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7— Patriotism, Patriarchy and Purity: Natal and the Politics of Zulu Ethnic Consciousness1
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Neo-Traditionalism and the 'Proper' Conduct of Zulu Women

It was in the position of African women that the forces of conservatism found a natural focus. For the Natal state and 'traditional authorities' a common concern


to control the movements of women was a key feature of their 'alliance'. In the attempt to slow down the processes of African proletarianization, African women played a crucial role. For African men fears over the loss of control over women were deeply rooted in the role which women had played in precapitalist society as the producers of labour power both in their own right and as the bearers of children—future labour power. Jeff Guy has recently gone so far as to call this the 'law of motion' of precapitalist societies in southern Africa and to see the division between men and women as the 'class' cleavage in these societies.[58] Whatever the distortions resulting from nineteenth century colonial perceptions, it is clear that in precapitalist Zulu society women were firmly subordinated to the homestead head, whether father or husband. Subject to the authority of father or husband, in the home of her in-laws, a woman was expected to remain deferential and to use a special language of respect, the hlonipa language, as a sign of her subordination. According to R. Finlayson, in a sympathetic account of the hlonipa language amongst Xhosa women:

From the time that a woman enters her in-laws' home she may not pronounce words which have any syllable which is part of the names that occur among her husband's relatives. The hlonipa custom applies to the names of her father-in-law, mother-in-law, father-in-law's brothers and sisters and their wives and husbands and extending back as far as the great-grandfather. . . . The woman is expected to hlonipa throughout her life. She is not allowed to treat this custom lightly and is subjected to severe public shame should she ignore the rules laid down for her.[59]

Severe as these constraints were, they were further tightened by the codification of 'native law' in Natal in 1887, and its subsequent amendment. Although the Code 'originated in an avowed attempt to free women from the tyranny of patriarchal power', according to H.J. Simons, it imposed 'disabilities greater than those they endured in the old society'. By the 1930s, unless specifically exempted from the provisions of 'native law', they were regarded as perpetual minors, without legal status, and they had no independent right to own property and no access to cattle, the store of accumulated wealth and the symbol of power and prestige in Zulu society, other than that allocated to the 'house'.[60]

For James Stuart, even the provisions of the Natal Code were inadequate to control the growing 'immorality' amongst African women 'thanks to the introduction of European principles of civilization'. Like many an African patriarch, he deplored the fact that women now had some choice over their marriage partner and African males could no longer simply chastise their wives as they saw fit. 'Raising the lot of the African woman' had led in his view to the general disintegration of African society, the 'delinquency and insolence of the young', and to 'disrespect and lawlessness' in general.[61]

From the point of view of the state and capital in the first three decades of the century, there was an economic interest in keeping African women on the land and subject to the control of the homestead head, at least before manufacturing industry expanded on an unprecedented scale in the second half of the 1930s. In the first decades of the century, a double purpose was to be served by keeping African women on the land and out of the cities and towns: not only would the reproduction costs of the urban workforce be subsidized through the agricultural production in the rural reserves, a matter of much moment to the mining industry with its demand for vast supplies of cheap migrant labour, but through their continued control over women, chiefs and headmen would also control the return of the young men to the reserves and white farms which still needed their seasonal


labour. Their continued dependence on rural resources was thus ensured.[62] As the 1930–32 Native Economic Commission explained:

The policy of the Urban Areas Act is to discourage the permanent settlement of Natives in towns. As a Native who has a family with him in town is much more likely to become a permanent town-dweller than a single man, obstacles are placed in the way of women coming to the towns.[63]

Under the 1923 Urban Areas Act, amended in 1930, the Governor General or any local authority had the power to prevent any African woman from entering an urban area unless she had a certificate from an authorized officer. However, no such certificate was to be issued 'to any female Native who is a minor in law without the consent of her guardian'; as all African women who were not specifically exempted from African law were regarded as legal minors, this gave considerable leverage to patriarchal authority. Only those women who could produce satisfactory proof that their husbands or fathers had been resident and continuously employed in an urban area for a period of not less than two years were entitled to be in town.[64] The tightening up of the legislation governing the influx of women into town in 1930, in the midst of the Depression, was no coincidence, even though under the impact of the economic revival in the second half of the 1930s the law became far more sporadically enforced, a matter of considerable complaint at all meetings between African chiefs and the administration.

Yet in the face of rural poverty and increasing opportunities in the towns, the patriarchal controls became ever more fragile. In 1937, at a meeting of chiefs and 'other representative Natives' held at Eshowe, John Dube expressed the views of the assembled chiefs that the magistrates were 'too lenient in dealing with their womenfolk'. They asked 'that punishments might be more severe, as leniency leads to their demoralisation'. They appealed to the government to take even more 'drastic steps to prevent the migration of women to the towns'.[65] In 1939, on accepting a medal from the newly appointed Minister of Native Affairs, who was visiting Pietermaritzburg for the first time, Mshiyeni complained that the Zulu customs and traditions alluded to by the Minister were now being 'ignored in regard to the control of wives and daughters—fathers and husbands are helpless'.[66]

Sibusisiwe Violet Makhanya, the first Zulu woman to train as a social worker in the United States on a scholarship in the 1920s, remarked on the change in the position of women even in rural areas while giving evidence to the 1930–32 Native Economic Commission:

. . . there is a keen desire for independence in the women and a keen desire for ownership . . . . I know of cases in our district where, when the parents have died and the brothers have become heirs, the girls are not in any way provided for. I am thinking of one or two cases where the girls have actually left their homes and have gone to urban areas where they are working and providing for themselves, whereas in former times, 10 or 15 years ago, that would not have taken place, where the brother would have gone to the town and fetched the girls back to the kraal.

And today the girls would resist that kind of thing?—Yes, they would and when thinking of these things, one can say that the men are becoming powerless in that respect.

Now would you say that the change in the attitude of women is becoming general, it is becoming widespread?—Yes, it is becoming more and more so . . . .[67]


By 1936, Sibusisiwe Makhanya, a woman who had deliberately gone in the face of African convention in her decision not to marry and to pursue an independent career, had become an Adviser to the Zulu Society. Her career illuminates many of the themes included in this essay and it is worth dwelling on it at some length. The daughter of converts of the Congregationalist American Board, who nevertheless 'saw no incongruity in observing many of the old Zulu traditions', Sibusisiwe was born in 1894. Of prosperous peasant background, she was related to John Dube and was herself educated at the leading African schools of the American Board in Natal. Described as the 'outstanding Zulu woman of her generation', a 'living answer to the question, "Why missions?"', she seemed to epitomize the American 'adaptationist' model of education in Natal, although the reality was always more complex.[68] Even as a young woman Sibusisiwe—or as she was better known in mission circles of that time, Violet—had taken an interest in community affairs, and by the early 1920s she had started an organization called the Bantu Purity League, in order to improve the 'moral standards' of African girls. As Bertha Mkize put it subsequently, the League aimed 'to keep the girls pure in the right way'—at a time when the extent of premarital pregnancy, especially amongst Christian girls, was causing considerable alarm in black and white mission circles.[69]

Sibusisiwe's work both in the Bantu Purity League and in running a night school from her home in Umbumbulu led to her being awarded a scholarship to the United States of America, from whence she returned in 1930 as Natal's first black female social worker. In the United States she encountered the 'seeds of race consciousness' and was influenced by the sense of 'race pride' so much in evidence amongst black Americans in the inter-war period. It is clear from Sibusisiwe's somewhat 'turbulent' career in America that she was no mere accepter of white middle class values. Her concern with 'purity' arose out of her own and her class's deeply felt experience. Her race consciousness was equally part of that deep experience, transmuted in the 1930s into a Zulu ethnic cultural consciousness.[70]

Sibusisiwe's concern with the 'purity' of the 'Zulu race' was shared by many other anxious observers in the 1930s, and there were very material foundations for their fears. By the beginning of the twentieth century, changed patterns of child-rearing threw the burden of sex education on mothers rather than on grandmothers and the peer group as in the past: the result of mission abhorrence of female initiation ceremonies and the development of the nuclear family, especially among Christian Africans.[71] The migrant labour system which deprived villages of young men and put great pressures on the girls on their return exacerbated these problems at a time when safe forms of external sexual intercourse were either forgotten or frowned on by the church. At the same time, town, mission stations and colonial employment opened up opportunities to women who wished to escape unwelcome marriage partners and the constraints of a gerontocratic and patriarchal order. Both their potential independence and their vulnerability aroused a passionate response. In both town and countryside the rate of premarital pregnancy was high and the concern with adolescent purity intense. White colonial fears of miscegenation further fanned by the eugenicist ideas of the time articulated with the concerns of African men that their women were prey to men of other races and that they were losing control over 'their' women and youth.

These fears were heightened in the late 1930s when medical experts began once more to reveal the ravages of venereal disease in both town and countryside. Apparently unknown in African society before the mineral revolution, syphilis was revealingly known amongst the Zulu as isifo sabelungu ('the white man's


disease') or isifo sedolopi ('the town disease').[72] A number of surveys in the late 1930s showed a shocking state of affairs. Thus, in 1938–9, Kark and le Riche found the incidence of definitely positive Wasserman tests in an urban group was 23.6 per cent, while in all rural areas it was 23.28 per cent. Also in the late 1930s, Dr George Gale estimated that the rate of infection of Africans in Pietermaritzburg was 2620 per 100,000 as judged by the occurrence of early cases under treatment. As Kark pointed out in an important review article in 1949, the evidence indicated that there was not only 'a large mass of latent syphilis in the African populations, but also . . . a very high incidence of new infections each year. The process is taking place in highly urbanized areas, as well as in the more remote rural districts.'[73]

In 1939, concerned by the extent of the disease in his own Nongoma district, the Regent Mshiyeni headed his list of issues to be raised at the meeting of the Native Representative Council, to be held in Pretoria in November 1939, with a request to the government for hospitals and compulsory examinations for all families, 'for the sole purpose of protecting this country . . . from a dreadful town disease [the Zulu term for syphilis] which is threatening to destroy the whole country'.[74] Kark had no such belief in the utility of hospitals and the control over women as a treatment for the scourge. As he pointed out in 1949, syphilis was socially produced by the nature of South Africa's industrial revolution which had

profoundly disturbed the family stability and sexual mores of several million African people. Urbanization as a process is bound to disturb patterns of living which have been developed in a rural society, but urbanization in South Africa has taken a particularly disturbing direction as far as the African is concerned as it has developed mainly on the basis of migratory labour.

Not only had migrant labour led to 'instability and pathology in family relationships', it had also led to promiscuity in the countryside, which in turn led to 'an easy reception for the disease in the rural areas from the town'. He concluded that 'Without an understanding of the economic factors involved and [its] historical development . . . no treatment will save the spread of syphilis in South Africa . . . successful therapy requires the establishment of African and rural communities based on a stable family life . . . .'[75]

For all these concerns, given her independence of spirit (and the glamorous pictures of her, dressed as a 'Zulu princess' in New York!), it is nonetheless somewhat surprising to find Sibusisiwe Makhanya acting as the woman adviser to the Zulu Society, which asked three rhetorical question in its founding manifesto or Charter:

Where is the original Zulu dancing on festive occasions that is in some quarters forbidden and what has been substituted for it? What has been devised to ensure that the Home Discipline of Father and Mother may be permanently engraved in the minds and hearts of youth? And what substitute has been provided for the time-honoured custom of uguhlonipa etiquette which requires that a woman shall not utter the name of her husband or her male relatives?

The Charter continued:

39. Concerning such questions as we have asked, our people grieve. With regard to the abandonment of original Zulu dancing, it is to be observed that our youth do not now shrink from engaging in types of dancing that they copy from other races. It is said that these our people take whole nights capering man and woman glued together in pairs, cheek to cheek, jumping and jiggling in a manner that is most foreign and objectionable to us Zulus. On beholding


this, our elders and thinking people shed tears of woe—as they behold what in their judgment of decency is an abomination and a disgrace to the Zulus. One wonders what the Great Shaga [sic] would say were he to arise from his grave and see the degradation of descendants of his people engaging in obscene dancing.

40. There is a danger of a general collapse of the uguhlonipa etiquette of women and girls, which is leaning away from custom. Owing to a falling away of custom, women and girls are losing their wholesome respect which was to their credit and which their presence inspired in family life. This causes a slackening of the solidarity and sacredness of the whole Home Life of a man, which is to be found there before, and in this manner. Home Life is being desecrated and disintegrated and good manners abandoned.[76]

Both the language and the lament are familiar. The disruptive experience of modernity has since the beginning of the nineteenth century elicited similar responses from the intellectuals and ruling classes of Europe. There, too, 'nationalism and respectability jointly provided a reference point in an unsettling world, a piece of eternity which could be appropriated by those caught up in the vibrations of modernity'.[77] Yet for the African intelligentsia born of this very modernity, these processes of class formation and urbanization, the anguished cries against it and the lament for the past implied in the Charter of the Zulu Society and its diatribe against ballroom dancing were never unambiguous.

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7— Patriotism, Patriarchy and Purity: Natal and the Politics of Zulu Ethnic Consciousness1
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