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Tiyo Soga (1829 - 1871)

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Tiyo Soga (1829 - 1871) Awarded for:
Exceptional contribution to literature and the struggle for social change.

Profile of Tiyo Soga

The pioneering African intellectual Tiyo Soga was born in the Eastern Cape in 1829. His mother was Nosuthu and his father, Jotello Soga, was a chief counsellor to the paramount chief of the amaXhosa, Chief Ngqika.

Soga attended mission school where his distinctive quality was recognised by the missionary, William Chalmers, who arranged for him to write the entrance examination to Lovedale Seminary in 1844.

Soga was dismayed in the examination by a simple subtraction problem on the board. However, Chalmers convinced the head of Lovedale, William Govan, to admit Soga, who later proved himself, coming out among the top three in virtually all his subjects.

In 1846, the 'War of the Axe' broke out along the frontier in the Eastern Cape and Soga took refuge with his mother at Fort Armstrong, continuing to study at night by firelight. William Govan decided to return to Scotland and took Soga with him to further his opportunities.

Soga, who is said to have been decisively converted to Christianity as a young boy as a result of a spiritual experience he had in Sunday school, was baptised in Scotland in 1848.

He returned to the Eastern Cape and from 1849 worked as a catechist and evangelist before going back to Scotland to study theology.

Soga graduated from Glasgow University with a theology degree at the age of 27 and was admitted to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in 1856, the first African to achieve this.

In 1857, he married a Scotswoman, Janet Burnside. They had seven children.

Before his death in 1871, he instructed his children, some of whom he wanted to be educated in Scotland, never to be ashamed that their father was African.

'It is every whit as good and as pure as that which flows in the veins of my fairer brethren', he wrote.

He called on his children to cherish the memory of their mother as an 'upright, conscientious, thrifty, Christian Scotswoman'.

'You will ever be thankful for your connection by this tie with the white race', he instructed them.

Soga also expressed a sense of internationalism regarding the shared destiny of all Africans, including the diaspora.

On his return journey to South Africa in 1857, he wrote what has now become the earliest known journal by a black South African.

Soga recorded fables, proverbs, legends, the genealogy of chiefs and folklore, and he loved composing hymns. He worked tirelessly - teaching, preaching, writing - to the detriment of his health, and contracted tuberculosis (TB) in 1866.

However, he still worked on an epic translation of John Bunyan's classic allegorical novel, Pilgrim's Progress, adapting the story to fit the experience of the Xhosa people, and making it the most important literary influence in 19th century South Africa after the Bible.

Two years later he was appointed to the board to revise the Xhosa translation of the Bible, to which he made a vital contribution. However, Soga did not live to see its publication. He died of TB at Tutura near Butterworth in 1871 at the age of 42.

Rev RHW Shepherd, a later principal of Lovedale, wrote in 1941 that Tiyo Soga was in the prime of his life but worn out by 'incessant labour' on behalf of his countrymen.

Soga is considered by many to be the first major modern African intellectual.

On the basis of the intellectual tradition Soga helped to establish, South Africa's national liberation movement evolved to birth in 1912. He was among the first Christian leaders to assert the right of Africans to freedom and equality.

Tiyo Soga was a great African intellectual; a pioneer journalist, translator and hymn composer; and the first black South African to become an ordained church minister.

In 1871, Soga died in the arms of his friend, the missionary Richard Ross, with his mother at his side.

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