The Land is Ours: 'The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line'

The Land is Ours by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi. Published by Penguin Random House South Africa.
The Land is Ours by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi. Published by Penguin Random House South Africa.

The year 1900 was selected for the launch of the Pan-African Conference. South Africa was, at the time, in the throes of war, with Boers pitted against the British Empire. This proved to be to the advantage of the African Association, providing it with a unique opportunity to foreground the interests of the black people of South Africa, but its main concern remained the treatment of black people by the British Empire throughout its colonies. In the Lagos Standard of 5 July 1899, the following report appeared:

In view of circumstances and the widespread ignorance which is prevalent in England about the treatment of native races under British rule, the African Association, which consists of members of the race resident in England, and which has been in existence now for nearly two years, has resolved during the Paris Exhibition in 1900 to hold a conference in London … in order to take steps to influence public opinion on existing proceedings and conditions affecting the welfare of natives in the various parts of the Empire, viz. South Africa, West Africa and the British West Indies.

The conference took place in July 1900. Kinloch’s influence was pervasive in the deliberations, even though she was no longer living in England. The programme would discuss, inter alia, ‘organised plunder versus human progress’, and that ‘Europeans and others are enriched at the cost of Africa; i.e. they take all and give little.’ Also, the situation of the missionaries could no longer be taken for granted, and Europe had to ‘atone’ for the wrongs done to Africa: Christian missions were included among the ‘wrongs’, and it was proposed that they could not simply ‘take the place of Christian communities’.

Not everyone shared in the enthusiasm for the conference, however, and the Glasgow Herald carried the following editorial: The Pan-African Conference at present being held in London is one of the most curious of the signs of the times. Political animists and novelists with an eye for the striking effects have done their best during the past few years to familiarise the public with the idea that the black and yellow races may long assert themselves with effects disastrous to the supremacy so long, sometimes so arrogantly, claimed by the white man.

We are haunted with the yellow carole in various forms and we are even asked to contemplate what would be the awful results if the great belt of coloured races that girdles the earth were to put forth their strength in unison and drag their pale-faced ‘men and brother’ from his seat of immemorial superiority … the Pan-African Association … represents one race, the negro and persons of African descent … there is no denying that the negro races and their mixed descendants have displayed wonderful capacity for progress … the Pan-African Association will show genuine wisdom if it devotes itself mainly to helping on quickly that work of progress and refraining from any ill-advised struggle for social equality which is not worth fighting for, and which must come naturally in the course of time.

The conference heard an array of impressive speakers, including W.E.B. Du Bois. He spoke of the racial prejudice experienced by blacks in the United States of America and elsewhere. Black people, he urged, ‘must insist upon the removal of the artificial obstructions that were placed in the way of the black, brown, and yellow boy’. They should have the same opportunities in life as white people.

The elimination of racial barriers, he argued, 'should be the central cry of the conference'.

That did indeed become the central cry of the conference, as Williams himself later explained:

It was time some effort was made to have us recognised as a people, and to enable us to take our position in the world. We were being legislated for without our sanction, and without a voice in the laws that were made to govern us. My idea in bringing about some alteration in this respect was confined in the first place to the British Colonies, but the scheme developed into a Pan-African one. Our object now is to secure throughout the world the same facilities and privileges for the black as the white man enjoys …

And then there is an attempt in the world today to re-enslave the negro race. Especially is this the case in South Africa. We feel we must bring our whole forces together to prevent that and that can best be done by having a representative organisation in England through which to make our protests.43

A sub-committee, chaired by Du Bois, was appointed to draw up the conference resolutions. The contents were as prophetic as they were testament to the extra-ordinary abilities of the people who drafted the document. ‘The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line,’ it declared. It questioned ‘as to how far differences of race – which show themselves chiefly in the colour of the skin and the texture of the hair – will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilisation’. It noted that ‘the darker races’ are the least advanced in culture according to European standards. This had not, however, always been the case in the past, and certainly ‘the world’s history, both ancient and modern, has given many instances of no despicable ability and capacity among the blackest races of man’.44

The conference was not asking for the domination of the world by the black races. To the contrary, its request was for a shared future and a shared humanity:

If now the world of culture bends itself towards giving negros and other dark men the largest and broadest opportunity for education and self-development, then this contact and influence is bound to have a beneficial effect upon the world and hasten human progress. But if, by reason of carelessness, prejudice, greed and injustice, the black world is to be exploited and ravished and degraded, the results must be deplorable, if not fatal.

From now on, the conference resolved, ‘Let not colour or race be a feature of distinction between white and black man, regardless of worth or ability.’ The natives of Africa should not be sacrificed ‘to the greed of gold’. Christianity should not use ‘the cloak of Christian missionary enterprise’ in order to ‘hide the ruthless economic exploitation and political downfall’ of Africans. The statement was signed by W.E.B. Du Bois, chairman of the committee.

The conference also addressed a petition to Queen Victoria, ‘her most gracious Majesty, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, defender of the faith’. The petition is remarkable for its direct focus on the South African question. It respectfully invited the queen’s ‘august and energetic attention to the fact that the situation of the native races in South Africa is causing us and our friends alarm’. It tabulated the main concerns:

1. The degrading and illegal compound system of native labour practised in Kimberley and Rhodesia. 

2. The so-called indenture system, i.e. legalised bondage of native men, women and children to white colonies. 

3. The system of compulsory labour on public works. 

4. The pass or docket system used for people of colour. 

5. Local bylaws that segregated and degraded the natives, such as the curfew, the denial to the natives of the use of the footpaths, and the use of separate public conveyances. 

6. Difficulties in acquiring property. 

7. Difficulties in obtaining the franchise. Lord Chamberlain received the petition on behalf of the queen, and in a tone-deaf manner replied that he wished to assure ‘the members of the Pan African Conference that, in settling the lines on which the administration of the conquered territories is to be conducted, her Majesty’s government will not overlook the interests and welfare of the native races’.

An assurance was given that a copy of the letter would be sent to the British high commissioner for South Africa. The queen’s reply was dated 12 January 1901, the day before her death. For Williams, this had special significance. Every black person across the world had reason to be proud of Queen Victoria and to revere her memory, said Williams. 

Her first act on ascending the throne was to grant the absolute emancipation of their people. And her very last act – the reply to the Pan-African Conference – had a connection with them too.47 The impact of the conference was widely felt by Africans across the globe. South Africa launched its own Pan-African Association, under the leadership of Francis Peregrino, the Ghanaian founder and editor of the first black newspaper in the Cape, the South African Spectator. Peregrino had attended the Pan-African Conference of 1900, and it was there that he had first met Williams. South Africa was Peregrino’s adoptive home, where he had come to settle towards the end of 1900. 

His vision was to spread the doctrine of Pan-Africanism, and it found expression in his attempt to counter the prevailing racial ideology in the Cape, with its rigid racial categories of ‘coloureds’ and ‘natives’ – people who, in Peregrino’s view, were African. On 23 February 1901, the South African Spectator announced the establishment of the Pan-African Society in the Cape, which aimed to ‘secure to Africans and their descendants throughout the world their civil and political rights’. But its mission was not confined to South Africa, since it also proposed to ‘ameliorate [the] condition of our oppressed brethren in the Continents of Africa, America, and other parts of the world, by promoting efforts to secure effective legislation’. 

The society aimed also ‘to foster friendly relations between the Caucasian and African races’. In order to achieve its ends, it would set up a ‘Bureau as a depository for collections of authorized productions, writings, and statistics relating 

to our people everywhere’. While the Pan-African Society gained prominence in 1901, it soon faded into obscurity, however, and by 1903, when Williams arrived at the Cape, it had virtually ceased to exist.

* This extract was taken from The Land is Ours by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, published by Penguin Random House South Africa.

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