1962 Chairwoman of Barbourfields Women’s Branch, ZAPU.
1963 District Chairwoman of Women’s League, PCC.
1974 (Dec.) Deputy Secretary for Women’s Affairs, ANC.
1975 (Sept.) Member of Central Committee, ANC (Nkomo).
1976 (Sept.) Deputy Secretary for Education ANC (Nkomo).
Tenjiwe Virginia Lesabe was born a Khumalo1 at Makokoba Clinic, Bulawayo, on 5 January 1932. Shewas the first-born, the only child of her mother, but her polygamist father had also married her mother’s eldest sister and the four children of the two wives were at first brought up together. When her father married yet again the three girls and a boy were raised by their maternal grandmother who had been converted to Christianity by the London Missionary Society and educated by them. The old lady had also sent her daughter to the LMS school at Matopos. Thus it was that Tenjiwe, after two years at Forest Vale Primary School in Bulawayo, moved to Matopos in 1941. A deep impression was made on the young Tenjiwe Lesabe by a Church of Christ missionary at the school, a Mr Greenfield. He made her aware of the contribution of the missionary churches towards the alleviation of suffering and want – a contribution of which he gave practical example by rescuing an orphaned baby and raising her at the mission.
Lesabe moved to Hope Fountain Mission when she reached Standard IV and finished her schooling with aPrimary Teacher’s Lower Certificate in Standard VII in 1948. While at school she became Secretary of the Students’ Association, and took part in debating competitions with Mzingwane School. She was a school and dining-room prefect and, finally, head girl. In her last year she was invited to speak to the girls of Eveline High School – a rare occurrence for an African girl at that time.
In 1949 she started teaching at Luveve and in the following year was transferred to Lobengula School (later renamed Losikeyi) where she remained until 1959. She was active in the Guide movement2 becoming a Guide Leader. Later she became a member of the Matabele Home Society, taking particular interest in the African Welfare Section.
When the African Council of Women was organised in the early 1950s by Mrs Lazarus, Tenjiwe Lesabe was the first interpreter for the Makokoba Section. She also joined the Inter-Racial Association and the Jamasigna Club (organised by J. D. Rheinallt Jones). In February 1959 the banning of the ANCongress resulted in many hundreds of nationalists being held in Khami Prison near Bulawayo. Their presence sparked off an African-organised welfare movement – the first of its kind – and united churches, welfare societies, clubs and businessmen in a common effort. Tenjiwe Lesabe, as a teacher, was unable to work openly but she helped greatly behind the scenes and did indeed join a group of women which protested to the authorities against the detention of the men.
Becoming increasingly involved in, and interested in, politics Lesabe decided to give up her teaching post and in 1959 she took a job doing a women’s page for the Bulawayo section of African Newspapers. In 1961, owing to poor health, she had to give up journalism but she continued her services to religious and political causes. She was ZAPU Chairwoman for the Barbourfields Women’s Branch (1962) and District Chairwoman of the PCC Women’s League (1963). In 1972 she accompanied a deputation of township residents to give evidence to the Pearce Commission on the Smith/Home constitutional proposals. She was later appointed Deputy Secretary for Women’s Affairs in the ANC. When the split came in September 1975 she adhered to Joshua Nkomo and became Deputy Secretary for Education after the special congress on 27-28 September 1975.
On 13 October 1976 she was nominated as a member A of the delegation from the ANC (Nkomo) to the Geneva Conference.
Tenjiwe Lesabe is married to a preacher in the African Episcopal Church. They have seven children (three girls and four boys). Lesabe contributes to the family finances, which are strained by the need to educate such a large family, with a part-time job and by doing needlework. Her efforts, however, are often interrupted by the need to attend church conferences and in recent years she has travelled on church affairs to Zambia, South Africa and the United States.3
1 Descended from the royal house of Mzilikazi. Her grandfather, Ngungunwanya, took shelter with Lobengula, his brother-in-law, when his people were under attack by the Portuguese. Two of Lesabe’s great-aunts were wives of Lobengula, and it was on the proceeds of a grant given by the BSA Company to Lobengula’s family that her own aunt and mother were educated.
2 The early Guide movement among Africans was started by Rev. H. H. Morley-Wright, who was obliged to call them ‘Wayfarers’ until their full acceptance into the movement. African scouts were called ‘Pathfinders’.
3 During 1975 she was appointed African Representative for her church.