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Bantu Men's Social Centre

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Bantu Men's Social Centre

The Bantu Men's Social Centre, founded in 1924 in Johannesburg, South Africa, played social, political, and cultural roles in the lives of black South Africans.


  • History 1
    • Library 1.1
    • Cultural and Political Impact 1.2
  • Members and workers 2
  • See also 3
  • Note 4
  • References 5
  • Bibliography 6


The Bantu Men's Social Centre was started by Rev. Ray E. Phillips (1889–1967) of the American Board Mission in central Johannesburg for recreational activities by black South Africans. Phillips was a Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work (1941), of which he was the director. The Hofmeyr School provided training for black social workers, among whom was Winnie Madikizela, before her marriage to Nelson Mandela.[1] Political activists like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu (1912–2003) were members of the Bantu Men's Social Centre, and the African National Congress's Youth League was started on its premises in 1944.[2]

The Social Centre was located at 1 Eloff Street[3] at the edge of Johannesburg's central business district, among car dealerships and cheap food stores. Apart from a gymnasium, the Social Centre building featured a stage.[4] Next door was Dorkay House, a former clothing factory and eventual home to the South African Union of Artists (later known as Union Artists).[4]

From the 1920s Richard Victor Selope Thema[5] served as superintendent of the Social Centre, resigning in 1932 when he was appointed editor of The Bantu World.[6] The patrons of the Men's Social Centre included Howard Pim, after whom the Soweto suburb of Pimville was named. Pim was also involved in the Institute of Race Relations, the Bantu Sports Club, the Bridgeman Memorial Hospital (now the Garden City Clinic, Mayfair), and the South African Native College (University of Fort Hare) in Alice, in the Eastern Cape.[3] J.R. Rathebe, the first full-time secretary of the Bantu Men's Social Centre, paid tribute to Pim at his funeral in 1934.[7] Prior to Rathebe's appointment in 1932, the Social Centre's management committee was white (Cobley 1997:137-40).


A library for black South Africans existed at the Social Centre from at least 1929. Although dormant by 1931, the library was revived in June 1932 by stock from the Carnegie Non-European Library Service, hosted at Germiston. In 1937 Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo became the Librarian-Organiser of the Library Service. He was also a member of the Social Centre. The library at first consisted of a bookcase in the lounge, which was expanded by 1934 to over 200 books. Members had to pay a deposit of more than a day's wage to borrow books.[8] Seminal South African author Peter Abrahams (b. 1919) worked at the Social Centre in 1937. In his autobiography, Abrahams remembered encountering books in the Social Centre library that would help form his own writing. One of the first he found was W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk.[9] Black women were also allowed to check out books, although few did, given the nature of the Social Centre as a male dominion.[10] From December 1939 the library was stocked and staffed by the Johannesburg municipality. The Bantu Men's Social Centre library was now open to all black residents of Johannesburg, free of charge. Soon the library had gained over a thousand members who could borrow from more than three thousand books, periodicals, and newspaper files.[8]

In 1935 Emmanuel Lithebe was appointed as a black assistant secretary; he met with Ralph Bunche in 1937. Bunche was an African-American scholar and Nobel laureate (1950) who visited the Social Centre during his three-month journey through South Africa (1937–38).[11] Lithebe was replaced by Julius Malie in 1939, the same year that A.P. Khutlang was appointed as physical director (Cobley 1997:137-40).

Cultural and Political Impact

Various plays were presented to a variety of audiences on the Social Centre's stage. In 1938, for example, Dhlomo presented Moshoeshoe, a drama about the baSotho king,[12] performed in English. A large racially-mixed audience watched the all African cast that included Dhlomo. The Mayor of Johannesburg and several committee members of the Non-European Library Service were among those in attendance.[13]

In 1944 the African National Congress' Youth League was formed at the Bantu Men's Social Centre, with The Bantu World, then under leadership of Social Centre alumnus Selope Thema.

A farewell concert was held at the Social Centre in 1956 for Father Trevor Huddleston, the missionary priest of Sophiatown.[18]

Sport also received attention at the Social Centre, which hosted not only a boxing club, but also several fights. Alumni of the Bantu Men's Social Centre Boxing Club included Theo Mthembu, who became a professional boxer in 1948. Mthembu received the Order of Ikhamanga[19] (silver) in 2004 from the South African government for his contributions towards non-racial sport.[20]

South Africa's first black African landscape painter, Moses Tladi, also frequented the Social Centre during the post-War period.[3]

In 1958 Athol Fugard's No-Good Friday was performed, showing for the first time the reality of black South Africans. Fugard held auditions at the Bantu Men's Social Centre which drew only males, who were either members of the Centre or musicians from Union Artists.[21] The cast included Fugard, who also directed, and first-time actors Stephen Moloi, Connie Mabaso, Dan Poho, Ken Gampu, Zakes Mokae, Preddie Ramphele, Bloke Modisane, and Gladys Sibisi.[22] The African Feeding Fund, through its white chairman, Hugh Tatham, was the sponsor. The audience comprised mostly black Africans. The only whites present were Tatham and his committee, actor and critic Bill Brewer, and acting teacher Benedicta Bonnacorsi.[23]

On 8 June 1959 Fugard's Nongogo was performed by a cast comprising Cornelius Mabaso, David Phetoe, Solomon Rachilo, Thandi Khumalo and Zakes Mokae.[24][25] The significance of Fugard's racially-mixed plays at the Social Centre is that at the time other theatre venues prohibited racially-mixed casts.[26]

The Social Centre offered performances and training in jazz and classical music in the late 1950s. One room held a number of gramophones which members could listen and practice music to.[27] Eric Gallo, chair of Gallo Africa record company, donated musical instruments to the Social Centre.

Apart from events for black South Africans, the Social Centre was also used for a while for meetings by Johannesburg's Quakers (Society of Friends), who were mostly a white expatriate group. They were anxious to meet in places where blacks could attend without harassment. Howard Pim was one of the Quakers.[28]

Alan Cobley (1997) relates that membership declined during the apartheid era. In line with the Group Areas Act the Bantu Men's Social Centre was forced to close on 31 December 1971. The West Rand Administration Board occupied the building from 1973. Appeals by the Centre's executive committee for a building in Soweto fell on deaf ears. The Bantu Men's Social Centre issued its final report in 1975.

Members and workers

Peter Abrahams, Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo, Anton Lambede, Nelson Mandela, J.R. Rathebe, Walter Sisulu, Richard Victor Selope Thema, Rev J.Mdelwa Hlongwane , Paul Mosaka, Merafe, Musi

See also


  • "Bantu" literally means "people." Because it was used extensively by state officials and in state departments overseeing the implementation of apartheid, "Bantu" achieved a pejorative value in South Africa, where it is seldom (if ever) used today. Originally the word referred to a system of related languages distributed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, all of which use "-ntu-" (as in abantu, umuntu).


  1. ^
  2. ^ Nelson Mandela and the Rainbow of Culture
  3. ^ a b c Unisa Online – caccia
  4. ^ a b The apprenticeship years – Athol Fugard Issue | Twentieth Century Literature | Find Articles at
  5. ^
  6. ^ Richard Victor Selope Thema
  7. ^ HistoryOfFirm.indd
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^
  10. ^ Workshop on South Africa in the 1940s
  11. ^ H-Net Review: Sibongiseni Mkhize on An African American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J Bunche, 28 September 1937-1 January 1938
  12. ^
  13. ^ World Libraries: The Pioneers: Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo and the Development of Library Service to the African in South Africa
  14. ^ Ellen Kuzwayo | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited
  15. ^ 18 May 2002 – Walter Sisulu celebrates 90th birthday
  16. ^
  17. ^ The Times – Interact with us
  18. ^ Crossing boundaries: the genesis of the township plays – Athol Fugard Issue | Twentieth Century Literature | Find Articles at
  19. ^ About government – The Order of Ikhamanga
  20. ^ About Government – National Orders
  21. ^ The apprenticeship years – Athol Fugard Issue | Twentieth Century Literature | Find Articles at
  22. ^ The apprenticeship years – Athol Fugard Issue | Twentieth Century Literature | Find Articles at
  23. ^ The apprenticeship years – Athol Fugard Issue | Twentieth Century Literature | Find Articles at
  24. ^
  25. ^ Crossing boundaries: the genesis of the township plays – Athol Fugard Issue | Twentieth Century Literature | Find Articles at
  26. ^ The apprenticeship years – Athol Fugard Issue | Twentieth Century Literature | Find Articles at
  27. ^ Cultural Analysis, Volume 3, 2002: Covers, Copies, and "Colo[u]redness" in Postwar Cape Town / Carol Ann Muller
  28. ^
  • Fugard, Sheila The apprenticeship years, Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993.


  • Cobley, Alan. The Rules of the Game – Struggles in Black Recreation and Social Welfare Policy in South Africa, 1997.
  • Iris Berger, "From Ethnography to Social Welfare. Ray Phillips and Representations of Urban Women in South Africa", Social Sciences and Missions (Leiden Brill), N°19/December 2006, pp.91–116
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