Finding a forgotten pioneer

2011-07-22 00:00

MAGEMA Fuze is best known as the inhabitant of footnotes: his 1922 book Abantu Abamnyama Lapa Bavela Ngakona (The Black People and Whence They Came) is more referenced than read. But now a new book, Magema Fuze — The Making of a Kholwa Intellectual by Hlonipha Mokoena, has freed Fuze from footnote obscurity, placing him on the front cover of a biography that positions him as a key figure in the intellectual life of this country.

Born around 1840, Fuze was enrolled as a young teenager at Ekukhanyeni School in Bishopstowe, founded by Bishop John W. Colenso. Baptised as a Christian in 1859, Fuze went on to become Colenso’s printer and assistant. In later life he was a prolific contributor — of letters and articles — to newspapers. In his eighties, he published Abantu Abamnyama Lapa Bavela Ngakona, later translated into English and published in 1979 as The Black People and Whence They Came.

Fuze spent most of his life living either in or around Pietermaritzburg, dying in what is now Hollingwood in 1922. The whereabouts of his grave is unknown; lost to living memory, his single book was, until now, his only memorial. Even his biographer came across her subject by chance. “It was accidental,” says Mokoena, speaking shortly after her book was launched at the recent 23rd biennial conference of the Southern African Historical Society in Durban last month.

Mokoena recalls first encountering Fuze in a book by the historian André du Toit. “He quoted sections from Abantu Abam­nyama and I was puzzled because Du Toit described Fuze as a Zulu speaker and the first writer in Zulu, yet I had never heard of him. This despite there being plenty of Zulu books at home when I was growing up and having aunts who were teachers — but even they had never heard of him.”

Her curiosity aroused, Mokoena began researching Fuze, first for an honours degree then a Masters, subsequently upgraded to a doctorate. She is now an assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York.

Knowing of her interest, other academics who had encountered aspects of Fuze in their research brought the material to her attention. Gradually it became clear that there was a lot more to Fuze than Abantu Abamnyama Lapa Bavela Ngakona.

“Fuze was also part of a network that exchanged letters and manuscripts,” she says. “And there is a whole body of journalism which appeared in many newspapers, mainly in Ilanga lase Natal, Inkanyiso and Ipepa Lo Hlanga, as well as other forms of print.”

Fuze was fortuitously related to John Dube, first president of the ANC and the founding editor of Ilanga. “Dube was Fuze’s conduit into print,” says Mokoena.

But although Mokoena was able to unearth Fuze’s published material, there was little that provided access to the man behind the writing. Much of Fuze’s material was destroyed in the fire at Bishopstowe in 1884 and all that remains from his time there appear to be some schoolboy drawings in the Grey Manuscript Collection at the National Library in Cape Town.

There are a few letters extant, says Mokoena. “But they are ‘laundry list’ letters, very practical, they say nothing about who he was.”

One item that has survived is Fuze’s will. “That tells us more,” says Mokoena. “It tells us that he’d thought about his last days. He was the family patriarch and he was concerned about what would happen to his property.”

Given such biographical gaps, perhaps it’s not surprising Mokoena eschews a conventional cradle-to-grave approach but essays instead a series of explorations around aspects of Fuze’s life and its key elements — his relationship with the Colensos, his interactions with the Zulu royal family, his role as a cultural critic and, of course, the creation of his book.

Fuze was both Christian and educated, a member of the amakholwa. “Being an ikholwa was a political and social, rather than just a religious identity,” observes Mokoena in the book.

“I am wary of the kholwa label,” she says. “Especially given a legacy of thought that sees them as either sell-outs or unhappily caught between two worlds.”

“I am uncomfortable with the idea that Fuze was caught between two worlds. That makes him both an inauthentic Christian and an inauthentic African. Fuze was searching for a different kind of authenticity: that of a writer and an intellectual. Christianity and Zuluness were part of his being, but he was moving beyond these labels. His life was not a contest between two things.”

Mokoena says her book tells the story of someone who was a writer. “It is about what it is to be a writer, the commitment to being a writer, the intellectual history of a writer. People must decide if I’m justified in calling Fuze an intellectual.”

Mokoena gradually uncovered Fuze the intellectual by leafing through old newspapers. “The paper is often so fragile in those old newspapers — I thought ‘how am I going to page through this?’ It was a physically challenging process. Going through hundreds of newspapers. Searching with my eyes. Looking for Fuze’s name to pop up on the page.”

Many of Fuze’s articles — often in series form — as well as letters, dealt with aspects of Zulu history, which raised the question: which came first, the articles or the book? “There is a feeling that the book pre-existed in some form,” says Mokoena. “And he was expanding on the ideas contained in the book in the press.”

“The book is something of an anti-climax after the journalism. There is a certain self-censorship when it comes to the book. This is not the same voice as in the Ilanga pieces, for example. Fuze is much more aggressive in newsprint. And writing in newspapers was a more interactive process; readers could agree and disagree with him, they could respond in the newspaper.”

To some extent, Abantu Abamnyama Lapa Bavela Ngakona competes with the key book for the amakholwa, the Bible. “The kholwa were so fixated with the Bible as though it was the only text,” says Mokoena. “In some respects, Fuze was writing a competing text. He was writing the story of a people and in that regard Abantu Abamnyama mimicked the Old Testament, mirroring the story of the children of Israel, the story of a chosen people.”

Fuze published his book at a time when the authorities were busy defining what would be taught in schools. He would have been aware of this and out to counter colonial orthodoxies. “Fuze’s is not a history that would fit in neatly with that absorbed from missionaries and travellers,” says Mokoena. “His book is more speculative; it’s not a textbook.”

After her book’s publication, Mokoena came across a contemporary prospectus for Abantu Abamnyama Lapa Bavela Ngakona in English. “This says the book is about the destruction of the Zulu kingdom by the British. The prospectus conveys the idea that the book is more judgmental, and it says more about the political intent of the book.”

Abantu Abamnyama Lapa Bavela Ngakona was translated into English by H.C. Lugg, a former Chief Native Commissioner of Natal, and edited by A. T. Cope. It was published in 1979 as The Black People and Whence They Came. “Lugg translated it very well and made it very readable for English speakers,” says Mokoena. “But they did Fuze a disservice in rearranging and separating out material.”

Comparisons of the Zulu original with the English version demonstrate the differing approaches to telling a story on the part of the original writer and his later translator and editor. A rather heavy editorial hand also cut some key references, such as mention of the linguist and ethnographer Wilhelm Bleek. “As a result, although Fuze refers to other texts, because he doesn’t name the authors, you are left with the impression that he made them up. But the clues to what he was reading are there in the Zulu version.” Mokoena says her book demonstrates that people have been writing and thinking in Zulu for over a century. “It’s nothing new for people to write in their mother tongue. And you find brilliant writing, writing that can’t be compared to anything else, writing that is unique in the world.” Writing like Fuze’s.

• Magema Fuze — The Making of a Kholwa Intellectual by Hlonipha Mokoena is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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