When being 'a man of his time' is not a good enough excuse

2011-01-18 00:00

IN 2005 when the municipality changed the names of some of Pietermaritzburg’s streets it was decided that in order to minimise hurt and controversy streets with neutral names, such as Longmarket or Commercial, would be changed while those named after people should remain untouched.

This policy was followed in all but three of the 23 name changes. The three exceptions were Baynes Drift Road which became Chief Mhlabunzima Road, Murray Road which became Gladys Manzi Road and Duncan McKenzie Drive which was changed to Peter Brown Drive

There was no complaint about the first two changes. Joseph Baynes, a politician and agriculturalist, is well represented elsewhere while T. K. Murray, a 19th-century Pietermaritzburg businessman, farmer and politician, is probably long forgotten except by historians. Not so Duncan McKenzie. He has many descendants and for some the name change was cause for hurt and resentment.

So why, given the policy, did McKenzie’s name have to go? Quite simply, McKenzie’s name was replaced because of the methods he employed in suppressing the Bhambatha Rebellion of 1906. Although McKenzie is best known for his involvement in this episode of KwaZulu-Natal history, there is more to the man than that. He served with distinction in the Anglo-Boer War as well as World War 1, achieving a notable victory in German South-West Africa after a dramatic desert march. He was admired by his contemporaries and was the recipient of several honours, including a knighthood and the French Legion D’Honneur.

The verdict of history has been less kind and this is directly attributable to McKenzie’s conduct during the Bhambatha Rebellion. This came to the fore once again during the commemoration of the centenary of the rebellion in 2006. Historian Jeff Guy authored a series of supplements published in The Witness to mark the occasion and his criticism of McKenzie drew fire from some of McKenzie’s descendants. The supplements provided the basis for Guy’s book Remembering the Rebellion. In another book dealing with the rebellion, The Maphumulo Uprising, Guy referred to McKenzie as “Natal-born and vicious”.

In a bid to counter such a view McKenzie’s grandson John McKenzie has published A Man of His Time. Hugh Rethman, in the book’s foreword, states that Duncan McKenzie was “one of the most remarkable men to have come out of South Africa”, noting that over the last century McKenzie has “either deliberately or through ignorance, been written out of many histories of the period, enabling brief extracts from his life to be used to paint a distorted picture of this extraordinary man”. Rethman expresses the hope that A Man of His Time “will correct these misapprehensions”.

What follows is a composite biography comprising a series of essays: Nancy Gardiner chronicles the early history of the McKenzie family in Natal; Maureen Richards details McKenzie’s military service in the Anglo-Boer War; Ken Gillings tackles the Bhambatha Rebellion period; while Mark Coghlan handles McKenzie’s military exploits in World War 1. There is also a transcript of a section of his son Colonel Gordon McKenzie’s book Delayed Action. A final chapter by Allan Campbell rounds off proceedings and John McKenzie provides a postcript which mentions how McKenzie “was persuaded against his will to join the Johannesburg-based Smithfield Meat and Cold Storage Company for his prestige”. Alas, the company went bankrupt “and such was [McKenzie’s] integrity that he paid out every shareholder their due from his own assets”. The stress of the experience is thought to have hastened his death in 1932, aged 73.

Regrettably, given that it is his 1906 campaign record around which McKenzie’s reputation, good or bad, hinges, A Man of His Time simply dodges the issue. That his conduct of the campaign was ruthless is a matter of historical record. There were drumhead court martials, indiscriminate killings, as well as the looting and burning of homesteads. According to historian John Lambert, McKenzie’s “vigourous and crude measures had caused him to become known to Africans as ‘Shaka’.”

Martial law prevailed during the rebellion but death sentences had to be ratified by the Governor Sir Henry McCallum who, when he remitted one such sentence, received strong objections from McKenzie: “If you continue to upset death sentences our work will be pointless. I do place on record that if this golden opportunity of inflicting the most drastic punishment on all leading natives found guilty of treason is lost, the opportunity may never recur.”

Neither McKenzie’s strategy nor attitudes are addressed in Gillings’s chapter on the rebellion. After a brief look at the origins of the rebellion and the role of Bhambatha kaMancinza Zondi, who gave his name to it, the bulk of the chapter is given over to the convoluted tale of whether Bhambatha was really killed at the battle of Mome Gorge and the various attempts to resolve this apparent mystery.

Gillings merely states that the back of the rebellion “was broken on the 10th June 1906 in the battle of Mome Gorge, in the heart of the Nkandla forest” but gives no detail of the nature of the action or the resulting casualties. This is what happened: when, on the night of June 9, McKenzie found the rebel force camped in the Mome Gorge, he set up his troops and his guns on the high ground and waited for dawn. According to Ian Knight in his book Great Zulu Battles, what followed was “hardly a battle at all; it had all the characteristics of a massacre.” Knight is not alone among historians in dubbing it as such. Lambert says “the ‘rebellion’ was broken in an engagement lasting less than thirty minutes, during which nearly 600 of Bambatha’s followers were massacred ... no opportunity being provided for surrender.” The colonial forces lost one officer killed and another officer and trooper died of their wounds.

A central problem with A Man of His Time is that despite its clear intention of countering McKenzie’s detractors, nowhere does it state what exactly their detractions might be. The impression given is that the string of honours that came McKenzie’s way and the near mantric repetition that he was a “great man”, or words to that effect, should convince the reader that indeed he was.

The title A Man of His Time appears to suggest that McKenzie be judged in the light of the norms of his time rather than those of today. Certainly context should be considered, but it would be a mistake to think that McKenzie has only been judged and found wanting in hindsight. Even contemporaries raised eyebrows at the methods he employed in the putting down of the rebellion. Winston Churchill, Under-Secretary for the Colonies in 1906, was mightily frustrated at being restricted by constitutional limitations from interfering in Natal’s affairs and was not impressed by the heavy-handed suppression of the uprising.

Neither was Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, someone who could also be considered a “man of his time”. In 1914 during a trip through Zululand, Haggard was particularly shocked at what he learnt of the rebellion (and he was travelling with the expert on the matter, the campaign’s official historian James Stuart). Haggard notes in his diary that the rebellion “was suppressed with great cruelty,” adding that “cruelty bred of fear, is no new story in South Africa. The white man neglects or oppresses the native and slights his needs until something happens; then in a panic he sets to work and butchers him.”

Yes, McKenzie was indeed a man of his time. That he was unable to transcend it was his tragedy. His name on Duncan McKenzie Drive was replaced by a man who did transcend the norms of his time. Ironically, he was McKenzie’s great-nephew, Peter McKenzie Brown, founder of the Liberal Party.

• A Man of His Time — Brigadier General Sir Duncan McKenzie is published by Triple Creek Publishing.

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