Skip to main content Accessibility help

Potlako Leballo – the Man Who Hurried to Meet his Destiny

  • Joel Bolnick (a1)

This is an account of the early life of a widely regarded hero of resistance in South Africa who constantly betrayed the absurdity, the hypocrisy, and the staggering human frailty of the modern leader. In later years Potlako Kitchener Leballo also gained renown as a mesmerising orator who lived to dramatise, to command the centre of attention, to captivate listeners with impassioned stories. Having grown up in a world of oral culture it is not surprising that he expressed himself best in the spoken rather than the written word. Leballo's autobiographical sketches, which have been recorded piecemeal by numerous authors, are festooned with exaggerations, illusions, and ambiguities. However, he was an intelligent fabricator of information, with a talent for fitting a story into its appropriate context. This alone makes him an exciting subject for a biography, since the reconstruction of his life and its links to the social structure provide stiff tests for the sleuthing and analytical skills of the researcher.

Hide All

1 Most biographical data on Leballo's early childhood is derived from Leeman, Bernard, Lesotho and the Struggle for Azania (London, 1985), and Gerhart, Gail, Black Power in South Africa (Berkeley, 1978).

2 Quoted in Coplan, David, ‘In the Time of Cannibals: Basotho working class aurature and the meaning of Sesotho’, African Studies, University of Cape Town, 1989, p. 5.

3 Letter from Leballo to Bull, O. B., 14 May 1947; correspondence re. Lovedale riots, Cory Library, Grahamstown.

4 Cf. Grundlingh, Albert, Fighting Their Own War (Johannesburg, 1987).

5 Karis, Thomas and Carter, Gwendolen, Gerhart, Gail and Leeman, Bernard all interviewed Leballo – none of them in depth.

6 Compiled from Leballo's Record of Service and other documents in his personal file; South African Defence Force (S.A.D.F.) Archives, Pretoria. This is where the army correspondence hereinafter cited is also located.

7 War Diaries, W 31a 40.

8 Ibid. SW/1/2/ 10.

9 Native Military Corps (N.M.C.) 5672, National Armed Service (N.A.S.), 38/4/2, memorandum from the Office of the Director of the Non-European Armed Services (N.E.A.S.), dated 20 November 1940.

10 Vane, Michael, ‘Snobbery Under Arms’, in Springs Advertiser (Transvaal), 10 1943.

11 By an ironic twist of history, back in South Africa the Italian prisoners-of-war were put to work building roads over similarly almost-impassable areas while being guarded by soldiers from the Cape Coloured Corps and the N.M.C., armed only with assegais and knobkierries.

12 The Cape Times (Cape Town), 5 08 to 2 09 1941, reported as many as 177 civilian deaths as a result of Blitzkriegs in Egypt's canal zone.

13 For positions of various battalions, see Orpen, Neil, War in the Desert (Cape Town, 1971).

14 Middle East Censorship Summary, N.A.S. 6/42, N.M.C. 22.

15 Ibid.

16 See Karis, Thomas and Carter, Gwendolen M. (eds.), From Protest to Challenge. A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882–1964, Vol. 4, Political Profiles, 1882–1964 (Stanford, 1977), pp. 54–5.

17 AG(PW), Box 118.

18 Ibid. Box 119, O(1)B 12/1 (8149).

19 Letter from the Directorate of Demobilisation of Non-European Armed Services to U.D.F. Administrative Headquarters, December 1942; ibid.

20 Leeman, , op. cit. p. 67.

21 After 18 months of perseverance this writer was finally given access to Leballo's personal file. It was a disappointment as well as a revelation to discover that there was no mention of mutinies, courts martial, or reprieves in what is perhaps the most authoritative text on a soldier's official conduct.

22 Leeman, , op. cit. p. 65, quotes a military adviser of the Indian High Commission in London as saying that there was evidence to corroborate the fact that such an ‘incident’ did take place.

23 Letter from Colonel Stubbs to Beyers, General, dated 15 March 1943; N.A.S. 3/36/4 N28 A1.

24 Letter from 107 S.A. Res. M.T. Coy. to Sub-Area Commander, Daua, Dire, dated 26 May 1941; N.A.S. 3/36/1 N25.

25 Letter from Native Commissioner, Sekukuniland, to Colonel Stubbs, dated 26 January 1944; N.A.S. 3/36/4 N28 A1.

26 Letter from Stubbs to Magistrate, Winburg, dated 7 July 1941; N.A.S. 3/4/1, N.M.C. 43.

27 Letter from Leballo to Governor-General's War Fund, dated 28 April 1941; N.A.S. 3/4/2 N.H.C.I.

28 See Lovedale documentation, Cory Library, Grahamstown, MS 16453 A(1).

29 Letter from Students to Principal of Lovedale College; ibid. B(2).

30 Ibid. A(2).

31 Letter from Kerr to Shepherd, dated 17 December 1946; ibid. A(5).

32 Letter from Leballo to Shepherd, dated 2 September 1946; ibid. A(2).

33 Ibid. At least a hundred of the questionnaires have been preserved in this collection, with not a scrap of incriminating evidence in any of them.

34 Letter from June Phuti to Shepherd, dated 19 August 1946; ibid. B(2).

35 Letter from Titus Maqubela to Shepherd, dated 21 August 1946; ibid. K.

36 Shepherd's own notes of interview with Bokwe; ibid. A(3).

37 Plaatje, Sol, Native Life in South Africa (Johannesburg, 1982), p. 136.

38 South African Outlook (Lovedale), 10 1945.

39 Letter from Leballo to Shepherd, dated 28 September 1946; MS 16453 A(2).

40 Unsigned telegram to Principal of Lovedale, dated 8 December 1946; ibid.

41 Letter from Shepherd to Leballo, dated 9 October 1946; ibid.

42 Letter from Leballo to Shepherd, dated 19 October 1946; ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Letter from Leballo to Shepherd, dated 5 November 1946; ibid. A(3).

45 Letter from Shepherd to Leballo, dated 7 November 1946; ibid.

46 Letter from Leballo to Shepherd, dated 19 November 1946; ibid.

47 Ibid.

48 Memorandum from Shepherd to Leballo, dated 2 December 1946; ibid. A(5).

49 Letter from Leballo to Shepherd, dated 18 December 1986; ibid.

50 Interview with Pitje, Godfrey, November 1988.

51 Memorandum from Bull to Leballo, dated 23 June 1947; MS 16453 A(6).

52 Letter from Leballo to Shepherd, dated 18 October 1947; ibid.

53 Letter from Director-General of Demobilisation to the Principal of Lovedale Missionary Institution, dated 30 March 1948; ibid. A(7).

54 Letter from Shepherd to Director-General of Demobilisation, dated 5 April 1948; ibid.

55 Letter from Rajuili to Shepherd, dated 14 April 1948; ibid.

56 It was on this occasion that Leballo, in an act of bravado, warned the South African Government that hundreds of thousands of P.A.C.-trained militants were going to stage a bloody insurrection, and that they were awaiting his order to ‘deliver the blow’. Leballo's folly triggered a nationwide crackdown that resulted in thousands of arbitrary arrests. See Lodge, Tom, Insurrection in South Africa: the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Poqo movement, 1959–1965’, Ph.D. thesis, p. 296.

* Under the auspices of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, Pretoria. Potlako roughly translates as ‘One who is in a hurry’, Leballo as ‘Destiny’.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Modern African Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-278X
  • EISSN: 1469-7777
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-modern-african-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed