The Good One: He walked 8?000 miners to safety

2013-06-21 00:00

TWO days after the death of John Sidney Marwick on April 18, 1958, black people began assembling on his farm, Islay, at Umlaas Road. Some had walked long distances to come and pay their last respects to the man they called “Umuhle” — the good one.

The funeral was to be the next day and the Marwick family were happy to organise buses to transport everyone to Mountain Rise Cemetery in Pietermaritzburg, but the people said: “No, he marched for us. We will walk for him.” And so they did. The funeral took place late in the afternoon so that they could walk to the cemetery.

This poignant event is recalled by Marwick’s granddaughter, Clare Rossouw, in Umuhle … Umubi — the Good one … the Bad one, a documentary by acclaimed film-maker Kevin Harris, to be aired on SABC 2 at 9 pm on Sunday.

Marwick had been dubbed Umuhle for his role in what became known as “Marwick’s March”, which took place at the outset of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, when Marwick, an official with the Natal Native Affairs Department based in Johannesburg, brought thousands of Zulu mine workers back to their homes in Natal.

Born in Richmond in 1874, Marwick became fluent in Zulu and on leaving school became a clerk in the Native Affairs Department. In March 1895, after passing the necessary exams, he became a sworn translator and, in October, the 21-year-old Marwick was sent to Johannesburg in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) as the acting representative of the department to look after the interests of black workers from Natal.

After the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, there was a huge demand for black labour. Mining houses sent agents to Natal and Zululand to recruit workers and by 1899 there were 97 000 black men working on the mines. There were another 30 000 black people employed as domestics, cooks, messengers, grooms and municipal workers. Before the advent of the railways, most of these people walked from their homes to Johannesburg.

From early in 1899, war between Great Britain and ZAR looked increasingly likely and people — white and black — began leaving Johannesburg. Mines closed and, while white miners departed, black mineworkers were left behind without work or food.

Marwick managed to get railway passes for many of these workers, but when the rail service to Natal was suspended, the only way out was on foot — 241 kilometres to the Natal border at Volksrust, a total of 490 kilometres to Pietermaritzburg.

If not exactly obstructive, the authorities both in the ZAR and Natal were less than helpful. In order to nudge officials and get the necessary permission, Marwick offered to resign, to carry out his plan to walk to Natal. Marwick negotiated a safe passage with the commandant-general of the Boer forces, Piet Joubert, and finally the Natal authorities gave their blessing. “Go up and down the reef, and tell the Zulus about this chance to get away from Johannesburg,” Marwick instructed messengers. “Tell the men to take with them enough food to last for five days, and tell them to come and bank their money with officials at the offices in Marshall Street.”

Workers assembled at the Witwatersrand Agricultural Showgrounds and on October 6 Marwick escorted the first group of workers out of town. The long march home of an estimated 8 000 people had begun. By October 8, they had reached Heidelberg, where Marwick was able to get about 120 men, women and children unable to continue onto a train heading for Natal.

Ahead of the marchers, a Boer force was poised to invade Natal and there were concerns about a possible confrontation between the two “armies”. Matters became especially tense following the formal declaration of war at midnight on October 10, and the Boer army began to move down the escarpment into Natal. By now the marchers were running out of food and if they were to stave off starvation, they had to get ahead of the army into the safety of Natal. After some tricky negotiations, Boer Commandant S.P.E. Trichardt issued a safe conduct allowing Marwick’s marchers to move ahead of the Boer army, although 400 men were commandeered to drag guns up a hill.

Once across the border, groups of people began to disperse to their homes and by the time the marchers arrived at Hattingh’s Spruit on October 15, only a 1 000 remained. There were trains waiting for them, but the Natal authorities, unwilling to finance any aspect of Marwick’s rescue operation, told the marchers they had to pay £1 per person for a ticket. Tired and weary, they duly paid.

Marwick arrived at Pietermaritzburg station to find himself something of a hero. “Your self-sacrificing conduct has our highest appreciation,” said the message from the prime minister of Natal. The London Daily Mail declared the march “an extraordinary feat”.

Those who had marched with Marwick gave him the name Umuhle, the good one.

The imagination of film-maker Harris had been caught by the story when reading Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War some years ago. “There were two throwaway lines on the event,” he recalled. “I was intrigued and it stayed in the back of my mind. But there seemed to be no information on it anywhere else.”

Two years ago, Harris finally decided to research the topic and soon stumbled upon Elsabé Brink’s 1899: The Long March Home published in 1999. “That was my starting point,” says Harris. “I contacted her and she gave me lots of reference points.”

In KwaZulu-Natal, Harris researched the Marwick Papers at the Campbell Collections of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where Marwick’s daughter Vivian was once a librarian.

In Pietermaritzburg, John Deare, chairperson of the Family History Society and the Pietermaritzburg branch of Genealogical Society of South Africa, helped locate Marwick’s grave in Mountain Rise Cemetery.

Several historians are interviewed in the documentary, including Brink, well-known KZN historian Jeff Guy and people’s historian Ephraim Mntambo from Laings Nek.

“He was able to add solid information about the whole culture of walking to Johannesburg across the Drakensberg,” said Harris.

The march over Marwick remained in the Native Affairs Department in Natal and set about raising a Native Labour Corps for non-combatant duties. In 1916, he was appointed manager of the Durban Native Affairs Department, which involved implementing the infamous “Durban System” that controlled the presence of blacks in the city, while ensuring the labour requirements of the white economy.

Memories of the march lingered and his offices were named Kwa Muhle — the place of the good one. But John Dube, founding president of the ANC and editor of Ilanga, begged to differ and dubbed him Mbubu, the bad one, in an article. Marwick sued for defamation and won.

“It’s an ironic twist,” says Harris. “From Muhle to Mbubu, from good guy to bad guy. It’s rather like Moses leading his people out of bondage and then leading them back into bondage. He was a paternalist, a product of his time — someone who worked within the system and who was trapped in the system. But the more deeply I researched Marwick, the more I realised he was actually a good guy.”

Marwick left the department in 1920 and went into politics, joining the South African Party and becoming MP for Illovo. He resigned in 1948 over the repeal of all legislation providing for African representation in Parliament.

When Marwick died in 1958, he died a disappointed man, according to his granddaughter.

“I have spent my life trying to improve the lot of the native peoples of South Africa,” he told her, “and as I lie here dying, they are in the worst situation that they have ever been in and the future is very bleak for them.”

Rossouw recalls how at her grandfather’s funeral in 1958, once the burial service was over, Peka kaDinuzulu, son of King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, who had participated in the march and remained a friend of Marwick, came forward dressed in his royal leopard skin, with a huge white shield, and sang Umuhle’s praises, which the crowd lustily acknowledged. “There was a huge wave of sound — a sort of agreement to everything that the prince said. It was very beautiful and very comforting.”

• Umuhle … Umubi — the Good one … the Bad one, will be broadcast on SABC 2 at 9 pm on Sunday as part of the Hidden Histories series.

PIETERMARITZBURG-BORN Kevin Harris has worked as an independent film-maker for over 30 years. In 2007, he was awarded the Golden Horn Film and TV Award for lifetime achievement in documentary film-making by the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa.

Harris’s independent career began in 1979 when he was fired by the Nationalist Party government-controlled SABC TV for ensuring the uncensored broadcast of his documentary Bara, which went behind the scenes of an overcrowded Baragwanath Hospital and exposed the oppressive conditions in which the community of Soweto were forced to live. Bara was subsequently awarded the Star Tonight Best Documentary Award for 1979.

In 1982, Harris made his first independent documentary This We can do for Justice and for Peace, featuring the South African Council of Churches opposition to apartheid via the perspectives of general secretary Bishop Desmond Tutu and SACC president Peter Storey. Restricted in South Africa, it was broadcast in the United States as Land of Courage, Land of Fear and was awarded two Emmys.

In 1986, Harris began a series of documentary reports on South Africa during the state of emergency, titled South Africa Now, which were broadcast weekly on PBS until 1990.

Two international co-productions — Witness to Apartheid and T he Cry of Reason received Oscar nominations.

Harris also made documentaries exposing the brutality of the South African security forces’ military occupation of Namibia, as well as the subsequent reconstruction of the newly independent country. He has also been involved with a number of community film projects.

Since 1994, Harris has produced and directed a number of South African feature documentaries on a variety of current social and political issues broadcast by SABC, MNET and

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