The Sunday Independent
A d ismal black response to racism
Non-racialism blunted analysis
MANNING Marable once remarked the tragedy of the early 20th century black intelligentsia in South Africa was its inability to comprehend the full meaning of white racism.
I argue the situation is worse than that. Ever since blacks entered the annals of South African history in the nineteenth century as “Savages”, “Caffres”, “Tambookies”, “Fingoes”, “Bechuanas”, and generally as “native tribes”, the black elite, in the form of chiefs and black Christian converts, have consistently misread, misunderstood, and mistook white racism for something it was not – a white benefactor. For instance, Ngqika, the Xhosa chief known to his English allies as “Gaika”, “signed” an exploitative treaty in 1798 with the government of the Cape Colony agreeing to racial segregation. It was with Ngqika’s blessings that the British settlers expelled blacks from the land between the Great Fish River and the Keiskamma in the early 19th century.
Black Christian converts of the 19th century, who gave birth to the black intelligentsia of the late 19th century and early 20th century, used a religious syncretism to make sense of colonial violence that went handin-hand with white racism. Nxele or Makana, recognised as the first prominent Xhosa prophet, embodied the religious syncretic tradition. Imagining himself to be the brother of
Jesus Christ, it is reported that Nxele claimed whites were banished from Europe because they had killed the son of God, and thus blacks were justified to drive whites into the sea. It was this confused mix of ideologies that led to one of the Frontier Wars in 1819 in Grahamstown. Nongqawuse resurrected Nxele’s ideology in the mid19th century with catastrophic consequences. The historical record shows Nongqawuse as an unhinged purveyor of bad ideas who went around telling a false narrative that the Xhosa had to kill their cattle and destroy all their food stores because it was supposedly contaminated by witchcraft.
Nongqawuse further promised that whites and blacks who did not believe in her deranged vision would be swept into the sea. According to Jeff Peires, Nongqawuse’s prophecy resulted in famine throughout the Eastern Cape. After this d, the Xhosa resistance against the British unravelled.
A black Christian convert that whites found palatable was Ntsikana.
Ntsikana was a counsellor to Ngqika and supported Ngqika’s alliance with the British settlers. Ntsikana fundamentally disagreed with everything that Nxele stood for, and for that whites held him up as an exemplary “native”. A protégé of Joseph Williams – a missionary from the London Missionary Society – Ntsikana left a lasting legacy of racial accommodationist politics and a self-defeating political practice of forming political alliances with paternalistic white liberals.
The late 19th century and early 20th century black intelligentsia were influenced by Ntsikana’s racial accommodationist politics. John Knox Bokwe, one of the leading black intellectuals of the time, wrote a book on Ntsikana, titled Ibali lika Ntsikana.
Bokwe writes that the story of Ntsikana forms a link “between that period of utter darkness, such as I have described, and now the dawning epoch of civilisation”. According to Bokwe, the “old Soga”, the father of Tiyo Soga, embraced Ntsikana’s teachings. Bokwe adds that Soga went as far as to introduce in his own village family morning and evening prayers as per Ntsikana’s teaching. Moreover, “it was Soga’s family and relatives who formed the first nucleus of a Christian Native congregation when the European missionaries arrived to settle at the Gwali Mission Station”, writes Bokwe.
Bokwe was a member of the first black intelligentsia created by white missionaries. By the 1870s, white missionary schools such as Healdtown, Lovedale, and Adams Training College produced a vibrant African pastorate that effectively became the first black intelligentsia in South Africa.
Other members of this black intelligentsia included Tiyo Soga, Charles Pamla, John Lwana and James Lwana.
This black intelligentsia largely subscribed to Ntsikana’s racial accommodationist politics. For instance, Jabavu supported John Xavier Merriman and the South African Party.
Through the financial support of white benefactors such as James RoseInnes and JW Weir, Jabavu founded the newspaper Imvo ZabaNtsundu.
Sol Plaatjie, a founder of the ANC and one of the leading black intellectuals of the early 20th century, described Imvo as one of the second oldest newspapers “in any one of the South African native languages”.
Plaatjie criticised Jabavu and characterised his politics as “backvelders’ dangerous politics”, which as far as Plaatjie was concerned, did not serve the political interests of black people. According to Plaatjie, Jabavu’s political project was aligned to the agenda of his political “masters” – the South African Party.
Partly because Plaatjie was under the white liberal spell of Cape liberalism, which Plaatjie described as representing “British ideas of fair play and justice”, he, Plaatjie, was forced to reckon with a white nefarious project that became law in 1913. Plaatjie says he woke on June 20, 1913, to find himself a pariah in the land of his birth.
The poignancy of this situation is that Plaatjie is describing a racist project that had been ongoing since the early 19th century, and he still did not recognise how far back that racist project went. Not only was Plaatjie short-sighted when it came to the history of white racism in South Africa, he failed to appreciate what was coming next. Plaatjie claimed “the point before the country now is not segregation, but the Natives’ Land Act of 1913 … That is the measure against which the Native appeals for Imperial protection.”
History shows his appeal to imperial whiteness was a futile exercise.
Plaatjie is not the only 20th century black leader ill-equipped to understand the full meaning of the white supremacist project being advocated for by whites in early 20th century.
John Dube, first president of the ANC, subscribed to Booker T Washington’s racial accommodationist and black self-help politics. Although Pixley Seme was inspired by some of Booker T Washington’s philosophy, Washington’s “conciliatory approach to racial problems” did not appeal to Seme, writes Marable. Alfred B Xuma is reported to have been a disciple of Booker T Washington and thus went around the country preaching black self-help. Although the black intelligentsia fought against the Native Land Act valiantly, their response to racist segregation was disappointing.
The introduction of non-racialism politics by whites in the ANC in the 1950s further blunted the organisation’s race analysis toolbox. Many blacks found Steve Biko’s philosophy of black consciousness refreshing partly because the ANC was not addressing white racism in a way that resonated with their lived experiences.
In post-apartheid South Africa, non-racialism has again, displaced the race analysis of black consciousness. Like the black elites of the past, the post-apartheid black elite have no coherent answer to the legacy of white racism that continues to produce racial inequality and racist segregation in post-apartheid social life.