Petitions, politics, and the African Christian converts of the nineteenth century
in Worlding the south

This chapter demonstrates how Indigenous peoples in Africa could mobilise missionary networks, print technologies, and new literacies to develop their own cultural and political agency through the genre of the petition. In its multiple iterations, the petition marked the sites of contestation between not just converts and the British government but also black professionals, black journalists, black clergy, and other marginalised groups in the emerging literary culture of nineteenth-century South Africa. Even ‘illiterate’ African kings would occasionally appear as signatories to such petitions. As a genre of political writing, the petition serves not only the function of delineating the political from the civil, but, as this chapter shows, is in itself a sign of the penetration of literature into the consciousness and daily experiences of those who were by law British subjects but who were in practice excluded from the colonial privileges that accompanied subjugation.

It is not too much to say, that the intercourse of Europeans in general, without any exception in favour of the subjects of Great Britain, has been, unless when attended by missionary exertions, a source of many calamities to uncivilized nations. (Aborigines Protection Society [House of Commons], 1837, 3–4)

The demise of the word ‘liberal’, and the increasing opprobrium that is heaped upon it, is a consequence, in part, of its unchecked relationship to the history of colonialism. This failure of a political idea to take root in imperial outposts is, however, not a simple matter of hypocrisy, double-dealing, or inadequacy.1 In the case of South Africa, the failure can be attributed to the fact that some of the country’s earliest and most earnest ‘liberals’ were ‘black’, and the difficulty has often been in understanding how these black writers and thinkers contributed to the liberal tradition and why at some point they abandoned this tradition in favour of more radical and revolutionary ideas.2 This forgotten history of liberalism and the liberal tradition means that almost by definition the word ‘liberal’ has come to mean ‘a well-meaning white person’ in South Africa. This chapter will trace the collapse of the liberal tradition in southern Africa through the instrument of the petition, which emerged as an important tool for marking sites of contestation and expressing the grievances of educated and converted African Christians (amakholwa), as well as of black professionals, black journalists, black clergy, and other marginalised groups in the nascent literary culture of nineteenth-century South Africa. The petitioners are almost always black/African and their ideas about their relationship to the Empire and especially to Queen Victoria are what distinguishes their writing from any other type of political writing in South Africa. In their constant interaction with not just settlers but a variety of colonial and imperial officials, these petitioners often spoke the language of legal rights more consistently and more forcefully than would have been expected at the time.

The main endowment that made such a petition culture possible was the arrival of the printing press in southern Africa and the manner in which this technology changed the relationship between the state and its subjects. As a genre of political writing, the petition serves the function of not just delineating the political from the civil; it is also in itself a sign of the penetration of print culture into the consciousness and daily experiences of those who were by law British subjects but who were in practice excluded from the colonial privileges that accompanied subjugation. Even ‘illiterate’ African kings would occasionally appear as signatories to such petitions.3 In choosing to use the printed word as an expression of political subjecthood, these men and women often invoked the notion of ‘vigilance’ as the raison d’etre of their actions. Their watchfulness over the actions and policies of successive colonial governments constitutes what I would call the ‘major’ tradition of liberal ideas in South Africa.

The distinction between ‘minor’ and ‘major’ traditions is important for understanding the fate of their ideas. As with other colonies, nearly all ideas in southern Africa arrived here ‘second hand’, and they were therefore always susceptible to failure and alteration.4 At its inception, the liberal tradition was associated with missionaries and therein lay its future challenges. This constitutes a ‘major’ tradition in so far as these missionaries were themselves connected to other progressive movements in the imperial metropole, what became known as the ‘Exeter Hall’ social and philanthropic movements.5 These interconnections and networks created the space for Indigenous and African proponents of liberal ideas to express their understanding of what such ideas might mean under the specific conditions of settler colonialism in South Africa. For a long while, these Africanised versions of liberal thought worked within the major tradition, until they could no longer subscribe to their ‘tutelage’ under the leadership of the missionary and/or were overtaken by the emergence of charismatic prophets and independent churches. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, it became increasingly clear that the major liberal tradition would not deliver the promised political, economic, and civil rights to the African population. Thus, beginning in the 1930s, alternative ideas such as Garveyism, Ethiopianism, trade unionism, and Africanism began to splinter what had been previously an almost unanimous African politics into many ‘minor’ traditions – and liberalism became one of them. This chapter will therefore trace the manner in which the major liberal tradition failed to live up to its promise and thereby vacated the political ground that had been gained by the nineteenth-century African liberal advocates.

The alternation between Dutch and British rule in the Cape Colony has created an insurmountable challenge in tracing a single thread of liberal thought and political traditions from the colonial period to the present.6 The importation of slaves, beginning in 1658, was the first instance of an illiberal policy that would initiate the liberal and ‘enlightened’ challenges to Dutch East India Company rule and later to slavery itself.7 This is the foundation from which this chapter proposes to launch an argument about the history of protest literature in South Africa. Contrary to popular belief and perception, protest literature did not begin in the 1960s but is actually a long-standing tradition of South African letters; its provenance can be dated back to the beginning of the ‘Anglicisation’ of the Cape Colony and the attendant institutions and cultural assumptions that arrived with the British and the English language. What characterises this protest is not just that it was directed at the British Empire or the Queen of England, but that it was couched in the language of rights, citizenship, and subjecthood. This is what distinguishes it from the African Nationalism or Africanism that would define African politics from the 1960s to the end of apartheid. In the colonial era, protest was directed at the failure of the British Empire to recognise the black population as British subjects. This language of supplication may seem belaboured and ingratiating to our contemporary understanding, but in the colonial period it served the purpose of reinforcing the status and respectability of those who earnestly believed that British rule would be beneficent and uplifting.8 Our retrospective understanding of the Empire’s failures should not therefore interfere with the seriousness with which we read the writing and thought of these early black Victorians, who wished to be protected and recognised by the ‘Great White Queen’ presiding over the expansive British dominions.9

The major tradition: British rule and the ascendance of missionary discourse

The beginning of British rule in 1806 was not only about legal, commercial, political, and administrative reform; it was also the beginning of a long and contested tradition of Anglicisation that would affect the future of the Indigenous population of South Africa.10 Initially, this Anglicisation involved no more than changed governorships, school curricula, and the arrival of missionaries, especially members of the London Missionary Society (LMS). The full impact of the Anglicisation of Cape discourse can perhaps be traced to the publication of the Scottish missionary Dr John Philip’s Researches in South Africa (1828), which could be said to be the country’s first anti-slavery text as well as its first ‘minority’ report. In the text, not only did Philip equate the treatment of the Indigenous Khoesan to slavery, but he also charged the settlers with general inhumanity towards their indentured servants and a denial of their rights as British subjects:

We have offered no particular directions about the machinery of government desirable in such a country. We have recommended no checks but such as are necessary to prevent one class of British subjects from oppressing and destroying another. In what we propose we suspend no weight upon the wheels of government. We ask nothing for the poor natives more than this, that they should have the protection the law affords to the colonists. There is nothing surely in these claims, against which the shadow of an objection can be urged.11

The importance of this text is not just its diagnostic quality but the fact that it generated a backlash response from the settlers who up to that point had never defended slavery or colonialism. This emergence of a settler historiography inaugurated the major tradition of ‘separate but equal’ and could therefore be linked to the emergence of Afrikaner nationalism and later apartheid.12

As a seminal point in the history of the liberal tradition in South Africa, Philip’s Researches marks the beginning of what may be called the petition politics of African Christian converts. This nascent protest politics was epitomised by the 1836 delegation that went to London to present the case of the ‘native’ population of the colony to the Aborigines Protection Society (APS). There were many other such delegations to follow, but what marks this one as important was that it was a ‘non-racial’ or ‘multi-racial’ delegation consisting of men who were all the products of colonial encounter in one way or another. The term ‘black’ or ‘African’ is therefore already insufficient to capture the ‘non-racial’ character of the politics of protest that was symbolised by this 1836 delegation. This chapter will take this moment as the watershed moment of African liberalism and the nascent vigilance culture that would find better and more voluble articulation in subsequent decades.

Even before the evidence presented to the APS and the Select Committee of the House of Commons, the change in jurisdiction from the Dutch to the English had already had an impact on understandings of race, power, and citizenship. The decision of the Dutch East India Company, the Verenidge Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), to apportion land to free burghers, and thus allow for the farming, grazing, and ownership of land beyond the control of the Company, had already had a profound impact on the self-understanding of the settlers, who began to make claims not just against the Company but against Indigenes. This emergence of a language of rights would affect the structure and nature of British rule since the British would find that they were expected to simply endorse such rights as had been enjoyed under the VOC. Perhaps the only exception to this was in the case of accusations of corruption, where merchants and free burghers would accuse Company officials of corrupt practices.13 The introduction of English common law was easily accepted by the free burghers; the introduction of the notion of equality before the law, less so. In terms of the impact of liberal ideas on this transformative period, it is no surprise that one of the areas of contention was the freedom of the press. Under Dutch rule, the only publications to emanate from the Cape were almanacs; there was no newspaper to speak of. Under the influence of the Scottish emigrés Thomas Pringle and John Fairbarn, the Cape denizens could read news reports in the South African Commercial Advertiser (established in 1824) and the South African Journal (also established in 1824 as Pringle’s sole venture).14 In the very same year that these publications were established, the two editors clashed with the then governor, Lord Charles Somerset, who accused the publications of opposing his government. This clash is often cited as the beginning of the struggle for the press in South Africa, since Somerset’s position was that the press was an instrument at the disposal of the colonial government and should therefore be under its control. It was not until Ordinance 60 of 1829 that press freedom was recognised at the Cape as entailing the right of the press to dissent from government policy or opinion. It should also be added that this ordinance did not imply that African newspapers or those papers that were bilingual or published in Indigenous languages would automatically be granted the same freedom. This moment was almost exclusively about the liberal English-language press. The struggles for the autonomy of the black press were yet to come.

The change in rulership at the Cape should also be understood as the intensification of what have, in South African historiography, become known as the ‘frontier wars’, a term used to define a variety of conflicts that started around 1779 and ended in 1878. This is an important ingredient in the history of petitions and protest literature because, as is clear from the APS summation in the epigraph to this chapter, depredation stood in contrast to liberal ideas and added up to so many ‘calamities’. There is already an extensive literature on these wars of dispossession, but what has often not been noted are the various roles played by ‘intermediaries’ who trafficked in both peace and war, and who would often be found translating the meanings of British annexations, boundaries, expropriations, and extortions. These intermediaries were often, but not always, men of colour, who would later give full or partial accounts of the role that they played in these conflicts and their conduct. In many instances their job descriptions in the colonial record are simply ‘messengers’ or ‘frontier natives’, and so their roles are often obscured. Missionaries were particularly invested in the identity of the ‘frontier native’:

That the social effects which the liquor traffic is producing among the native people are equally to be deplored. Physically considered, the frontier natives of this country have few equals; but since they have had free access to intoxicating drink and acquired drinking habits, the effects is already seen in the shrivelled and palsied forms, the cringing whining mien, the loss of all manliness and self-respect; and if nothing be done to save them as a people they and their children will sink to the level of Bushmen and degraded Hottentots.15

The quote above encapsulates two themes: first, that of the ‘frontier native’ as a kind of barometer for the health and breadth of the ‘civilising mission’; if the frontier native falls into a state of degradation and incapacitation then that undermines the entirety of the colonial and mission projects. Second, the United Missionary Conference presented these arguments as a memorial, and this hints at the ways in which the missionary and the mission stations became the source of the language of supplication and entreaty. The frontier native was therefore the first petitioner, as it were, since his or her voice and point of view was ventriloquised by the missionaries to plead for the prohibition of the sale of intoxicating drink to all Africans. The additional argument is obviously that to have a frontier native requires a frontier, and the implication is therefore that the frontier native was exactly that African who was already a product of colonialism and mission intervention and tutelage. This position as an intermediary was secured by the exemplary role that he or she played in being an embodiment of the ideals of missionary endeavour. That is why it was so important for these intermediaries to not fail or succumb to the allure of European vices.

The frontier wars are therefore important not just because of what they tell us about the history of warfare and dispossession in South Africa but also because of what they tell us about the communities and people who were created by and emerged from this extended period of inconclusive guerrilla warfare between the Indigenes and the British. In the face of the Cape’s new identity as a colony, therefore, the frontier wars shifted the debate from the two metropoles of Cape Town and London to the extremities of the colonial territory and created what may be regarded as borderlands. These open frontiers would play an important role in the emergence of a literate and opinionated African elite whose sole function would be to represent the position of the frontier native and to assuage missionary fears that their efforts would be drowned in barrels of brandy.16 It is therefore not surprising that appended to the memorial of 1884 is ‘native opinion’ in the form of quotes from the said frontier natives, who were opposed to the opening of canteens and the sale of liquor to Africans.

The minor tradition: ‘Hottentot nationalism’ and the petition

John Philip’s Researches in South Africa is important for another reason and that is because it essentially presented the viewpoint of the people whom the colonists had dubbed the ‘Hottentots’. This terminology and identity has necessarily become complicated, since even the terms ‘Khoesan’ or ‘Khoekhoe’ are continually debated.17 The identity referred to is of the Indigenous communities who lived as hunter-gatherers and pastoralists across southern Africa. In colonial records and in the present they are identified as ‘different’ from the ‘Bantu’ physiologically, linguistically, socially, and culturally. These distinctions are only relevant for our argument to the extent that Philip used the term ‘aborigines’ to mean these communities, many of whom had congregated on mission stations, in part as a defence against a century of concerted genocide.18 Thus, in political and philosophical terms, Philip was speaking and writing about a community or communities that were already relegated to the past tense and regarded as diminished in numbers from their previous multitude. This confluence between what may be termed missionary genocide studies and post-slavery discourses of freedom created the canvas on which Philip painted a picture of a community that was in search of a national identity and security of tenure. These two forces were later given the term ‘Hottentot nationalism’ by the historian Stanley Trapido.19

In Philip’s terms, such national feeling and sentiment was still largely thought of as an expression of Hegelian self-determination, and there was therefore no ‘actual’ country or territory on to which this nationalism was mapped. This conception of a ‘people without country’ is articulated in Philip’s statements about the Khoesan as a ‘free people’:

Independent of printed statutes, there are certain rights which human beings possess, and of which they cannot be deprived but by manifest injustice. The wanderer in the desert has a right to his life, to his liberty, his wife, his children, and his property. The Hottentot has a right to a fair price for his labour; to an exemption from cruelty and oppression; to choose the place of his abode, and to enjoy the society of his children; and no one can deprive him of those rights without violating the laws of nature and of nations. If the perpetration of such outrages against the laws of nature and of nations is a crime, that crime is greatly aggravated when it is committed against the lex loci, against the written law of the land. The Hottentots, in addition to the unalienable rights conferred upon them by their Creator, have prescriptive rights in their favour; they are regarded by the British government as a free people; and the colonial law says, that they are to be treated in their persons, in their properties, and in their possessions, the same as other free people.20

The ‘wanderer in the desert’ was therefore not just meant to stand in for an actual hunter-gatherer but was also a response to the colonial and settler charge that because the ‘Hottentots’ did not cultivate the land, it could not belong to them and was thus terra nullius. By vacating such settler claims with the abstract notion of the ‘wanderer in the desert’, Philip was also dispensing with the colonial accusation that these communities (or remnants of these communities) were vagrants and should be expected to carry passes.

As a further expansion on the notion of ‘free people’, Philip then argued that it would in fact be in the interest of the colonists to give the ‘Hottentots’ the civil rights due to them, that their ‘free labour’ would be advantageous to the colony. Again, these arguments are not made in purely instrumental language but are drawn from discourses that had already been practised in anti-slavery movements:

The remark of Tacitus, that ‘there is nothing so sweet to man as the life of man,’ is not more severe, as a reflection on human nature, than it is just, as respects its accordance with truth; and any system, which proposes to substitute free labour in the place of slave labour, is as great a bugbear to the generality of men accustomed to treat a particular class of their fellow creatures as slaves, as the representative system of Great Britain, or of Portugal, is to Ferdinand of Spain and his advisers and masters, who would rather see a country converted into a desert, than the inhabitants breathing the air of freedom.21

As a missionary, it is understandable why Philip supported the ‘free labour’ of his Khoesan converts, since it was only in such a state of freedom that these would-be acolytes could join mission stations and contribute to the furtherance of the Christian gospel. But self-interest is not the complete story. As with other missionaries in the field, Philip knew that he had to ventriloquise the thoughts and feelings of his converts since the power of the printing press was still mainly under missionary control. It is this control of printed media that makes his Researches an instalment in the minor tradition of missionary resistance, as the voices of his informants could only be heard from the vantage point of the mission station (and in some instances the British military).

In the history of missiology in South Africa, the names of mission stations – Bethelsdorp, Kat River, and Theopolis – have become synonymous not only with the missionary labours and failures of these cases of freedom but also with the rebellions that took place there.22 It is in these rebellions that one hears the voices of the Africans who were petitioning the British government in their own words. However, before these can be considered it is important to highlight that the main achievement of the Exeter Hall campaigns in South Africa was the promulgation of Ordinance 50 of 1828, which has sometimes been pejoratively called the ‘Hottentot Magna Carta’. This ordinance repealed the 1809 ordinance which had legalised the de facto enslavement of the Indigenous population while reinforcing the legality of passes as an instrument for controlling the labour of slaves and Indigenous people. Ordinance 50 was therefore the main achievement of what might be termed the major tradition of liberalism in the Cape Colony.23 This triumph could, however, also be said to have laid the foundation for the emergence of the minor tradition, since no sooner had the Khoesan been recognised as a ‘free people’ than the settlers began to find means to amend such rights: for example, by pressing for tighter vagrancy laws.

In the immediate aftermath of Ordinance 50 in 1829, the converts of Bethelsdorp and other mission stations drafted a memorial. In introducing their voices, the mission residents had to first express humility, even while using the indicative ‘Sheweth’. This demonstrative and diagnostic finger-pointing would then extend to their own version of the history of depredation and dispossession. The tone of the memorial was to verbalise that despite the disadvantages and humiliation of being the dispossessed, the memorialists had nonetheless ticked the boxes of civilisation by acquiring property and livestock. Thus, beyond being an expression of supplication, the petition is also a reproduction of the ideological foundations of mission stations – the rewards of Christian sobriety and hard work; the negation of sloth and idleness through cultivation; and the usefulness of the communities to their settler neighbours. In their own words, the petitioners appealed not just for themselves but for their descendants:

The Memorial of divers inhabitants of the district of Uitenhage, sprung principally from the Gona and other Hottentot tribes,

Humbly Sheweth,

That Memorialists have long been members of Bethelsdorp and can appeal confidently to their Missionaries and neighbours for testimony of their conduct as mechanics; and in their various pursuits.

That hitherto want of land has checked the natural increase of their cattle, and deprived memorialists of the just reward of industry; nevertheless, under great disadvantages, some of them have acquired waggons, oxen, cows, goats, sheep and other property; and all possess competent skill in husbandry and as mechanics.

That they wish to obtain grants upon certain tracts situated near the sea, between the Bosjesman and Sunday rivers, together with the Gora and lands adjacent in Uitenhage, at about half-way from Bethelsdorp to Theopolis and to settle there.

That they have been informed of applications being recently made for the said lands; but they submit their own claims to be superior to those of any other persons whatever, and especially to the claims of individuals already possessing extensive farms.

That memorialists know the value of instruction for their children, and of suitable means of religious communion for themselves; and trust to obtain the benefit of the provision recommended by His Majesty’s Commissioners of Inquiry in that behalf; to which they doubt not they may be able, hereafter, in a reasonable time to contribute.

That it may be right to impose certain conditions upon memorialists, in order to secure these grants to their children.24

As is evident, the memorialists had imbibed the idea that they were ‘free’ labourers whose industry and economy should have enabled them to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. This memorial therefore functions as an echo of Philip’s exhortations that the ‘free labour’ ideology was the only ballast against settler oppression and that it was the function of the British government to ensure that the Khoesan were accorded the same rights as other British subjects. Thus, by 1829, the debate had already shifted away from the abstraction of land as the possession of the Indigenes to the idea that work and industry confer rights of occupation, ownership, and usage to those who have ‘competent skill in husbandry and [work] as mechanics’.

This missionary moment and the ascendance of a minor liberal tradition can perhaps be best summed up by the testimony given by Andries Stoffels – who has been variously described as a Gonaqua, former Bethelsdorp resident, Kat River convert, and representative of the Khoekhoen – to the Select Committee on Aborigines in London in 1836. Stoffels travelled to England as part of a deputation that included John Philip, Jan Tshatshu, James Read Jr., and James Read Sr. The illustrated image of the five men itself speaks volumes about the nature and origins of both the minor and major liberal traditions in the Cape. Each man represented the zenith and nadir of each tradition (Figure 16.1).

When he appeared in front of the Select Committee in the House of Commons, Stoffels was cross-examined by the commissioners about his biography, and he replied, according to George McCall Theal, ‘in accordance with their training’:25

4938. Chairman: Are you a native of South Africa? – Yes.

4939. Do you belong to the Hottentots? – Yes.

4940. Were you one of the Kat River settlers? – Yes.

4941. Did you live for some years at Bethelsdorf before you went to the Kat River? – Yes, I lived at Bethelsdorf a long time.

4942. What is your age? – Between 50 and 60.

4943. Will you give the Committee a little outline of your life; where did you spend your early years? – We lived in the mountains till the missionaries, Vanderkemp and Read, came amongst us, then I came amongst human beings.

4944. How many years is it since you lived at Bethelsdorf? – I went to Bethelsdorf, when Dr. Vanderkemp left Graaff Reinet to come to Bethelsdorf; I then left Zuurveldt to come to the missionary station.

4945. You knew Dr. Vanderkemp? – Yes.

4946. Was he a good man? – Yes.

4947. Did he labour hard for the benefit of the Hottentots? – Yes; it was after Dr. Vanderkemp and Mr. Read came among us that we put off our skins and put on clothes.

Although this is not a petition in the strict sense of the word, it does exhibit what Theal acerbically called ‘training’ since it is rhetorically aimed at giving the commissioners a sense of the massive physical and spiritual transformations that Andries Stoffels and other ‘Hottentots’ underwent in order to be ‘amongst human beings’. The delegation was timed to coincide with the hearings of the Committee but also included an extensive ‘humanitarian’ tour of the United Kingdom. It was the first of many deputations by what one commentator referred to as the rarae aves of Africa, who had come to the metropole to petition the English monarch.26 The importance of these moments was that their purpose was to present Africans as human beings who deserved to be treated justly even as they were being colonised. As with the other instruments of the major liberal tradition, the procession of African deputations would soon enough become obsolete.

Imbumba | ball of sinews: the making of protest politics in the 1880s

The last rebellion to take place on a mission station occurred on the Kat River Settlement, and in three years (1851–53) the world of the many adherents of the liberal tradition was irreversibly shattered. With the disbandment of the Kat River communities, the role played by missionaries in petitioning for Africans shifted since so many of their converts were dispersed. This also led to a geographical shift as various denominations began to compete and spread across the subcontinent. The decline of the LMS as the main mouthpiece for Africans should be seen not just as a collapse of the internal resources of the liberal tradition but also as an outcome of the arrival of other competing mission ideologies. Thus, by the 1880s, when eastern Cape Africans began establishing their own associations and organisations, there were already denominations of opinion and dissent among the black population. This denominationalism became the first hurdle to circumvent in the search for an ‘African’ voice, as expressed by S. N. Mvambo:

Anyone looking at things as they are, could even go so far as to say it was a great mistake to bring so many church denominations to the Black people. For the Black man makes the fatal mistake of thinking that if he is an Anglican, he has nothing to do with anything suggested by a Wesleyan, and the Wesleyan also thinks so, and so does the Presbyterian. Imbumba must make sure that all these three are represented at the conference, for we must be united on political matters. In fighting for national rights, we must fight together. Although they look as if they belong to various churches, the White people are solidly united when it comes to matters of this nature. We Blacks think that these churches are hostile to one another, and in that way we lose our political rights.27

Also, unlike with the early ‘Hottentot nationalism’, the question of nationality and nationhood became hotly contested since many of these African converts were members of diverse ‘ethnic’ groups. Again, a note of caution should be added since the term ‘ethnicity’ comes loaded with the presumption of ‘difference’. In reality, ‘ethnicity’ amounted mostly to an adherence to language, custom, and culture, and not to some inherent and intrinsic racial type. It was also on mission stations that such ethnic identities were negotiated, and sometimes elements of custom were abandoned in favour of an ‘African’ identity. Thus, as with the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Khoesan Christian converts, the converts of the southeast coast found themselves a ‘people without country’, and the language of nationalism functioned as an imagined community to which these unmoored Africans could cling. The melting-pot culture of mission stations continued its function of moulding novel and sometimes unsettling identities, as a new group of Africans found its protest voice.28 These ‘new Africans’ would also be much more in control of the printing press; their liberal and Victorian ideas were therefore more directly communicated, with the missionary playing less and less of a role as a spokesperson.29

The quintessential black liberal of this period was John Tengo Jabavu (1859–1921), who established the newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu (‘The Black Opinion’), and his political views would dominate (both constructively and destructively) African opinion until the end of the century and the beginning of the Edwardian era.30 The aspirations and achievements of this elite were represented in book form by T. D. Mweli Skota, who circa 1930 published The African Yearly Register: Being an Illustrated National Biographical Dictionary (Who’s Who) of Black Folks in Africa.31 Although intended to be an annual register, only one volume was published, and this fact epitomises the precarious and changing fortunes that this class of literati experienced in the twentieth century. The period between the creation of Imbumba Yama Nyama in 1882 and the victory of the National Party in 1948 could be said to have been the crucible of the liberal tradition, since those Africans who had voting rights in the Cape Colony (a right promulgated in 1854 and abrogated in 1936) continued to use this electoral instrument to impact parliamentary, colonial, and imperial politics, while those Africans who did not live in the colony continued to uphold its qualified electoral franchise as the desired political end of their activities.

The establishment of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912 has created a retrospective historicisation in which it is assumed that, first, this was the first expression of the political ideology that would become known as African Nationalism and, second, that the evolution of SANNC into the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923 was a political fait accompli. In reality, the creation of SANNC was an outcome of already complex and competing egos and political ideas and positions. In 1912, apartheid was still a far-off reality, and the main concern of the men who met to create the organisation was not state racism; their main impetus was the exclusion of Africans from the deliberations concerning the unification of South Africa. The congregation of these men (for a long while women were present but excluded from officiating) was the culmination of a protest politics that had begun with the formation of organisations such as Imbumba Yama Nyama and, in 1884, the Native Education Association and the Native Electoral Association. All these organisations were concerned with uniting black Africans to contest the already existing electoral politics of the nascent country of South Africa; their goal was not ‘autonomy’ or ‘self-determination’. The main weakness of these early organisations was that they met irregularly.

It is these movements that define the word ‘vigilance’. Since many of these associations did not and could not directly challenge the existing political order created by the successive granting of responsible and representative government to the white minority, they could only engage in piecemeal and reformist parleys with white politicians and white capitalist interests. Even before the convening of SANNC, another intellectual of this period, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, penned an article and an invitation in 1911, published in John Tengo Jabavu’s paper Imvo Zabantsundu, in which he wrote about ‘Native Union’. Seme envisioned the purpose of a native congress as follows:

The South African Native Congress is the voice in the wilderness bidding all the dark races of this sub-continent to come together once or twice a year in order to review the past and reject therein all those things which have retarded our progress, the things which poison the springs of our national life and virtue; to label and distinguish the sins of civilisation, and as members of one house-hold to talk and think loudly on our home problems and the solution of them.32

This was hardly a charter for radical politics or populist sentiment, and this would be the vein in which successive leaders of the Congress movement would think and articulate the concerns of the Africans.

While Africans were organising in their associations, white settler interests became more racially defined, especially after the Anglo-Boer War (South African War, 1899–1902), with Britain eager to conciliate the injured pride of Afrikaner republics by sacrificing the interests and welfare of the African population. Thus, where Ordinance 50 of 1828 was the apex of LMS agitation, the settlers began to whittle down the freedoms granted to Africans by challenging the non-racial franchise and also imposing restrictions on black people’s right of movement. The Cape Colony, for example, passed a Vagrancy Act in 1889, and also the Glen Grey Act in 1894, which forced Africans to acquire individual land tenure while also making it impossible for them to use these tenure rights to register for the franchise. These increasing cramps in the political fabric of Cape liberalism were described by John Tengo Jabavu as ‘Muzzling the Native’ in an 1887 editorial in Imvo Zabantsundu. He wrote that the proposed voter-registration bill would increase the onus on prospective voters:

Then, as if these stupendous difficulties were not enough to keep our countrymen from their rights as liege subjects of the Queen, the government proceeds to enact in clause 17 that ‘No person shall be entitled to be registered as a voter by reason of his sharing in any communal or tribal occupation of lands, or place of residence.’ Such are the provisions of a Bill whereby the aboriginal inhabitants of this portion of her Majesty’s dominion are to be deprived of the privileges they have enjoyed in common with their fellow-subjects, the Colonists, since British rule was set up.33

Again, this was hardly an incendiary renunciation, since it still depended so much on the notion of ‘British subjects’ as the central civil right at stake. Moreover, Jabavu’s use of the word ‘aboriginal’ harked back to Philip’s Researches and his particular conception of personhood and rights in terms of the ‘wanderer in the desert’. Jabavu was not quite limning those kinds of philosophical depths, but he was nonetheless re-examining the liberal tradition in the face of its continual emasculation by settler claims.

Liberalism’s ‘Heartbreak House’34

The main paradox of liberal ideas in South Africa is that, despite the tradition’s obvious failures and shortcomings, the end of apartheid witnessed the ascendance of one of its hallmarks, namely constitutional democracy. This chapter has attempted to show the longer history of liberalism and liberal ideas, and how the 1994 moment was not just a unique historical event but could be said to have been a culmination of an earlier tradition that had not borne fruit in the nineteenth century. Although in the contemporary period, the language is no longer one of ‘British subjects’ but of human rights, there is still the echo of the abrogated hopes and euphoria of the earlier period.

In its past incarnation, liberalism did not and could not rely on the present’s secure institutional foundations. When LMS missionaries introduced their converts to the ‘Word’, they did not then fully realise the secular and political meanings to which Christian theology could be applied. It was only in the practice of missionary humanitarianism that the voices of the converted would seep through in protest against colonial dispossession and the denial of civil rights. When coupled with Exeter Hall politics, these voices of protest were often stifled by the missionary concern with metropolitan audiences and fundraising, even while they were being globalised by the long reach of these movements. Even with this reliance on the missionary, these voices remain important if we are to understand the ‘non-racial’ character of liberalism’s foundations. Before the advent of competing ideas such as African Nationalism or Africanism, liberal ideas were the only game in town, and these early adherents spoke not only as British subjects but also as literates searching for the appropriate publics to whom their entreaties could be addressed. These assemblies of readers and petitioners would find their proper register only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the petition would remain the main instrument of vocalisation. The decline in missionary influence and the ascendance of various vigilance organisations was a first step towards this independent articulation, along with the liberation of the printing press from the stranglehold of the mission station. This confluence between the spread of denominations of black opinion and the ubiquity of local publications exposed liberalism’s primary weakness, which was its dependence on the largesse of the missionary.

The main argument of the chapter has been about distinguishing between the minor and major liberal traditions in South Africa, and tracing the ways in which the major tradition failed to deliver on its promise and therefore led to the minimisation of liberalism in general. This trajectory was not just a consequence of colonial competition and the rise of settler demands but also the indeterminate ways in which liberalism depended on missionaries for its spread and justification. The African Christian convert was therefore almost always understood as a novice, and their version of liberal thought and politics was not given the same weight as that of the missionary. It is this history of ventriloquising that could be said to have limited liberalism’s possible futures in South Africa.


1 In the case of South Africa, the most thoroughgoing history of liberalism is provided by Paul B. Rich, Hope and Despair: English Speaking Intellectuals and South African Politics 1896–1976 (London: British Academic Press, 1993). In recent years, the debate has shifted towards the examination of liberal ideas within the universities and the attendant question of ‘academic freedom’. See André Du Toit, ‘Critic and Citizen: The Intellectual, Transformation and Academic Freedom’, Pretexts: Literary and Cultural Studies, 9:1 (2000), 91–104; and Robert Bernaconi, ‘The Paradox of Liberal Politics in the South African Context: Alfred Hoernlé’s Critique of Liberalism’s Pact with White Domination’, Critical Philosophy of Race, 4:2 (2016), 163–81.
2 In this chapter, the words ‘black’ and ‘African’ are used to designate people of colour who under apartheid would have been designated as ‘non-European’. The latter group includes the categories ‘Bantu’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Indian’, and ‘Malay’ that were variously used to classify so-called ‘population groups’.
3 The spread of literacy in southern Africa was facilitated by the presence of missionaries and mission schools. For the purposes of this chapter, there are two important characteristics of mission education that need to be noted. The first is that it was often Indigenous rulers, who were in the main suspicious of literacy and the literate, who granted land to missionaries for the building of mission stations and schools. Their main logic was that the missionary would function as a ‘witness’ and scribe in times of crisis and would even occasionally be held hostage. The second characteristic was that many of these institutions were originally non-racial since even the children of the missionary would attend the same lessons as the young black converts. For further reading, see Jeff Guy, ‘Making Words Visible: Aspects of Orality, Literacy, Illiteracy and History in Southern Africa’, South African Historical Journal, 31 (1994), 3–27; and Vivian Bickford-Smith, ‘Words, Wars and World Views: The Coming of Literacy and Books to Southern Africa’, Bulletin du Bibliophile, 1 (2003), 9–22.
4 There is obviously a bias here towards what may be called ‘modern’ ideas, meaning ideas that shaped and saturated Africa as a consequence of European contact. This is not to deny or ignore the presence of ‘pre-modern’ ideas about liberalism or human rights. For this latter discussion, see, e.g., Souleymane Bachir Diagne, ‘Individual, Community, and Human Rights’, Transition, 101 (2009), 8–15. For a general discussion of African philosophy, see P. H. Coetzee and A. P. J. Roux, The African Philosophy Reader (London: Taylor and Francis, 2004). One of the earliest attempts to problematise the peculiar nature of ideas in colonial ‘dependencies’ was presented by John X. Merriman to the subscribers of the South African Public Library. J. X. Merriman and South African Library, Intellectual Life in the Colonies: A Lecture: Proceedings at the Fifty-eighth Anniversary Meeting of the Subscribers to the South African Public Library, Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope, Held on Saturday, the 7th May, 1887 (Cape Town: Townsend & Son, 1887).
5 In the case of southern Africa, the impact of this movement is contained in the history of the London Missionary Society (LMS) and its first superintendent, Dr John Philip. The first LMS missionary to establish a mission station was Dr Johannes Van der Kemp, who arrived in the Cape in 1799 and, after failure to convert the Xhosa, established a mission station in 1803, which was named Bethelsdorp and to which he hoped to attract converts from among the Khoesan. In 1820, John Philip was appointed as the Superintendent for the LMS in southern Africa and it was under his leadership that mission stations multiplied across the colony. For a fuller account of these early developments in LMS influence, see Robert Ross and Elizabeth Elbourne, ‘Combatting Spiritual and Social Bondage: Early Missions in the Cape Colony’, in Richard Elphick and Rodney Davenport (eds), Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (Oxford and Cape Town: James Currey & David Philip, 1997), pp. 31–50.
6 For brief histories of the Dutch period and its impact on slavery and servitude, see Robert Ross, Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony, 1750–1870: A Tragedy of Manners (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Susan Newton-King, Masters and Servants on the Cape Eastern Frontier, 1760–1803 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Timothy Keegan, Colonial South Africa and the Origins of the Racial Order (Cape Town: David Philip, 1996); and Noel Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of Xhosa People (New York: Knopf, 1992).
7 The constant desertion of company servants was another instance of illiberal VOC policy since those who were caught were often flogged and placed in stocks. The decision to allow free burghers to settle beyond company dominion was therefore the first step towards the creation of a colony since it was these free burghers who began to oppose what they perceived to be the tyrannical and corrupt rule of the Company. These freed servants and employees of the VOC were the foundation of what became the settler population of the Cape Colony. And it is also these free burghers whom the British inherited when they took over the Cape Colony for the last time in 1806.
8 This phrase is borrowed from the title of Ross’ book, Status and Respectability.
9 For a consideration of this history of southern African delegations to the ‘Great White Queen’, see Neil Parsons, King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen: Victorian Britain through African Eyes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
10 The documentary evidence for this shift in governance and politics is explored in André du Toit and Hermann Buhr Giliomee, Afrikaner Political Thought: Volume One: 1780–1850 (Cape Town: David Philip, 1983).
11 John Philip, Researches in South Africa; Illustrating the Civil, Moral, and Religious Condition of the Native Tribes: Including Journals of the Author’s Travels in the Interior; Together with Detailed Accounts of the Progress of the Christian Missions, Exhibiting the Influence of Christianity in Promoting Civilization (London: J. Duncan, 1828), p. xxvi.
12 This debate between John Philip and the settlers is explored in Andrew Bank, ‘The Great Debate and the Origins of South African Historiography’, The Journal of African History, 38:2 (1997), 261–81. The connection between these debates and the future of segregation and apartheid is a great leap and has been debated in South African historiography since the 1950s. The major figures of what became South Africa’s liberal historiography are discussed in Christopher Saunders, The Making of the South African Past: Major Historians on Race and Class (Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1988).
13 Stanley Trapido, ‘From Paternalism to Liberalism: The Cape Colony, 1800–1834’, The International History Review, 12:1 (1990), 76–104; Du Toit and Giliomee, Afrikaner Political Thought.
14 Kirsten McKenzie, ‘“Franklins of the Cape”: The “South African Commercial Advertiser” and the Creation of a Colonial Public Sphere’, Kronos, 25 (1998), 88–102.
15 John Harper, ‘Memorandum of United Missionary Conference’, in Correspondence Respecting Cape Colony, 1883–6 (London: George E. B. Eyre & William Spottiswoode, 1884), pp. 38–9.
16 Martin Legassick, ‘The Frontier Tradition in South African Historiography’, Collected Seminar Papers (London: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 1972).
17 See, e.g., the controversy regarding the exhibition at the South African National Gallery, titled ‘Miscast’. Pippa Skotnes (ed.), Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen (Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 1996).
18 Mohamed Adhikari, The Anatomy of a South African Genocide: The Extermination of the Cape San Peoples (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011).
19 Stanley Trapido, ‘The Emergence of Liberalism and the Making of Hottentot Nationalism 1815–1834’, Collected Seminar Papers (London: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 1992).
20 Philip, Researches in South Africa, pp. xxvi–xxvii.
21 Philip, Researches in South Africa, p. 158.
22 Robert Ross, ‘The Kat River Rebellion and Khoikhoi Nationalism: The Fate of an Ethnic Identification’, Kronos, 24 (1997), 91–105.
23 Wayne Dooling, ‘The Origins and Aftermath of the Cape Colony’s “Hottentot Code” of 1809’, Kronos, 31 (2005), 50–61.
24 Robert Ross, These Oppressions Won’t Cease: The Political Thought of the Cape Khoesan, 1777–1879: An Anthology (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2017), pp. 6–15.
25 George McCall Theal, History of South Africa since September 1795 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 138.
26 This commentator is quoted in Parsons’ book, King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen, p.110. The full statement reads:

Black kings and princes are no longer the rarae aves that they were when his swarthy Majesty King Cetewayo first dawned upon an astounded London drawing room. Now an African of noble birth is to be met with at most fashionable receptions during the season, and black bishops talk theology with British deans at garden parties.

All roads, even that from Africa, lead to London. Any day you can hardly walk down Piccadilly without rubbing shoulders with an Afghan, a Zulu, a Hottentot, or a foreigner of some kind.

27 Statement by S. N. Mvambo on the purpose of Imbumba, December 1883, cited in Thomas Karis and Gwendolen Carter, From Protest to Challenge, Vol. 1: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882–1964: Protest and Hope, 1882–1934 (1972; Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2013), p. 12.
28 Norman Etherington, ‘Mission Station Melting Pots as a Factor in the Rise of South African Black Nationalism’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 9:4 (1976), 592–605.
29 David Attwell, ‘Reprisals of Modernity in Black South African “Mission” Writing’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 25:2 (1999), 267–85.
30 Les Switzer, ‘The African Christian Community and Its Press in Victorian South Africa (La communauté chrétienne africaine et sa presse dans l’Afrique du Sud victorienne)’, Cahiers d’Études Africaines, 24:96 (1984), 455–76.
31 T. D. Mewli Skota, The African Yearly Register: Being an Illustrated National Biographical Dictionary (Who’s Who) of Black Folks in Africa (Johannesburg: R. L. Esson, 1939).
32 Karis and Carter, From Protest to Challenge, p. 72.
33 Karis and Carter, From Protest to Challenge, p. 13.
34 The term ‘Heartbreak House’, derived from George Bernard Shaw’s 1920 play of the same name, has been used several times in South Africa’s historiography to describe the failure of liberals to offer decisive leadership on the ‘native question’ and their real or imagined capitulation to white ethno-nationalism and Afrikaner nationalism. See Paul B. Rich, Hope and Despair: English-Speaking Intellectuals and South African Politics 1896–1976 (London: British Academic Press, 1993).

Worlding the south

Nineteenth-century literary culture and the southern settler colonies


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