A powerful elite traces its roots to bonds formed at mission schools

In his book Mandela’s Kinsmen: Nationalist Elites and Apartheid’s First Bantustan (Jacana), British historian Timothy Gibbs examines the continuity of the Transkei elite, from traditional chieftainships to the homeland era and into the ANC government after 1994.

Many of those in the ANC’s core leadership, in exile or in jail during the apartheid years, came from this Xhosa group, and Gibbs shows how these networks persist today. His work draws on 25 archival collections plus other sources he has dug up. He travelled 50 000km around South Africa, he says, seeking information and conducting interviews.

You write about the importance of the mission schools in educating the future leadership of the ANC – and also educating those who would become homeland leaders. This was a key part of what tied them together.

Everyone knows the story of the early 20th-century ANC leadership, with so many of them coming from this mission-school rural background, and all these connections between them. That’s why I use the term “kinsmen” – the families were all intermarried.

These elite networks are still really important. Half of today’s Constitutional Court judges were Bantustan-educated.

The mission schools were transferred to the control of the government but they still tended to be the best in the country [for black people], so you find a lot of parents sending their kids to St John’s, Mthatha. This created really tightknit networks up to the 1970s.

Chris Hani recruited some of his best people there. He went to Lesotho in 1974 [to recruit underground ANC operatives] and picked up the networks Govan Mbeki had formed in the 1960s. And they recruited all the youngsters – they went looking for them in the top schools.

What was interesting about that nationalist elite in Jo’burg was that it had been constituted from a web of regional connections. Apartheid tried to unravel that, to set up Nelson Mandela against [Transkei homeland leader] Kaiser Matanzima, but the web persisted. At an elite level, they were still interwoven.

The Matanzimas went to visit Mandela in jail, to talk about “family matters”, but probably there was some politics in there too? The history of the ANC’s complicated relations with the homeland governments is part of what you are considering.

Yes. These elites continue. In the usual study of the homelands, there’s a line between resistance and collaboration, but in fact there’s a lot of grey in the middle.

In Umkhonto weSizwe’s (MK) bombing campaign of the 1980s, the best way into South Africa was through homelands such as the Transkei. Tokyo Sexwale’s brother was killed near Butterworth, running from the police.

And the Bantustans were vital in the apartheid endgame. Forty percent of South Africa’s population was then in the homelands.

When Bantu Holomisa seized power in the Transkei and was wondering which way to jump, he had a hotline to Hani because he went to school with half these guys. Hani used to joke about being “homeboys” with people like Oyama Mabandla [who was then an exiled ANC member, and is now a leading businessperson].

The Transkei was almost a rear operating base for the ANC’s war on Inkatha in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s. There were certainly more than a few MK cadres arrested near Port Shepstone, coming from the Transkei with their cars full of guns …

As the ANC was trying to bring MK out of the camps and back to South Africa [in the early 1990s], the Transkei was good for that. Holomisa provided arms for Mandela’s bodyguards, who didn’t have them.

Another thing you consider is how the homelands drove a certain amount of development, and what that echoes in today’s development initiatives.

I try to understand how, in poor, unproductive rural areas like this, government redistribution is very important. It’s channelled through lots of local mediators. The people who hand out the goods often invoke tradition.

The politics of resource distribution began in the homelands in the 1970s. Some of that was prestige projects, baubles and so on, but a lot of it was infrastructure. Schools and agriculture accounted for most of it. Schoolteachers’ salaries were a big expenditure item. Now you had kids who had never had contact with the state going to school everywhere.

Matanzima’s politics were the politics of dishing out goods. This causes problems when one region’s getting goods and others aren’t. This was why Stella Sigcau [daughter of Xhosa king Botha Sigcau, who was initially part of the homeland government] fell out with Matanzima in 1979.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s father, Columbus Madikizela, was also in the homeland government until he also fell out with Matanzima. There were other Madikizelas in the Pondoland revolt [of the early 1960s and, later, another suppressed revolt in the 1970s].

And there’s the story of an ANC operative, a Madikizela – Prince Madikizela married Matanzima’s daughter and used that as his underground cover!

You note the continuities between the old homeland state and present-day local government authorities, because the Bantustan bureaucracy became the new one under the ANC.

In some ways that anticipates the politics of today in such areas. The difficulty now in the Eastern Cape is the old Transkei bureaucracy running amok.The development schemes in these areas are often a reintroduction of homeland schemes – with a bit more money attached. Some of it is filtering down, but then everyone’s probably creaming a bit as it goes through.

Which has implications for today’s crisis of governance.

Yes. The question is asked: How does one deal with the public sector crisis?

Often there’s an invocation of a romantic vision of the rural past. People imagine an older era, when the mfundisi was in the schools, being a moral person. Steve Biko was doing something similar in the 1970s with his self-help schemes.

I wrote about the links from Govan Mbeki to Biko to the sort of Nosimo Balindlela-style of communitarian politics – she tried to use tradition to regalvanise and remoralise the civil service; she used to go into schools, barefoot, wearing her traditional gear.

“Rural Africanism” is a very important theme, as my supervisor William Beinart has made clear. Often the invoking of local identity can shift resources. The ANC went for a strategy of incorporation [after 1994]. I wrote about how the national state expands and absorbs local identities.

It sounds a bit academic, but the book is very readable. Indeed, it’s fascinating.

Yes, there’s a fair amount of sex and death and betrayal in Transkei history.

Shaun de Waal is the editor of the Mail & Guardian‘s Comment & Analysis section

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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