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Introduction: Ethnicity in Southern African History
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A History

Thus far historians have not devoted much attention to the history of ethnicity and ethnic ideologies in southern Africa. This is somewhat puzzling, especially as many have been aware for some time that ethnicity is not a natural cultural residue but a consciously crafted ideological creation.[8] It is likely that the explanation for this relative neglect lies in the fact that historians were, like other scholars, caught up in the nationalist paradigm that dominated the entire range of African studies in the 1950s and 1960s. They thus saw studies of the growth of ethnic consciousness as parochial, misconceived, and largely irrelevant to their main concerns at that time: the recovery of Africa's pre-colonial past and the exploration of the growth of anti-colonial resistance and its flowering into progressive nationalism. In the optimistic nation-building mood of the time, studies of ethnicity were also extremely unpopular with African opinion-makers, embarrassing even to mention, and they exerted pressure against studies that might further divisiveness in the new nation states they thought they were 'building'. Thus, the history of ethnic identities largely remained to be written.

The essays in this volume attempt to remedy this situation by placing the study of ethnicity within the unfolding history of a set of societies which are genuinely comparable. This approach is an alternative to the usual one of attempting to analyze the phenomenon on its own, as a subject to be considered sui generis and in a grandly conceived comparative framework. Such abstraction risks removing ethnicity, at least partially, from concrete historical process and blurring specific local factors contributing towards its development and acceptance. The various studies in this volume, when taken together, suggest a basic model that helps us to understand the processes involved in the creation of ethnic ideologies—including those of non-blacks—and sheds some light on why they have had genuine appeal for ordinary people both during the colonial era and in the post-colonial period of national independence.

The area chosen as the setting for these case studies is southern Africa, a region extending from Cape Town to south central Zaire on a south-north axis, and from Namibia to Mozambique on a west-east axis, but with Angola largely excluded. Despite the cultural variety present in this extensive area, it has constituted a coherent regional unit over the past century or so. The event which served as the catalyst for the melding of diverse peoples into such a unit was the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886. This initiated the building of Africa's single most potent economic force and attracted capital investment to other, less important focuses of investment, such as the copper mines of Zaire and Zambia, the farms and ranches of Zimbabwe, and the plantations of central Mozambique and southern Malawi. The links that were rapidly constructed to weld together the various territories of this region—and their societies—included ties of finance, trade, political influence, and, especially, migrant labour.

Yet the creation of such ties was necessarily differential, and great variation is


to be found from one area to another within the region. In some places, such as Lesotho, the Transkei, southern Mozambique, northern Malawi, and western Zambia, links with the Rand's mines were direct and obvious: large-scale and persistent male labour migrancy organized through the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association demonstrated clearly the dependence of these regions. In other places, such as the Zambian and Zairian Copperbelts, central Mozambique, and southern Malawi, local capitalist interests were able to dominate and the influence of the Rand was less obvious and less direct. In still other locales, such as parts of central Malawi, southern Zambia, and parts of Zaire and Swaziland, successful peasant production permitted local Africans to avoid both long-distance labour migrancy and working for local entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, the Rand's influence was everywhere present, if only as a model of labour relations and a distant, but powerful, economic presence. Although certainly uneven, the Rand's influence knitted the region's territories together.

As a consequence of the growth of capitalist relations of production both on the Rand itself in the 1890s and in other centres of capitalist endeavour that were established throughout the region shortly afterwards, the people of virtually all its societies experienced pervasive social, economic, and political change. The range of such change was broad, and many of the changes were clearly disadvantageous to the people affected. The capitalist enterprises of the region were all highly labour-intensive, requiring large and constant supplies of cheap African labour. To push Africans into the service of these enterprises, colonial governments imposed taxes, which in many areas could be paid only through men leaving their homes to participate in labour migrancy. These taxes were imposed during, or immediately after, a series of ecological disasters during the 1890s and the early 1900s that greatly weakened the fabric of local African societies. These disasters included drought, locusts and famine, but perhaps the key one was the great rinderpest epidemic of the mid-1890s, which killed livestock through the whole of southern Africa. Because livestock was widely reckoned as the embodiment of wealth, rinderpest's impact effectively constituted a gigantic mass bankruptcy for many societies. Moreover, as the exchange of cattle for women through the system of bridewealth (lobola ) payments was the principal way in which many of the region's societies regulated marriage and the establishment of new families, it became socially necessary to work for money, using it either to restock the herds or as a substitute for cattle in the making of bridewealth payments.

Later, widespread alienation of African land, the establishment of overcrowded 'native reserves', and the entrenchment of patterns of labour migrancy resulted in both impoverished villages and strained relationships within divided families. The labour demands of mines, plantations, and industries, coupled with governmental tax and land policies and the rising needs of people to purchase discretionary goods, pressed men out of the rural areas as workers, especially after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. It should be stressed that this process of rural transformation was not restricted to black Africans. The commercialization of agriculture in large areas of South Africa also undermined an Afrikaner society that had hitherto been characterized by paternalistic relations of clientage between Afrikaner grandees and poor Afrikaner tenants. This commercialization forced from the land white Afrikaners who had long had direct access to it. They moved into the growing cities of South Africa, where, because of their lack of education or marketable skills, they came to constitute a 'poor white' problem of startling dimensions.

What was common for all the region's peoples—blacks and whites alike—was


that many of them were gradually losing control over their lives as control over that most basic factor of production, the land, slipped from their grasp. No longer were rural communities—whether black or white—able to exist autonomously, beyond the reach of capitalism and colonial administration. At the same time that this rural transformation was occurring, the region's mixed-race groups, such as the 'Cape Coloureds' of South Africa and the Luso-Africans of Mozambique, were suffering an erosion of their positions. Earlier, through possession of language and other skills, they had enjoyed relatively secure social and economic positions as intermediaries between whites and blacks. After the 1890s, however, these positions were successfully challenged by poor Afrikaners in South Africa and immigrant Portuguese whites in Mozambique, both of which groups increasingly benefited from the support of racist state institutions. Thus they, like blacks and some white Afrikaners, were also caught in a process of declining control over their lives and destinies.

People of all these groups fought against the erosion of their positions. For many involved in this struggle land, and access to land, came to stand at the very centre of their consciousness, being fixed there not only at the beginning of the process of the undermining of rural autonomy, but also in succeeding decades. For white Afrikaners, land ownership was also important, kept alive as the ideal Afrikaner way of life even among the poor whites of the cities and towns.

For Africans, however, access to land remained a central issue for a more pressing reason. This was because, from the very start of the industrialization process, employers and government officials alike were determined to create a system in which unskilled workers would oscillate from the rural villages to work sites and then back to the villages and in which skilled positions would be held by whites. In this way, their wives and children would remain permanently behind in the rural areas, while the men would dwell in bachelor dormitories at the work sites for the duration of their contracts. Such a system had many advantages for both capitalist entrepreneurs and European administrators. For the employers it helped keep the working class fragmented and unorganized, and it allowed them to pay wages that were less than what would have had to be paid if the whole of a worker's family migrated and settled permanently as fully proletarianized people. For the officials it assured that there would be at least some money brought into the rural areas to help sustain village life there. In some cases, moreover, the migrant labour system also enabled governments to collect capitation fees for each worker recruited.

Migrant labour had less appeal for the workers themselves, but they had little choice in the matter. The need for money and the official pressures upon the men to work as migrants on contract, coupled with the establishment of effective recruiting agencies, resulted in the rapid institutionalization of the system of oscillating migrant labour as the standard mode of labour mobilization. But because the system was one in which workers were to move back and forth, even rural areas that were little more than unproductive rural slums necessarily remained of central concern for the migrants. On the one hand, they could not remain at home to supervise life in the village and oversee their wives and children. On the other hand, they could not abandon their rural homes. Laws prevented the relocation of families to work sites and strictly regulated the length of contracts a worker could assume. Thus, it was in the rural areas that the workers' long-term interests necessarily lay, for they would eventually return there when their working life was over. Even while absent for decades from the rural areas, then, the workers' concerns typically remained sharply focused on what was occurring at home. This situation could not but produce profound


apprehensions in the migrants, and the capitalist era for them was—and still is—truly an age of anxiety.

While the majority of people were affected adversely by the changes produced by industrialization and capital investment, not everyone suffered. Indeed, the establishment of capitalist enterprises and colonial administrations provided a range of opportunities that many whites and some Africans could seize. Certain people were able to respond to the growing markets for produce, becoming peasant producers or even small-scale farmers, while in South Africa Afrikaner agriculturalists on medium-sized and large farms prospered. Others, especially those able to gain an education or useful skills, were able to take up places in the social interstices that the changing economy opened up, becoming relatively well-rewarded teachers, ministers of religion, artisans, government clerks, or even small businessmen. In effect, then, the economic changes that followed on the establishment of the Rand's gold industry and the binding together of the far-flung areas of southern and central Africa into a regional economic unit were accompanied by a rapid and increasingly sharp differentiation of the region's peoples into more favoured and less favoured societies and of the societies themselves into more favoured and less favoured classes-in-the-making.

Such rapid social and economic change eroded earlier political relationships based on clientage both within and outside of lineages, social patterns, and religious beliefs, all of which had characterized societies during the nineteenth century. This erosion in turn opened the way for new forms of consciousness throughout the region. Worker consciousness amongst both whites and blacks appeared spasmodically in situations of localized stress on the work site. Evidence of such class solidarity was shown at times of rapid socio-economic change, appearing in such events as the Rand Rebellion of 1922, the strike of copper miners on the Zambian Copperbelt in 1935, and the African mineworkers' strike of 1946 on the Witwatersrand gold mines. But class consciousness remained exceptional for as long as the working class was weak and fragmented and difficult to infuse with a sense of community.

New types of popular religious consciousness also appeared in the form of mainline Christian churches as well as separatist churches such as Watch Tower and a myriad of Zionist sects, and these shaped their adherents' evolving new self-identities. And among the educated clerks, teachers, clerics, and businessmen who emerged in the black, 'coloured' and mixed race communities a petty bourgeois consciousness, with an acceptance of Victorian notions of respectability, progress and individual uplift through hard work, gained prominence.

It is crucial to the argument of this book that one of the most far-reaching and important of these new forms of consciousness was a new ethnic—or tribal—consciousness that could and did encapsulate other forms of consciousness. Ethnicity could coexist with other types of consciousness without apparent unease because it was cultural and hence based on involuntary ascription, not on personal choice. People were members of a particular ethnic group whether they liked it or not. It was simply a fact of existence. As such, ethnic identity could inhere in both petty bourgeois and worker, in both peasant farmer and striving politician.

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Introduction: Ethnicity in Southern African History
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