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Sunday, 27 May 2012


Zuid Afrika

Drawn in colour is a book written by a ‘black’ South African in 1960. The author compares the lives of the black Africans (‘natives’) living under Apartheid in Nationalist South Africa with that of those living in the much freer conditions in The Protectorate of Uganda just two years before it became an independent member of the British Commonwealth. As it is has been out-of-print for a while, and hard to find, I have included a number of extracts in this review.

During my researches into the life of my great grandfather the late Senator Franz Ginsberg (1860, Prussia - 1936, South Africa), I scoured numerous crumbling pages of the issues of the Cape Mercury (published in King Williams Town, where Ginsberg was an important political figure), stored in the British Library’s newspaper collection, looking for references to him. I found was an editorial dated February the 6th, 1906, an extract of which reads: “Much to the Cape Mercury’s surprise the Natives are objecting to the proposed take over of the locations by the Council. The newspaper “Imvo” has voiced the opposition expressed.  Mr Ginsberg published a reply in Imvo. The editors of Imvo pointed out that the Native inhabitants of the locations, under threat of repossession, do not see things in the same light as Mr Ginsberg.” The editor of the Cape Mercury countered that the Natives did not realize the benefits that they would accrue if the Council took over their locations (i.e. native townships), and wrote that Imvo would be doing good work if it advised its readers to approach the matter from a broader standpoint, relying a little more on the Council’s honesty of purpose, in preference “to indulging in carping criticism”.

I returned home after recording this extract, and looked up Imvo amongst my collection of books about South Africa. I learned that Imvo was a shortened form of Imvo Zabantsundu, the full name of the first African language newspaper to be published in what is now South Africa. According to JD Omer in his  “History of Southern Africa” published in 1994, the newspaper was founded by John Tengo Jabavu in 1884 with the financial support of  James Rose-Innes.  Rose-Innes was a white lawyer with liberal views about the rights of ‘natives’ (i.e. native Africans) to have opportunities to determine their own political fate. John Tengo Jabavu, according to Wilson and Thomson in the second volume of their “The Oxford History of South Africa” (1971) founded the Native Electoral Association in King Williams Town in the same year. It supported Rose Innes, who was standing as a candidate for the town’s representative in the Cape House of Assembly (i.e. parliament).  It is obvious why they favoured him when one reads one of Rose-Innes statements made some years later: "we do not allow separate representatives for Jews and Gentiles, for Catholics and Protestants, for farmers and merchants. The result would be chaos. Why then should there be separate representation for the Natives? No doubt, the ethnological distinction between European and Bantu constitutes a wider separation than exists between any of the classes which have been mentioned. But that does not alter the fact that both races are interested in the welfare of the whole country; and that the economic position of the one reacts upon the other. The part of statesmanship is not to stress racial differences, but to emphasise the interests which exist in common” (quoted from an article by Jeremy Gauntlett, published in Consultus, a South African law journal, in April 1988).

Some years after learning about Imvo, I was browsing the shelves of a large second-hand bookshop in Brecon (Wales) when my eye was attracted to the orange coloured spine of a book. It was “Drawn In Colour” by Noni Jabavu. As it was only £2, having already been reduced from £4, and I was in a hurry, I snapped it up without skimming through it, but hoping that the author might be related to the Jabavu who founded Imvo.

Only recently, I decided to read it after I had just finished ploughing through Shaun Johnson’s tedious novel, “The Native Commissioner”, which is concerned with the genesis of, and the results of, Apartheid. I hoped that Noni Jabavu’s book would deal with this subject in a better way. I was not disappointed.

Jabavu’s book is a work of non-fiction. It begins with the author, who resided in London, landing in South Africa in 1960 in order to attend the funeral of her younger brother who was shot by gangsters in Johannesburg where he was studying. She makes her way to her birthplace Middledrift, a village in the Eastern Cape which is almost 90 kilometres east of King Williams Town and 19 kilometres east of Alice. The latter houses Fort Hare University, the oldest black university in Southern Africa. Its graduates included many who took part in the struggle to end Apartheid including: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani, Robert Sobukwe, and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

I did not need to read far into Noni Jabavu’s book to discover that she was indeed related to John Tengo Jabavu, who founded Fort Hare University. Noni, who died aged 88 in 2008, was one of his granddaughters. Her father, known by all as ‘the Professor’ was Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu. Educated in England, where Noni was living at the time of her brother’s murder, he became the first black professor at Fort Hare. So, Noni was a member of a highly educated and respected Xhosa family.

As soon as Noni arrives in Middledrift, the ceremonies leading up to her brother’s funeral begin. And after this has finished, the family retreat, according to Xhosa custom, ‘in the forest’. For, the elder Xhosa people believe that, “The bereaved have to be secluded because if the public are suddenly confronted with them at such times, they, too, suffer pangs of the heart since they are at a loss how to comfort them.” This seclusion of the bereaved minded me of the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for seven days after the death of a close member of the family. This also caused me to remember another similarity between Jewish and Xhosa traditions, that of placing pebbles on gravestones. When we visited Steve Biko’s grave in the cemetery near to the township of Ginsberg (named after my great-grandfather Franz), we noted that pebbles had placed on his gravestone. Our guide told us that it was the tradition that Xhosas, who had been unable to attend a funeral, placed pebbles on the grave of the deceased. So do Jews when visiting a grave (even if they had attended the funeral of the deceased on whose grave they place a pebble). I suppose that both the Jews and the Xhosas, once having been nomadic people, had to bury their dead in the wilds where nature would have gradually obliterated traces of these graves. By placing these stones, passers-by would help to preserve the longevity of the burial place.

After the period of mourning, and before Noni left Middledrift, the family members decided that it was time for her widowed father to get remarried. However, before the wedding could proceed a pre-nuptial contract had to be drawn up.  Noni’s father entrusted this Mr EEP Burl, to an elderly white advocate in the town of Alice. While Mr Burl and the Professor were dealing with this matter, Noni noticed, “… an equally ancient telephone made by Ericcson of Stockholm, the name picked out in gold letters…” This must have been a forerunner of the better known Sony Ericcson mobile telephones that so many of us clutch today (The first Ericcson factory was Lars Magnus Ericsson in 1876).

Eventually, Noni sets set off on the first stage of her journey to East Africa where he is going to visit her sister, who was unable to attend her brother’s funeral. Her father accompanies her on the first stage, which is by train to Bloemfontein. They meet a cousin of hers, Governor Mjali. She learns that Mjali had been on the point of marrying someone, when at the last moment it was discovered that the couple were distantly related.  For amongst the Xhosa, isiko (custom or tradition) dictates that when people propose to marry, genealogies must be traced to ensure that there are no blood links between them. Marriage between cousins of any classification was forbidden amongst Noni’s people. This resembles Kayasth Gujaratis of Indian origin, who restrict their marriages to those who do not share the same gotra (people who are descendants in an unbroken male line from a common male ancestor), but contrasts with the religious diktats of the Jews and Moslems, which allow first cousin marriages.

Noni’s father is like a magnet. He attracts other passengers to join him in his compartment on the train, where the lively discussion soon reaches the subject of African languages. This focussed on the subject of the intermixing and subsequent dilution of the purity of the various African languages caused by “…Big Business and Industry’s need for workers.” The Professor sees little wrong with this, reminding his fellow passengers of his ancestors from ‘invading’ from the north, who, “… as they travelled with their cattle, their languages constantly being enriched by those spoken by the unknown populations they overran during those centuries of movement!”.  The conversation then drifts to another language spoken in Africa, Afrikaans. Some of the passengers in Noni’s compartment felt that, “Many of the younger generation have become emotionally antagonistic towards Afrikaans, reciprocating the Nationalist Boer Government’s policies of repression and the unfairnesses (sic) they cause…” Her father replied to this, “to know Afrikaans can teach you as nothing else can the background and character of the intrinsic Boer” with whom they had to deal.

Noni and her father reach Bloemfontein, where they stay with her new step-sister and her husband in their house in the Bochabela Location, a part of Bloemfontein where black Africans were permitted to live. As they tour the location (township), they begin comparing the Boers with the ‘Europeans’ (which is how the Xhosas referred to the white English in South Africa). Their hosts point out that “… the Boers are not all primitive Calvinists stunted in thought as Nationalist policies and tenets of the Dutch Reform Church imply… nor are the English on the other hand all civilised  Western men as their ‘overseas’ inheritance would lead you to expect… Furthermore, the English are guilty in our eyes of a subtler, greater sin because in what we call their ‘dessicated’, intellectual’, to themselves ‘balanced’ approach to human problems. They appear heartless and unfeeling…”  And, a little later, Noni writes something that chimed with my own gut feelings about the effects of the Second Boer War (1899-1902): “What ruined the Boer was when the Englishman, having vanquished and thrashed him in war, handed the whip to the loser with that 1910 Act of the Union of South Africa.

Noni then continues her trip northwards. She leaves Bloemfontein on an overnight train, and observes, that the bedclothes in her sleeper berth, “ … are green, with a special line to show that they are ‘Native’ and therefore even after cleaning never to be used in the European part of the train.” She arrives in Johannesburg, which, she remarks “… is an uncomfortable place for someone from a quiet country Reserve… it is bristling with energy, violence, zest for life and progress, seems to prickle with the possibilities of sudden death.” She was pleased to leave it after changing trains. Her views on this city are shared by quite a few of my cousins, who left their homes, searching for a place to live in greater safety, more than three decades after Noni wrote these words.

When Noni reaches Southern Rhodesia (now ‘Zimbabwe’), she encountered hostility towards the ‘native’. This was well exemplified by what happened when she tried to buy something in a pharmacy in Salisbury (now ‘Harare’). The sales assistant was rude, telling her to “Go’n get whatever you people use in yer own native shops, go on, get out.” She left Rhodesia by aeroplane, flying northwards over the mighty River Zambesi, whose name, she informs the reader, is derived from the Xhosa word Uku-zambesa, which means to undress. This is what her ancestors had to do before attempting to swim across the river on their migration southwards. As she flew over the wide expanses of Africa, she was looking forward to see how other Africans lived in an Africa not burdened with the yoke of Apartheid, which her family in Middledrift imagined to be some kind of paradise.

After a long flight, Noni lands at Entebbe in Uganda, and is driven to Kampala where her sister lives. On her way, she asks herself, “…what Southerner would not be impressed…at the visible signs of wealth which was on a scale I had thought Africa incapable of?” Yet, soon she realised that all is not well in the Garden of Eden.

At the edge of Kampala, she sees what was, “…clearly an horrific slum area.” She compared it with Pimville (near Johannesburg), one of the very worst slums that she had seen in Nationalist South Africa. She says to her sister and brother-in-law, “Here in the African’s own country our people are forced to live and rot in locations.”  She is surprised when they reply, “This is not a location… it’s the African’s own town, the modern town of Baganda.” Her hosts inform her that each of the plots in this slum is private property, owned by black Africans. They tell her that no one is forced to live like this and that everybody in Uganda can live almost anywhere that they choose. They are not forced to live in slums like these by the white people. “You know, it’s time you got this South Africa idea out of your mind,” her sister says to her. Noni notices that the slum dwellers in Kampala are quite different from those in South Africa. She wrote that in Kampala, “They did not look gay. The atmosphere was morose. I was struck by this for it was a noticeable difference from location dwellers down South. There, despite slum conditions Southern Bantu have an indestructible gaiety, bubble with vitality …” So soon after arriving in Uganda, she was already showing signs of her gradual disillusionment with what she saw in a country where the ‘native’ was unfettered by the impediments of Apartheid.

When a wealthy looking African drives past in a very fancy car, she asks her hosts, “Why haven’t such Africans developed the place? They rule themselves here, therefore why have they made no roads, no drains…” The matter-of-fact answer that she receives makes her reconsider her ideas, “ … African landlords can get enough in rents with the place as it is…why should they pay to improve… That would be spending money on other people, wouldn’t it? The object is to obtain money for yourself if you are a landlord, from the other people.

The next part of Noni’s book, most of the second half, deals with her experiences in Uganda: the people she meets and their attitudes; a safari during which her idealistic preconceptions of Uganda are further demolished; and finally the breakdown of her sister’s marriage. Eventually, she writes of Uganda, “Yet I kept on trying to come to terms with this exotic background which was beginning to grate… I found I was averting my eyes so as not to see ‘the Natives’ who embodied and represented it.” She found that she felt impelled to, “…try to ‘like’ and ‘be nice’ to those natives I knew…”, and was dismayed to find that she was, “… in the same boat as those whom we Southerners call slightingly ‘liberals’, meaning white people whose brain and sense, education or conviction tell them that there’s no reason not to like us blacks; but whose emotions are rooted, as evidently mine were too, in an instinctive revulsion from a way of life more primitive than their own.”  Her words have a startling honesty and ring of truth.

In the last section of her book, the author returns to South Africa to see her family. She wanted to see again how her fellow ‘Southerners’, “… sweat blood as they progress; how they gain experience in co-operation and cohesion as they pass through those steel tempering ordeals of Treason accusations, women’s anti-Pass campaigns, bus boycotts, imprisonments… All these things seemed to me to be, if one remembers that it is the long view that counts in Africa, why our lovely South Africa was a significant country.”  I hope that Noni, who lived to see the ending of Apartheid, was not disappointed by what was beginning to happen in her mother country in the last years of her life.

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