previous sub-section
3— Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The Emergence of Ethnicity Among the Tsonga-Speakers of South Africa
next sub-section

The Waning of Chiefly Power

In frontier areas like the Zoutpansberg, where the ratio of blacks to whites in the first decade of the twentieth century was estimated at 100:1 and where a police force of fifty had to cope with a population of over 300,000, chiefs had of necessity performed the role of paid civil servants.[73] They were obliged to help


collect taxes and supply labour for public works and farms and prevent what the government declared to be poaching, the destruction of state forests and the consumption of illicit liquor. Native Commissioners were unanimously opposed to the detribalization process as the chiefs 'were of great assistance in maintaining law and order'.[74] The War Office was particularly mindful that if the authority of the chiefs were to collapse it would be replaced by a wider and more unified political consciousness. As early as 1905 it warned that the breakdown of the chieftaincy system:

does not seem altogether desirable, for a general fusion of the hitherto antagonistic tribes would then be possible and this would constitute a far greater danger to the white community than is to be apprehended from any of the present tribes.[75]

This perspective dovetailed with that of ethnologists and evolutionist anthropologists such as Henri Junod who feared that urbanization and the loss of chiefly control would lead to the 'demoralization' and 'degeneration' (i.e. proletarianization) of the African population. Junod's work ossified Tsonga-speakers in a pristinely primitive tribal world. It was an unsophisticated and 'natural' world which needed to be protected by being kept apart.[76] Emerging from the same mould, the young liberal segregationist Edgar Brookes supported the creation of reserves in which Africans could 'develop along their own lines and under their own chiefs'.[77] At a time when 60 per cent of the African population lived as tenants on white farms or in the cities of South Africa, it was nonetheless commonly believed that Africans lived in 'traditional tribes'! This historically static view was perhaps best expressed in a handbook sponsored in 1934 by the South African inter-university committee for African Studies, Isaac Schapera's seminal collection, The Bantu Speaking Tribes of South Africa . Although this book claimed and probably achieved the status of 'a manual of South African ethnography', the introduction frankly stated that 'the greater part [92.5 per cent] of the book is devoted to an account of the Bantu as they were before affected by the intrusion of white civilization'. Like Schapera, Junod hoped that his work would influence native administrators to understand the exoticisms of tribal life.

At the ideological level the Native Affairs Department was strongly influenced by this strain of anthropology. Members of the Department established compilations of 'traditional laws' by drawing borders that were ethnically conceived around regularities of rite and custom. At the economic level they became increasingly aware of the need to conserve within the reserves the elements of non-capitalist society that bore a large part of the costs of the reproduction of the urban labour force. For, as capitalist development undermined and transformed 'squatting' and the old forms of production in the reserves, it also disintegrated the system of exploitation feeding the growth of industrial capitalism. To check this process, various laws were passed in the 1920s in an attempt to bolster the powers of the chiefs and preserve 'the tribes'.[78] In many cases, this amounted to creating chiefdoms where none had previously existed.

The 1936 Natives Trust and Land Act 'released' large areas of land in the northern Transvaal for African settlement. All 'scheduled' and 'released' land was henceforth to be purchased on a tribal basis and a Trust fund was established 'to acquire land for and on behalf of specific tribes in order to provide necessary extensions to the tribal locations'. People forced off white farms by the anti-squatter section of the act would be settled under chiefs in these areas. Chiefs


were also given the power to levy special taxes on their followers for the purchase of tribal land. They remained a central element in Native Administration: in 1938 the Native Affairs Commission recognized that

hereditary chiefs with their headmen are the instruments through which native administration works. Without their assistance it would be very much more difficult and very much more expensive to maintain the customary law and order and respect for authority which characterizes the Bantu rural population.[79]

But attempts to bolster the power of the chiefs were not merely aimed at strengthening the Native Affairs system; they were also, perhaps primarily, aimed at supporting the chiefs whose political power was increasingly threatened by the rising African petty bourgeoisie. As early as 1920, the year of the Witwatersrand mineworkers' strike, the Native Recruiting Corporation of the Chamber of Mines had expressed the fear that unless conditions on the mines were ameliorated,

the different tribes will become more and more in sympathy with one another, with a growing disregard of loyalty to their respective tribal chiefs and a fusion of common interests under the guidance of the educated classes of natives irrespective of tribe or place of origin will result.[80]

Land alienation, together with tenant and freehold forms of African land tenure had undermined the chiefs' major source of political power: their ability to control the distribution of land. Opposition from white farmers to the sale of land released by the 1936 act continued to deprive the chiefs of any real power. As the Native Affairs Commission complained in 1938, 'the authority of the chiefs and respect for tribal institutions is under continual attack owing to the landless condition of the head of the tribe. This . . . militates against the maintenance of that necessary tribal unity and control which it is the policy of the state to foster.' The popularity of the chiefs had also declined: much of the democratic element in chieftaincy as an institution had disappeared when the size of the chiefdom was petrified and chiefs became civil servants appointed by and responsible to the Native Affairs Department rather than to their own followers.

Liberals like Brookes and Schapera soon came to realize that the reserves only catered for a minority of the African population and that they were unable to perform their protective function; that chieftaincy as an institution had been transformed; and that the chiefs were no longer the sole political representatives of the African population. It was with Junod in mind that Brookes, having broken from his earlier segregationist thinking, wrote in 1934:

The influence of the old school which regarded the tribal Native as the only phenomenon of study, has been great. To those responsible for legislation and administration, it appears as the orthodox school, with the right to monopolize the term 'scientific. The glorification of tribalism and of all the customs that stand behind many of the provisions of the Native Administration Act of 1927 by which the chief has been made an important part of the administrative machinery . . . tends to assimilate all Natives to the position of tribal Natives in the Reserves. Others may be the majority but they are an embarrassing phenomenon . . . they do not live as the social anthropologists think they ought to live . . . do not think on the lines which the Native Affairs Department considers suitable for Natives. They obstinately refuse to develop on their own lines.[81]

A new school of social anthropology, sensitive to the question of social change, saw major transformations taking place in the ethnic consciousness of people


living in the northeastern Transvaal. In 1938 Eileen Krige reported that

peaceful conditions, closer contacts between members of different tribes in the service of the white man, subjection to a uniform system of European law and administration which calls forth similar responses among different tribes, all are tending towards gradual elimination of marked tribal differences and greater uniformity in tribal customs and conditions.[82]

previous sub-section
3— Exclusion, Classification and Internal Colonialism: The Emergence of Ethnicity Among the Tsonga-Speakers of South Africa
next sub-section