Theophilus Shepstone, Diplomatic Agent to the Native Tribes and later Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal, almost singlehandedly defined the relationship between the British colonial state and Africans living in the British colony for over thirty years between the 1840s and the 1870s. Brought to the Cape Colony from England as a toddler in 1820, Shepstone experienced an upbringing in Xhosa-speaking areas of the Eastern Cape by Wesleyan missionary parents that equipped him to be a skilled observer of local politics and culture. With his knowledge, ambition and measure of Realpolitik, Shepstone developed a system of colonial rule that relied on the cooperation and collaboration of amakhosi (translated by McClendon as "lord" rather than "chief") to collect taxes, administer law and maintain order with minimal resources from the state (38). As Thomas McClendon skillfully demonstrates in White Chief, Black Lords that Shepstone maintained a belief in the "civilizing mission" while at the same time nurturing his own role as a paramount chief who appealed to, embraced and sought to reshape African worldviews and modes of legitimacy for the purposes of colonial rule. By the end of his "reign," Shepstone possessed such a political monopoly in Natal that the Colonial Office sought to transform his personal power into a bureaucratic framework of colonial rule.
While much work remains to be done on Shepstone and his rule in Natal (there is no modern biography of him, for instance), a number of scholars have recently tried to understand the "Shepstone system" and the development of the colonial state in South Africa. Shepstone, or Somtsewuka Sonzica (something like "father of Whiteness" or "father of the White man") as he was called in Zulu, has offered a complex portrait of a colonial administrator driven by a profound opportunism, an insidious desire to control and manipulate African politics for the purposes of colonial rule, and sympathy for what he considered to be "African interests."1 Historians have located the origins of both indirect rule and the apartheid reserve system in the "Shepstone system."2 Carolyn Hamilton's magisterial Terrific Majesty describes the pinnacle of his power when, in 1872, he played the role of Shaka in the ceremony that installed Cetshwayo as the king of Zululand.3 McClendon's most recent work, a small book that packs a powerful intellectual punch, further develops and refines our understanding of Shepstone by exploring not Shepstone's life but his participation in "African discourses of power" over the course of several topical chapters.
By focusing on the early years of Shepstone's administration, McClendon highlights both the limited and improvised nature of the so-called Shepstone system and ways in which it was "intertwined with African discourses of power, in the process becoming 'Africanized' even as it attempted to civilize" (5). The book is less about asserting the agency of African political actors, who were subject to the abuse and violence of Shepstone's rule, and more about how Shepstone sought to navigate and manipulate African modes of political legitimacy and authority, often with unintended consequences. As McClendon makes clear, the development of British rule over the African populations of Natal was a process and, in some sense, an experiment rather than any sort of thought-out "system." It was developed through "shoestring methods" and Shepstone's encounters and conflicts with African political actors and traditions (129).
Jeff Guy has argued that Shepstone personally occupied and monopolized a cultural space between African oral traditions and written colonial knowledge, which he used to accentuate his own status and power in both European and African conceptual universes.4 Rather than focus on Shepstone's political fortunes as a Victorian patriarch and African chief in this sense, McClendon examines how his intermediary status shaped the development and nature of the colonial state in Natal. McClendon in particular takes issue with the attribution of indirect rule in Natal and across colonial Africa to Shepstone, arguing that colonial rule emerged in the particular form of the "Shepstone system" as a consequence of limited resources (financial...