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Zachariah Keodirelang "ZK" Matthews (1901 - May 1968) was a prominent black academic in South Africa, lecturing at Fort Hare University, where many future leaders of the African continent were among his students.

Z.K. was born in Winter's Rush near Kimberley in 1901, the son of a Bamangwato mineworker. Z.K. grew up in urban Kimberley, but maintained close connections with his mother’s rural Barolong relatives. He went to high school in the eastern Cape where he attended Lovedale. After Lovedale he studied at Fort Hare University, and in 1923 he wrote the external examination of the University of South Africa.

In 1925 he was appointed head of the high school at Adams College in Natal, where Albert Luthuli was also a teacher. With Luthuli he attended meetings of the Durban Joint Council and held office in the Natal Teacher’s Association, of which he eventually became President.

It was while he was in Natal that he met, fell in love with, and in 1928 married Frieda Bokwe, daughter of John Knox Bokwe.

In 1930 after private study, he earned an LLB degree in South Africa, a degree he was awarded once again by the University of South Africa. He was admitted as an attorney and practiced for a short time in Alice. In 1933 he was invited to study at Yale University in the United States, and there in the following year he completed an MA. He then went on to spend a year at the London School of Economics where he studied anthropology under Bronisław Malinowski.

He returned to South Africa in 1935 and in 1936 was appointed Lecturer in Social Anthropology and Native Law and Administration at Fort Hare University. After D.D.T. Jabavu’s retirement in 1944, Z.K. was promoted to Professor and became head of Fort Hare’s Department of African Studies.

Z.K. did not confine himself to academic studies; he combined his study of anthropology and the law with an active political involvement. He found his true political home in the ANC. He had attended meetings of Congress as a boy in the company of Sol Plaatje, a senior relative, but it was only in 1940 that he became a member of the organisation. In 1943 he was elected to the National Executive Committee and at the same time he became a member of the Native Representative Council, a purely advisory body that has been condemned as a “toy telephone” and which Z.K. found generally frustrating, although he found dealing with the Native Education Act of 1945 a “valuable experience” not for the process but for the people he met. In June 1949 Z.K. succeeded James Calata as ANC provincial president in the Cape.

In June 1952, on the eve of the Defiance Campaign, he left South Africa, and took up a position as visiting professor at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. He returned home in May 1953, and although he was not present at the Congress of the People in 1955 he assisted Lionel 'Rusty' Bernstein draw up the Freedom Charter that was adopted there.

Z.K. was arrested in December 1956, and was one of the accused in the Treason Trial. On his release from the trial in late 1958, he returned to Fort Hare, but resigned his post in protest against the passing of legislation which reduced the university to an ethnic college for the Xhosa community only. In 1961 he moved to Geneva to become secretary of the Africa division of the World Council of Churches. In 1966 he accepted the post of Botswana ambassador to the United States and he died there in Washington in May 1968.

An interview with Matthews conducted by George M. Houser in September 1954 is available at http://www.africanactivist.msu.edu

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