Retired Mthatha attorney Mda Mda, who enrolled for a law degree at UCT in 1944, is this year's recipient of the President of Convocation Medal, awarded annually to an alumnus who has contributed to the common good.
At 92, Mda Mda has a memory like an elephant.
He remembers the upset over Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Abyssinia, Africa's last 'free country', as the year is still pegged in his mind.
He was a grade 7 pupil at Lovedale College (whose famous alumni include Steve Biko, ZK Matthews, Govan Mbeki, Tiyo Soga, Charles Nqakula and King Sobhuza II) and about to embark on the last phase of his schooling.
He'd had “the very good fortune” of being born to Simeon and Leah (nee Mzimba) in the rural village of Ncambedlana, near Mthatha – both good scholars and from whom he no doubt inherited his attentive and enquiring mind.
Mda matriculated from Lovedale in 1940 and recalls those formative years keenly, particularly a young English teacher who infused a love of history in the young Mda. He was deeply disappointed when she returned to Britain because of the war.
“History was my special delight,” he says.
In 1941 Mda signed up for a BA with majors in history and native administration at Fort Hare. The formality of university life surprised him; here he was called “Mr Mda”, academic excellence was “number one”, a residence curfew of 8pm was strictly enforced, and there was no intoxicating drink allowed. Neither was there any politics on campus.
“I left Fort Hare politically illiterate,” he says.
But by the time Mda graduated in 1943, he had been afforded another gift: the discovery of books and the thrill of “delving deeply” into the library.
“I was particularly interested in imperialist and colonial laws.”
However, the young Mda, who practised as an attorney for some 49 years, almost missed out on a legal career.
After graduating from Fort Hare he completed a diploma in education to become a teacher. But his father persuaded him to take up law instead.
To do so he travelled south to UCT and enrolled in the law faculty for an LLB degree in 1944.
But because of the length and structure of the degree and personal circumstances, he was unable to complete this qualification at UCT.
He was living in Langa at the time and classes were held at the old Union House in Queen Victoria Street in town. Travelling via tram and train had become a burden and he was also acutely aware of being a drain on his father's resources.
He later moved to student lodgings in District Six, hoping to study part-time while teaching in Langa.
“It was not easy,” he says. “I had to write home frequently for money. I felt it was selfish to take another degree.”
And while he later persuaded a Fort Hare lecturer to allow him to do non-degree law courses through that institution, he realised his dream of becoming an advocate was vanishing.
Nonetheless, two years later Mda persuaded local Mthatha firm Gush Muggleston & Heathcore to take him on as an articled clerk. It was an unsatisfactory experience. He shared the 'native office' with an interpreter and a messenger.
“I had no access to the library and I was not taught anything.”
But he did manage to pass articles. And so after six years Mda left the firm to start practising as an attorney in Mqanduli, a small town nearby.
If his route to law had been complicated, starting a practice was unnerving.
“I'd never been given a single case. I'd never been in a court, I'd never seen a Supreme Court summons and I had to pass the attorney's admission exams. I resorted to the library. And because of what I'd learnt in my time at UCT, I was able to pass that easily.”
In his personal life things were changing too. In 1954 Mda married Dorothy, a teacher in Mthatha, and they had five daughters and a son, the last-born.
Early political alliance
Although Mda had come out of Fort Hare politically illiterate, one of the pivotal events in the early years of his career was his involvement in 1944 in the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). The development was to shape his thinking, political beliefs and actions.
Chroniclers of South African history have perhaps consigned the NEUM, which had been launched in 1943, to a dusty shelf in the annals. Made up of members who were teachers, writers, and intellectuals, the NEUM made a significant, if not forgotten, contribution to the country's liberation struggle.
It was the first organisation in South Africa to adopt non-racialism, rejecting the notion of different human races and African 'inferiority' propounded under apartheid. The movement was also committed to non-collaboration with the apartheid government.
In fact, NEUM's ten-point programme preceded the ANC's Freedom Charter by 12 years.
“Many believed the Freedom Charter was an imitation of the ten-point programme,” said Mda.
The movement had put out a declaration after the first Nationalist government was voted in: “It was something like: 'We, the people of Transkei reject the nefarious policy of apartheid',” he says. “There were no dissensions. We spoke with one voice.
“We had decided that the government must be told that we in the Transkei rejected this policy. We sent delegates to Pretoria as representatives of the Native Representative Council. Pretoria was shocked at these tame and compliant natives of the Transkei delivering this ultimatum.”
But the ultimatum had other consequences. It was the start, says Mda, of a “new breed of civil servants” – information officers appointed to be part of the propaganda machine.
Life after law
Mda's long legal career was centred on criminal and native law. He practised as an attorney until his retirement in 2001. But even at 92, he remains active in the law fraternity as an advisor and mentor and a well-respected member of his community.
“I've become an armchair theorist and critic,” he quips, preferring instead the rewards of keeping cattle and growing vegetables at the home he shares with his daughter near Mthatha.
“This Xhosa boy likes cattle and the garden,” he says, lamenting the scarcity of rain in the Eastern Cape. This morning, the heat has driven him indoors.
Given his many years, Mda is philosophical: “The heart wants to do these things, but where is the strength?”
Mda will turn 93 on 25 March next year. A love of books (“With my books, I never experienced solitude”) has accompanied him tenderly into his latter years, “though I received so many on my 90th birthday, I'm still trying to get through them all!”
He was last in the Mother City in June this year, for his eldest daughter's 60th birthday, and looks forward to returning to UCT this month to revive old memories. It will be graduation season (truncated after the rescheduling of exams following a gritty period of student protest); a time of victory and celebration.
But Mda has a message for the students.
“I'd like our youth to be more serious. There is so much that needs to be done in South Africa because of the legacy of the past. It behoves us to do a lot of cleaning up of the Augean Stables of apartheid.
“And there is much to be done to recover the lost years. It's a heavy burden for this generation.”
He pauses to reflect.
“Everything is upside down.”
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