Pioneer Avenue in Dube Village, Soweto, has to be among the most remarkable streets in the world. It’s probably the only address in the country linked to three high-profile physicians. Dr Alfred Xuma was a highly qualified US-educated medical practitioner and one of the first homeowners of Pioneer Avenue after the forced removals in western areas in the 1950s.
A prominent Sophiatown resident and president of the ANC in the 1940s, Xuma’s Soweto house was built in 1959 and after his death in 1962, his American-born wife, Madie Hall-Xuma, sold the palatial property to Dr Nthato Motlana.
The late community leader, Struggle stalwart and businessman’s medical practice on the property was a place of healing, comfort and refuge for young injured activists tormented by apartheid police.
His neighbour, Dr Richard Gugushe, was a pioneering educator and community builder who studied at Ohlange, a prestigious school founded in 1900 by John Dube, the ANC’s first president and the person who lent his name to the affluent suburb. Gugushe was mentored by both Dube and Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, a trailblazing academic and pioneer of Zulu literature.
Vilakazi is considered the first African lecturer at Wits University to teach black languages. He died in 1947 before Dube was established but he paved the way for future black lecturers in African languages at Wits. One of them was Francis Mncube. He taught there in the 1950s and is regarded as one of the first residents at the aptly named street. Mncube later became active in the historic township’s civic politics.
As chairman of the discredited Urban Bantu Council, he became an influential community leader with powers and responsibilities equivalent to those of a mayor.
Mncube Drive is the gateway into this astonishing section of Soweto with its fair share of notable achievers such as Richard Maponya, the Mabuza and Vundla families.
House number 1413 on Pioneer Avenue is located back opposite Maponya’s White House mansion and diagonally opposite Gibson Kente’s stately residence, an address with its own extraordinary tale in the world of performance arts. Number 1413 belongs to Leslie Sehume, the doyen of sports writers, ground-breaking newsman, jazz scholar, boxing trainer, poet, arts promoter and recording artist – a true renaissance personality.
At 92, the former newsroom mentor is probably the oldest inhabitant at Pioneer Avenue, but his memory is remarkably sharp. He’s a spellbinding storyteller and for our interview he had decided to relate the history of SA from as far back as the era of Portuguese navigators. “Do you know who was winning between the Boer commandos and the British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War?” he fires. “The British,” I reply confidently. “That’s what you were told but it’s not factual,” he retorts.
In Sehume’s case his exceptional contributions, particularly in sport and journalism, have largely been sidelined in popular narratives. The list of his newsroom proteges reads like a who’s who of black SA journalism. Illustrious names in the newspaper world such as Aggrey Klaaste, Joe Latakgomo, Ike Magashule, Phil Mthimkhulu, Sekola Sello, Force Khashane, Joe Tlholoe, Thami Mazwai, Phil Nyamane, Elliot Makhaya and Andrew Molefe are among the few scribes he initiated into the craft, yet his name is seldom called in the register of both proteges and peers.
In those few accounts he’s remembered as a no-nonsense, principled, hard taskmaster – a stickler for balanced, factual and ethical reporting. In 1969, Sehume, Ewert Nene, Kaizer Motaung and other visionaries planned the establishment of a new club that could rival Orlando Pirates and become number 1 in SA.
As The World sports editor he used his columns to promote the idea. “The response from readers was huge. Within a week we had a big team with reserve players. I organised games at Meadowlands Stadium for the club. I wanted to build a club that would serve as an example of black excellence in sport,” he explains.
Both officials and supporters were rough characters who believed that violence was a solution to every problem
In fact, he says he couldn’t be bothered with Orlando Pirates where Motaung was a star player because “it was a team of gangsters”. “Both officials and supporters were rough characters who believed that violence was a solution to every problem.”
Born to a domestic worker in 1927 at Stirtonville (now Reiger Park) in Boksburg on the East Rand, he was educated at local schools where he established a reputation as a star pupil with a flair for writing. “My essays were read in front of class and that encouraged me to study harder and read more books in order to improve my vocabulary and skill as an essay writer.
“Comics like Superman were introduced in my time and I read all comic books on offer. Tarzan novels were very popular and I knew all those that were available. I also enjoyed detective thrillers, particularly Leslie Charteris’s The Saint [Simon Templar].”
He was later enrolled at St Peters, a famous Anglican school for boys. Famously known as the black Eton of SA, its graduates included future Drum journalists such as Todd Matshikiza, Es’kia Mphahlele, Sy Mogapi, Arthur Maimane and author Peter Abrahams. Another ex-student, Oliver Tambo, taught mathematics. Sehume contributed news to the school publication, The Sparkler. “I would type out my stories on A4 paper and occasionally include cartoons that I drew, thanks to the influence of comic books.”
After passing matric, he was employed by the Germiston City Council (non-European affairs department) as a catering clerk. “I was so good at my job that within a month I was promoted to bookkeeper, much to the annoyance and displeasure of older staff.”
An avid sport lover, he opened a boxing club and gym where he trained youngsters. “I had decided that I knew something about boxing although I had never boxed before. At St Peters I used to observe Russa Bud-Mbelle training fellow students. He knew the anatomy of boxing and we regarded him as SA’s own Jack Blackburn, the American boxer who later trained Joe Louis.”
Bud-Mbelle would later lend a hand to the birth of Kaizer Chiefs in his capacity as manager of Atteridgeville-based Spa Sporting FC when he released his star player, Ariel “Pro” Khongoane to join Kaizer XI.
Jacob Ntseke was the original Baby Jake and Sehume’s best-known boxer. The Sophiatown-born pugilist was a feared gangster who had spent three years at a reformatory for stabbing his victim to death. When he was released the family sent him to the East Rand for fear of revenge.
“When he came to my gym he was all cocky and bragged that as an amateur he had fought and beaten Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapho, one of the popular boxers of his generation. At the club he learnt valuable boxing lessons and after 18 months he had perfected the fighting technique and was ready to enter the ring.”
In his first bout he knocked out Jerry Moloi within the opening seconds of the first round. The late Moloi has since been immortalised in a famous Bob Gosani image sparring with Nelson Mandela, but Sehume is quick to point out that the former president never fought a single match inside the square ring. “Mandela was never a boxer but he trained as one and also enjoyed keeping fit by running.”
After this upset Ntseke went on to beat several opponents. “The plan was to arrange a fight with Schoolboy but it never happened as he left me. After that he never won a single fight, including a return match against Moloi. He eventually left boxing an unhappy [man], suffered alcoholism and died young.”
But Ntseke’s ring moniker has since become one of the best known in boxing lore. Sehume’s contemporary and sports writer Theo “Brown Panther” Mthembu decided to give his charge, the late Jacob Matlala, the same nickname. In 1953, Sehume got a job as a reporter at The Bantu World, a bi-weekly launched in 1932 by Bertram Paver, a white Rhodesian farmer. Modelled after British tabloids, its first editor was Richard Selope Thema, who stepped down in 1952.
Journalism was not an entirely new world as Sehume has been freelancing for community publications such as Dukathole News, targeted at the Germiston location of the same name. “At The Bantu World I created two columns, children’s section titled Aunty Lulu and Stepping Out With Julia, targeted at women.
“Both were so popular with readers I used to receive calls from them asking to speak to Aunty Lulu and Julia. They were always told that the two were not in the office. When I joined the paper there was only one car for reporters and it was reserved for favourites. I was not one of the favourites but I convinced management to get me a motorbike, a Vespa scooter. I used to travel around the country to cover assignments. These included distant cities such as Durban.
“We were underpaid, overworked and abused but some of us were dedicated; we met deadlines and delivered quality copy. Unfortunately, some of these committed and finest writers were frustrated and became alcoholics.”
Sehume combined his great love for sports – particularly football and boxing – with a passion for jazz. As co-founder of Union Artists at Dorkay House, the famous centre for black artists, he groomed and promoted unknown talent. He contributed poetry to Nat Nakasa’s literary journal, The Classic. Some of his poetry can be heard on Early-Mart, a rare 1970 jazz album by pianist Gideon Nxumalo with Early Mabuza on drums. It’s the first local work to marry poetry with jazz on vinyl.
Boxing manager Leslie Sehume in the dressing room with his fighter Jacob Ntseke
Sehume had joined Drum in 1962 and was posted to Zambia where he was based until the mid-1960s when he decided to return to The World, the Bantu part having been dropped. A fierce critic of the sports boycott during the isolation years, in the 1970s Sehume joined the Committee for Fairness in Sport after he was recruited by Afrikaans journalist Gert Wolmarans. He became the organisation’s spokesperson on international platforms, a move that didn’t endear him to the anti-apartheid movement.
“My response why I was involved with the organisation was that as a patriotic South African and nation builder, I was opposed to seeing black athletes being made to suffer again for the sins of apartheid.
“For instance, in 1968 two of our finest black runners, Benoni Malaka and Humphrey Kgosi, qualified to participate in the Olympic Games in Mexico but they couldn’t because of the sports boycott. It was unfair.”
It was common knowledge in The World newsroom that there was no love lost between Sehume and Percy Qoboza, the paper’s tempestuous editor. By joining a controversial organisation, the sports editor had unwittingly given his Nemesis armour to get rid of him. The story goes that Qoboza was on leave when he got wind of the news but he immediately went to the office to fire Sehume. “Until his death, Qoboza relentlessly hounded and vilified Sehume,” Len Kalane, former City Press editor, writes in his book The Chapter We Wrote: The City Press Story (2018).
Sehume eventually left the City of Gold to edit a countryside weekly named Mafikeng Mail in Bophuthatswana. His 13-year stay in the newly independent homeland will make a colourful chapter in his memoir. A resourceful man with the energy of a beaver, the father of four didn’t restrict himself behind the editor’s desk but contributed to building the new state, its controversial politics aside. Sehume says he was involved in establishing the Mmabana Arts Centre and Bophuthatswana Soccer League (Bobsol).
As an editor, he recalls publishing a picture of president Lucas Mangope passionately kissing his daughter-in-law during a state banquet. For the editor, it was a matter of the old maxim – publish and be damned. He published and lived to see another day.