Colonial rule lives on?

2010-11-16 00:00

IS the African National Congress government still applying a form of indirect rule first applied during the colonial era? In the 19th century this formed the basis of the Shepstone system, attributed to Theophilus Shepstone and used to govern the Africans of Natal who were moved onto reserves where they were ruled by appointed chiefs loyal to the colonial authorities. Not surprisingly, the system later came to be seen as a model for the apartheid bantustans.

A new book by American academic Thomas V. McClendon, White Chief, Black Lords — Shepstone and the Colonial State in Natal, South Africa, 1845-1878, concludes that Shepstone’s approach, which was largely brought about by forces beyond his control, bears an uncanny resemblance to current methods of local governance.

Born in England in 1817, the three-year-old Shepstone and his parents came to the Eastern Cape as 1820 settlers. His father, a stonemason by trade, turned to missionary work and as the family moved around the frontier young Shepstone acquired fluency in Xhosa which smoothed his way into the colonial service. In 1846, he was appointed Diplomatic Agent to the Native Tribes of Natal (later Secretary for Native Affairs) thanks to “his linguistic skills and his thorough knowledge of African laws and usages”.

When the British acquired Natal for strategic reasons in 1843 they found themselves in charge of a colony with a large indigenous population. How was this subject population to be ruled? Should it be “direct, interventionist, and developmental” or “indirect and limited”: effectively letting the ruled rule themselves?

The latter approach was in conflict with the civilising mission of the British imperial endeavour. Although some saw this mission as “a mere cynical justification for exploitation” others, and Shepstone was one, believed firmly “in the civilising mission and saw church and state as partners in that enterprise”.

Initially, Shepstone devised two alternative systems of governance in pursuance of the desired goal. The first, devised by the Locations Commission which he headed, proposed a series of African locations or reserves to be administered by white residents ruling via a mix of British and native law. Missionaries, training schools and agricultural education would be provided but the bill was too high for the Colonial Office.

The frustrated Shepstone, who “was consistently concerned that the interaction of Africans and settlers tended to result in the degradation in the customs of the former”, then proposed a huge removal scheme that would see him lead 30 to 40 000 Africans and settle them in an area between Natal and Pondoland. “The man who would be inkosi” saw this as a Mosaic trek to a promised land beyond colonial boundaries but “safely within the overall ambit of British authority”.

This plan also came to nought and Shepstone “was forced to fall back on the version of indirect rule that came to carry his name”. Under this system “officials contented themselves with collecting taxes, encouraging labour and preventing rebellion, providing in return the secure possession of rural locations held in trust for various chiefs and their followers”.

Customary law was recognised unless considered “repugnant to the general principles of humanity, recognised throughout the whole civilised world”.

While the colonial state reserved itself the right to declare some customary practices outlawed, this proved difficult to carry out in practice. This was particularly the case when dealing with witchcraft which, says McClendon, led “to some surprising outcomes, as officials attempted to balance their support for indigenous leaders with some elements of indigenous practice that were deeply intertwined with leadership”.

Colonial officials found themselves with a foot in two worlds. “To some degree establishing authority inevitably involved recognising and making concessions to the world view of the governed,” says McClendon. When the colonial authorities reserved the right to punish witches they recognised a practice they otherwise dismissed. “In attempting to rule through African leaders and norms ... the colonial state inevitably was transformed and became, in part, an African state.”

The Langalibalele affair in 1873 served to demonstrate the contradictions at the heart of indirect rule. At issue was the registration of firearms being brought into the colony by migrant workers returning from the diamond fields. When Langalibalele kaMthimkhulu, the Hlubi inkosi, was summoned by Shepstone to Pietermaritzburg to account for the lack of registration among his followers, he feared treachery (a not unreasonable fear given an earlier incident involving John Shepstone, a concealed shotgun and a brutal massacre) and when he heard a force was being prepared to apprehend him he decided to flee across the border into Basutoland. A skirmish at Bushman’s Nek with a colonial force saw five men killed, three of them whites. The retributive imperial machine kicked into gear: the Hlubi were punished and Langalibalele arrested.

Shepstone stage-managed Langalibalele’s “farcical trial” which was conducted according to native law largely made up on the spot to secure the desired verdict — the accused not even being allowed counsel. Thanks to Bishop John Colenso’s “work to rectify the injustices through an appellate process”, the anomalies of both the trial and indirect rule were brought to light. Natal’s lieutenant-governor, Benjamin Pine, was recalled, although Shepstone not only retained his office but was knighted and gifted with a mission to annex the Transvaal.

Indirect rule was gradually replaced with a system that sought to codify native law and reduce the amakhosi to salaried chiefs owing their authority and allegiance to the colonial state, a subversion of actual practice which saw the amakhosi’s position dependent on “hierachies of respect and mutuality” with their adherents.

In contemporary South Africa, current methods of governance reflect the contradictions and debates of the colonial past. According to the 1996 Constitution: “The institution, status and role of traditional leadership ... are recognised, subject to the Constitution ... The courts must apply customary law when that law is applicable.”

McClendon points out that the “ambiguous language of South Africa’s Constitution, along with subsequent legislation, suggests that tensions between a modernising state and the imperative to seek legitimacy and ease of administration through the incorporation of indigenous authorities and discourses remain a strong legacy of the colonial era, even in a state formally committed to democracy and the improvement of the lives of ordinary people.

“In other words, a century and half after the colonisation of Natal, a South Africa now under democratic rule has yet to resolve the tension inherent in a colonial heritage that was dominantly Western in outlook but, out of its own weakness and for its own ends, incorporated, while distorting, African approaches to rule.”

The ANC government’s use of traditional leaders for local governance is a form of indirect rule. “Once again, the power of rural patriarchs is being underwritten by a state that hopes to clothe itself in traditional legitimacy, while also advancing a modernising agenda that is nominally at odds with patriarchy,” says McClendon.

It is one of the comeuppances of history that the statue of Theophilus Shepstone now stands in Langalibalele Street (renamed from Longmarket) but he might be allowed an ironic smile as the modern South African state grapples with some of the same issues he did.

• White Chief, Black Lords — Shepstone and the Colonial State in Natal, South Africa, 1845-1878 by Thomas V. McLendon is published by the University of Rochester Press.

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