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Records of YMCA international work in South Africa

Identifier: Y.USA.9-2-38


Includes correspondence, minutes, reports, financial documents, pamphlets, maps, journal and newspaper articles and other records of the YMCA movement in South Africa, particularly Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town, Natal and Kimberley. Much of the collection involves the discussion of racial relations throughout South Africa, primarily between the Bantu, Afrikander and British populations but there is mention of an Indian population as well. There is much in the way of discussion about the YMCA's stand on civil rights especially when faced with apartheid in South Africa. There are many reports in the collection on the World Council of YMCAs' stance against apartheid and the way that the YMCA helped the South African citizens affected by the process of "separate development." There are also some reports on the 1988 program Youth In Exile which supplied assistance to the displaced youth living as refugees due to the economic and military destabilization efforts of the South African government. Other topics include the Bantu Education Act, the Chiappini Street Boys Club, the WWII War Work Campaign, the Jan H. Hofmeyer School of Social Work, the Ga-Rankuwa Youth Center Project, the Interracial Student Christian Conference, the South African Exile Repatriation Program and the introduction of the PLATO Learning System to the education programs. The primary people mentioned in this collection and throughout the correspondence are John Raleigh Mott, Oswin Boys Bull, Max Yergan, T. R. Ponsford, Ronald van Buuren, John Hunt, Godfrey Coetz and David Hunter.

Early correspondence refers often to American YMCA secretary Max Yergan, his role in the Students' Christian Association (SCA), and the attempt to get him into South Africa as a secretary. Also documented is a 1927 gift of 25,000 dollars from John D. Rockefeller Jr. for the construction of a building in Alice, Cape Province, South Africa. There is also discussion of the interracial student Christian conference that took place within this building, unique occurrence in South Africa at this time due to the racial tension in the country. After Yergan's resignation the records reflect discussion of a Carnegie donation made in order to pay part of the salary of an African traveling student secretary replacement for Yergan and other expenses.

T. R. Ponsford and his placement by the World's Committee are another topic of the correspondence, along with his involvement with a massive war work campaign just before and during World War II. There is discussion of the YMCA's joint effort with Talbot House (Toc H), another international Christian association, for a World War II war work effort. This effort spanned across South and East Africa, Egypt and into Italy. The creation of the Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work, and the programs that it entailed are also documented during this time period.


  • Creation: 1870-1991.


Language of Materials

English, Afrikaans

Use of Materials:

This collection is protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright, ownership, and to obtain all the necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials.


In 1865 the first South African YMCA was founded in Cape Town, primarily to serve British young men who had come to South Africa as employees in British firms or as permanent settlers. This association had the backing of some of the most influential families in the country. The movement spread to Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg. In 1896 Luther Wishard visited the continent of Africa as part of his missionary tours and organized a Student Christian Movement in South Africa, on the basis of linking together students of all races. As early as 1900, not long after the South African War, approaches were made to the North American associations and the YMCA's International Committee to appoint a YMCA secretary to Johannesburg. In 1906 John R. Mott agreed to see whether a traveling secretary could be obtained for students in that region. For many years both the International Committee and the North American associations were urged in various directions throughout the whole of Africa, but no direct actions were taken to place a secretary in South Africa until Max Yergan was sent to serve there in 1921.

Yergan had been secretary of the "Colored Men's" Department of the International Committee and then served with the association in its war work in India, East Africa, and France. Once in South Africa, he initially focused his time primarily with the the special committee for work in native institutions and in studying the whole problem of the needs of the South African young men. He gave his time primarily to African students, but also encouraged night schools, recreation, promoted sanitation and religious education among members of the association and to villages throughout South Africa. By 1924 there were 24 associations with a membership of over 2,000. In 1925 Yergan obtained E. M. Ncwana, a well educated young African clergyman, to be his associate and temporary replacement during a furlough. By 1931 Yergan had two African associates, forty associations and a total membership of about 3,250. Over 2,000 participated in Bible study groups and between 400 and 500 were in various types of social service programs.

In 1927 a Rockefeller gift of 25,000 dollars allowed for a building to be constructed in Alice, Cape Province. The land was given by the South African Native College at Fort Hare and the building was to be a center for all YMCA activities in South Africa. The building was completed in 1930 and an interracial student Christian conference was held there, with 285 Bantu, Afrikander, British and Indian students in attendance. They met for a week, spoke frankly and participated in a conference that was unprecedented in its intermixing of various racial groups that existed in South Africa. This conference was considered to be a momentous and the peak achievement of Yergan's service in South Africa.

Yergan resigned in 1936, partly due to his health but also partly due to his dissent from the racial policy of the government of the Union of South Africa. He was convinced that his conviction would force him to speak out and that as an alien in Africa he would be an embarrassment to the enterprise which he had nourished. Yergan's resignation raised the question as to whether the North American associations should continue their involvement with South Africa. It was eventually decided that an African, S. Mosese, would carry on as secretary. A gift from the Carnegie Foundation helped to accommodate this and also helped to keep the Fort Hare building in repair.

The English National Council also had a representative in South Africa, T. R. Ponsford, who was appointed by the World's Committee. He was helping to rebuild the association movement, especially for Europeans. Ponsford became the National Secretary for YMCAs for the Union of South Africa and the World's Committee Consultative Secretary for Africa. He reorganized the South African Council and made a plan to develop YMCA work among both the Europeans and the Africans. The North American association knew that their assistance would be welcome in training Bantu YMCA secretaries especially, but they also knew that an African American would not be acceptable for this role. As it was only an African American that the North American association was interested in sending and as the North American International Board of YMCAs did not wish to give financial assistance to a country where it did not have an authorized representative, in 1940 the North American International Board terminated its official connections in South Africa.

In the 1940s the South African National Council of YMCAs was established. In 1941 the Jan H. Hofmeyr School of Social Work was started. Initially 22 African students were picked to go through courses in social and economic problems, elementary sociology, social legislation, personal hygiene, community health, the problems of family life, individual and social psychology, the technique and practice of social case work, social pathology, modern penology, leisure time organization, Christian social teachings, the conduct of bible classes and Sunday schools, musical appreciation, dramatics, arts and crafts, physical education and so on. Actual field work also supplemented classroom instruction. Some students from the initial graduating class were selected to teach future classes. The South African National Council of YMCAs selected a general committee made up of individuals of different races to have control of the activities of the school. The school also was granted recognition by the South African Union.

During World War II the YMCA, along with Toc H (otherwise known as Talbot House), another international Christian movement, organized an extensive war work campaign that stretched from the South African Union through East Africa into Egypt and eventually into Italy. Initially dry canteens were set up along with games, tables, radio and cinema equipment. The war services were for Europeans as well as Africans and 80,000 Italian war prisoners.On top of the war work campaign, a Bantu men's social center was begun in Johannesburg, gamma sigma clubs were spread among 25 centers along the Witwatersrand hills, and classes in sewing, knitting, Sunday schools and work among the Talitha Home and Detention House for Delinquent Native Girls, which had been established previously, remained active.

The war work proved advantageous in that the YMCA gained a lot of public support and was subsequently able to build many new structure. After the war, with the retirement of Ponsford, Ronald van Buuren became the National General Secretary and Richard J. Rathebe the Associate African Secretary. In 1950 due to the overwhelming nature of the post war work and lack of financial resources Rathebe resigned and van Buuren became the General secretary of Johannesburg as well as National Secretary.

In the mid-1950s the YMCA was operating in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, and Cape Town. With the onset of apartheid in 1948 it became increasingly difficult to serve the various nationalities throughout South Africa at the same time. Programs became increasingly segregated and Europeans and Afrikanders began to dominate the YMCAs membership. The YMCA strove to include the Bantu population through use of the Bantu Education Act and the Chiappini Street Boys' Club. They also wished to connect to the African community as a whole and strove towards active African leadership in order to accomplish this. Throughout the 1950s the YMCA concentrated on the needs of non-Europeans. By use of literacy classes, informal education classes, courses in shorthand and typing, and training in leadership the YMCA attempted to fulfill some of the needs of the native African population and prepare them for life in their communities.

By 1965 the YMCA in South Africa had locations in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town, Natal and Kimberley. It was also expected that they would soon be opening in Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Dundee and Alice, where a students' Christian association had already existed. By 1978 building and development projects became prevalent, the Ga-Rankuwa youth center project was among many that were designed to serve multiple purposes for their communities including, a social center, a cultural training center, a vocational training center, a place for a children's creche, hot and cold showers, a literacy program, physical education and recreation programs and leadership development programs. In 1979 the YMCA chose to install the PLATO learning system in Soweto, South Africa. This computer based learning system was considered a solution to the poor quality of educational services provided by the South African Department of Bantu Education and Training. The recipients for this training were between the ages of fourteen and thirty and within the capability of grades four through ten. Supplementary training was offered to 490 government school dropouts, fifty secondary school teachers and eighty first and second year university students as supplementary academic training.

In 1985 the World Council of YMCAs passed a resolution condemning the South African government's policy of apartheid as a crime and "a permanent violation of all human dignity and of the most elementary civil rights." South African YMCAs solidified their policies towards racial integration, both in membership at the YMCAs and in the employees of the YMCAs. They promoted education of young Africans whose potential had been impaired by the process of "separate development." The YMCA also selected a joint task force for action on apartheid whose responsibilities were to to follow up on the recommendations and agreements emerging from the World Alliance delegation's visit to South Africa and the international meeting on apartheid. The YMCA also began a Youth In Exile project that provided services to youth who were displaced and living as refugees in the countries bordering South Africa due to the economic and military destabilization efforts of the South African government.

In 2007 the South African YMCA went through an in-depth consultative process of revisioning and emerged with a clear direction on timely social relevance and sustainability. The South African YMCA also started the Global Operating Plan process in 2008 and began working with the Canadian YMCA, the United States YMCA, and the International and Swedish YMCA/YWCA.

(Historical information largely adapted and quoted from World Service: A History of the Foreign Work and World Service of the Young Men's Christian Associations of the United States and Canada, (New York: Association Press, 1957) by Kenneth Scott Latourette, from the collection, and from "YMCA Africa Alliance, South Africa YMCA profile" (


2.7 Cubic Feet (9 boxes)


Correspondence, minutes, reports, financial documents, pamphlets, maps, journal and newspaper articles and other records of the YMCA movement in South Africa, particularly Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town, Natal and Kimberley.


Personal papers of Max Yergan are separately cataloged in the Kautz Family YMCA Archives.

Processing Information:

Processed as part of Fast Processing Project II, March 2009, as collection FP038. Material has been minimally processed. Folder descriptions may be general and material has not been grouped into series.

Catalog Record ID number: 6412118

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Finding aid prepared by Lara Friedman-Shedlov and Melanie Doherty.
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