The twin legacies of Ray and Dora Philips

A long awaited recognition comes for the two American founders of social work in South Africa.

Dora and Ray Philips.

In April this year, South Africa’s government honored Dr. Ray and Mrs. Dora Phillips, with the country’s highest national honor, The Order of the Baobab. The Philips worked in Johannesburg at the height of racial segregation and Apartheid and influenced a whole generation of black liberation figures, especially women. Ray and Dora’s philanthropy impacted millions of people of color.

Ray and Dora Philips were two American missionaries who had established the Jan Hofmeyr School for Social Work, the first of its kind for Blacks in the Southern African region, in Johannesburg. As historians Meghan Healy-Clancy and Jill Kelly reminded us at the time of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s passing the founding of the Jan Hofmeyr School would have far reaching consequences for liberation politics in Southern Africa. “Students would become leaders in liberation movements across the region: for instance, Joshua Nkomo of Zimbabwe and Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique preceded Madikizela-Mandela, and the South African activist Ellen Kuzwayo was her classmate. Nelson Mandela was the school’s patron.”

There were some reports in local media about the ceremony, most notably on the country public broadcaster and most media mentioned the Philips along with the other awardees, but the achievement deserves wider celebration and reflection.

At the ceremony, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said: “The Order of Baobab in Silver is awarded to Dr. Ray and Mrs. Dora Phillips posthumously for their excellent contribution to the creation of the first social work network designed to improve the terrible living conditions of the growing population of the oppressed. They also established the South African Institute of Race Relations, one of the oldest liberal institutions in the country.” (Long after Ray and Dora passed,  the SAIRR, which collected social and economic indicators of Apartheid’s effects, veered to the right and does not have the same kind of political influence.)

Ray and Dora Philips arrived in South Africa in 1918. They had graduated from Carleton College, a private liberal arts college in Minnesota and had decided to go work in South Africa. Carleton, about an hour south of Minneapolis, was started by the Congregational Church. The Philips arrived at Inanda Seminary outside of Durban, on South Africa’s east coast. The mission station at Inanda was started by the American Zulu Mission (AZM) in the mid-1800s. Ray and Dora absorbed for a year the spirit of upliftment and empowerment growing in their immediate neighborhood, most notably at the Phoenix Settlement established by Mohandas Gandhi and at the Ohlange Institute, the first industrial education school for blacks founded in 1900 by John Langalibalele Dube (the first President of the ANC at its founding in 1912) and his first wife Nokutela Mdima Dube, a previously forgotten pioneer, who herself, posthumously, was awarded the Order of the Baobab in Gold in 2017, one hundred years after her death at the young age of 44. She was the subject of my documentary film titled, uKukhumbula uNokutela/Remembering Nokutela (2014).

Probably Ray and Dora’s most important legacy is training black social workers to tackle the multifaceted challenges of the growing black population in Johannesburg. In 1941, Ray founded the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. The groundbreaking school was named for Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, an Afrikaner philanthropist who served as Minister of Education and Finance in the Government of Jan Smuts. Its most notable alumni include the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her fellow classmate, Ellen Kuzwayo (the women’s rights activist), Nkomo, Mozambican freedom fighter Eduardo Mondlane and younger graduates such as Dr. Brigalia Bam and Mrs. Esline Shuenyane, both of whom credit Ray and Dora’s mentorship and generosity as key to their success as anti-apartheid activists on the national and world stage. Given the school’s strategic importance, it was no surprise that Henrik Verwoerd, the architect of Apartheid, targeted it for closing in 1958, in spite of Ray’s efforts and protest:

It is most disheartening to realize that the Hofmeyr School of Social Work must close; to be replaced by courses in the Bantu rural universities. So tremendous is the need for social workers, especially in the towns! And these cannot be adequately prepared under rural conditions, even if the right staff can be obtained. We hope and pray for a last-minute reconsideration by Dr. Verwoerd and his Department.

Unfortunately, such a reconsideration never came. The school was closed in 1960, one year after the Phillips’s departure from South Africa.

For the past few years, as part of my research on the missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in South Africa (ABCFM or American Board for short), I had taken a lot of interest in the pioneering work done by Ray and Dora Phillips, and as a result, I networked with the United Church of Christ of Southern Africa-South Africa Synod and with the last survivors of the hundreds of female and male social workers trained by them.

From the outset, a key focus of Ray and Dora Phillips’s missionary work was providing the black youth and adult populations in Johannesburg access to wholesome leisure and entertainment activities. It is in the pursuit of this goal that they made the greatest impact on popular culture in South Africa. In 1924, he founded the Bantu Men Social Center, at 1 Eloff Street, in the heart of downtown Johannesburg, where South African musicians like Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Kippie Moeketsi, Miriam Makeba, and many others, played their first concerts and built successful careers performing for mixed audiences. It became known as the only place where young blacks could access a tennis court (information from my old friend and mentor, the late Dr. Stephen Kalamazoo Mokone) and watch boxing matches and performances by touring American Jazz bands and athletes. Mrs. Esme Matshikiza, also a graduate of the Jan Hofmeyr School, said this about the center: “The Bantu Men Social Center was very much the meeting place in the 40s and 50s … Very vital meeting place. People automatically met there. Everybody used to come there. It was really great.”

It is the place where many upwardly mobile blacks like the Sisulus, the Mandelas and others, had their wedding receptions and other special social occasions. In countering the critics who often claim that the action of Liberals like Ray Phillips was solely geared toward turning black people away from politics, one can point out that it is under the very roof of the Bantu Men Social Center that the very dynamic Youth League of the ANC was formed in 1946 by Anton Lembede, Peter Mda and Walter Sisulu. Ray played an equally nurturing role in the life of many pioneers of Black literature in South Africa: Peter Abrahams, the Dhlomo brothers, and many others satisfied their thirst for literature at the rich library of the BMSC, as it was commonly known among the black population of Johannesburg.

Ray was also a pioneer in establishing film viewership among blacks in South Africa with his introduction of movie nights first in the mine compounds and later at other venues around the city. This model is often cited by film historians of the former British colonies in Southern Africa. Charlie Chaplin, known as “Sidakwa” (the drunk little man, in Zulu) quickly became the audience favorite.

When I was informed that the Phillips would be honored, I contacted their granddaughter, Ann Phillips, a 1972 graduate of Carleton College, where I teach. She wrote to President Ramaphosa’s office about the tremendous honor it is for her late grandparents to be given this prestigious award.  Anne Philips and her brother, Ray, and some cousins would attend the ceremony in Pretoria on April 25 at the Presidential Guesthouse. In the end, nine grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the event, 70 years after Ray and Dora left South Africa. The visit by the Philips descendants and this official recognition generated a lot of excitement among both older and younger generations of social workers, in the UCCSA-South Africa Synod and at the Department of Social Development of UNISA and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. An annual memorial lecture and other educational activities are now being jointly planned for the future.

Further Reading