The sounds of silence

2013-09-20 00:00

“PROFESSOR Jeff Guy is a towering figure in the field of Zulu historical studies, and his previous works —  including The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom — largely redefined the historiography of the period.”

Thus is Guy’s stature as one of South Africa’s premier historians acknowledged by Ian Knight — no slouch himself when it comes to writing on the Anglo-Zulu War — who is quoted on the back of Guy’s latest book, Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal.

Since that earlier work on the aftermath of the Anglo-Zulu War mentioned by Knight, all Guy’s books have been ground breakers — a biography of Bishop John Colenso, The Heretic; another featuring the indomitable Harriette Colenso, The View Across the River; and two books dealing with the 1906 Bambatha rebellion: The Maphumulo Uprising and Remembering the Rebellion.

When interviewing Guy several years ago about The View Across the River, I remarked that it was a pity that Shepstone, a key figure in colonial Natal as Secretary for Native Affairs, had remained without a biographer, knowing full-well Guy’s grasp of the period made him the obvious candidate. “A biographer has to have some affection for his subject,” he growled. Guy, it seemed, had none for Shepstone.

Now, having written a book with Shepstone as its main subject, I reminded Guy of that earlier response and wondered if his opinion had changed. He smiled: “I have no affection for him — but I have a tremendous interest in him.”

Shepstone is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. “The private man keeps a great distance from the public one,” said Guy, who at one point in the book describes Shepstone as “aloof, secretive, intelligent and devious”.

In his introduction to Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal, Guy says that during his previous research into colonial Natal “the man himself remained beyond my grasp”. Shepstone’s letters and diaries are few, compared to other 19th-century figures of similar stature, and those available are reticent, enigmatic and frequently opaque. Consequently, said Guy, Shepstone’s life “has to be reconstructed largely out of the contradictions and inconsistences of the wordy reports and long memoranda that he chose to leave as a record of his activities — and their silences”.

“He’s misunderstood,” said Guy. “Partly because of those silences, but also because his legacy has been reinterpreted and rewritten. Often vilified by settlers during his life time he was rehabilitated by his earlier critics.

“In the first half of the 20th century, he was promoted by segregationists, seen as significant but problematic in the second, before being dismissed as part of an irrevocably irredeemable colonial system.”

Shepstone was credited with creating some of the key features of colonial administration, including indirect rule, customary law and segregation into locations. What became dubbed “the Shepstone system” has been credited with providing a prototype for apartheid. But, said Guy, this view of Shepstone was created by Natal settlers after his death to fit with their own agendas. “Commentators dressed him up as the Great White Chief.”

Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal is a book, to echo Knight, which will undoubtedly redefine the historiography of this province. “It’s a new history of Natal,” said Guy, one that investigates closely the interactions between colonials and settlers and natives — terms Guy chooses deliberately, historically accurate “and they get us away from using ‘black’ and ‘white’.”

Guy also makes clear the novelty of the situation at the time — “remember Natal was never conquered” — something Shepstone was aware of and which provided him with a clean slate on which to order the relationship between colonials and settlers on one hand, and the indigenous peoples — the natives — on the other. “He was paternalistic, but not a vicious paternalist,” said Guy.

The settlers insisted Africans were interlopers, refugees from Zululand, as well as a much-desired source of labour, which Shepstone prevented them from accessing. “He was aware of the position of Africans in a colonial situation,” said Guy. “He doesn’t follow the settler line or the missionary line. He wants to conserve — they must always be given time; don’t push them into the future.

“The essence of Shepstone’s power over Africans was his understanding that they had to have land,” said Guy. “They respected him because he knew the importance of land for Africans. He knew that for the African way of life to continue, they had to have land.”

This understanding came from Shepstone’s experience of growing up on the eastern Cape frontier, experiencing both the African world and the settler world. “The answer to his character lies in the boy growing up on the bloody colonial frontier. Moving between settler and native communities, and covering up his feelings when moving from one to the other. His silence, his quietness, came from that.”

Shepstone is not the only figure of the period worthy of study said Guy. “There are so many interesting people in the Natal of that time,” citing David Dale Buchanan, founding editor of The Natal Witness. “He was absolutely superb — in the context of his time — we need a selection of his writings.”

Another was magistrate George Ryder Peppercorne; competent and upright amid a slew of corrupt officials, Peppercorne fell foul of both the settler authorities and Shepstone, who would not brook others being as perceptive as he of African interests.

And, of course, there was Colenso. Shepstone and Colenso famously became great friends. “There was a huge similarity — both looked to the past to show how it could be used to help people cope with the future.”

Their friendship shattered over the Langalibalele affair of 1873. When Langalibalele kaMthimkhulu, the Hlubi inkosi, was summoned by Shepstone to Pietermaritzburg to account for the lack of registration of guns among his followers, Langalibalele feared treachery — a not unreasonable fear given an earlier incident involving Shepstone’s brother John and Matshana kaMondise, which led to a brutal massacre. When Langalibalele fled across the border into Basutoland, a skirmish at Bushman’s Nek with a force sent to apprehend him saw five men killed, three of them whites. The retributive settler machine kicked into gear: the Hlubi were punished and Langalibalele arrested.

Shepstone stage-managed Langalibalele’s trial, conducted, according to native law, largely made up on the spot, to secure the desired guilty verdict — the accused not even being allowed counsel. Thanks to Colenso, the injustices of the trial were brought to light. Colenso also found out about the earlier Matshana incident, which had been airbrushed out of the record by Shepstone. “Matshana — that was the worst side of Shepstone,” said Guy. “Colenso was an open man, Shepstone was just devious.” When Colenso confronted Shepstone about the matter, the latter said he couldn’t remember it.

But Colenso rendered Shepstone defenceless by connecting the two worlds Shepstone moved between — settler and native. “Africans talk, whites read,” said Guy. Oral and written cultures that Shepstone manipulated and kept separate, while appointing himself sole mediator. But Colenso collected written evidence — “superb African evidence” — and Shepstone’s activities in one world were exposed in the other. Left with nowhere to hide: “Shepstone lies, he covers up; he becomes icy.”

Another blot on Shepstone’s reputation was his betrayal of the Zulus — his Judas-like behaviour prior to the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and his role in the subsequent the civil war. “It was terrible betrayal,” said Guy, “and an example of his ruthlessness. But it comes from his need to pay back the Africans who supported him, and to do that he was prepared to destroy the Zulu kingdom.”

While Shepstone remains an enigmatic personality, there is no doubting the huge role he played in shaping 19th-century Natal and the reverberations of his actions continue into the present, not least in the vexed question of traditional leadership within a democracy. Guy, employing a compelling blend of biography and history, illuminates both the man and his times, in the process setting another benchmark for South African history writing.

• Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal by Jeff Guy is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

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