Accumulating knowledge

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has taught us that knowledge capital is cumulative; if your father is a graduate, you are likely to be one as well and surpass him in terms of education.

Editor Mcebisi Ndletyana’s book African Intellectuals in 19th and Early 20th Century South Africa (HSRC Press) is an attempt to present a history of the accumulation of knowledge capital among black South Africans, and the “intellectual” in the title has more to do with the construction of a knowledge infrastructure than with the more conventional understanding of the term.

The earliest scholars from black communities were the initial accumulators of knowledge capital, and that they were pioneers cannot be disputed. Their works, however, are the beginnings of an engagement not only with the world of words on a page, but also with the politics of literacy itself.

Three of the five figures presented here were products of the church, and three of them were journalists or frequent contributors to newspapers. Missionaries, according to Francis Meli in his history of the African National Congress, played a pioneering role in establishing the black press. This has its origins in the project of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which endeavoured to make the Bible available in every language. From 1837 onwards, a string of indigenous-language newspapers, based in missionaries, were printed in the eastern Cape and elsewhere.

All the figures were builders of an intellectual, moral and political infrastructure, and they are presented in a sequence that is more or less chronological, emphasising the cumulative process.

Ntsikana, born around 1780, was the first isiXhosa speaker to convert to Christianity. Vuyani Booi writes that Ntsikana shed his own culture to assume Christianity, washing away the red ochre on his body by immersing himself in a river. But he “still experienced a conflict between indigenous belief systems and the foreign belief system”, and synthesised his Christianity with isiXhosa customs and modes of thought.

A composer of hymns that are still sung in churches today, Ntsikana’s hybrid Christianity and his compositions made easier the conversion of prominent chiefs, including the father of Tiyo Soga. Booi describes Ntsikana as an organic intellectual, a thinker of the people and a precursor of black theology.

Ndletyana’s portrait of Soga (1829-1871) paints a picture of a conflicted thinker and teacher, the first black priest to be ordained overseas. Taken under the wing of Reverend William Chalmers, a Scottish missionary, he was admitted to Lovedale Seminary in Alice and eventually studied in Glasgow. He returned to teach at a school in South Africa, eventually becoming schoolmaster, but went back to Scotland again to study theology. He married a Scottish woman, yet his relation to colonial society was always ambivalent. Regarding himself as a loyal subject of Queen Victoria, he never felt he was fully admitted into “civilised society”.

Against opposition, he built several churches for black congregants and believed the introduction of Christianity to blacks had to be in harmony with the native worldview instead of being roughly imposed, since “natives prefer to be drawn rather than driven”. He believed “modernity was not a function of race, but socialisation”, and determined to “lay the foundation for a native literature”. He translated English works into isiXhosa, including John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which he published in 1866. His journalistic work reported on the “history, fables, legends, customs and the genealogy of chiefs”.

John Tengo Jabavu (1859-1921) is perhaps the most controversial of the figures, presented in the book by Ndletyana himself. A pioneering journalist, editor of Isigidimi Sama-Xosa (The Xhosa Express) and eventually of Imvo Zabantsundu (Native Opinion), he began his career as a teacher. Jabavu’s Imvo Zabantsundu was sponsored by liberal Cape politicians in the Cape, and he was perceived as advancing their interests even when these conflicted with African interests. But Izwi was the first black secular newspaper, tied not to the church but to political parties.

Most outrageous to modern sensibilities was his promotion of the 1913 Land Act and his support for restrictions on the black franchise. By 1898, he entered into a pact with the Afrikanerbond, nemesis of the black voter. More interesting, perhaps, was that he supported the Boers in the South African Anglo-Boer War, hinting at a more complex anti-colonial stance, despite his belief in the “civilising” benefits of colonialism.

But Jabavu was a towering figure, a prime mover behind the establishment of what is now Fort Hare University, and his role in the development of intellectual infrastructure ameliorates his more controversial views, around which his rivalry with Mpilo Walter Benson Rubusana revolved.

Rubusana, presented in the book by Songezo Joel Ngqongqo, was born in 1858. He first trained as a teacher before becoming a theologian in 1882. An educational activist, he also became the only black person to serve as a member of the Cape provincial council before becoming a vice-president of the ANC’s precursor, the South African Native National Congress.

Rubusana worked to establish 10 schools in the Cape, and was an advocate for compulsory education and mother-tongue instruction. “He took to writing in Xhosa, as a way of promoting African literature, history and grammar.” His books present the history of the Xhosa kingdoms; he helped translate the Bible into isiXhosa and wrote A History of South Africa from the Native Standpoint.

Graduating from missionary journalism, he was a pioneer in black political journalism and wrote for various newspapers before launching Izwi Labantu (The Voice of the People), the rival to Jabavu’s moderate Imvo Zabantsundu.

Rubusana’s allegiance to the church was tempered by his nationalism, and he tried to delink schools from churches, many of them being denominational schools. The African population was far from unified in its relation to colonisers, and the nationalist project had to invent unity, as every national project must do, as well as invent the means to unity; it also had to neutralise the forces that prevented unity from coming into being.

Rubusana’s efforts to create the infrastructure for education were considerable, but the demolition of many of his schools and churches by the apartheid government—which removed the local populations to Mdantsane—is just one element of the project to stifle and eradicate the heritage that this book resuscitates.

The final figure, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi, produced the “first-ever literary collection by an imbongi—a poet and keeper of history”.

Born in 1875, a story-teller and orator, he helps effect the transition to a literate, and literary, black culture. He excelled in traditional heroic poetry and expanded the role of the imbongi—who is traditionally focused on the tribe—to include among his subjects white people, yet another transition from the local to the national, and implicitly the global.

An innovator in content, he also experimented with form and began to adapt isiXhosa poetry in “European style and strictures”. But Mcedisi Qangula points out that these experiments were not always successful, and the difficulty of finding rhyming words in isiXhosa upset the “balance and unity” of his poems, something easier to achieve in English and other languages.

Qangula’s portrait of Mqhayi reveals that his ideas were shaped by the subtle distinctions around which thinkers organise their works. His first book, Ityala Lamawele (The Lawsuit of the Twins), pays attention to two questions: “how law was interpreted formally whenever there was a civil or criminal dispute between two or more people; and what the nature and operation of law was in Xhosa traditional and indigenous society”.

He also focused on disunity among the black peoples, suggesting that Xhosas, Sothos, Zulus and Tswanas formed one nation. He produced portraits of black figures, including Soga, Shaka and Lesotho newspaper editor Simon Phamotse, as well as an autobiography. In his role as linguist, he tried to standardise isiXhosa grammar.

The five figures presented in Ndletyana’s book about African intellectuals would not, by some standards, pass as intellectuals, few of them having left a body of published work, which is the defining characteristic of an intellectual. Mdletyana is aware of this, and says in his introduction that it is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual that shaped the content. What the book is doing is part of a project to recreate a legacy that was not allowed to come into being, and which, when it existed nevertheless, was distorted and rendered not as capital, but as negativity and debt.

A slim volume, the book is meant to be a taster—to stimulate research activity. If it leads to collections of the works of each of the thinkers represented here, then it will have achieved its purpose.



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