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James Sebe Moroka (1891-1985)

Medical doctor and President of the African National Congress from 1949 to 1952.

James Sebe Moroka

Dr James Sebe Moroka was born on 16 March 1891 in Thaba 'Nchu. He attended the Wesleyan Church school in the Ratlou village, and then the Lovedale Institute in Alice in the Eastern Cape, where he met a Mr MacDonald, a church minister from Scotland. MacDonald was planning to educate young black students in Scotland, and although Moroka’s parents were not initially keen to send him overseas, MacDonald convinced them that it would be a great opportunity for their son.

Obtaining some money by leasing out the farm he had inherited from his grandmother, Moroka left Cape Town for Southampton in 1911 on the Caledonian Castle, under the care of MacDonald.

The University

James Sebe Moroka on graduation day
Dr James Sebe Moroka on the day of his graduation from the University of Edinburgh

Settling in Edinburgh, Moroka was examined at a local school to ascertain his level of education, and the results showed that he did not have the knowledge necessary to be accepted at medical school. So he was given a kind of ‘crash course’ by local tutors. It lasted for two years, after which Moroka passed the relevant tests, and was able to enrol at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.

Moroka excelled at the University and passed his final exam in 1918 with ease. After graduating, he worked for a short time in England, before returning to South Africa.


With financial and practical help from both his mother and fellow Edinburgh graduate James Reid (who was working in Bloemfontein), Moroka was able to set up his own practice in his hometown of Thaba 'Nchu,  serving both black and white communities. 

In 1933, Moroka decided to return to Europe to pursue postgraduate study in Vienna, and after three years he qualified as a surgeon. But having again returned to South Africa, he was never able to put his training to use as the colour bar laws of the time prevented him from working at the only available facilities in Bloemfontein's main hospital.

Moroka’s practice flourished, however, with both white and black patients consulting him, and the pull of Moroka's professional abilities offset the white patients’ racial prejudices. While at first a few white patients visited him at night, their numbers increased later.

Moroka also helped secure a site for the Moroka Missionary Hospital in Thaba 'Nchu, now known as the Moroka Community Hospital. This was the only training hospital for black people in the Orange Free State. 


Moroka’s political career began in the 1930s when he became involved in the black resistance against the Natives Trust and Land Bill, which sought to limit black ownership of land outside the reserves, and the Representation of Natives Bill, which sought to remove black voters from the common voters’ roll.

The All African Convention (AAC) formed to oppose these laws, and Moroka attended the first meeting, held in Bloemfontein, in December 1935. There, he made a stand against the bills and his militant reputation led to him being elected as treasurer of the AAC as well as member of the 1936 AAC delegation to the government to convey African feeling regarding the draft bills. He also took part in the Native Representative Council (NRC), which was formed as a result of the new legislation, believing that its hypocrisy could be exposed by denouncing it from within.

Moroka in the ANC

Moroka’s involvement with the African National Congress (ANC) began in 1942, while he was a member of the AAC. The two organisations were closely linked and often worked together, although they just as often found themselves in competition - a fact that both reinvigorated black politics in South Africa, and fragmented it. 

The ANC was headed by AB Xuma, but when the more radical ANC Youth League (ANCYL) was formed in the mid-1940s (which included Nelson Mandela) his leadership became at odds with the new thinking and direction that the younger members wanted the ANC to take. The ANCYL drew up a new Programme of Action and put it to members in the provinces. With the recent success of the National Party and the beginnings of apartheid, the new radical approach was quickly accepted as official party policy. A weakened Xuma was replaced by Moroka, who had endorsed the Programme in its entirety. 

As president

During Moroka’s three-year presidency, the ANC, now dominated by the radicals of the ANCYL, became a more militant organisation, and Moroka found it challenging to exercise authority. He also was far removed from the political arena at Witwatersand, since he was still based in Thaba 'Nchu. He did, however, preside over one of the ANC's most active and effective phases, and established working relationships with other militant organisations, such as the Communist Party of South Africa and the South Indian Miltiary Congress.

Despite this, however, it was also a period of increasing tensions not only in South Africa, but within the ANC itself. Several campaigns and protests had made the leadership, including Moroka, symbols of militant resistance against the government, and in 1952 Moroka was convicted of "statutory communism" according to the Suppression of Communism Act with 20 other defendants. During the trial Moroka pleaded for mitigation and rejected ANC's principles of racial equality, and he was soon expelled from the party.

Afterwards, he carried on his medical practice until retiring in 1976, and sometimes gave public support to political initiatives and protests. The father of ten children with his wife Susan Motshumi, he died in 1985.

Additional source

South African History Online

Related links

Centre of African Studies