Richard W Msimang (1884-1933)
Methodist-educated rugby player and legal advisor to the ANC
While Wikipedia offers a first port of call for many enquiries, it has no single entry for Richard Msimang. Given Msimang’s role in ‘integrating’ rugby in the South West of England, his pioneering position as a black solicitor in South Africa, his involvement with the South African Native National Congress (forerunner of the ANC), and his contributions to the development of sport in South Africa, this is a situation I hope will be remedied.
Richard Msimang was the son of Joel Ngadala Msimang (1854–1929) and grandson of Daniel Msimang, both Methodist ministers who played significant roles in the spread of Christian missions in Southern Africa. Richard Msimang was born at Edendale, on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal , and, after primary schooling, was among the first pupils at the Ohlange Institute, founded by John Langalibalele (Mafukuzela ) Dube in 1900. From Ohlange in Natal, he was sent to a much older Methodist boarding school, the Healdtown Institution in the Eastern Cape.
In 1904, following a disagreement with a European superintendent, Joel Msimang resigned from the Methodist ministry and founded an Independent Methodist Church. In the same year, and drawing, it seems, on income from the three farms he owned, he decided to send Richard to Queen’s College, Taunton, in Somerset, England. Why Joel Msimang chose Queen’s I do not know, but I suggest that Methodist circles existed in which contacts were made and opinions expressed (see endnote).
Richard Msimang comes sharply into focus on his arrival at the school. In his History of Queen’s College, Taunton, H J Channon writes:
A good few of us were practising shooting at goal on the Lower. We noticed a dark figure in a bowler hat and a heavy black overcoat, standing on the terrace watching us. It was the first day at Queen’s of a Zulu, RW Msimang. He passed through the gap on to the field. The soccer ball was thrown to him, and he could not resist the temptation of racing towards it. Unfortunately for him the ball stopped just in front of a deep pool. Through the water ‘Oomsi dashed, slipped and sat down, with his bowler floating away from him. We took him up to the Linen Room for a complete change of clothes. His charming smile we saw for the first time – it never seemed to desert him.
Channon went on to record that Msimang earned a place in the school’s First XI, adding, “I can see him now dashing down the left wing to the corner flag and middling the ball with perfect accuracy.” ‘The Zulu’ also played rugby and cricket at Queen’s.
After completing his secondary education, Msimang continued to live at the school while articled to a Taunton solicitor. At this time, he played rugby – which he had been introduced to at Queen’s – for Taunton RFC. He played for the club for five seasons (1907–12) and, Channon recalled, “ became the most popular player Taunton has ever had. The crowd loved to see him emerge with a smile from the bottom of a heap of forwards. He was a brilliant scrum-half, tough and with a swerve that made it difficult to bring him down.”
Brian Willan, an honorary senior research fellow at Rhodes University, has undertaken research on Msimang’s time at Queen’s and on the matches he played in for Taunton. He has written up his findings in a paper (2012) that asks Who was Richard Msimang?, and he has concentrated on his rugby career (1907–12) in a paper that incorporates in its title a description of Msimang as “One of the most gentlemanly players that ever donned a jersey”. From these elegant and well-informed papers emerge strong impressions of Msimang as a man and a ‘rugbyman’ – one, incidentally, who more often (pace Channon) played at fly-half than scrum-half. Willan writes with insight about the social background to Msimang’s playing experiences in England and to his professional career in South Africa.
Return to South Africa
In 1912, having passed his law exams, Msimang returned to South Africa. As is clear from an article that appeared in Abantu Bathoduring 1913, his achievements on the playing fields of England were appreciated by his community. However, the legal situation in his homeland had changed in his absence and within a few days of his arrival he was arrested because he didn’t have a pass! In a generally hostile environment, Msimang established a legal practice and became involved in politics, devoting long hours to, for example, the South African Native National Congress (SANNC).
Although he did not pull on a rugby jersey in South Africa, Msimang continued to take an interest in organised sport. His contribution was recognised in 1928 when he was elected vice-chairman of the Provisional Committee of the South African Non-White Athletics Union; the following year he was one of the founders of the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association.
Msimang’s dedication to nationalist causes, combined with ill health and difficulty in getting the Swazi royal family to pay for work undertaken on their behalf, contributed to business difficulties and disappointments. When he died, in 1933, Richard W Msimang had achieved much, but still left a sense of unfulfilled promise.
Richard Msimang was not the first from South Africa to attend Queen’s College, Taunton. For example, Gottlob Schreiner, a Methodist missionary long-based at Wittebergen in the Eastern Cape and for a time the head of Healdtown, sent two of his sons to the school during the 1850s. It is tempting to suggest that Schreiner suggested Msimang be sent to Queen’s, but that I have not found it possible to prove. However, there is a letter that has a place in the story of the Schreiners and the Msimangs. In 1909, while Richard Msimang was at Queen’s, one of the younger sons of Gottlob Schreiner, the distinguished William Philip Schreiner (1857–1919) , led a delegation to London to protest against the colour bar. On the 12 December, Msimang wrote to him from Taunton wishing him “every success in (his) endeavours”. Although the letter begins “Dear Sir” and makes no attempt to strike a personal note, the sender’s address – “Queen’s College, Taunton” – must have jolted William Phillip into recognizing that this was from someone at the school his elder brothers had attended. If he hadn’t encountered Msimang before, he did on opening the letter! Whether Msimang subsequently met him or any of the Schreiners, I don’t know. However, I feel sure that, as a Zulu intellectual, he was aware of WP’s sister – Olive. She was an (in)famous free -thinker and author of The Story of an African Farm.
On Daniel Msimang
Various studies of Methodist Church history in South Africa and Swaziland refer to Daniel Msimang.
On Joel Msimang
See ancestry24.com/rev-joel-msimang/ * This makes no mention of Daniel Msimang, and begs a number of questions. For example, can he really have started school in 1886 and become a minister in 1889? How did he come to own three farms by 1904?
On/by Richard Msimang.
See profile on www.sahistory.org.za/people/richard-msimang
Anon. (Possibly Pixley ka Isaka Seme). “The New Solicitor: Mr. R. W. Msimang”, Abantu Batho 3? July 1913 [reprinted in Tsala ea Batho 5 July 1913 and reproduced on Football Focus www.footballiscominghome.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/ANC-1930.jpg
Msimang’s letter to W P Schreiner is in the National Library of South Africa (Cape Town), W P Schreiner Papers 10 August 1909. I am grateful to Brian Willan and Laddy McKechnie (Special Collections, NLSA) for access to a copy.
Willan, Brian. ‘One of the most gentlemanly players that ever donned a jersey’: the English rugby career of Richard Msimang (1907-1912). Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa . Vol. 66 Issue 3, (Jul-Sept 2012).
Willan, Brian ‘Who was Richard Msimang? Reflections on the Origins and Early Years of the African National Congress of South Africa on its Centenary.’ Paper presented to Taunton Dean Branch of the Historical Association, 12 December 2012.
Richard W Msimang, see www.pzacad.pitzer.edu/NAM/newafrre/writers/msimang.shtml
* Editor’s note; Ancestry24, a South African family history site, is currently offline but has been bought by Ancestry.com and hopefully records will be accessible again soon. See www.ancestry.com/ancestry24