Alfred Temba Qabula was born on 12 December 1942 in Flagstaff, Bhalasi in Pondoland to Solomon and Nonkhululeko Qabula. Qabula’s father worked as a machine-handler in the mines in Johannesburg. His father died in 1949 after someone allegedly poisoned his drink. His mother died a few years later. Qabula and his two brothers went to live with his father’s parents. After his mother died, money became an issue for Qabula and his younger brother, Mtu. As a result they would take turns to go to school on alternative days – one would go to school one day and the other would tend the cattle.
Qabula was taken in to live with the O’Rielleys – friends of his fathers. A month later, his younger brother moved to Port St Johns to live with his elder brother who was working at a local hotel. When Qabula completed his standard six he applied to Kokstad Vocationary School to train as a plumber. In 1957 Qabula’s elder brother got married and they returned to their home in Flagstaff.
Qabula first became aware of national politics in 1959 at the age of 17 when the troubles facing the African National Congress (ANC) became a regular talking point in his village. In 1960, a meeting was held on Ngquza Hill where the problems facing the people of Pondoland were discussed. However, the meeting turned into a riot when a policeman shot an African man. This incident triggered what became known as the Pondoland Rebellion. During this time Qabula and his family lived in the forests near their homes where they would hide during the day. At night, along with others from their village, they would patrol their homes to ensure all was still in order. It was during this time that Qabula joined the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).
In 1964 Qabula left his home and travelled to Carltonville where he had been promised a plumbing job. After a few months of work, Qabula was attacked and shot in the leg by a group of men from the Russians’ gang, one of who was his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. Qabula and his assailants were taken to hospital where Qabula attacked the ex-boyfriend. He was discharged from the hospital and charged with assault. After five-days of cross-examination the court found Qabula not guilty. The next year Qabula left his plumbing job in Carltonville and took a job with La Lucia Homes Construction at Mount Edgecombe. In 1966 he joined General Plumbers which operated out of Red Hill, Durban.
Very soon after changing jobs, Qabula became engaged. On 22 November 1967, Qabula’s fiancé, Mavis, gave birth to their daughter. However, by mid-1968, due to problems over the labola, the two had split up. After the split, Qabula was summoned to appear at Vermulam court where the court ruled that the two were not to marry and Mavis’ father was to repay the labola. After the two families met, it was decided that the labola would not be repaid but Qabula did not have to pay maintenance and the child could join his family whenever she wanted. On 2 January 1972 Qabula married Nellie Nqunqa. On 3 March 1973 their first child, Noduma, was born. In April 1975 Msawenkosi was born followed by Nokukhanya in August 1977.
In 1974, Qabula left General Plumbers and joined Dunlop where he began working as a forklift truck driver at their factory in Durban, a job he held for 13 years. In 1976 Qabula organised the forklift truck drivers and they joined the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU). Through their ceaseless fight at Dunlop they managed to secure an increase in merit bonuses from R2.00 to R23.00. By 1982 many workers at Dunlop had joined MAWU. In February 1983, Dunlop management agreed that the Union could get entry to the factory and in March an official agreement was signed. The workers elected 15 shop stewards – 3 for each department. Qabula was elected as one of the shop stewards from his department.
In 1984 after a go-slow at the factory, Dunlop fired all the workers. Qabula was part of the MAWU negotiating team sent to meet with the Dunlop management. In 1986 Qabula requested not to be re-elected as a shop steward as he had starting working in the Worker’s Cultural Local with the workers to write about their lives and experiences.
In 1987 he resigned from Dunlop and began working full time in the Culture and Working Life Project at the University of Natal. During this time his poetry was widely published. In the early 1990s, funding for cultural projects began to dry up and, facing unemployment, Qabula returned to his home in Flagstaff.
In 1998 Qabula suffered his first stroke. He suffered a second stroke at the beginning of 2002, and on 8 October 2002 Qabula died at the Lusikisiki Hospital.