By Mbulelo Sisulu
Heritage Day in Eastern Cape this year is dedicated to the life and legacy of the late religious leader and political activist Canon James Arthur Calata, who was born in Keiskammahoek in Amahlathi Municipality, Amathole District 125 years ago in July 1895.
This year’s theme is: “Celebrating South Africa’s Living Human Treasures”.
Calata became deacon in the Anglican Church in 1921, an ordained priest in 1926 and worked briefly in Port Elizabeth until he was sent to serve as a minister at St. James Mission in Cradock during 1928. During this time he served as president of the inter-denominational African Ministers’ Federation (IDAMF).
He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1930 and was elected as the Cape President from 1930 to 1949.
In 1935 he became secretary-general of the ANC from 1936 to 1949 and in that capacity he was a signatory of the 1949 Program of Action.
In 1940 he was instrumental in persuading Dr A.B. Xuma to stand for the presidency. He did not stand for re-election as secretary-general during the national conference of December 1949 but he remained a member of the national executive until 1956.
He had been chosen as ANC’s senior chaplain in 1950 and he later also acted as Congress speaker. Calata was banned during the Defiance Campaign in 1952, although he was later allowed to continue conducting services.
In 1956 he was arrested at the time of the Treason trials and was imprisoned for a short while before being acquitted. His license to marry and permission to keep communion wine were withdrawn. During the 1960s he was restricted to the Cradock district.
Calata’s wife, Miltha, was a leader of those who defied apartheid laws and was later arrested.
Calata also founded a choir, Congress Choir, for which he also composed songs that became prominent and allowed the choir to tour the Cape to raise funds for the ANC and for school bursaries.
He was a canon of Grahamstown cathedral from 1959 and later during the 1960s he served on the council of St. Peter’s, the Anglican College within the Federal Theological Seminary in Alice.
He was kept under surveillance and lived under a banning order during 1968. In the 1970s, he allowed his home to be used as an underground library by the ANC and the youth of his community.