Tabata I.B.

Biographical Summary

It is the noble task of each generation to leave behind a worthy heritage for its young and those still unborn

Isaac Bangani Tabata, known simply as IB or “Tabby” to his comrades, was a giant in intellect, an indefatigable and revolutionary politician, an outstanding orator and a skilled, analytical writer. He earned the respect of friend and foe alike and the loss of his active contribution to the struggle is tempered only by the tremendous legacy of his life’s work.

He was born in Bailey, near Queenstown in the Cape and was educated at Lovedale and Fort Hare University College. His political career started in earnest shortly after he came to Cape Town in 1934. He became a student of Marxism-Leninism and was initially active in the African Voters Association. Together with Jane Gool, whom he later married, and her brother, Dr Goolam Gool, he made a significant contribution to the ideological direction taken by the All African Convention (AAC) which was born in response to the 1935 Land Acts and the disfranchisement of Africans in the Cape. This was rejected by the ANC as being too radical and after its withdrawal from the AAC Tabata worked tirelessly to build a new leadership. In 1943 the AAC joined with the Anti-CAD to establish the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM), now known as the Unity Movement of South Africa (UMSA). The career of Tabata is indistinguishable from the cause of the UMSA to which he dedicated his life.

The Unity Movement was the first organisation to formulate a coherent programme of political demands – its Ten Point Programme which demands full political rights for all and which also calls for a fundamental resolution to the problem of the grossly inequitable land ownership and usage rights in South Africa. It also formulated and propagated the policy of Non-Collaboration with the oppressor. Tabata traced the origin and development of the political struggle in South Africa and explained the significance of the Unity Movement in his first major work: “The Awakening of a People” (1950). The approach and theory of the Unity Movement is further developed in his other two early works: “The Rehabilitation Scheme – a New Fraud” (1951) and “The Boycott as Weapon of Struggle” (1952).

Tabata was much more than a writer and a theoretician. In the forties he was actively engaged in organising resistance to the Rehabilitation Scheme in the Transkei. This led to his arrest in Mount Ayliff in 1948. So much did the peasantry identify with the message that he brought to them that his trial and acquittal served only to galvanise the spirit of resistance which spread throughout the rural areas and continued into the sixties. Some of the strongest support for the Unity Movement stemmed from these struggles.

In 1956 he became the first African leader to receive a 5-year banning order and after the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act he was one of the first persons listed which effectively banned all his writings. In 1961 he was instrumental in the formation of the African People’s Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA) which was the first organisation to give paramountcy to the political interests of the working class and the peasantry and he became its first president. In 1963 Tabata and other members of the leadership went into exile to seek recognition and support for the Unity Movement and the struggle in South Africa. He was elected President of the UMSA in 1964 which office he held ever since.

During his life in exile he travelled extensively, propagating the cause of APDUSA and the UMSA. In the course of these activities he addressed a meeting of the OAU and submitted various memoranda with the main purpose of establishing a clear understanding of the problem in South Africa. His efforts to gain recognition for the UMSA were systematically thwarted by those in the OAU who feared that UMSA’s aim was to take the struggle beyond the neo-colonialist phase. On the occasion of the 1971 APDUSA trial he also addressed The United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid, once more stressing the importance of clarity on the nature of the political problem in South Africa.

While in exile he continued with his penetrating, analytical writings. Two compilations of these have been published – “The Imperialist Conspiracy in Africa” (1974) and “Apartheid Cosmetics Exposed” (1985) Besides these, he is well known for his book “Education for Barbarism” (1959) and other important works such as “The PAC Venture in Perspective” (1960) and the “Letter to Mandela – 1948” published in 1965.

With the re-establishment of APDUSA as a fully fledged national organisation in July this year Tabata, was once more elected as its president. Tabata always displayed great interest in the youth and in his work he was strongly governed by the desire to leave a worthhwile legacy to the new generations. In his last years he noted with pride the ideological and organisational resurgence of the UMSA, especially in the swelling ranks of APDUSA and APDYM with members of the youth. Using one of the many Xhosa aphorisms which he could do with such telling effect he remarked “A flock without its young is a dying flock”. He has succeeded in this task and his contribution is now part of that wellspring to which he refers in his message to the youth at the end of “The Awakening”:

If the young intellectuals would drink from the well of knowlege of the past, study and draw sustenance from this rich treasure, which is the heritage of mankind; — If they understood their tasks and realised what they are called upon to contribute to the struggle, then they would not rest until they had gone out to the people — The people are ready, more than ready for a lead. The leadership dare not let them down.

Yet his role cannot be limited to his interest in the new generations. It was a contribution to the struggle of the nation of oppressed and exploited, a struggle rooted in a revolutionary tradition, a struggle that is being waged right now and it is a struggle that will continue. We can think of no more fitting end to this tribute than to repeat his stirring injunction at the close of his Presidential address to the first conference of APDUSA in 1962:

We believe that only that class which has a historical future can lead society out of the crisis. History has placed the destiny of our society in the hands of the toiling masses. If we are to succeed in our task of liberation, we must link ourselves dynamically and inseparably with the labouring classes. Without them we are nothing. With them we are everything, and nothing can stand in our way. No power on earth can hold us back in our march.


Further Reading