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Thokozani Mhlambi reviews Zubeida Jaffer's biography of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke

17 Oct 2017 - 22:30
Photo: Thokozani Mhlambi

As the title explains, this is a book profiling the life of Charlotte Maxeke, the great early African intellectual and only female participant in the meeting that formed the South African National Native Congress (later renamed the African National Congress) in 1912.

Jaffer’s contribution is a timely contribution to the genre of South African historical biographies, given the current widespread interest in the lives of early African intellectuals.  While some of Jaffer’s apartheid-era historical predecessors are Tim Couzens and Veit Erlmann, the most vibrant contributions to this field have taken place in postapartheid South Africa: Bhekizizwe Peterson’s work Monarchs, Missionaries & African Intellectuals; Ntongela Masilela’s various works on the New Africans and Herbert Dhlomo;  Hlonipha Mokoena’s work on Magema Fuze; and Vukile Khumalo’s work on African clergymen at Ekukhanyeni. Coming from perspectives as diverse as theatre (in Peterson’s case) to literary biography (in Mokoena’s case), these works have  been post-disciplinary—they have not allowed the traditional confines of the disciplines of history, literature, and so forth, to define their thinking and the scope of their work. Rather, they have made their concern for understanding the colonial past through the lens of African individuals to propel their investigations. Such deep meditations on the interiority of black subjects (I am thinking here of the intense voyeurism implied in Khumalo’s project of studying personal letters of the 19th century) were perhaps unimaginable under the constraints of apartheid racial oppression, especially in the academy. So these new works are in themselves restorative, sharing a commonality in their articulation of the intersectionality of African life.

The subjects of these works were intellectuals whose educational attainments and social mobility allowed them access to certain interactions and innovations that were unprecedented at the time for African individuals. It was this class for example in the Cape Colony that were given the right to vote, under the Cape Franchise, and went out of their way, especially in towns like Kimberley in the 1890s to preserve that right, with John Tengo Jabavu as one of its most influential political leaders of the time. Jabavu also published the earliest African-owned newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu, from 1884. Jaffer’s study could have benefitted immensely had she been able to situate her own work more clearly in this growing body of literature.

As Jaffer’s work demonstrates, the influence of the Kimberley public scene was essential in the shaping of Maxeke’s worldview,  as she was based in this bustling metropolis at the time. It was also here in Kimberley that Maxeke came across the touring performance company, the Virginia Jubilee Singers, from the United States, who were to inspire her own ambitions for going abroad and getting a higher education. As result of this, she became the first African woman in southern Africa to attain a degree,  from Wilberforce University in the United States.

While the positioning of this work has limitatons, one of the crucial pieces of information given to us about Maxeke in Jaffer’s book was her interaction with WEB DU Bois, who was her lecturer at Wilberforce. Maxeke was also very close friends with the woman who was to become Du Bois’ wife and support partner, Nina Gomer.

Thirty years later, Du Bois was to reflect on Maxeke’s pioneering achievements in this way:

I regard Mrs Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest human causes, working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race, but against her sex. To fight not simply the natural and inherent difficulties of education and social uplift, but to fight with little money and little outside aid…I think that what Mrs Maxeke has accomplished should encourage all men and especially those of African descent. (Foreword in Xuma: 1930)

In bringing the life of Maxeke into public consciousness in this way, Jaffer has struck gold. It is my belief, that this may in the long run be viewed as Jaffer’s greatest contribution to public life in postapartheid South Africa.

The book’s style of writing is very accessible, suitable even for a teenage reader. This is a good thing, as many of the other writings on African intellectual lives have been highly academic in their inclination. Jaffer brings her journalistic flair to the writing process, by infusing the historical events with critical reflections on present-day issues. Her reflections sometimes miss the mark, however. I think this has to do with certain technical slippages, arising out of the fact that she is not a historian by training.

At times, Jaffer cites people who are not necessarily authoritative figures in the subject areas concerned. Serious readers of Pan-Africanism such as Alexandre Mboukou, Imanuel Geiss, Anthony Bogues and locally Chris Saunders, Kwandiwe Kondlo and Thabo Mbeki are overlooked; Pallo Jordan is given prominence instead. Jordan, a former Minister of Arts and Culture, who was recently (2014) found to have lied about his doctoral qualification, is cited at length in Jaffer’s work, as if he is the most credible source on Pan-African history. The referencing of Jordan is surprising as he has no published works on this subject under his belt. There are numerous other questionable sources that compromise the credibility of her endeavour.

My primary question to Jaffer relates to her own positioning within the text,  which has an effect in the way she draws her conclusions on the subject of identity. In her personal reflections that seep through this work, we find Jaffer positioning herself as a Muslim, and at times as a citizen, at other times as a black woman, and at other times as non-racial; but never do we see her positioning herself as African. Why is that so?

My suspicion is that this has to do with the issue of language; for people to claim an African identity they must speak an African language. Language is crucial in the shaping of the creative imagination, it is for this reason that Ngugi wa Thiong’o abandoned English in order to express himself in his native Gikuyu. It is for the same reason that the Khoekhoe activists in the Western Cape are themselves advocating for the recognition of the African language(s) of the region, and calling for local sites to be renamed accordingly.

I think there has been a resilient colonial paradigm of the ‘tribe,’ or what Archie Mafeje may call the “taxonomic categories”, that configures information originating from different regions of African territories as coming  already assigned to particular notions of pseudo-racial types. In Maxeke’s time these would have been ‘Fingoe,’ ‘Bechuana,’ ‘Griqua,’ ‘Koranna,’ ‘Barolong,’ ‘Malay,’ etc. But as one looks at the lives of the people and individuals who inhabited these identity spaces, one finds a kind of polyglossia that characterises the Cape and Highveld identity. Through such fluid permutations people were African. Including Jaffer?

My sense is that the urgent rush to ‘citizen’, having not attended to a different logic marked out in the topography and movement of people, undermines the non-Western institutions of familiarity that remain more or less intact in the southern African context, notwithstanding colonialism and its post-colonialism. It is a logic whose integration shows Africa as possessing much as resource and intellectual property (I.P.) that has yet to be properly understood.