George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba was born in 1912 in Korsten, Port Elizabeth. As a young child, the walls of his home and neighbourhood were his canvas. Soot, shoe polish and clay were his medium. His father realised that his son had a great talent. Pencils, crayon and paper replaced walls and soot.
He won an art competition at a local agricultural show, and then expanded his repertoire to drawing portraits based on photographs, for which he earned pocket money. In 1924, Pemba won a Grey Scholarship to Paterson School, where he spent hours in the library studying art books. It was a very difficult time for artists, and specifically black artists, to make a living. He had to put his passion for painting on hold and studied to become a teacher. At age 19, in 1931 he obtained a Teacher's Diploma at the Lovedale Training College in the Eastern Cape. That same year he began working for the Lovedale Printing Press, and continued to work there until 1936.
His art was noticed by Reverend Dr Shepherd, the director of the Lovedale Press and chaplain of Lovedale College. Shepherd asked the teenager for his permission to use a watercolour as the frontispiece (the decorative illustration facing the book's title page) of the book U-Nolishwa, by Henry Ndawo, and commissioned Pemba to prepare illustrations for the book. It was the first book known to be written, illustrated, printed and bound by persons of colour.
He taught at the Wesleyan Mission School in King William's Town in 1935. He also taught art to children at the S.A. Institute of Race Relations (Gauteng). The following year he studied under Professor Austin Winter Moore for five months at Rhodes University, made possible through a bursary awarded from the Bantu Welfare Trust. During the 1940s he worked for the Department of Native Administration in Port Elizabeth as a clerk. Painting remained his first love and in the late 1940s he left his clerical job, taking up painting as a profession with the encouragement of fellow artists Gerard Sekoto and John Mohl.
A highly successful exhibition of paintings from the 1940s onwards, was held at The Everard Read Gallery. Pemba was awarded a second bursary in 1941. This time he spent two weeks at Maurice van Essche's studio in Cape Town attending art classes. In 1944 Pemba was quoted as writing: 'I do not know if ever I will become a great artist, but an artist of my own nation I surely am to be ...'
Pemba pushed the boundaries by having his first solo exhibition in East London in 1948, at that time South Africa was tightening its screws on racial segregation, and classing black people with second-class citizenship. When Pemba exhibited at the Eastern Province Art Association's annual exhibition in 1965, this provoked undisguised racial hostility toward him. Despite indifference from the mainstream art world, which regarded his work at as colloquial, and antipathy from the apartheid government which, given the pre-ordained prescriptions of the apartheid ideology, saw his profession as inappropriate for a 'native', Pemba continued to paint and sell his work.
Pemba’s wife, Eunice helped to supplement the family's income by running a 'house shop'. From 1952 to 1978 he supplemented his income selling groceries in a shop. Age 67, in 1979 the University of Fort Hare conferred an honorary Masters degree on him for his contribution to South African art.
In 1992 an exhibition served to commemorate his 80th birthday, which was also celebrated with the artist at the Nelson Mandela Art Gallery in Port Elizabeth.
Pemba died in 2001 in Motherwell, aged 89. He never left South African soil, choosing instead to practice his craft by documenting the lives of oppressed South Africans living under the apartheid regime. The artist was also a playwright, and two of his works were staged. When he died Pemba was one of the country's most revered artists. Some of his best works were done in watercolours, his favourite medium, but at the behest of another great South African artist, Gerard Sekoto, Pemba also experimented with oil paint. The scope of his contribution, to the arts, was acknowledged by the South African Presidency in October 2004, when the Order of Ikhamanga, Gold (1), was posthumously conferred on him for his pioneering, and exceptional, contribution to the development of the art of painting and literature.
In 2012, a century after Pemba was born, the South African post office paid tribute to him by issuing a set of 10 stamps, and a miniature sheet, of Pemba’s best known artworks.
(1) The Order of Ikhamanga is a South African honour. It was instituted on 30 November 2003 and is granted by the President of South Africa for achievements in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism, and sports (which were initially recognised by the Order of the Baobab). The order has three classes:
Gold (OIG), for exceptional achievement,
Silver (OIS), for excellent achievement,
Bronze (OIB), for outstanding achievement.
"Ikhamanga" is the Xhosa name for the strelitzia flower.