The Inseparable Three


In a letter dated 07-07-1983 Nimrod Njabulo Ndebele writes: “I have three originals of Sekoto’s paintings which I bought from him just before he left for Paris”[1]. The paintings have hung on the living room walls of all Nimrod Ndebele’s abodes from when he purchased them before he married in 1943, and thereafter. He lived in Pietersburg, Sophiatown, Western Native Township, Charterston, and Duduza (both satellite Locations of the town of Nigel). He also displayed them in his living room for the years that he lived in Dennilton, Limpopo when he was an inspector of schools in the Middleburg District Circuit. Altogether the three artworks have been in private, home display for about eighty years. In that time they featured in one major exhibition. They have certainly been a part of my emotional sense of home from childhood to the present.

The three Gerard Sekoto artworks together resonate with biographical, educational, social, economic, and political meanings which are not only encoded within them, but also resonate beyond them. The background of their creation must include the convergence of four remarkable young African men in their twenties at Khaiso Secondary School, Pietersburg (Polokwane) in the 1930s as teachers. They were Nimrod Ndebele (teacher and playwright); Gerard Sekoto (teacher and artist); Ernest Mancoba (teacher and artist); and L P Makenna (teacher). They thrived in an intellectual environment they moulded seemingly with little effort beyond the energy generated by the natural ferment of interacting talents.

Nimrod Njabulo Ndebele, who tells the story of this unlikely, marvellous convergence of talent was born on 12 October 1913 in Senyotong, in Lesotho where his father, Reverend Walter Mbalekwa Ndebele (1886) did missionary work for the Christian Catholic Church of Zion. Ndebele’s birth was however registered in Ladysmith in the vicinity of his father’s birth place at eMangweni in Greenpoint, in the hinterland of Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal.

Growing up in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, Ndebele attended St. Peter’s Secondary School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, between 1929-1931; Amanzimtoti (Adams’) College, 1933-1934, where he earned a teaching certificate and began teaching at Khaiso Secondary School, 1935-1945. There, as teacher and dramatist, he began what was arguably the most creative time of his life, writing several plays in Sesotho and IsiZulu. His one-act play, UGubudele naMazimuzimu (1941), made history as the first published play in isiZulu. It won the Ester May Competition for Drama in 1937. Significantly, in the same year Sekoto received second prize for Art, while George Pemba won the first prize. In 1948 Ndebele graduated with a B.A. degree majoring in Zulu and Political Science, after registering as a part-time student at the University of the Witwatersrand.[2]

Khaiso Secondary School is described by Ndebele as “the second school after St. Peter’s in Rosetteville in Johannesburg to have secondary school education (presumably for Africans) in the Transvaal”. The convergence of the four men at Khaiso was almost certainly as a result of their respective pursuits of opportunity. One yielded opportunity was the remarkable intellectual camaraderie among the four men. Of this relationship with his three fellow teachers at Khaiso Secondary School, Ndebele expresses a “a debt of gratitude” to Ernest Mancoba “in that he improved our way of thinking about life in general. He held definite and strong views on social and political matters. He was an unflinching Marxist and he made no apologies for that. In those days, the mid-thirties, when life appeared less worldly than now (1983) he gave us the shock of our lives when he bluntly flung this at us: that he did not believe in the existence of God.”[3]

While Gerald Sekoto painted, and Mancoba sculpted, Nimrod Ndebele wrote and produced plays in some of which Makenna, Sekoto, and Mancoba performed. He remembers in this regard that “we discovered our artists to be good actors in drama”.

Similarly, Sekoto remembers: “There were only three people whom I allowed to peep into my work as I was painting: Louis Makenna, Nimrod Ndebele and Ernest Mancoba, because with these three I had confidence that they looked with interest, not merely out of curiosity.” [4] Both Mancoba and Sekoto won scholarships to develop their art in France, where they won international repute.

Embedded in these three artworks is a wonderful sense of historical moment, and a special relationship among friends that was as emotionally mutual as it was supportive, professional, intellectual, and artistic. They are a significant national asset.

Njabulo S Ndebele

Cape Town, 07.08. 2022

[1] Nimrod Ndebele. Letter to M. Figlan. 07 July 1983

[2] Nimrod Ndebele.Letter to H.K.P. Hegelman. 24 March 1983.

[3] Ibid. Letter to M. Figlan

[4] Barbara Lindop. Gerard Sekoto. (Mona de Beer, editor). Randburg: Dictum, 1988. p.17

[Photographer unknown. Published in A Black Man Called Sekoto, written by Prof N Chabani Manganyi.]