AC Jordan - academic pioneer and torchbearer for African languages

14 December 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Archibald Campbell ("AC") Mzolisa Jordan.
Archibald Campbell ("AC") Mzolisa Jordan.

Archibald Campbell ("AC") Mzolisa Jordan is described variously in the annals as a professor, author, scholar, writer, linguist, literary critic, poet, musician, humanist, nationalist, freedom fighter, revolutionary and gentleman.

But it is as an academic pioneer and torchbearer for African scholarship and African literature and linguistics that he is remembered and his legacy is being honoured at UCT by renaming the Arts Block the AC Jordan Building.

Jordan is remembered in UCT history as the institution's first black African lecturer, appointed in 1946 in the aftermath of the Second World War when the colonialist grip on the continent was beginning to loosen.

In South Africa in the mid-1940s, black urbanisation was on rise and the growth of black organisations birthed new trade unions, such as the African Mineworkers Union, to challenge the country's cheap labour system.

When Jordan took up his senior lectureship in the School of African Studies the student corps included returning WWII servicemen, many who'd interrupted their studies to enlist.

In this dominantly white community, both English and Afrikaans, Jordan was to make his mark as a writer and scholar of isiXhosa and other vernacular black languages.

In 1956 be became the first black African scholar at UCT to obtain a PhD. His thesis, A Phonological and Grammatical Study of Literary Xhosa, won the coveted Vilakazi Memorial Prize for Literature by the University of the Witwatersrand for the most meritorious contribution to isiNguni literature.

But rewind to 1906, the year Jordan was born on Mbokothwana Mission Station in the Tsolo district of the Eastern Cape, where his father was an Anglican minister. After completing his primary and secondary education, Jordan won a scholarship to Fort Hare University College where he obtained a teacher's diploma in 1932 and BA degree in 1934.

Then followed a 10-year teaching stint at Kroonstad High School in the Free State when he mastered Sesotho and was elected president of the Orange Free State African Teachers' Association. He also started publishing poetry in the Imvo Zabantsundu newspaper.

In 1940 he began working on the novel that was to become a landmark in Xhosa literature, Ingqumbo Yeminyanya (The Wrath of the Ancestors), an epic about the conflict between Western-style education and traditional beliefs. He later translated this into English and it was later translated into Afrikaans and Dutch.

In 1942 he submitted his master's thesis on the phonetic and grammatical structure of the Bhaca language to UCT.

In 1945 Jordan accepted a teaching post in the Department of African Languages at the University of Fort Hare, following the retirement of Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu.

It was a short-lived association; in 1946 he came to UCT as a senior lecturer, a career that lasted until 1962. According to his wife, Phyllis, Jordan was criticised for leaving Fort Hare for UCT. His response was:

“I am going to UCT to open that [UCT] door and keep it ajar, so that our people too can come in. UCT on African soil belongs to us too. UCT can and never will be a true university until it admits us too, the children of the soil. I am going there to open that door and keep it ajar.”

But politics interfered with scholarship. In 1960 Jordan was awarded a Carnegie Travelling Scholarship but denied a passport. He went into exile in 1962, a final denouncement of apartheid and particularly the introduction of Bantu Education at tertiary level, through the ironically named Extension of Universities Act of 1959.

Jordan sought residence in Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika), the United Kingdom and the United States. In 1962 he taught at the University of California Los Angeles and the following year was appointed to a professorship at the University of Wisconsin where he taught African languages (“the only teacher known to be teaching his native language outside South Africa”) until his untimely death in 1968. He was 61.

But Jordan's name and voice continued through his literary works. In addition to The Wrath of the Ancestors he published a critical study of Xhosa literature in 1972. Three of his books were published after his death: Kwezo Mpindo zeTsitsa; an English translation of his anthology of short stories: Tales from Southern Africa (1973); and Towards an African Literature: The emergence of literary form in Xhosa (1973.)

At UCT his legacy was not forgotten.

In 1993 the AC Jordan Chair in African Studies was established to provide meaningful study of Africa by integrating African Studies into research, teaching and learning at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in UCT's faculties.

Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza, chair and director of the Centre for African Studies, said the move paved the way for UCT to be a leader in developing Africa's intellectual resources by promoting African studies not only across disciplines and faculties at UCT, but the rest of the continent as well.

The current mission of the AC Jordan Chair is thus to champion the integration of African studies into research, teaching and learning at undergraduate and postgraduate levels within the university's various faculties. This focus permeates the Afropolitan strategic drive and in the work of, among others, the UCT's School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics, or AXL, and in the Centre for African Language Diversity, CALDi.

In 2005 the South African government honoured AC Jordan for exceptional contributions to literature by posthumously awarding him the Order of Ikhamanga (Gold).


  • US Library of Congress
  • Howard Phillips, The University of Cape Town 1918-1948: The formative years
  • South African History Online
  • Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza, chair and director of the Centre for African Studies, UCT,

Story by Helen Swingler. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.