ONE of the first ANC leaders from the Eastern Cape, James Njongwe, played a leading role in the defiance of apartheid in the 1950s and firmly placed the province at the forefront of the liberation struggle.
Although he eventually lost the race to lead the party to Chief Albert Luthuli, Njongwe’s leadership as president of the Cape ANC and chief organiser of the defiance campaign in the province made him a national asset in the fight for freedom.
During his tenure, membership soared in both urban and rural areas of the Eastern Cape.
The first black medical doctor to open a practice in Port Elizabeth, Njongwe was one of two Africans to earn medical degrees from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1945.
He was born in Qumbu in the former Transkei in 1919 and earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Fort Hare before attending Wits. He later moved to Red Location in Port Elizabeth and became the first black person to establish a surgery – in Commercial Road in Sidwell.
Enoch Weni, who lives in Red Location and was a member of the ANC Youth League at the time, recalls: “Doctor Njongwe lived here in a house in Ncaphayi Street but his surgery was based at Commercial Road in Dasi [Sidwell].
“When he came here [to PE] he joined the ANC and was always found in the company of Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and Vuyisile Mini…
“Those were true political leaders not lomgquba [run-of-the-mill politicians] like we have today.”
In December 1952, Njongwe was seen as a strong contender to succeed James Moroka as presidentgeneral, but Luthuli beat him to the coveted post.
In 1954, Njongwe was banned and forced to resign from his position in the ANC as he was not allowed to attend gatherings.
Battling poor health and financial problems, he left Port Elizabeth and re-established his medical practice in Matatiele in the former Transkei.
And while he was not arrested, Njongwe was named as a co-conspirator in the Treason Trial and was jailed for some time in East London during the national state of emergency declared after the Sharpville Massacre in 1960.
During the emergency, all public meetings of more than three people were banned.
Njongwe died in 1976.