South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Dr. Alfred Bitini (A.B.) Xuma

(1893 - 1962)

Alfred Bitini Xuma was born in 1893 into an aristocratic Xhosa family in the Transkei, and rose from humble beginnings to the position of President of the African National Congress (ANC).

After completing his primary school education, Xuma went on to study teaching at the Pietermaritzburg Training Institute and then taught at various schools in the Eastern Cape before leaving South Africa in 1913 to study medicine in the United States. Upon qualifying as a medical doctor, he decided to continue his studies in Britain, where he became the first Black South African to graduate with a Ph.D from the London School of Tropical Medicine. Xuma returned to South Africa in 1928 to practice as a physician in Johannesburg, but he soon became involved in political activities.

He married Priscilla Mason (from Liberia in West Africa) in 1931, but she died three years later while giving birth to their second child. In 1940, he married Madie Beatrice Hall in Cape Town.

Xuma’s freelance activities during the early 1930’s revolved around the organization of opposition to the removal of Blacks from the Cape franchise and led to his election as Vice-President of the All-African Convention (AAC) in 1935 and as President of the ANC in 1940. He inherited an organization in disarray and set out to rebuild the ANC against great opposition. Under his leadership, the ANC constitution was revised and the organization became more efficient and centralized, thus attracting a wider following.

In 1943, Xuma and the ANC’s Atlantic Charter Committee produced a politically significant document entitled African Claims, which charted the path to racial equality in South Africa that they hoped would follow the conclusion of the Second World War. In 1946, Xuma travelled to New York as an unofficial delegate to the United Nations, where he lobbied successfully against the South African Government’s plans to incorporate South West Africa (Namibia) into the Union.
In conjunction with his efforts to revitalize the ANC, Xuma strove towards unity among the various protest groups and organizations against apartheid. He reached a working understanding with the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) and on 9 March 1947 signed A Joint Declaration of Cooperation, also known as the ‘Doctor’s Pact’, with G.M.Naicker from the Natal Indian Congress and Yusuf Dadoo from the Transvaal Indian Congress. This declaration formed the foundation of the newly forged united front between Indians and Africans, but Xuma’s actions met with some opposition. When more conservative members of the ANC complained that the Indians were ‘shrewd’ and might dominate the ANC, Dr Xuma retorted: ‘if you cannot meet the next man on an equal footing without fearing him, there is something wrong with you. You are accepting a position of inferiority to him.”

Essentially a moderate and a conservative, Xuma found himself more and more under pressure from the militant element within the ANC – and the ANC Youth League in particular – who demanded radical action and a closer association with the South African Communist Party (SACP). Following the National Party’s 1948 election victory, the pressure turned into mutiny and Xuma was ousted as ANC President and replaced by Dr. J.S. Moroka. Xuma died at Baragwanath Hospital, Johannesburg, in 1962.


African National Congress (n.d.).Alfred Bitini Xuma ANC President (1940-1949), ( (Accessed 4 March 2004).
Joyce, P. (1999). A concise dictionary of South African biography, Cape Town: Francolin Publishers.
Saunders, C. and Southey, N. (1998). A dictionary of South African history, Cape Town: David Philip.

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH