The Rev. John Henderson Soga (February 10, 1860-March 18, 1941) was a Xhosa minister, translator, historian, and ethnographer, whose works remain relevant in the mid-1980s.
1860 to 1941
The son of Tiyo, he was born at Mgwali in what was then British Kaffraria (now the Ciskei), and was educated in Scotland. Sent there in 1870 with two of his brothers, he attended school in Glasgow until 1877. During that time his father died. He went back to South Africa for several years, then returned to Scotland, attending the University of Edinburgh from 1886-90, and the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall from 1890-93. While in Scotland he married Elizabeth Brown of Glasgow.
After his ordination in 1893, Soga returned to South Africa as a missionary. He founded the Mbonda mission station in the Mt. Frere district of the Transkei and worked there for 11 years, building up schools and a network of outstations. In 1904 his brother, Dr. William A. Soga, retired as missionary at the Miller mission station which he had founded near Elliotdale in Bomvanaland in 1888. (He continued to serve as a doctor there until his death in 1916.) J.H. Soga transferred to the Miller station to take over from his brother, and worked there until his own retirement in 1936.
The mission community at Elliotdale was large and racially integrated. Soga's parishioners, irrespective of race, liked and respected him, although he suffered from racial discrimination when traveling outside his home district. This fact may have contributed to his decision to settle in England after his retirement.
Along with his missionary and ministerial work, he pursued literary and scholarly activities. Like his father, he wrote Xhosa hymns and prayers, and translated the work of others into Xhosa. In 1924 he served on a committee to revise the Xhosa Bible, and in 1927 he published his translation of the second part of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Tiyo Soga had translated the first part in 1867, but his early death had prevented completion of the project. J .H. Soga also translated books on health and travel into Xhosa. His most widely known works are a history of the South Eastern Bantu, and an ethnography of the Xhosa. These works, especially the first, based on Xhosa oral traditions and testimony collected by Soga beginning in 1880, have lasting scholarly value.
The Sogas had three sons and two daughters. Murray and Ella died young. Another son, William, was killed in the same German air raid that killed John Henderson Soga and his wife Elizabeth in their home in Southampton, England, in 1941. Several of the children followed the family tradition of receiving an education in Scotland.
Soga's life in South Africa was less constrained than that of most Africans, in part because of his unusual access to a European-style education and his identification with European values. Still, he was unable to escape the effects of racism. He tried to live up to his father's values of pride in his background and service to his people. It is perhaps ironic that his education gave him the means and desire to record Xhosa traditions and customs before they were lost in a changing world, while his Christian faith led him to encourage change in the Xhosa way of life. From another point of view, he grappled with the realities of his world. In his time, he had a place in the continuing tradition of South African blacks seeking freedom to make the best they can of all their heritages.
Christopher C. Lowe
John Henderson Soga, The South Eastern Bantu, (1930), The Ama-Xhosa, Life and Customs, (1932); obituary in The South African Outlook, April 1941.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Three: South Africa- Botswana-Lesotho-Swaziland. Ed. Keith Irvine. Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.