Saul Sithole started working at the museum in Pretoria on 11 November 1928. It is said that he started out as a cleaner. Saul proudly recalled helping to mount the elephant skeleton that has long been displayed at the entrance of the museum during his first year there.
Sithole’s professional life became specialised around birds when he joined the Vernay-Lang Kalahari Expedition of 1930, a cooperative effort between the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Transvaal Museum.
Saul Sithole was an ornithological assistant to Herbert Lang, a German-born mammologist, naturalist and photo-grapher, who had worked at the American Museum of Natural History and is best known as the leader of the 1909 to 1915 expedition to the Congo rainforest. During Lang’s next expedition to Angola, he remained in Africa and took up a position at the Transvaal Museum in 1927.
Saul Sithole learned to skin birds from Herbert Lang. Even though there were other black ornithological assistants on the team, lead ornithologist Austin Roberts singled out Sithole’s excellent work when he wrote in his report:
“Lang is training the boys to make good skins … Saul is far better than the other skinners and is doing very fine skins.”
Even though the skinners, including Saul Sithole, were doing exceptional work, to their masters and ornithologist they were still described as “natives” and “boys”. Their value was described in terms of their discipline and usefulness, not much as scientists who rendered valuable scientific work. This is how Lang described Saul Sithole’s leadership:
“This native, by his ready willingness to render himself useful and by his good example, assisted in maintaining an excellent discipline and great industry among the skinners.”
Saul Sithole was a city slicker who struggled to establish himself in rural craft during fieldwork. He was an expert in using fine steel, cotton wool, alcohol and arsenic. He would read vigorously to learn about the trade of skinning and preserving birds shot in the field. Sithole would learn the same techniques his superiors learned, honing his technical skills on the job and gaining his bird skinning skills on expeditions where he could observe living birds.
His work with specimens was equal to no one and very precise. His daughter Zondi Zitha recalled her father telling her that once when one of his colleagues did a taxidermy very quickly, Sithole was called in to redo it because it was evident that it did not have his touch. One of Saul Sithole’s co-workers, Matthews Mathabathe, who joined the museum in 1958 explained Sithole’s work ethic better when he said, “He had artistic hands on his work. He was a handyman who could work with any scientist.” One of Sithole’s closest colleagues, Tamar Cassidy, explained that the skill of skinning and preparing birds required a feel for what the bird should look like; Saul Sithole had that sense. Cassidy expanded on this in a conversation with Professor Nancy Jacobs:
“It’s more than a skill. Every bird is different. You have to know the bird. There is certain craft involved in knowing how to deal with that kind of bird or skeleton or wing or whatever it is. The whole point is to make it look presentable, and that is the hard part. Every bird is differently shaped. You have to know the muscles. You have to know the structure of the body. So that when you put it together again, it has to fall into position.”
Sithole was the only assistant who mastered this art. After his expedition with Vernay and Lang, Sithole worked primarily with South Africa’s best-known ornithologist Austin Roberts as his general assistant and chief companion. Austin Roberts is synonymous with birding in South Africa and advocating for indigenous understandings of bird behaviour as a useful tool for collectors. His Birds of South Africa, published in 1940, was the most successful book in ornithology and features names of birds in African languages. Roberts was not without controversy. He intimated that Africans (whom he called “observant natives”) understood birding through superstition and nothing else.
Sithole accompanied Roberts on collecting trips to Vryburg, Grahamstown and a six-week expedition to Zululand (Kwa-Zulu Natal) in 1932. Roberts was so enamoured to Sithole that he wrote glowingly about his work in all his reports, one of which was a February–March 1933 report where he wrote:
“Native Assistant Saul has continued his useful assistance in cleaning skulls and re-making up badly prepared skins for birds.”
Saul Sithole became a valuable companion to Roberts on the 1932 expedition to Zululand. Roberts did not speak Zulu, nor did he understand the local culture. Zondi Zitha recalled that there were times when the locals would not want to help Roberts. She remembered her father telling her about a hippo they trapped in Zululand that the locals would not help to get out of the trap. He went out and pleaded with them in Zulu and they acquiesced. Of course, Sithole was not only helping with the language, he was involved in the science of skinning the birds.
During the 1930 Vernay-Lang expedition, Lang described Sithole as a leader. He was able to lead the team of skinners to diligently work with precision and dedication to produce as many bird skins as possible. This expedition was one of the best as they produced, among other things, thirty thousand bird skins for four museums, namely the Transvaal Museum, the Field Museum of Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the British Museum of Natural History (Natural History Museum) in London.
Sithole learned many skills and he was given new responsibilities at the museum working with fossils as his work was so precise. Until 1934 he had spent six years on mammals and birds, preserving and preparing them for displays. Sithole’s skills were incomparable. He even took on the responsibility of transferring his skills to high-level professional employees of the museum.
Professor Francis Thackeray, the anthropologist who would later become the director of the Transvaal Museum, learned to prepare specimens from Saul Sithole in 1971, when he was almost 20 years old. Professor Thackeray recalled that he and Sithole used to work together at the back of the museum. For obvious reasons, one laboratory had the undeniable smell of dead animals in a large tank filled with water. Sithole made a concoction that he said would offset the stench of the rotting meat. Thackeray remembers going into the room the next day and to his surprise, the smell was gone: “Saul would always say, ‘just one drop, Francis’, and it would work”.
Sithole was involved with many palaeo-anthropological findings while accompanying his supervisors as an assistant. He worked with Dr Robert Broom, a medical doctor who excavated at the Sterkfontein limestone caves. He was present with Broom in August 1936 when the second ever Australopithecus africanus skull (TM 1511) was discovered. It was known as “Mrs Ples” (the first to be found was the “Taung Child”).
Zondi Zitha recalled that her father was very proud of his zoological and paleontological work at Sterkfontein. He became invested in the challenge, she recalled.
During the 1937 Barlow-Transvaal Museum expedition to South-West Africa (Namibia) with Roberts and the herpetologist Vivian FitzSimons, Sithole collected insects and trapped small mammals and birds. He was pleased to have trapped two of the rare birds while Austin Roberts only trapped one. His proudest moment, which he will later relate to entomologist Charles Koch during their trip to Angola in 1956, was when he showed Austin Roberts how to collect black and white striped beetles in the dunes of Namibia. Roberts acknowledged Sithole’s rare find in the South African ornithological journal called the Ostrich.
In 1938 he travelled with Dutch scientists to the Kruger National Park to collect blood samples from giraffes. From 1939 to 1940 Sithole and Austin Roberts took a four-month expedition trip to the southern Cape where they were involved in a car crash that knocked him unconscious and injured Roberts slightly. He travelled very little after this trip. He would concentrate on improving the quality successful 1937 expedition with Austin Roberts and Vivian FitzSimons in South West Africa, Saul Sithole undertook a few more expeditions across the African continent, and returned back to South West Africa during 1952 zoological expedition to Katima Mulilo.
Saul made his last two expeditions for the museum in 1956. His trusted confidante Austin Roberts had died from a heart attack while driving in 1948, while Robert Broom had ceased to work at the Sterkfontein caves. Saul’s last expedition was to the Blouberg region of what is now Limpopo with ornithologist O.P.M. Prozesky, where he squeezed in a visit to the Rain Queen. Saul was gifted a sheep to slaughter.
Science and racial segregation
As skilled as Saul Sithole was in scientific work, even going as far as teaching his white senior colleagues who were seasoned scientists some tools of the trade at the museum and on expeditions, he could not become a scientist because he was black.
Sithole was different from his black colleagues who worked at the museum. Makawe’s and Mathabathe’s understanding of birds was in indigenous knowledge, whereas Sithole worked in a more scientific capacity with birds and fossils. He was close to white scientists and thus the knowledge of science. He still had to know his place as a black man in a segregated South Africa. His many expeditions with white scientists only offered him relief from carrying a Dompas, but he still had to sleep under a tree with a knife during these expeditions, unlike the scientists who carried government-sponsored guns for protection and slept under the safety of tents.
Zondi Zitha believed that had her father had the opportunity, he would have enjoyed a deeper engagement with science. Even Zitha herself could have followed in her father’s footsteps and become a scientist. She was well-versed and had an interest in her father’s work and knew as much about ornithology and anthropology from him. He pointed out rock formations and bird calls to his daughter. He created his own cabinet of natural history at his home, with a replica of “Mrs Ples”.
There is no record of Saul Sithole challenging the authority of the white scientists he travelled with on matters of race and segregation. The only record of him being angry at authority was when he was blamed for the car accident that injured Roberts and a subsequent ban on his driving.
The above is an extract from Lorato Trok’s The Forgotten Scientist: The Story of Saul Sithole (Jacana Media, 2020).
Lorato Trok is an early literacy consultant and expert in developing reading for pleasure books for young children, especially in African languages. She holds qualifications in Languages and Literature (Majoring in Creative Writing) and Advanced Editing. Lorato is a published author of 14 children’s picture books and biographer of Young Adults non-fiction books, originated in both Setswana and English and translated into other South African languages. Some of the story books she has translated in Setswana through the African Storybook Initiative (www.africanstorybook.org) are prescribed reading for enjoyment books in the North West Province. In 2005 Lorato was invited to help launch the “Reading Africa” programme at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Washington, D.C. She is currently a Managing Editor at Puku Children’s Literature Foundation.