. Unlike the first incident, when a loud explosion drew both the Jordan family and their neighbors outdoors, last Friday’s “bomb” only produced a flash fire, not an explosion, Jordan said. Jordan said he has no idea why he has been singled out. “Our neighbors are very friendly,” he said. “I’d be astounded if it turned out to be any of them.”

Such was the magnitude of Jordan’s magneticism, allure, scholarship, independence of mind and courage. It brought him the attention of bigots even beyond the borders of his motherland. He, WEB Du Bois and poet laureate SEK Mqhayi were the intellectual icons of the 20th century – exemplars of the great tradition of the syncretism between scholarship and political activism.

The magnificent and selfless role that Jordan played during his illustrious career is perhaps best encapsulated in the following words contained in Cornel West’s groundbreaking book Race Matters, in which he pays homage to Du Bois:

For Du Bois, the glorious life of the mind was a highly disciplined way of life and an intensely demanding way of struggle that facilitated transit between his study and the streets; whereas present-day black scholars tend to be mere academicians, narrowly confined to specialized disciplines with little sense of the broader life of the mind and hardly any engagement with battles in the streets. (West 1993:40)

It was perhaps Jordan’s “engagement with battles in the streets” that led to the bombing of his home at the University of Wisconsin – yet despite all those kinds of threats to his life he did not abdicate his responsibilities to the broader society. His scholarship and unrelenting activism attest to the notion that wisdom and courage are not conflicting values.


The author discovered the poem “Open the door” by AC Jordan at the University of Fort Hare’s National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) in a box marked “Creative Writing and Translation”. It does not appear in any publication.

Capital Times. 1967. African Scholar Fire Bomb Target. September 26, 1967. (Newspaper clip accessed at the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) University of Fort Hare in a box containing AC Jordan’s writings, marked “miscellaneous”).
Chomsky, N. 2011. The Responsibility of Intellectuals. Boston Review, vol 10–11.
Couzens, T and L White (eds). 1984. Literature and Society in South Africa. New York: Longman.
Du Bois, WEB. 1990. The Souls of Black Folk. United States New York: Vintage. Books
Langston, Ed. Hughes 1963. Poems from Black Africa.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Jordan, AC. 1940. Ingqumbo Yeminyanya. Alice: Lovedale Press.
—. 1954. Presidential address delivered at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Cape
African Teachers’ Association, Peacock Hall, East London, 23–25 June 1954.
—. 1963. You tell me to sit quiet. In Hughes (ed) 1963.
—. 1964. To Zambia. Africa Today, 11(9):9.
—. 1966. Practical Course in Xhosa. Cape Town: Longmans South Africa.
—. 1972. Towards an African Literature: The Emergence of Literary Form in
Xhosa. California: University of California Press.
—. 1973. Tales from Southern Africa. London: University of California Press. Ltd.
—. 1980. The Wrath of the Ancestors. Alice: Lovedale Press.
Mzamane, MV. 1984. The Uses of Traditional Oral Forms in Black South African
Literature. In Couzens and White (eds) 1984.
Ntantala, P. 2009. A Life’s Mosaic. Johannesburg: Jacana.
Scheub, H. 1968. Teacher. The South African Outlook. December 1968, p 193.
Wa Thiong’o, N. 1993. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Currey.
West, C. 1993. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pictures: http://udadisi.blogspot.com/2011/02/remembering-ac-jordan-with-cas-at-uct.html

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