From Community Memory
The life and times of Sibusisiwe Violet Makhanya (1894-1971)
Sibusisiwe Violet Makhanya was a pioneer social worker, who received acclaim both locally and abroad for her innovative social welfare programmes among the community of Umbumbulu. She was born at Umbumbulu, a village to the south of Durban, on the 4 October 1894, the eldest of seven children. Her father was Nxele Jeremiah, a cousin (brother) of the then ruling Chief Mthambo Makhanya. Other children after Sibusisiwe were Qonda, Tyson, Franck Babane, Gilbert, Constance Nte and Virginia. Her mother was Nomagqoka, a Maphumulo from Umzinyathi in the Inanda district. Her mother had been one of the first students at Inanda Seminary, when it was run by the first Principal, Mrs Mary K. Edwards, an American missionary. Sibusisiwe received her primary education at Umbumbulu, her high school education at Inanda Seminary, and trained as a teacher at Adams College.
From her years of living with Americans at Inanda grew her longing to study in their homeland. Dr Charles Loram, the then Director of Native Education in Natal knew of this and of her ability. A commission from the Phelps Stokes Foundation in the USA was studying Native Education in South Africa (as well as in the rest of Africa) and he appealed to them for help. They offered her a fellowship to study rural education and social work in the USA. Dr John Dube of Ohlange encouraged her to accept, and her parents supported her with their consent.
The Phelps Stokes Foundation sent her first to Penn School in South Carolina, a rural situation perhaps comparable to Umbumbulu, then for six months to Tuskegee. It was of course after the time of Booker T. Washington and his wife, but the educational and community work they had established there impressed Sibusisiwe deeply.
After the first year of study, Sibusisiwe felt that she had not yet gained all that she had come for. Instead of returning to SA she travelled to Cleveland, Ohio, where she studied for a year at a college of Religious and Social Education. Having no money, she paid her expenses by cleaning classrooms and toilets. She further raised funds by giving talks at meetings telling about Zulu ways and singing the songs of her people.
However, she felt that the social studies at the college were inadequate for the situation at home, so the following year she went to study under a famous authority, Dr Mabel Carney, Professor of Rural Sociology and Psychology at Columbia University, New York. By speaking to women’s groups, in this way, through fees and gifts, she made the money for her year of study in New York. Through introductions from Cleveland, she gave talks to church organizations on Zulu ways and customs, and spoke of the work she planned to do. She met a number of influential and distinguished people, some of whom formed an American Committee for the financial support of the Bantu Youth League, which she planned to establish in South Africa. Dr John Dube agreed to be Chairman of the South African Committee. In February 1930 Sibusisiwe left by ship to return home, having been away for about three years.
Community work in Umbumbulu
She organized conferences, which were held at Umbumbulu in her small building, to interest social workers from elsewhere in the type of work she was propagating. Her father – who stood behind her in all her work until the end of his life – obtained a suitable piece of ground and on this, with the help of various skilled workers, Sibusisiwe’s house was built in 1934. Large enough for herself, guests and meetings, it still stands today (1989), adjoining the Sibusisiwe High School, which bears her name.
Financial assistance from the USA began to fail, and it soon became clear that the SA Committee of the League, too, could not support widespread activities. It was decided to concentrate on Umbumbulu, to disband the Bantu Youth League and in its place to form the Umbumbulu Community Centre. Dr Dube continued to encourage her. For financial support, Sibusisiwe approached as many influential people as possible, and was surprised by the amount of help that was forthcoming. The night school for the herd boys continued at the new premises, in spite of shortage of funds.
Friendship with Lucy Johnston
In 1935, a certain Lea Ndlovu introduced Sibusisiwe to Mrs Lucy Johnston of Cato Road, who was interested in Child Welfare Work in Durban. She came to South Africa as a Nursing Sister in 1906 from Oxford and worked in Durban and Mooi River, later returning to England to marry Dr Gerald Johnston, with whom she resided in London. In 1935, when her husband retired, they settled in Durban, where she was introduced to Sibusisiwe Makhanya. She admired her work and they eventually became close friends.
The following year (1936), Mrs Lucy Johnston came to Umbumbulu to address a conference of community workers. She was deeply impressed by Sibusisiwe’s work, and on leaving, gave her £25.00 (R50.00), saying: “I cannot do the wonderful work you are doing in this community. But won’t you permit me to have a small share in it? Please use this offering to buy sports equipment for the boys and food for the evening meals.” This was the beginning of the generous help and concern of this gracious lady, who became one of the staunchest supporters of the work of the Council.
Lucy Johnston Hall
As the Centre developed and flourished, the house and outbuildings became inadequate for its work. The Council acquired adjoining land and Sibusisiwe embarked on collecting funds for building. At this time, early 1955, Mrs Lucy Johnston died, leaving £5 000 (R10 000) for the Centre. This enabled building to be undertaken. It was decided that this should take a form suitable for a secondary school, so that it could be used for this as well as for community activities. Durban architects drew the plans without charge, the community helped bring stones for the foundations. Many people helped with money and skills in many ways – “Over £500 were donated to the building fund by some 30 business firms, organizations and individuals”. Mr F Hallowes, then District Inspector of schools, lead the foundation stone on 24 April 1955, Lucy Johnston Hall was opened by the State Under-Secretary for Native Affairs.
The school housed in this building was first called the Umbumbulu Secondary School. Within a few months the education department renamed it the Sibusisiwe Secondary School. The numbers at the night school increased to 81. An adult education committee was formed. The reputation of the Council’s work grew and visitors came to observe it.
The night school remained her chief and oldest love. Many boys who became fine men had received their start there. She was deeply sad when, some time in the 1960’s, the Government closed it, decreeing that all children must go to day school and the cattle must be kept in fenced areas so as not to need attention. The Lucy Johnston Hall was her pride. When visitors came she would take them to see it and the students would sing for them.
In the late 1960’s Sibusisiwe’s health waned. She was now over 70. The Government decreed the Africanisation of the Council. The loyal, trusted Council members became old and struggled to keep it going, feeling their efforts hindered by restrictions on Whites. Sibusisiwe was ill from time to time and it was clear that she was failing. When she died on 23 September 1971, an era passed away. What of the future of Sibusisiwe’s work? In the absence of Fr. Walter Buhl C.M.M. who was away on holiday in Germany, the Holy Mass was said in Lucy Johnston Hall by Fr. Mensuet Biyase (now the Bishop of Eshowe), assisted by the late Fr. Emmanuel Shangase, who was then at Esigodini Pastoral Centre in Pietermaritzburg, and Fr. James Dlamini of St Magdalene’s Mission at Umbogintwini. Lucy Johnston Hall was her last place of departure from the Community Centre to the Hilltop Cemetery of the United Congregational church at Umbumbulu.
Founders and Funders of Sibusisiwe High School, 1954-2004 - Golden Jubilee Edition by RK Myeza, Principal (1982-1989).
Sibusisiwe Makhanya biography by MR Malherbe and M Towbridge. Durban: Killie Campbell Africana Library, 1972.