We need our own magistrates, judges and lawyers



The Land is Ours by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi

Penguin Books

328 pages


Colonialism and imperialism were maintained not only by the force of arms or the forces of commerce, but by the force of an idea: the supremacy of Europe. But 10 years after Britain’s final military assaults of the late 1870s in Xhosaland and Zululand, a new form of resistance employing the institutions of colonialism emerged.

It was driven by Western-educated African intellectuals. The movement began in the Cape, and its circumstances were accidental. In June 1890, an African-American choir that hailed from the Hampton Institute in Virginia arrived at the Cape.

Their songs – “Ethiopian airs” as they were called – were based on the religious movement known as Ethiopianism that has its foundations in Psalm 68, verse 31 of the Bible: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” African-American interpreters of scripture read this as a prophecy: one day, God will redeem Africa. As the redemption would take place in Ethiopia, Africa would be the crucible of the new salvation.

The choir’s mission was to hold a number of fundraising concerts to save its university from threatened closure. The Hampton Institute had been established in 1866 to educate African Americans, following the end of slavery in that country. But the university had run into financial difficulties, and its survival was at risk.

It was therefore decided to embark upon a fundraising tour of the world. A choir was formed, and after touring the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa, enough money was raised to save the university. In the Cape, however, the choir did more than fundraise: it left behind a legacy that would shape the aspirations of Africans for generations to come.

The Jubilee Singers were surprised at the multiracial character of their South African audiences. But outside of the protected environment of the theatre, they discovered that racism was alive. In a letter written by one of the members to the Cape Argus, their experiences are recorded thus:

Everyone seemed captivated with the singing; never heard such singing in all their lives, and they said, “And just to think that black people should do it.” The latter remark will give you some idea of a feeling of prejudice; well, so it is. There is no country in the world where prejudice is so strong as here in Africa. The native today is treated as badly as ever the slave was treated in Georgia. Here in Africa the native laws are most unjust; such as any Christian people would be ashamed of. Do you credit a law in a civilised community compelling every man of dark skin, even though he is a citizen of another country, to be in his house by 9 o’clock at night, or he is arrested ... these laws exist in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, which are governed by the Dutch, who placed every living creature before the native.

Nevertheless, audiences throughout the country were enthralled. Performances usually began with songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Still Away to Jesus and Go Down Moses. The Cape Argus noted that singing such as that of the visiting choir had “never been before heard in this country”:

Their selection consists of a peculiar kind of pipe song, the different voices joining in at most unexpected moments in a wild kind of harmony ... it is without doubt one of the attributes of the race to which they belong, and in their most sacred songs they sing at times inspired, as if they were lifting up their voices in praise of God with hopes of liberty.

The songs were, of course, deeply rooted in slavery and the yearning for freedom. Go Down Moses tells a tale of an instruction from God to Moses to go to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go”. The lyrics of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot are similarly a call to freedom:

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home.

Swing low, sweet chariot,

Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, what do I see,

Coming for to carry me home.

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home.

I looked over Jordan, what do I see,

Coming for to carry me home.

If you get back to heaven before I do,

Coming for to carry me home.

You’ll tell all my friends, I’ll be coming there too,

Coming for to carry me home.

The Jubilee Singers were widely popular at the Cape. The governor, Sir Henry Loch, attended one of the concerts and is said to have been most impressed. The choir established a relationship with the local Dutch population. A teacher at a local school, who had previously taught at the Hampton Institute, arranged for the choir to perform in the Transvaal. A member of the audience later wrote: “It is wonderful to see our staid Dutch people go to ecstasies over them, and our servants who were allowed to go into the anteroom to listen to them were taken right off their feet.” One of the attendees at a concert in February 1891 was the Transvaal president, Paul Kruger. When the choir sang ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I See’, Kruger was moved to tears. Afterwards, Kruger shook the hand of the conductor, Orpheus McAdoo, and confessed that this was the first time he had shaken the hand of a black person.

African audiences responded to the choir with much admiration, particularly its message concerning education, self-determination and political emancipation. The Kaffrarian Watchman, a King William’s Town newspaper, reported that the local rural audience were also somewhat bewildered, and could not quite understand what sort of people they were. Some of them hesitated to class them as kaffirs as they seemed so smart and tidy in appearance, and moved about with all the ease and freedom among the white people that a high state of civilisation and education alone can give. Occasionally, however, a kaffir would salute a ‘singer’ in his own language, and when he fails to get a reply he would look puzzled, exclaim kwoku! and walk away wondering how his brother did not return the salute.

It is in such encounters that the true value of the Jubilee Singers becomes apparent. Their visit to the Cape coincided with a period of great dismantling and dispossession of societies.

New identities were being forged, and a particularly important identity was being established through education.

The Singers were seen by the African elite living in the Cape as an example of what education might accomplish for the native races of South Africa. It was also seen as a possible base from which transatlantic alliances could be forged in common struggles. When the choir performed in Kimberley, three educated Africans attended: Josiah Semouse, Patrick Lenkoane and Solomon Plaatje.

The choir’s last concert in Kimberley was aptly titled Natives and Coloured People. Semouse paid tribute to the ‘great American singers’ in the local newsletter, Leselinyana:

Gentlemen, I do not find the words to describe the way in which these people sang. Unless I am mistaken, I can say that they sang like angels singing Hosannah in heaven. All the people on the diamond fields agree that they sing better than anybody else, white or black.

Today they have their own schools, primary, secondary and high schools, and also universities. They are run by them without the help of the whites.

They have magistrates, judges, lawyers, bishops, ministers and evangelists, and school masters. Some have learnt a craft such as building, etc. When will the day come when the African people will be like the Americans?

When will they stop being slaves and become nations with their own government?

These sentiments were shared by influential leaders in the black community. Jabavu penned a stirring tribute:

It would strongly savour of presumption for a native African of this part to venture a critique on his brethren from America, who are now visiting this quarter of their fatherland, and whose position, socially, is being deservedly pointed at on all hands as one that the native here should strive to attain to.

As Africans we are, of course, proud of the achievements of those of our race. Their visit will do their countrymen here no end of good. Already it has suggested reflection to many who, without such a demonstration, would have remained sceptical as to the possibility, not to say probability, of the natives of this country being raised to anything above remaining as perpetually hewers of wood and drawers of water. The recognition of the latent abilities of the natives … cannot fail to exert an influence for the mutual good of all the inhabitants of this country.

The visit of our friends, besides, will lead to the awakening in their countrymen here of an interest in the history of the civilisation of the Negro race in America, and a knowledge of their history is sure to result beneficial to our people generally.

Semouse, Plaatje and Jabavu were all breaking with the prevailing narrative. Education for Africans did not have to carry an industrial slant, and they could aspire to be ‘magistrates, judges, lawyers, bishops, ministers and evangelists, and school masters’. The narrative of missionaries and their vision of black education could be broken.

From then on, the Jubilee Singers were flooded with requests from black South Africans for educational opportunities in the United States, which were referred to universities for blacks such as the Hampton Institute in Virginia and Wilberforce University in Ohio.

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