James Calata was an Anglican clergyman and African nationalist. He was born in Rabula, near Keiskammahoek, on 22 June 1895, the son of James and Eliza Calata of the Ngqika tribe. His father was a Presbyterian and his mother Anglican. His father was an uneducated farmer, but his mother had reached Standard 4 and practiced as a midwife (Verwey 1995, 36).
Calata was a student at St. Matthew’s College, Keiskammahoek, from 1911 to 1914. He then spent four years at the same college as a teaching assistant. He married Malltha Mary in 1918 but continued with his studies. From 1919 to 1921 he trained for the ministry under Canon Benyon and was ordained a deacon (Letter 1973). He served first at Korsten in Port Elizabeth and then between 1926 and 1928 at St. Ninian’s Mission, Somerset East, where he was ordained into the priesthood of the Anglican Church.
In 1928 he was sent to St. James Mission, Cradock, where he remained until he retired in 1968. He lived in the township of Lingelihle just outside Cradock. Although St. James Mission served a large area, Calata found time to be involved in a number of activities. He traveled all over the district and, apart from his work at Cradock, visited outstations, supervised the work of 30 lay preachers and, until 1953 when the Bantu Education Act removed authority for mission schools from the churches, he also supervised six schools. His interest in the schools led to Calata organizing meetings in each township to discuss parental control of the pupils (A 1729/A 3.1-3/2). He also became the head of the African Parents’ Association. In this capacity in the 1940s he was asked to intervene when there were riots at St. Matthew’s College (where his daughter Mary was involved) and at Lovedale.
His work with young people led to Calata’s involvement with the Pathfinders ~ the African Boy Scouts. From 1933 to 1960 he took a leading role as district pathfinder master for the Eastern Cape (A 1729/B6.1).
Calata’s health was never robust. From April to August 1933 he was hospitalized at a sanatorium in Nelspoort, Cape Province. He suffered from tuberculosis and the after-effects of the infection would plague him for the rest of his life. While he was in the sanatorium, he kept a careful diary of the state of his health and the small events that made up the fabric of his day. By July he was well enough to be allowed to work in the kitchen and by August he was ‘on the road to complete recovery’ (Diary).
Calata was a central figure in the social and political life of the Eastern Cape. Another of his interests was the Order of St. Ntsikana, a Xhosa society dedicated to the memory of the first Christian Xhosa, which had been founded in 1912. From 1938 Calata became the president of the Order.
Calata’s political activities were rooted in his Christian faith. He was an African nationalist who desired African unity. To this end he participated in the Joint Councils of Europeans and Africans in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1930 Calata joined the African National Congress when the Cradock Vigilance Association became a branch of that organization. From 1930 to 1949 he was President of the Cape branch of the ANC. In 1935 he was elected chaplin of the organization. When he became secretary-general he worked with two ANC presidents ~ Z. R. Mahabane (1937 ~ 1940) and A. B. Xuma (1940 ~ 1949). Calata was instrumental in getting Xuma elected as President because he saw that Xuma would be able to attract more educated people to the movement.
But Calata also worked for unity in the church. In 1938 Calata wrote to the South African Outlook and said: ‘Congress (ANC) calls upon all African ministers, whether they are in separatist or in so-called “white churches” to establish African Ministers’ Associations and Fraternals with a view to forming in future a Federal Council of African churches as a step towards reunion.’ His interest in the united African church was first aroused in 1939. The question of a national church was even discussed by the ANC. Three years later D. D. T. Jabavu made an appeal for a ‘national church’ as the white church authorities were so slow to ordain black ministers. Calata approached the subject within his own Anglican Church with little success.
Calata became the leader of the Cape Midlands Interdenominational African Ministers Association. In 1950 at a meeting in Port Elizabeth he told the delegates that ‘one of main reasons for this organization is that we as African ministers should establish a central mouthpiece to the Government and other leading bodies.’ (B6.3. 1950) Calata also believed that ‘the Church was the only uniting force for a multi-racial citizenship’. He was convinced that most Africans wanted a national church that would be truly African.
Calata was banned at the time of the Defiance Campaign in 1952, although he was later allowed to continue conducting services. In 1956 he was arrested at the time of the treason trials and was imprisoned for a short while before being acquitted. His license to marry and permission to keep communion wine were withdrawn. During the 1960s he was restricted to the Cradock district. His political life affected his church life. He had learned about racial discrimination in the church as early as 1943 when he was short-listed for the bishopric of St. Johns but was not chosen for the job. He remained at Cradock for the rest of his career.
Calata retired from the ministry in 1968 when his banning order expired. When he died in June 1983 5000 mourners followed his coffin which was draped with an ANC flag.
J. A. Millard
Calata papers A 1729 (B 6.1 and B 6.3) CPSA Archives, Johannesburg.
Calata. Diary (Unpublished) CPSA Archives, 1933.
Cobley, A. “The ‘African National Church’: Self-determination and Political Struggle Among Black Christians in South Africa to 1948.” Church History, 60 (3), 1991.
The South African Outlook 1938:60.
Verwey, E. New Dictionary of South African Biography. Pretoria: HSRC, 1996.
Walshe, P. The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa. Johannesburg: A.D. Donker, 1987.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from Malihambe - Let the Word Spread, copyright © 1999, by J. A. Millard, Unisa Press, Pretoria, South Africa. All rights reserved.