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Famous People from Pietermaritzburg
26 Nov 2009

Famous footsteps in Pietermaritzburg

Bishop John ColensoBishop John Colenso (1814–1883). The first Anglican bishop of Natal and a noted mathematician, theologian and Biblical scholar. Formerly rector of Forncett St Mary, Norfolk, in 1853 the Bishop of Cape Town, Robert Gray, appointed Colenso the first Bishop of Natal and he took up the position in 1855. He set up the mission station Ekukhanyeni, the "Place of Light", next to his residence at Bishopstowe. There (with William Ngidi) he published the first Zulu Grammar and English/Zulu dictionary as well as Zulu translations of the New Testament and other books of the Bible. Colenso forged links with the Zulu monarchy and became a staunch advocate of their cause in their struggle with the colonial authorities. His contact with Africans also influenced his theological development and he questioned some of the teachings of the church and the literal truth of the Bible. His books outlining his ideas influenced contemporary Biblical scholars in Europe but proved too controversial for the church. This, plus his advocacy of the Zulu, brought him into conflict with both church and state and he was deposed as Bishop in 1863. By-passing church structures Colenso appealed his deposition to the Privy Council court in London which found in his favour, while another British court ensured Colenso was not deprived of his income. However he was excommunicated by the church who appointed another bishop of Natal - William K. Macrorie. In 1873 Colenso came into direct conflict with the colonial regime when took up the cause of Langalibalele of the Hlubi who was found guilty of rebellion in a show trial and imprisoned on Robben Island. The blatant manipulation of the trial by Theophilus Shepstone, Secretary for Native Affairs, ended the long friendship between himself and Colenso. Later in the same decade Colenso opposed the official line on the invasion of Zululand and condemned the consequent war which he considered grossly unjust. He subsequently played a role in King Cetshwayo kaMpande's release from jail and his return to Zululand. To the Zulus Colenso was known as Sobantu ("father of the people").

Arthur Conan DoyleArthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). English novelist and short story writer, creator of Sherlock Holmes. He visited South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War and ran a military hospital in Bloemfontein. In later life Doyle became an ardent spiritualist and travelled the world on what he described as ‘missions of instruction’. He visited Pietermaritzburg in 1928. "Maritzburg … struck both my wife and myself immediately we arrived as having a wonderfully psychic atmosphere," he wrote.





Ghandi in SA 1906Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma (1869-1948). Gandhi settled in Durban in 1893 where he ran a legal practice. In May of that year while travelling by train to Pretoria a white man objected to Gandhi’s presence in a first-class carriage. Despite having a first-class ticket Gandhi was asked to move to the van compartment at the end of the train. He refused and was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg station.

There he spent the night in the waiting room and it is there he decided he would stay in South Africa to fight against racial discrimination. The next year he founded the Natal Indian Congress. Gandhi left South Africa for India in 1914. There is a statue of Gandhi in Church Street in front of the Colonial Building.




Harry Gwala ( - ) Harry


HaggardHenry Rider Haggard (1856-1925). British novelist, author of King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain and She. As a young man he stayed in Pietermaritzburg from 1875 to 1876 working on the staff of Lieutenant-Governor General Sir Henry Bulwer based at Government House (now the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of South Africa) in Langalibalele/Longmarket Street. He accompanied Theophilus Shepstone to Pretoria and played a minor role in the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 thereafter becoming master and registrar of the High Court. He returned to England and married in 1880. He came back to Natal in 1881 and farmed briefly near Newcastle before returning to England with his wife and first child. Haggard re-visited South Africa in 1914 as an agricultural expert on the Dominions Royal Commission. During his visit to Pietermaritzburg he stayed at the Imperial Hotel. He recorded the visit in Diary of an African Journey. Find out more here.


Bessie Head (1937-1986). One of Africa's most prominent writers, author of When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power. She was born in Pietermaritzburg's Fort Napier Mental Institution. The child of an "illicit" union between a Scottish woman and a black man, Head was taken from her mother at birth and raised in a foster home until the age of thirteen. Head then attended missionary school and eventually became a teacher. Abandoning teaching after only a few years, Head began writing for the Golden City Post. In 1964, personal problems led her to take up a teaching post in Botswana, where Head remained in "refugee" status for fifteen years before gaining citizenship. Pietermaritzburg’s municipal library is named after her. Find out more here.


James McClure (1939-2006). Author and journalist. Grew up in Pietermaritzburg, educated at Cowan House and Maritzburg College. Best known for the series of crime novels featuring Sergeant Kramer and Constable Zondi set in a fictionalised Pietermaritzburg called Trekkersburg. McClure initially worked in Tom Sharpe’s photographic studio before joining the Natal Witness as a crime reporter. He later moved to Britain and his first novel, The Steam Pig, won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1971


Stratford Johns (1925 - 2002). British stage, film and television actor. Born in Pietermaritzburg. He left for Britain in 1948. Find out more here.

Moses MabhidaMoses Mabhida (1923- 1986). Moses Mabhida was born near Pietermaritzburg in 1923. He joined the Communist Party in 1942. He was a key figure in the creation of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and was elected its vice-president at its first congress in 1955. He was secretary of the ANC's Pietermaritzburg branch in the mid-1950s, working closely with Chief Albert Luthuli. He became a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC) around 1956, and in 1958-1959 was acting chair of the Natal ANC. After the declaration of the 1960 state of emergency, Mabhida was sent abroad by SACTU and for the next three years organised international solidarity activities in Prague with the World Federation of Trade Unions, and with the developing African trade union federations.

In 1963 he was asked by Oliver Tambo to assist in the development of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He underwent military training; as MK commissar he became the chief political instructor of new military recruits, and later served as the commander of MK. In 1969, he was instrumental in setting up the ANC's department of Intelligence and Security. He was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party in November 1979. In the 1980s, Mabhida continued his work with political and logistical planning for MK, based at various times in Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland. In 1985, while on a mission to Havana, Mabhida suffered a stroke, and after a year of illness, died of a heart attack in Maputo and was buried there in March 1986.


Nelson Mandela (1918- ). Politician, statesman, Nobel laureate, world icon. The Zibukezulu Technical High School in Imbali, Edendale, has a claim to a special place in South Africa's history. On March 25, 1961, in the Arya Samaj Hall adjacent to the school, Nelson Mandela made his last public speech before his arrest outside Howick the following year.

In 2008 a monument was unveiled in front of the hall to commemorate Mandela's landmark speech at the All-in-Africa conference. As the plaque on the memorial says "it was also to be his last (speech) as a free man for another 29 years. A bearded Mandela told the 1400 strong delegates, representing 145 social and political organizations, that 'one man, one vote is the key to the future'. He called for economic sanctions against the apartheid government and warned of mass action. It was at this conference that the liberation call, Amandla Ngawethu! (Power to the People) became popular."

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom Mandela vividly recalled the event: "When I walked out on stage on Saturday evening ... in front of this loyal and enthusiastic audience, it had been nearly five years since I had been free to give a speech on a public platform. I was met with a joyous reaction. I had almost forgotten the intensity of the experience of addressing a crowd."

"In my speech I called for a national convention in which all South Africans, black and white, Indian and Coloured, would sit down in brotherhood and create a constitution that mirrored the aspirations of the country as a whole. I called for unity, and said we would be invincible if we spoke with one voice."

Mandela returned to the hall on 25 April 1997 when he was awarded the Freedom of Pietermaritzburg.

* Mandela was arrested near Howick on 5 August 1962. A plaque commemorating the event has been erected at the site of his arrest on the R103.

Kevin Pietersen, cricketer (1980 - ) EX SPORTS DEPT

Jonty Rhodes (1969- ) EX SPORTS DEPT

Alan PatonAlan Paton (1903-1988). Writer, politician, and author of Cry, the Beloved Country. Born and educated in Pietermaritzburg. He later taught at Maritzburg College. He referred to Pietermaritzburg as “the lovely city” in his autobiography. There is a collection of his papers and manuscripts as well as a reconstruction of his study at the Alan Paton Centre on the university campus. Find out more here








Theo Shepstone

Theophilus Shepstone (1817-1893). Colonial administrator and Secretary for Native Affairs from 1856 to 1876. His system of locations for black Africans have been seen as the origins of the apartheid system. In 1877 he was sent by the Lord Carnarvon, Colonial Foreign Secretary, to annex the Transvaal. He returned to Natal in 1880 and though officially retired remained influential with regard to policies affecting black Africans. There is a statue of him next to the provincial legislature in Langalibalele/Longmarket Street.




Anthony TrollopeAnthony Trollope (1815-1882). English novelist, author of the Barsetshire Chronicles, the Palliser series and many other novels. He visited southern Africa and Pietermaritzburg in 1877. “I liked Pietermaritzburg very much – perhaps the best of all South African towns.” His account of the trip was published as South Africa (1878).

Tom Sharpe (1928- ) English comic novelist, author of Wilt, Ancestral Vices and Porterhouse Blue. He lived in Pietermaritzburg from 1951 to 1961. He ran a photographic business and also taught at the Pietermaritzburg Technical College. He was deported, largely as a result of his play The South African, which dealt with an incident in the life of Nobel Prize winner Albert Luthuli when he was assaulted at a meeting in Pretoria. Sharpe’s experiences in Pietermaritzburg inspired the novels Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure. Both books were banned in South Africa under the apartheid regime. He revisited the city in 1991.

Mark Twain (1835-1910). The pen name of Samuel Longhorne Clemens, American writer and humorist. Author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper. He visited South Africa in 1896 during a world lecture tour. While in Pietermaritzburg he stayed at the Imperial Hotel in Jabu Ndlovu/Loop Street and gave two performances of his lecture-cum-one-man show At Home at the Theatre Royal (this no longer exists). He also lunched at Government House and visited Maritzburg College.

Kevin VolansKevin Volans (1949- ). Composer. He was born in Pietermaritzburg but has spent most of his adult life outside the country. Some of his work, notably White Man Sleeps, references South African sounds and motifs.

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