The Great Unrest 1917 remembered
Centenary celebrations of the Bolshevik Revolution will be held in October this year. Although this event occurred in Russia, thousands of kilometres away from here, it had a tremendous effect on the life of African people, especially those who fought against the colonial and apartheid regimes.
Strong alliances with the Soviet Union were formed. Umkhonto Wesizwe (MK) guerrillas – excluding Kebby Maphatsoe – received training in some of the states that made up the former Soviet Union. One of its products, the famous AK47 has greatly mobilised protesters and led to the composition of the song Awuleth’ Umshini Wam (bring my AK47), which Number 1 bellows with gusto whenever he’s faced with some kind of trouble.
Rhini (for I will not call her Grahamstown again) has her own 100th anniversary to mark this year.
On 23 April 1917, about 500 Black residents from the ‘Hottentot location’, Fingo Village, and the municipal locations marched up High Street to confront resident magistrate L. Harrison with a list of demands. Local press headlined the event, ‘Great Unrest: Sensation of years’.
What caused discontent?
Protesters led by M Sulani, J Safiso and J Naki listed the following grievances: Justice: There was a frequent failure of justice where a European was charged with killing a Native.
Lease agreement: Although residents of Fingo Village and Hottentot Location held title deeds, they had to pay a quitrent (tax) of 5 shillings per annum. Residents of the municipal locations, on the other hand, paid 16 shillings per annum.
In 1911 the city council introduced curfew in order, they claimed, to reduce incidents of housebreaking in white neighbourhoods.
Further regulations includ- Lindinxiwa Mahlasela and Yandiswa Mkrweqe
ed prohibition of the brewing umqhombothi, the famous nutritious African beer, and prohibition of squatting after 1912.
Importantly, the area experienced drought at the turn of the century and Rhini had severe water shortages. The problem was so serious that residents had to fetch water from the municipality tanks once every two weeks.
Water shortages led to serious health problems. There was ‘prevalence of tuberculosis, as well as regular outbreaks of small pox and bubonic plague’ in the townships.
A special committee that investigated conditions in the townships was appalled by lack of sanitation and the helplessness of the inhabitants so much so that “the sick and the dying crawl out and defecate as near as possible to the hut they live in”.
‘Shoot the K....s’
The white community was shocked by the marchers. They did not expect that Blacks would ever had the courage to confront the white establishment. The march brought back memories of the Frontier Wars.
Also, conspiracy theories quickly surfaced. There was a rumour that the Germans who the British were fighting in the First World War (1914-1918) were behind the protests. They adopted a ‘shoot the k...r’ attitude.
First, Harrison with the help of Colonel du Toit ordered that the protesters must disarm and return to the locations. This order was defied. He agreed to meet an unarmed delegation the following day. This compromise was accepted by the protesters and they returned to their locations.
This did not appease the white community, though. Du Toit hastily recruited police reinforcements and more than 100 civilians were sworn in as special constables on the spot.
An armed crowd of about a thousand police and civilians attacked the locations that afternoon.
Remember, Blacks were not allowed to carry weapons. As a result, one Black was killed and 20 arrested. Thus a whole white community squashed a protest for services that Harrison described as ‘a great piece of cheek’.
Unsurprisingly the Black middle class distanced itself from the protest march. NG Nyalusa a prominent teacher, firmly dissociated “the better class of the Grahamstown natives from the actions of the rude mob”. Samuel Danga declared that there was no intention of removing the government which he describes as “our father”.
How can this event be remembered?
On Wednesday, 19 April 2017, Rhodes University Isikhumbuzo History Applied Unit and Albany Museum hosted an Imbizo to share ideas about ways in which this event can be remembered.
The discussion was graced by the presence of Makana Municipality's Mayor, Nomhle Gaga. Three issues were raised:
Silenced histories like this one must be taught at schools.
The courage with which the protesters demonstrated against colonial government must be memorialised.
That the challenges faced by the municipality are a legacy of colonial and apartheid regimes.
The History section of the museum is working on a plan to have installations erected to remember the courage of the protesters.
• Lindinxiwa Mahlasela and Yandiswa Mkrweqe work for the Albany Museum’s History Section.