A tribute to the late Dr. Phyllis Priscilla Ntantala-Jordan

4 Aug 2016 - 11:45

The University of Cape Town was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Phyllis Priscilla “Nogqaza” Ntantala-Jordan in Michigan (USA) on Sunday, 17 July 2016. She was 96 years old.

Dr Ntantala-Jordan was born on 7 January 1920 at Gqubeni, along the bends of the Nqabarha River, eDutywa. She started her schooling at the tender age of four years. Six months later, she lost her mother. On her 12th year, she went to Healdtown to do her Junior Certificate. Healdtown was highly recommended to her father over Lovedale by her primary school principal. At the age of 15 years, she proceeded to the then South African Native College (Fort Hare) for matric. At the time, Fort Hare, although offering degrees, admitted students for matric studies. After completing her matric, she continued her studies at Fort Hare and completed a teachers’ diploma in 1937.

After discussions with her father about whether she should go back to Fort Hare to complete her degree or teach for at least a year, they agreed on the latter. A teaching opportunity presented itself in February 1938, at the Bantu High School in Kroonstad in the then Orange Free State, now Free State.

One of the teachers at the Bantu High School was A.C. Jordan, her future husband. However, this was not the first time that the two were meeting. They first met at Fort Hare, when Dr Ntantala-Jordan started her studies at Fort Hare and A.C. Jordan was a senior student at the same university. As early as then, A.C. Jordan “showed interest in” his future wife. In her autobiography, Dr Ntantala-Jordan recalls her reaction to his proposal as follows:

I was shocked. Such an old man! Did he think I was meant for an old man? I wasted no time. I told him to forget it. He left me alone. He was much older; had been out in the field, teaching; had come back to further his education and he was one of the senior students at Fort Hare. I was only seventeen and a freshman (sic) (1992: 72).

Despite this determined rebuff, A.C. Jordan did not give up. In fact, it turned out that A.C. Jordan was instrumental in the recruitment of Dr Ntantala-Jordan as teacher at the Bantu High School. Born on 30 October 1906, he was a good 13 years older than his future wife. His patience and persistence paid dividends when after their brief encounter at Fort Hare and on the third year of teaching together they tied the knot in 1939, enjoying a marriage which was brought to an untimely end with the death in the US of A.C. Jordan in 1968.

Following the appointment of A.C. Jordan in 1945 as lecturer of Bantu Languages at Fort Hare, the Jordan’s, then with two children and a third on the way, left Kroonstad for the Eastern Cape. Dr Ntantala-Jordan’s account of human relations at Fort Hare on their return is scathing. She described the “few Africans who taught on the staff at Fort Hare” as “the most frightened people I ever had the misfortune to meet. They were not happy about the discrimination there, but they spoke of it in whispers, for fear of losing their jobs”. (1992: 122). Her view with respect to students was that they “were a reflection of the staff” (1992: 123).

However, their stay at Fort Hare was short-lived. In 1946, A.C. Jordan moved with his family to Cape Town after he successfully applied for a lectureship in Bantu Languages at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he remained until he resigned and left on an exit permit in 1962. According to his wife, Jordan was criticised for his decision to leave Fort Hare University for UCT. His retort to the criticism was, according to his wife, spelt out in the following terms:

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 will never 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.

One of the beneficiaries was to be none other than his own wife. In 1957, Dr Ntantala-Jordan registered at UCT for a Higher Diploma in Native Law and Administration. She spent two years of study towards the Diploma but never completed it. She would later obtain qualifications from the University of South Africa, the Madison Area Technical College as well as an honorary Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Fort Hare.

In Cape Town, A.C. Jordan found accommodation at Moshesh Avenue in the Langa location. At the time, his family was still in the Eastern Cape. When his family joined him, Dr Ntantala-Jordan immediately expressed her dislike for locations. According to her, she did not like living in the location even when they were in Kroonstad. However, compared to conditions in Langa, she found that in Kroonstad, conditions were much better. For example, while they stayed in a location in Kroonstad, their “house was not like the one next to it … it had its own stamp and individuality” (1992: 128). Yet, in Langa, “the people (were) reduced to the same common denominator”, something that made her conclude that she “could not imagine” her “children growing up in that atmosphere” (1992: 128-9).

When challenged by her husband about what she thought about the people who lived in the locations, her response was: “Joe, I am not the other people, I have never been and I am not going to begin now” (1992: 129). In the final analysis, the Jordans started looking for a place in the suburbs of Cape Town. They eventually found and bought lot 83 from one “European”, Guttman, in Fleur Street, Lincoln Estate, Crawford. In May 1947 construction started and they moved in during August 1947. They immediately named their residence: “Thabisano”, meaning “a place of mutual rejoicing” (1992: 135).

Was the rejection of staying in the location snobbish and a display of elitism on the part of Dr Ntantala-Jordan? This is not how she saw things. To understand her perspective, one has to understand her background and politics.

In her autobiography, Dr Ntantala-Jordan described herself as coming from an affluent family, “a family of landed gentry in the Transkei”. This to her, it seems, set the standard for descent living and she would accept nothing less than this. In her eyes, locations typified the “them” and “us” divide. They were instruments of oppression and control, confining people “not only physically but also mentally” (1992: 129). This is what informed her refusal to live in locations.

Dr Ntantala-Jordan was, by the time she went to Cape Town, alert of the dangers of elitism. She, in her words, “understood some of the reasons behind promoting an elite among the African people and why the first graduates of Fort Hare were so elitist in their attitudes”. Although conscious that she was “born and brought up in that milieu”, she imagined that it was possible to “shed those attitudes and involve myself in the struggles of my people (1992: 121).

For Dr Ntantala-Jordan, it was “my experience in the Orange Free State that really roused to anger my social consciousness” (1992: 116, emphasis mine). However, according to her, it was in Cape Town where she was to “gain a true analysis of the South African situation” (1992: 124). During her first five years in Cape Town, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, while she was raising their children, she “was busy with political work and in the Cape African Teachers’ Association” (1992: 137). The burning issues in the early 1950s in particular that occupied the Cape African Teachers’ Association (CATA) revolved around the condemnation of the Group Areas Act of 1950, the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951, and the Bantu Education Act of 1953. CATA, by the 1950s was under the political influence of the Non-European Unity Movement which adhered to “Boycott as a weapon of struggle”.

When in 1957, Dr Ntantala-Jordan was requested to contribute an article for a magazine called Africa South on “African women”, she chose to write about the “other women whom nobody ever hears about, whose story had never been told, because they are not the `pillars’ of their societies”. According to her, these “were some of the girls I had grown up with, now married and living the lives of widows, as their menfolk were away in the cities” (1992: 164). Her second article in this magazine was entitled “The Widows of the Reserves”.

At the same time, in light of developments in the rural areas of the former Bantustans where there was resistance against the limitation of stock and the imposition of chiefs and headmen under the provision of the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951, Dr Ntantala-Jordan was requested to translate a pamphlet that had been authored by I.B. Tabata of the Non-European Movement entitled: The Boycott as a Weapon of Struggle”. The isiXhosa version of the pamphlet was, according to Dr Ntantala-Jordan, “adopted” by villagers in the Transkei “as their bible” (1992: 167).

The above is a clear demonstration of how Dr Ntantala-Jordan tried to “shed” her elitist “attitudes and involve” herself “in the struggles of” her “people”.

Political developments in the late 1950s and early 1960s under the apartheid regime put pressure on many South Africans who were opposed to apartheid. For purposes of this tribute, three are worth highlighting: the introduction of the Group Areas Act of 1950; the Extension of Universities Act of 1959 and state repression following the Sharpeville and Langa protests of 21 March 1960. The implications of these Acts and the countrywide clampdown of political opposition to apartheid in the early 1960s imposed a heavy burden on the Jordan’s culminating in them taking the decision of taking an exit permit. This effectively rendered them exiles, never to come back home. Their remains are now rested on foreign soils in the United States of America.

The Group Areas Act presented the possibility that the Jordan’s would be forced to reside in the locations that Dr Ntantala-Jordan so much disliked. The Extension of Universities Act had the consequence that their children, with an isiXhosa background, would be forced to study at the University of Fort Hare, rather than the renowned UCT. Finally, following the declaration of the State of emergency as a result of the Sharpeville and Langa protests of 21 March 1960, there was general harassment of blacks. A.C Jordan happened to be one of the victims, having been arrested and assaulted on the 4th of April 1960, five days after the declaration of the State of Emergency. Against this background, it is understandable the Jordans ended up in exile.

The first steps towards life in exile began when early in 1961 A.C. Jordan was awarded a Carnegie Travel Grant to visit universities and colleges in America. When he was denied a passport, he opted for an exit permit. His family followed him in 1962 and they ended up in the United States of America where, as already indicated, they and their two children are laid to rest.

Dr. Ntantala-Jordan was indeed an eminent intellectual, an author and an outspoken political activist. She translated into English her husband’s novel, Ingqumbo Yeminyanya, spoke at a number of public lectures, authored essays, articles and above all wrote her celebrated autobiography: A Life’s Mosaic: The Autobiography of PHYLLIS NTANTALA.

Dr Ntantala-Jordan has paid a glowing tribute to her husband for her own intellectual development. This is what she has written:

Life with A.C. was an intellectual life and he involved me in his intellectual pursuits. As colleagues and friends, he encouraged me, stimulated me and, as he grew, I grew with him. In the end we were not just husband and wife, but intellectual friends and colleagues. For this I’ll forever be grateful (1992: 77).

As part of honouring the legacy of A.C. Jordan, UCT in 1993 named the Chair of African Studies after his name and in 2015 renamed the Arts Block in the Faculty of Humanities the AC Jordan Building. In both instances, the blessings of Dr Ntantala-Jordan were duly sought. Upon granting permission for naming the Chair in African Studies after her husband, Dr Ntantala-Jordan had this to say in her letter 30 September 1993 addressed to Dr Mamphela Rampela, then Deputy Vice Chancellor at UCT:

My children and I feel flattered that this chair, designed to draw distinguished academics and scholars from all over the world, should be named after A.C., a scholar who devoted his whole life to the pursuit of knowledge. It is an honour he justly deserves, not only through his long association with U.C.T. School of African Studies, but also because of his scholarstic contribution to Languages and Literature in Europe and the U.S.A.

She went further:

It is our hope and wish that through this chair and under this program will be born a new healthy understanding of Africa and her peoples and through that, the acceptance of the universality of Man (sic).

She concluded the letter with these memorable words: “Yours in the cause of African freedom and liberation”.

Dr. Ntantala-Jordan was laid to rest at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, Wisconsin on Saturday 30th July 2016. At her request, she was buried next to her husband. She is survived by her only remaining son, South African politician and former Cabinet Minister Zweledinga Pallo Jordan, her adopted daughter Agatha Ninzi and her grandchildren Thuli, Samantha, Margaret and Nandipha.

This tribute to Dr. Phyllis Priscilla Ntantala-Jordan was compiled by Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza, who is the AC Jordan Chair in the Centre for African Studies. The Centre is located within the Faculty of Humanities, at the University of Cape Town. Vist: www.africanstudies.uct.ac.za

*Unless stated otherwise, quotation are taken from her autobiography: A Life’s Mosaic: The Autobiography of PHYLLIS NTANTALA, published by Mayibuye, 1992. E-mail correspondence with Lungisile Ntsebeza, 16 April 2012. See also www.africanstudies.uct.ac.za