- Placing “New Africans” in the “Old” South Africa: Drama, Modernity, and Racial Identities in Johannesburg, circa 1935
On Sunday, 3 June 1934, African artists and intellectuals, American Board Missionaries, liberal whites associated with the Joint European/African Council, and an educated, predominantly African audience gathered at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre (BMSC) in downtown Johannesburg for an Emancipation Centenary Celebration, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834. 1 The Celebration included speeches by American missionaries and leading Africans, such as R. V. Selope Thema (editor of Bantu World) and A. B. Xuma (later President of the African National Congress [ANC]); performances of Handel’s Messiah; hymns composed by Europeans, Africans, and Americans; and “Negro spirituals.” It culminated in a “dramatic display,” the subject of which was not the emancipation of slaves in the Empire, but rather the lives of slaves in the United States. Incidental music was written by Reuben Caluza, known for composing and collecting Zulu folk-songs, and the text by his cousin Rolfes Dhlomo. The evening’s performances were organized and directed by Herbert Dhlomo, Rolfes’s brother and a dramatist in his own right.
Drawing on the variety format of Edwardian pageants and the music hall, the performance also borrowed freely from the speeches of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and the portrayal of the “life of the lowly” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The “dramatic display” itself, including a slave auction, labor in the fields, and the coming of freedom performed by adults and children in chorus, highlighted the pathos of the [End Page 113] lot of both slaves and ex-slaves: “the suffering of the American Negroes on the slave market, in the cotton fields and at home, until the joyful news of the liberation”; 2 and the “feelings of joy and relief, which the right ending of the struggle for freedom had brought.” 3 Although these reports in Bantu World and Umteteli wa Bantu, the major African papers, give us no details about the music accompanying these scenes, it is likely, given Caluza’s international reputation as a composer of nationalist hymns and Zulu folksongs (recorded by His Master’s Voice in London in 1930), that it drew on his “sorrow songs” about the dispossession of South African blacks. 4 Likewise, the dramatic interpretations of key speeches such as the Gettysburg Address, delivered by Griffiths Motsieloa, leader of the minstrel troupe the Darktown Strutters, and the record company Gallophone’s answer to His Master’s Voice, probably resonated with the audience differently from the praise heaped on British and American emancipators in the African press.
Politically charged as this event certainly was, it had nonetheless no single political meaning. Permitted by the neocolonial state and applauded by white liberal paternalists, it was enthusiastically received not only by the members of the BMSC but also by the more diverse—and more disaffected—audience at the Eastern Native Township performance. This occasion thus eludes the familiar dichotomy between white colonial hegemony and the oppressed black masses (or between high English culture and clearly identifiable working-class practices), a dichotomy that has long pervaded South African criticism and underlies key formulations of current postcolonial theory. 5 In this schema, members of the New African elite, the small intermediary class of clergymen, teachers, and other professionals who organized events such as the Emancipation Celebration, are distinguished above all by their attachment to European civilization and thus by their alienation from the masses of black people, whether this alienation is read as the irredeemable result of their colonial assimilation and distance from popular African cultural expression 6 or as a measure of the obstacles to their attempts at representing either African concerns in general or the interests of an emerging working class in particular. 7 This retrospective judgment carries some weight in present-day debates about South African cultural politics but it does not fully acknowledge the fluidity in 1934 of these class and ethnic affiliations, or the volatility of New African identification with “European civilization.” To be sure, the editor of Bantu World joined the American Board Mission in urging his readers to beware of the unChristian tactics of the...