Thununu kaNonjiya visits James Stuart to talk about history

21 Jun 2019 - 10:30
John Wright in conversation with Muzi Hadebe of the KZN Department of Arts and Culture who was Master of Ceremonies at the Killie Campbell Memorial Lecture. Photo courtesy of Dr. Cynthia Kros


This was the title of the Killie Campbell Memorial Lecture given by APC research associate John Wright at the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban on 17 October 2018.  Here he reports.

In the first part of the lecture I outlined what little is known about the life of Thununu kaNonjiya. He was a man of the Qwabe clan who was born in about 1814 and who grew up in the Zulu kingdom of Shaka and Dingane. In the 1840s he and his family moved to the newly formed British colony of Natal. Later in his life he became an acknowledged authority on the history of the Zulu kingdom.

In May 1903, when he was a very old man living near eShowe in Zululand, Thununu received an invitation from James Stuart, a magistrate in Durban, to visit him at his home to discuss what Stuart would have called ‘Zulu history and custom’. Which Thununu duly did. The conversations he held with Stuart extended over a period of three weeks. The notes that Stuart made on this occasion form part of the James Stuart Collection now held in the Killie Campbell Library.

In the second part of the lecture I outlined Stuart’s career as a Natal colonial official and as a researcher into the ‘Zulu’ system of governance. This subject has to some degree been discussed in the literature and I will not rehearse it in this report. My main concern was to pose the question of why Stuart invited Thununu to visit him. In the third part of the lecture I took up a question of a kind that historians have only recently begun to ask. What was it that impelled the 89-year-old Thununu to accept Stuart’s invitation, and to undertake what must have been quite an arduous journey to talk about the past with a colonial official who, as far as we know, he had never met.

The question takes us into a realm of the intellectual history of KwaZulu-Natal that is only just beginning to be explored. This is the realm of ideas produced by individuals in the ‘remoter’ rural parts of the region who could not read or write but who, in their own communities, were involved in vibrant public discourses about public affairs present and past.

The leading scholar in this field is Carolyn Hamilton, who has based much of her work on in-depth studies of Stuart’s notes. Since the 1990s Hamilton has argued the case for closely examining the social background and political interests of Stuart’s interlocutors, as far as the evidence allows. This opens the way towards understanding their statements to Stuart as political discourses set in the present as against inherited ‘tribal’ traditions. Hamilton sees the Stuart collection as an archive not of tribal traditions, which is how many people see it, but as an archive of the ways in which, in the presence of an important colonial official, Stuart’s interlocutors mobilized ideas about the past in support of positions and interests that they sought to defend and promote in the present. This at a time when the communities that they belonged to were coming under hugely disruptive pressures from political and economic developments in Natal and in the wider South Africa.

Cynthia Kros and I have taken up some of Hamilton’s ideas in writing a not yet published essay on Thununu and his conversations with Stuart. In this essay, we begin to offer an answer to the question of why Thununu saw fit to make a visit to Stuart to talk about the past. In an important sense, he was doing nothing new. He was doing what we think elders in African societies had always done – that is, he was engaging in discussions about the past to defend and promote particular interests in the present. If it was necessary, one went to the centres of political power to do it, using the medium of the spoken word. And when it became clear in the colonial era that it was the written word that really counted with the authorities, then it was important for the spoken word to be put into writing.

Hamilton puts it concisely in a general statement: ‘We find … calculated attempts by the subjects of colonialism … to enter their experiences and views into the formal archival record’. There is every reason to think that this is what Thununu was seeking to do by visiting Stuart and discussing the past with him. From this perspective, Stuart was not so much ‘recording oral histories’ as tapping into political discourses about the past that were current among people who were grappling with how to cope with an increasingly difficult and painful present.

This perspective, I went on to say, allows us to see the colonial-made archive of the times before colonialism in ways that can feed productively into public discourses in our own times. There are strong currents of thought in South Africa today that would write off the work of figures like Stuart, and of Killie Campbell, the first custodian and curator of his collection of papers, as irrelevant relics of a fading colonial era. I highlighted the point that their work, like the work of many of their contemporaries, black and white, today provides an indispensable basis for a new generation of scholars to move the study of the precolonial past into a decolonized future.