The meeting of two great minds

2012-02-20 00:00

IT might seem surprising that H. Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, has a role to play in the year marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ANC, but during a visit to South Africa in 1914 Haggard met and interviewed the first president of the ANC, John Dube. Their meeting only came to light in 2000 with the first publication of Haggard’s Diary of an African Journey by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. The Dube interview, Haggard’s observations on racial tensions, migrant labour and the prevailing conditions in Zululand, together with his sometimes prophetic comments on South Africa’s future recorded in the diary, serve to cut against the grain of popular and academic perceptions of Haggard as a stereotypical colonial author.

The diary details Haggard’s visit to South Africa from February to May 1914 while a member of the Dominions Royal Commission (DRC). As a young man Haggard had spent the years 1875 to 1881 in South Africa, in Natal and the Transvaal, as a minor functionary in the colonial service. On his return to England he embarked on a legal career, simultaneously trying his hand at writing. Following the huge success of his fourth book, King Solomon’s Mines, Haggard quit the law for literature and turned out a string of bestsellers, including Allan Quatermain, She, Nada the Lily and Montezuma’s Daughter.

In the 1890s Haggard began taking an active interest in agriculture and public affairs. His two-volume study Rural England brought him recognition as an agricultural authority and an invitation to serve on the DRC, a fact-finding mission created to investigate how the white settler societies of empire could assist a Britain economically trailing behind Germany and the United States. The commission visited Australia and New Zealand in 1913 and came to South Africa on February 24, 1914.

The 58-year-old Haggard of 1914 was not the young adventure story writer of the 1880s and early 1890s. Alert to the tensions the white government of Louis Botha experienced in relation to an overwhelmingly black population, he was keen to canvass the opinions of prominent individuals during his travels around South Africa and so it was not surprising that Haggard should seek out Dube for an interview. The interview took place in Durban on April 30, just prior to Dube going to Cape Town and London to protest the 1913 Native Land Act.

“I am an educator, that is my business,” Dube told Haggard. “I have been thrust into a semi-political position by my people. Two years ago I was elected president of the South African Native National Congress. Its aim is to unite the natives for political purposes, to consider proposed legislation affecting their interests and to make representations to those in authority. We want an organisation to speak for us as we have no representation in the Union parliament.”

Dube then detailed his objection to the 1913 Land Act: “I regard the refusal to allow us to buy land from Europeans­ as depriving natives of their rights, since previous to this Act they could buy anywhere except in the Orange Free State.”

“You must remember that we natives today only hold as native reserves 10 million morgen (20 million acres) out of the 400 million morgen (800 million acres) in the Union.”

Dube objected to the fact that “natives­ are not now allowed to lease land or to farm on shares with Europeans. In fact they may not become rent-paying tenants or squat on farms except on condition that they labour for the farmer. The law lays down the duration of such labour but its provisions are frequently evaded by unscrupulous whites to the disadvantage of my people.”

Dube was also critical of “low class whites”, especially in Johannesburg and other mining centres, and their negative influence on blacks. “I believe in education, both literary and agricultural, as a remedy and I desire to bring the natives under better influences. Christianity is spreading in the country districts and is likely to continue to spread. The institution of polygamy­, which is the great obstacle in its path, will probably be solved to a great extent by economic pressure. The expense of it under advanced social conditions is too great. Also every extra wife means an extra tax.”

Dube told Haggard that in recent times “the white people have been tightening the screw more and more. They used to be more sympathetic. This attitude has evoked a like feeling among the natives whose sentiments towards the whites are now harsher than they used to be. They say: ‘If the whites declare they cannot live with us let them go away and live in their own country.’ Your people could do more to bring about a better understanding if they chose. They have the power in their hands, and can take us Natives into their confidence. The whites are so far away from us. We have no means of communication with the authorities or public opinion except through the magistrates who have little time in which to attend to native grievances.”

Dube said he didn’t think there would ever be a war between whites and blacks but felt that “white people should be kinder and more generous to natives. £200 000 per annum is raised from natives in Natal by direct taxation and only £15 000 per annum is spent on their education. We natives want a national system of education as in England, but modified to suit local needs. I would not bind down the natives to any particular sect of Christianity. I am a Congregationalist but I do not insist upon all the pupils in my school becoming Congregationalists. I would make the natives pay a little in this way or that towards the cost of their education. Our people must be educated (at the moment) they sit in darkness.”

Dube concluded by telling Haggard he was going to Cape Town to present a petition to parliament asking for the repeal of the Land Act. “If we fail in this a deputation will sail at once to beg the King (George V) to repeal the Bill before 19 June next when the year of grace allowed under the Constitution will expire.”

Haggard read the notes he had taken back to Dube who acknowledged his views had been “correctly set down”.

“I am bound to say that [Dube] impressed me most favourably while the case which he advanced seems to me one hard to answer,” Haggard wrote in his diary. “Thus, there is no doubt that this new Land Act inflicts great hardships on the native community and if an attempt were made to enforce it everywhere I do not know what would happen.

“There is, however, little hope that Mr. Dube will succeed, either in his petition to the Union parliament or to the King. The Colonial Office at home will certainly say that it cannot interfere with the discretion of the Union government and, in effect, that the natives may ‘go hang’. But what will be the end of it all? Seven million of black folk, I think that is about the number including the population of the protectorates, cannot be permanently neglected (or is oppressed the word?) by one million and a quarter of whites. Compressed steam will escape somehow and somewhere.”

Haggard was proved right on all counts. Dube and his fellow ANC delegates were stonewalled both in Cape Town and London and the advent of World War One in August 1914 sidelined their concerns even further. The war also brought an end to the work of the DRC.

Haggard died in 1925, but Dube was to “meet” him again in the late 1920s when involved with F. L. Ntuli on a translation of Haggard’s all-Zulu novel Nada the Lily which features Umslopogaas, one of the heroes of Allan­ Quatermain. Set during the time of King Shaka, around whom much of the action turns, Nada the Lily is the story of Umslopogaas’s earlier life and “his love for Nada, the most beautiful of Zulu women”.

Dube wrote the preface to Ntuli’s translation, published as Umbuso kaShaka (In the Realm of Shaka) in 1930, describing it as a “brilliant book ... written by the late Sir Rider Haggard, an Englishman who was sympathetic towards the Zulu nation, praising the nation for its overwhelming influence, its strength and its honesty”.

“I have no doubt that anyone who reads the first two lines of this book won’t willingly put it down until they have finished it, it’s a compelling read.”

Dube also praised Ntuli’s Zulu translation adding that he hoped the book would “open the eyes of many who would also like to read books written by some of their own”.

Dube himself obliged this envisaged audience by writing the first novel written in Zulu, U-Jeqe, Insila ka Tshaka. Also published in 1930, it has never been out of print.

Haggard was clearly in Dube’s mind when he wrote Jeqe. His novel is also set during the reign of Shaka and similarly draws on folk tales and legends but whereas Haggard portrayed Shaka as a heartless tyrant Dube’s version of the Zulu king is slightly more ambivalent: Shaka is acknowledged as being a good leader who created the Zulu nation but also as a man given to excessively violent behaviour.

An English translation, J eqe, the Body-servant of King Shaka, first published in 1951, was reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2010.

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