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Class Formation in black South Africa: A rejoinder to Siyabonga Hadebe


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

The class struggle is more difficult post-liberation because the new class dynamics are too complex to generalise.

Writing in the Business Report of Wednesday 27 May, Siyabonga Hadebe made bold observations about the evolution of the black elite in 19th and 20th century colonial South Africa.

Let’s commend Hadebe for addressing the contentious issue of elite formation in black communities as a consequence of colonial encounters. Often we take refuge under the thin cloak of political righteousness when confronted with this history. We tend to avoid it for what Samora Machel identified as the difficulty of critiquing people within the liberation movement – we are careful not to divide the liberation movement between heroes and collaborators. Indeed, the class struggle is more difficult post liberation because the new class dynamics are too complex to generalise.

However, while it is appreciated that Hadebe has opened this Pandora’s box, buried in his submission are gross generalisations. What he describes in the article is what in the Portuguese colonies is called “assimilados”. That is, blacks that were “elevated” by the colonial masters as different from the rest of the colonised and therefore “better” than their own kin. Politically, they are seen as a buffer between the coloniser and the colonised.

Below, we attempt to demonstrate that many black leaders graduated from the schools run by Western missionaries armed with resistance politics, not just Western values. They went on to become torchbearers in the struggle for national liberation, deeply rooted in their communities. 

Hadebe starts by tracing the evolution of the black elite in 19th century colonial South Africa. He submits that elite formation evolved out of colonial encounters through missionary education and conversion into Christianity.

He argues: “There was a direct relationship between Christian faith and class [formation among black people]. These products of the colonial elite manufacturing factory were distinguishable for their ‘self-induced Anglicisation.’ Ndebenkulu [the main character in the novel Inkinsela yaseMgundundlovu] was a caricature of black elites of his time. Anglicisation also meant that these pseudo-elites adopted English morality, manners and habits.”

Hadebe writes further: “The black elite or amazemtiti, also sometimes called ‘onontlevu’ (the talkative ones, a nickname they earned owing to their zeal at preaching the gospel to ‘amaqaba’, the uncivilised), were basically an exempted native bourgeoisie in English colonies of the Cape and Natal somewhere around the late 1800s. In addition to being ‘amakholwa’ (Christians, believers), the amazemtiti were also known as ‘izifundiswa’, the learned ones.”

More disturbing is the article’s stripping of agency from leaders like Langalibalele and the fanatical infatuation with Bhambhatha (caricatured as the only anti-imperialist), both of whom were anti-colonialists, resisting dispossession at different epochs.

All good, Bhungane. But our paths diverge here. The statement below deserves a rejoinder.

“The European élite undertook to manufacture a native élite in order for them to assist in the management of the expanse territories and to control other colonized people within the borders of the colonies. These were men that were primed to take over the reins from colonial rulers. Nkrumah was governor of the Gold Coast, long before independence was granted… It is possible that the black bourgeoisie despised Bhambhatha kaMancinza Zondi from the Greytown area in KZN who started the 1906 rebellion against head tax that was imposed by colonial authorities to force African males to work in mines and urban South Africa.”

An otherwise vital historical account is undermined by the overuse of caricature and baroque scenes.

More disturbing is the article’s stripping of agency from leaders like Langalibalele and the fanatical infatuation with Bhambhatha (caricatured as the only anti-imperialist), both of whom were anti-colonialists, resisting dispossession at different epochs.

How this significant account of history lumps together amazemtiti and black intellectuals defies historical logic. Ntongela Masilela’s archive on the New African Movement make for vital reading here. It is not all those who received missionary education who became intellectuals and neither did all choose the life of amazemtiti. Those who became intellectuals used education to assess the black condition and sought ways to counter the internal logic of colonialism – dispossession and racial oppression. Masilela writes at length about Xhosa and Zulu intellectuals who put their newly acquired education to the service of the people, producing counter-hegemonies instead of enjoying the elite status in society.

For a deeper class analysis, Bernard Magubane’s works are also worth visiting, such as The Making of a Racist State and African Sociology: Towards a Critical Perspective.

Amazemtiti, on the other hand, were fellows who were culturally conscious of the material benefits of acculturation and mimicry. They were preoccupied with shaping their standing in society. Acculturation had benefits of exemption from certain colonial restrictions and conferred some special status in the eyes of Europeans. The destructive outcomes of this epistemicide is well narrated in the epics Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe and The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1965).

The least said about Hadebe’s reference to blacks adopting European surnames the better. Some of the examples he uses are incorrect. There are surnames given by colonisers to the slaves from Indonesia based on the month they arrived in the Cape, eg, January, February, October – hence the prevalence of such in the Western Cape. We cannot say the same of labour tenants who had to use their bosses’ surnames to stay in the farms (mostly being Dutch/Afrikaner surnames) and those families in the Eastern Frontier (present-day Eastern Cape) who changed their surnames to English in pursuit of being exempted, like Mthimkhulu becoming Grootboom and Ndlovu becoming Oliphant. 

Although this was not prevalent in Natal, there were those who changed surnames, like Mhlongo becoming Champion – remember him of the “ANC yaseNatali”. Even the Pixley in Pixley ka Isaka Seme is recognition of the American missionary, Reverend SC Pixley, who had a major influence in his family life. It is Rev Pixley who arranged for the founder of the ANC to study in the United States.

More concerning in Hadebe’s account is the stripping of pathfinders like Robert Sobukwe and Kenneth Kaunda of their anti-colonial agency. The article clubs them together with priests and cultural workers who were not necessarily opposed to white rule but sought accommodation.

This is a Eurocentric critique of Eurocentrism which tends to ignore the heterogeneity of class formation among blacks in defiance of evidence. Take Sol Plaatje for example; he didn’t enjoy Seme’s privileges of American education but stands among intellectual giants, an autodidact who did not become izemtiti or a bourgeois elite.

Was it not Robert Sobukwe who declared at Fort Hare in October 1949 that “Education to us means service to Africa”? Wouldn’t Marxism describe this as class suicide? Here was a clear declaration by the educated class of Africans opting to identify with the colonised in the continent instead of limiting education to family achievement and benefit.

Hence, I argue that there is no difference between Maqoma and Moses Kotane, Bhambhatha and Govan Mbeki. Each epochal moment of struggle is circumstantial.

Like many others, the people listed by Hadebe as bourgeois elite include mission-educated Africans who subverted the whole idea of mission education (assimilation and acculturation); using it to advance a counter-hegemony of equality, freedom and human rights. Charlotte Maxeke surrendered the privilege of education in favour of service to her people, never collaborated nor sold out.

Yes, they might have smoked European cigarettes and drank “umbona obomvu” (brandy) but used this new-found “knowledge” and “Western education” to argue that the exclusion of the majority from the national body-politic was an injustice. How they struggled is a function of strategy and tactics based on objective and subjective material conditions.

Hence, I argue that there is no difference between Maqoma and Moses Kotane, Bhambhatha and Govan Mbeki. Each epochal moment of struggle is circumstantial.

As we have noted, many of the mission-educated blacks did not assimilate. Among them arose leadership that advanced a superior humanist argument that whites failed to counter. Hence, the latter unleashed massacres, taking skulls as trophies.

Recent accounts of selfless mission-educated early intellectuals by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, Bongani Ngqulunga, Andre Odendaal, Ntongela Masilela, etc will be very handy to readers interested in this history. They write of revolutionaries who might have adopted Christianity and developed European tastes but never sold out their people. These are believed in the idea of Africans in South Africa giving a human face to the world. They write of people who struggled for epistemic freedom, believing that unless such was achieved, our ontological base will remain captured by the Euro-American and his idea of white supremacy.

That is why the work of Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu on Tiyo Soga is important. He asserts that the composer wrote “Nkosi Sikelela iAfrica” (the continent), not “Nkosi Sikelela iSouth Africa”. Hence these words form the basis of national anthems throughout SADC. Soga had African liberation in mind, not just the Cape Colony where he lived.

In the final analysis, we must thank Hadebe for raising a class reflection which is frequently hidden in post-colonial societies including South Africa. DM


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