Trails, Traditions, Trajectories: Rethinking Perspectives on Southern African Histories

4 Oct 2019 - 09:00
Organizers of conference:Prof Nomalanga Mkhize (NMU and Rhodes U, left) and outgoing president Prof Enocent Msindo (Rhodes U, right).In the centre is the society's incoming president, Prof Luvuyo Wotshela (Fort Hare). Photo courtesy of John Wright.


This was the title of the 27th biennial conference of the Southern African Historical Society, held at Rhodes University in Makhanda between 24-26 June 2019. Among the participants were APC research associates Cynthia Kros and John Wright. Together with Professor Lize Kriel of the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Pretoria, they were members of a panel which discussed the theme ‘Hidden interlocutors: rediscovering the names behind the printed words’. Here Kros gives her impressions of the conference, and comments on her contribution to the panel discussion. Wright and Kriel add comments on their respective contributions.

Cynthia Kros writes:
Before I record some of my reflections on this conference I want to make the point very strongly that I found it extremely stimulating and, as I hope to suggest below, deeply thought-provoking.

‘I’m not a historian…’, Ndumiso Dladla (Department of Philosophy, Unisa) said by way of introduction to his paper, titled ‘Getting Over Apartheid: An Introduction to Azanian Historiography’. In the context of an address to a meeting of one of the major professional historical societies in Southern Africa, and in view of what Dladla said next, this statement might be considered the equivalent of saying, ‘I can’t play chess, but I’m going to comment on your moves,’ or ‘I don’t speak isiZulu, but I think your grasp of the language is poor.’ It reminded me of a comment I heard in a long-ago university seminar on L.P. Hartley’s The Go Between, ‘I haven’t read the book or seen the film, but I would say neither is a very substantial representation of pre-war Edwardian England.’ Dladla’s disclaimer that he was not a historian was followed by a statement which, had it been a text message, would have been accompanied by the you-crack–me-up emoji: ‘History is too important to be left to the historians’.

In the context of his presentation, Dladla’s ‘I’m not a historian’ was actually meant to disarm those in the House who were. What kind of villains would whip out their sharp-shooting disciplinary weapons when the man is ostensibly showing us that he has entered the room empty-handed? The two statements taken together are also revealing about the way Dladla thinks of history and historians. It seems to go something like this: historians are people who know a lot about the past, but do not always put their knowledge to good use, and are urgently in need of advice on how to do so.

Nobody at the conference, as far as I know, tackled the disciplinary nature of history in so many words. But many of the presenters talked about their engagement with particular bodies of evidence, and in some cases considered how their encounters with the archive had changed their understanding of past events. Discussion of the proceedings in the Rivonia trial of 1963-64 and of the IFP’s late entry into the 1994 general election were but two examples from the rich offerings. The point was made by Nomalanga Mkhize (History, NMU and Rhodes) in her own presentation, the day after Dladla’s, that historians engage with complexity and specificity as opposed to some other disciplines, which seem freer to make sweeping generalisations and take up absolute positions.

But, having made these remarks about Dladla’s tactics, I would stress that a case was also made, especially by keynote speaker Francis Nyamnjoh (Social Anthropology, UCT), for interdisciplinarity. In retelling the story of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, Nyamnjoh warned historians against falling into the illusion held by the company of skulls who believed themselves to be complete. Garnishing the story with some witty local allusions, Nyamnjoh recounted the journey of one of the skulls after it had made a decision to court the extremely picky woman in a distant city who had rejected all her suitors to date. Along the way, to improve his chances, the skull borrowed numerous body parts from others, and through his appearance as an exceptionally handsome man, was able to persuade the woman to accept him. On their way back to his skull community, the skull dutifully returned each of the borrowed body parts, thus honouring his debts and allowing their original owners to regain their powers of mobility.

All too often historians – let us confine this lesson to them, although Nyamnjoh also included Cecil John Rhodes and, by implication, other like-minded imperialists and settlers – do not honour their debts, and prevent others from enjoying the privileges of mobility. Here he was referring in particular to the essentializing colonial-made ethnographic approach to the study of African societies. The notion of the ‘native informant’ (elaborated on below) is key to this approach.

Nyamnjoh also enjoined historians to imbibe what he characterised as an African spirit of conviviality. While this seems to have been well received by many of the conference participants, it is important to note that there were also reservations. Dladla, in waving away historiographical distinctions, wrote off all white South African historians, arguing that they have wilfully concealed the central event of ‘the Conquest’, and have been engaged in some kind of conspiracy, one which ultimately misled the authors of South Africa’s democratic constitution. Evidently they were working off the wrong record of history, thus falling for the Freedom Charter’s lily-livered concessions to ‘all who live in South Africa’.

Dladla did not mention the names or works of any of the historians whom he dismissed and to whom he simultaneously attributed such extraordinary power. But the next day, Nomalanga Mkhize speaking to her paper, ‘“Inyaniso emsulwa yile – umlungu ngumlungu”: reading the Cobbing-Webster Mfengu thesis against R.T. Kawa’s Ibali lamaMfengu’, certainly did. Explaining that she was not going to re-hash the mfecane debate, which every member of her audience probably knew something about, Mkhize asked if anyone present could name a single black scholar in South Africa who was regarded as a paradigm maker, in the way, say, that Cobbing was, and those whose work he challenged. Of course, as she observed, nobody could. Black intellectuals had been frozen out of the academy or had chosen not to be part of it. Historians like Jeff Peires, writing about the crisis in Xhosa society in the 1850s, had taken African oral sources seriously. Helen Bradford had done better. But not till recently were the arguments of R.T. Kawa and other African writers treated as coherent, substantive historical accounts in their own right.
The present author would argue, somewhat in mitigation, that Cobbing was driven by a conviction, not that it was important to conceal ‘the Conquest’, but that it was important to argue that the notion of the Zulu-centric mfecane was a lying ‘alibi’, recruited to cover up for atrocities largely initiated by white people. For his part, Peires wrote to prove that the Xhosa who killed their cattle in the period 1856-7 were not superstitious and simple-minded, but resorting to a last desperate measure in the face of vicious warfare and territorial loss incurred in clashes with European settlers.

It is probable that neither Cobbing nor Peires felt at the time they were writing the works under consideration that they could afford to be wrong, and imagined they were mustering the best evidence they could. But what was the consequence of their approach? Mkhize argued that what Cobbing did in many instances was to reduce Africans to ‘native informants’, judging some to be reliable and others not. African writers were, it might be said, prevented from enjoying the kind of mobility that Nyamnjoh had maintained should be a universal right.

I tried to develop something of this theme in my own paper, ‘Informants, Interlocutors, Knowledge-Makers, Intellectuals’, inspired by the work of, and conversations with Carolyn Hamilton and John Wright, as well as by Hlonipha Mokoena’s book-length study of Magema Fuze. In considering Fuze’s loss of ‘audibility’ over the course of the 20th century, Mokoena makes the point that condescending comments made by the editor and translator of the 1979 English translation of Fuze’s Abantu Abamnyama: Lapa Bavela Ngakona had reduced his status to that of a ‘native informant’.

Among other things, Fuze was analysing the weaknesses in the Zulu kingdom, which had made it vulnerable to British and Boer machinations, and was grappling with finding a direction for ‘the black people’ of his book title to emerge from what he described as a ‘chrysalis’(isiphungumangathi) into political maturity. His book was the product of his long-standing conversations and debates with other amakholwa, but it was patronisingly dismissed as being not as good as Bryant’s Olden Times in Zululand and Natal, even though, as Mokoena points out, Bryant himself had acknowledged his indebtedness to Fuze. In terms of the Palm-Wine Drinkard analogy, Fuze never really did get his body parts back.

For me, in the contributions I am making to the book, Ezakudala/TsaKgale: Exploring the Archive of Times Past, edited by Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Helen Ludlow, John Wright and myself, it will be important to think about how to introduce the interlocutors, including those who were not literate, whom readers will encounter in the various chapters. In my conference paper, I review the significance of the step which (some) historians are taking from thinking about ‘informants’ to thinking about ‘interlocutors’. Drawing on Hamilton’s work, I tentatively suggest what it would mean to think of some of the interlocutors, at least, as intellectuals.  At the outset of my paper, I make the point that in this project I think of myself very much as a mediator or history educator, making ideas from the academy accessible to our readership.

Being at the conference was useful for encouraging me in this line of thinking. However while it was certainly, for the most part, as convivial a conference as Nyamnjoh might have wished, it also served to underscore the point that it is high time for historians to take up the arguments that Mkhize and Mokoena have advanced. I would argue that Dladla unhelpfully caricatured the situation. He seems to have been looking really for a way to mount an attack on the constitution. The points made by Mkhize and Mokoena apply not only to the conservative white historians who dominated in the academy for so long but also to many who would see themselves as progressives. The issue is not how their whiteness blinded them to historical racial injustice, but how their privileged admission to, and training in, a certain kind of ‘western-oriented’ academy, whether in the metropole or in the colony, made them blind to decades of antecedent black scholarship. It also sometimes made them blind to the contemporary immobilizing of black intellectuals who could have interacted with them as colleagues with new and different perspectives.

John Wright writes:
The work done by Natal colonial official James Stuart in the early twentieth century as a recorder of the conversations that he held on the past with numerous interlocutors, black and white, is now well known to historians of the KwaZulu-Natal region. Much less known today is the work that he did in the late 1910s and 1920s in putting together five isiZulu readers for use in Natal schools. They were titled uTulasizwe (Be silent and let us hear), Uhlangakula (Let the uhlanga, or ‘people’, grow), uBaxoxele (Tell them stories), uKulumetule (Speak while they listen), and uVusezakiti (Revive matters of our people). They were published by Longmans, Green, and were widely used in Natal schools until the early 1940s.
Each of the readers consists of a number of izifundo, or ‘lessons’, on aspects of what Stuart and his contemporaries would have called Zulu history and custom. Stuart tells us in the prefaces to the books that the izifundo were based on accounts given to him by abantu abamnyama, or black people. In a few cases, he names the individuals who gave them, but for the most part the izifundo were published without attribution. The result is that the books appear very much as Stuart’s own compositions.

Research that I have done over a long period into Stuart’s original notes, now housed in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban, modifies this picture. It turns out that of the total of 241 izifundo in the five readers, 107 were composed by Stuart, who used unnamed published works and unnamed oral accounts as sources. The other 134 were drawn largely verbatim from notes which Stuart had made of his conversations with particular individuals on specific dates at specific places.

Of these 134, I have so far been able to identify the specific interlocutor or interlocutors with whom Stuart conversed in 105 cases. In total there were 36 of them. The paper, titled ‘Tracking down the sources of James Stuart’s readers’, which I gave at the SAHS conference provides a list of the 134 izifundo. In each case I give the number and title of the isifundo; an English translation of the title; the name of the pertinent interlocutor where known, and the date of his conversation with Stuart (the great majority of Stuart’s interlocutors were men); the location of Stuart’s original notes of the particular conversation in the Stuart Papers; and the location of the iteration of that conversation published in the six volumes of the James Stuart Archive of Recorded Oral Evidence Relating to the History of the Zulu and Neighbouring Peoples (edited by Colin Webb and me, published 1976-2014 by the University of Natal Press/University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.)

Stuart’s readers seem to have been widely influential in their time in isiZulu-speaking circles, not only among schoolchildren but also among intellectuals. My paper brings to the fore the identities of the 36 individuals, hitherto overlooked by most scholars, whose ideas about the past, we can now see, contributed directly to notions about KwaZulu-Natal’s history that Stuart’s readers helped put into circulation.

Lize Kriel writes:
In my paper, I looked into the ‘Sotho Texts from the Woodbush Mountains’, narratives about the history and practices of the people of Mamabolo, Monyebodi and Mamatola in what is today the Limpopo Province. These were recorded from various northern Sotho pastors and evangelists by Berlin Missionary Carl Hoffmann, and were published without indications of the identity of these individuals in Hamburg University’s periodical for African Languages during the first decades of the twentieth century.

Unlike researchers who work with the James Stuart Archive, I have no access to source texts (which probably no longer exist anyway) in order to reconnect particular parts of text to particular interlocutors. But other writings by Missionary Hoffmann enable me to identify – tentatively – the handful of most likely interlocutors by name, and to link them to the areas that each would most likely have spoken about. For example, the narratives which Hoffmann published about the Letsoalo people were most probably related by Pastor Moses Rakoma or by the mission’s pack-donkey driver Stephanus Mathibako. Both were ardent story-tellers who would have spent years in each other’s company as well as in the company of Hoffmann.

Owing to the difficulty of allocating any particular section of text to any specific interlocutor, I also investigated recurrent tropes and stylistic elements in the corpus of texts to try to establish the probable identity of Hoffmann’s original interlocutors. To give an example: the interlocutors’ regular references to the totem animals that communities revered in order to indicate lineage, mobility, relocation and reconnection may give clues as to the interlocutors’ identities. Recurrent phrases like ‘long ago’, ‘these days’, and ‘according to custom’ also call for further investigation, perhaps by means of textual analysis software.

[This research is part of a project on the Berlin Mission and the Making of African Knowledge, which has generously been sponsored by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.]