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Born in Belstone, near King William's Town, Sebe worked first as a school teacher before being appointed as a school principal in 1954. In 1968, Sebe was elected as a representative of the Ama Ntinde Tribe in the Ciskeian Territorial Authority and became responsible for Educational and Cultural Affairs, before transferring to the Agriculture portfolio in 1971.
Sebe founded the Ciskei National Independent Party and contested Ciskei's inaugural election in February 1973. He was elected to the Zwelitsha electorate and succeeded Chief Justice Mabandla to become the second Chief Minister of Ciskei on May 21, 1973. He would then become President when Ciskei was granted nominal independence from South Africa on 4 December 1981. Sebe declared himself President for Life in 1983.
Sebe was faced with leading an economically unviable state, with a population of one million, many of them Xhosa forced to relocate to the bantustan in the 1970s, during South Africa's apartheid regime.
Immediately upon independence, Sebe consolidated power in a dictatorship, supported by the 1,000-strong military forces. He crushed all opposition, including bitter protests against a transit fare strike in 1983 (most residents worked outside the bantustan, and relied on public transportation to get them to work). That same year, Sebe's brother, Lieutenant General Charles Sebe, head of Ciskei's intelligence service, attempted to overthrow the government. Though Charles Sebe was arrested, he escaped from prison in 1986 and made his way to nearby Transkei, where he continued to agitate against the regime. In 1987, he orchestrated the kidnapping of Sebe's son Khwane, who was held prisoner in Transkei until Sebe agreed to release political prisoners in exchange for his son.
Sebe visited Israel on several occasions during his presidency and established a trade office in Tel Aviv that was run by two Israelis with ties to the Gush Emunim Israeli settler movement. During this period, the Ciskeian capital, Bisho, signed a sister-city agreement with the settlement community of Ariel in the West Bank. Sebe once claimed that Israel had granted official recognition to Ciskei, although the Israeli Foreign Ministry denied this.
- Sasha Polakow-Suransky, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, (New York: Pantheon Books), 2010, p. 157.