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Zacharia Keodirelang Matthews (1901 - 1968)

The Order of Luthuli in

Zacharia Keodirelang Matthews (1901 - 1968) Awarded for:
His ground-breaking achievement in education and lifetime contribution to the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

Profile of Zacharia Keodirelang Matthews

Zacharia Keodirelang Matthews was born in Kimberley in 1901. Though exposed to politics at a young age - his father was a voter on the non-racial Cape voter's roll and his cousin, Sol Plaatje, a founder member of the African National Congress (ANC) - Matthews devoted himself in his early years to education. He became the first African to obtain both a BA and LLB at a South African institution. In 1934, Matthews obtained an MA in Anthropology from Yale University in the United States of America.

Matthews found his political home in the ANC, an organisation for which he worked tirelessly. As a member of the ANC, he attended the All African Convention in Bloemfontein in 1935, which sought to bring together all organisations fighting for national liberation. He supported the writing of the ANC's 1949 Programme of Action, initiated by former ANC Youth League leaders. In June 1952, Matthews left South Africa to take up a position as visiting professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary.

Back in South Africa as principal of the University College of Fort Hare and leader of the ANC in the Cape, he proposed the convening of a "congress of the people". After the success of the Congress held at Kliptown in 1955 and the adoption of the Freedom Charter by the ANC, the State undertook a wave of arrests of leaders and Matthews was not spared. He was among the accused in the Treason Trial.

In 1960, he was detained without trial for 135 days during the State of Emergency. After his release, Matthews joined ANC President, Albert Luthuli, in calling for consultations among African leaders, a call which culminated in the All-In African Conference in March 1961. The next year, he took a position as Secretary of the Africa division of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

As a measure of the high regard with which he was held, Sir Seretse Khama appointed him, at the independence of the Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1966, the first Ambassador of Botswana to the United Nations in Washington, where he died in 1968 from a heart attack.

Matthews has been revered by generations of South Africans for his intellectual, political and academic achievements. In the words of President Thabo Mbeki, he was “a pathfinder, a teacher to millions of our people, and an educated and cultured African”.