Cecil John Rhodes, the AmaMpondo King

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The tragic accidental death of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes from a fast short ball which struck him on the neck has been lamented around the world.  Such incidents are so rare as to be considered freakish.  Yet a similar incident occurred in South Africa in 1901 when a 38-year-old attorney Edward Jones, batting for Kokstad Cricket Club was struck by on the chest by a fast ball.  His funeral “was the largest seen in Kokstad”, with both black and white mourners in their thousands gathering to weep at the untimely death of a remarkable young man.

The exceptional and improbable throng was because Jones had lived in the same manner in which he died: by being involved in improbable, exceptional and freakish life vs death situations in his devotion to seeking justice for the oppressed.  Nicknamed uNgangomntwana (he who is as small as a child) because of his diminutive physical stature, it seems that whatever disadvantage this brought him on a cricket field, in his professional life it gave him an unexpected psychological advantage over the “Goliath’s” who lacked his strategic legal mind and nimble aim.  

The main reason for the large attendance at his funeral was because he had achieved a stunningly improbable victory in 1895 in the Cape Supreme Court which had massive political and historic ramifications.  It is a story of how a diminutive canny lawyer, a prudent African King and a wise Christian missionary managed to get the first legal bridle on an increasingly hubristic, despotic and powerful man – Cape Prime Minister Cecil John Rhodes.

Jones had difficulty in finding an advocate to argue the case in court because almost every lawyer in Cape Town saw victory as exceedingly unlikely. It wasn’t just because he was up against the richest and most powerful man in Africa but that he was representing the King of amaMpondo King Sigcau ka Mqikela, whom Rhodes had arbitrarily imprisoned in the implementation of his policy of “oriental despotism in dealing with uncivilised natives”.  However this irresistible force was up against and the immovable object of the amaMpondo, jealous to retain as much autonomy as possible. They were the last indigenous people of the region to finally capitulate to Colonial rule but only because they lacked the firepower to match the maxim machine guns available to Rhodes military forces. 

Intoxicated by power Rhodes could not appreciate that while power may force people to submit, it can never force them to cooperate.

After a year of steadily deteriorating relations Rhodes ordered King Sigcau’s arrest. Had the Weslayan missionary to Pondoland Rev Peter Hargreaves not managed to persuade the King and his chiefs to trust themselves to British Liberal justice and hand himself over for arrest, another bloody massacre would have ensued.

With King Sigcau in prison Hargreaves brokered the legal services of Eddie Jones to find a way of securing the King’s release by recourse to the Cape Supreme Court.  Jones hurried to Cape Town but all the leading advocates thought he would lose, except Henry Juta, who agreed to represent Sigcau.

A full bench presided over by the Chief Justice Henry De Villiers heard the case, concluding “the Governor has, I must repeat it, arrested, condemned and sentenced an individual without the intervention of any tribunal, without alleging any necessity for such a proceeding, without first altering the general law to meet the case of that individual, and without giving him any opportunity of being heard in self-defence. The proclamation does not even specify the particular offence of which he has been guilty”.

He concluded by saying, ‘I believe justice meted out with an equal hand to all tends more to keep peace in the country than anything else’. The Chief Justice declared the Governor’s proclamation to be ultra vires and ordered Sigcau’s release.  When the news reached Kokstad the military guards were withdrawn and the King released amid scenes of great jubilation.

Besides the freakish accidental cause of Jones premature death, and the highly improbable court victory, the story has several additional aspects to add to the intrigue. Most perplexing of all is the circumstances surrounding it’s telling.

The Great Sigcau Case (as it is known) was first related to me orally by Sinegugu Zukulu, who then facilitated my introduction to King Sigcau’s hereditary successor King Justice Mpondombini Sigcau who contributed fascinating details passed down to him in oral tradition, which added significant insight and detail to the formal recorded history.  Engaged in his own legal battle with the ostensible successor to Rhodes, President Jacob Zuma, King Mpondombini Sigcau took great confidence from the success of his ancestor over Rhodes.  In fact our final conversation took place two weeks after the Constitutional Court heard his appeal against President Zuma’s decision to depose him in favour of a nephew Zanuzuko Sigcau – who had sold out to the ambitions of an Australian mining company to mine the coastal dunes of the Pondoland Wild Coast, and Sanral CEO Nazir Alli’s intent to reroute the N2 to bisect the Kingdom of Mpondo and tame the Wild Coast.  King Sigcau was confident that the principled commitment to truth and justice shown by his ancestor to ultimately triumph over Rhodes unprincipled obsession with money and power would likewise ensure his triumph over that same obsession in President Jacob Zuma.

King Sigcau did indeed win his case.  Tragically he was not present in court to hear the judgement for he had died unexpectedly two months before the judgement was handed down. 

* The full story of this remarkable episode of history is told in fine detail in my book The Promise of Justice: King Justice Mpondombini Sigcau’s struggle to save the Kingdom of Mpondo from unjust developments.

About John GI Clarke

John Clarke hopes to write the wrongs of the world, informed by his experience as a social worker and theologian, to actualise fundamental human rights and satisfy fundamental human needs.  He has lived in the urbanised concentration of Johannesburg, but has worked mainly in the rural reaches of the Wild Coast for the past decade.  From having paid a fortune in toll fees he believes he has earned the right to be critical of Sanral and other extractive institutions, and has not held back while supporting Sustaining the Wild Coast (www.swc.org.za), the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (www.safcei.org.za) and the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (www.outa.co.za), in various ways.