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  • African Modernity and the Struggle for People's Power:From Protest and Mobilization to Community Organizing
  • Xolela Mangcu (bio)

Populism has been a controversial term in South African public discourse in recent years precisely because it has been used as a tool in the lexical armoury of the combatants in the battle for the leadership of the ruling African National Congress. In order to understand why populism has been denigrated to great effect by the political, economic and social elite one has to have some idea of the historical resistance to popular democracy by African elites going back to the nineteenth century.

The anti-populist streak has its antecedents in the social division that emerged among African people following their encounter with European modernity in the nineteenth century. At the end of the anti-colonial wars that lasted almost a hundred years between the end of the 18th century and the end of the nineteenth century, Africans found themselves divided between two groups: those who subscribed to the new religious and educational systems brought into the country by the European missionaries and those who rejected European 'civilization' as a bastardization of African culture. And because religion and education came to stand for what Ntongela Masilela calls the "facilitators of the entry into European modernity,"1 leadership became the preserve of what Du Bois called the "talented tenth."2

To be sure, the social division started among Xhosa chiefs Ngqika (1778-1829) and Ndlambe (died 1828) who stood for submission to and rebellion against European colonialism, respectively. Aligned to both chiefs were the prophet-intellectuals Ntsikana and Nxele. Ntsikana became possibly the single most influential individual in converting the Xhosa to Christianity. [End Page 279] Nxele led 20,000 m en to a war against the British in the small town of Grahamstown. Thousands were killed and Nxele was incarcerated on Robben Island, where he died. Peires argues that, their differences notwithstanding, their attraction to their respective followers lay in their power to reinterpret a world which had suddenly become incomprehensible. "They are giants because they transcend the specifics to symbolize the opposite poles of Xhosa response to Christianity and the West: Nxele representing struggle, Ntsikana submission."3

These two individuals lay the contours of a continuing conflict between what can be described as 'conservative' and 'radical' modernizers.4 Conservative modernizers accepted European modernity as a Godbestowed blessing on the 'heathen' Africans. They denounced African cultural traditions and even in their politics were careful not to disturb the apple-cart of European civilization. One of the most influential and yet controversial of these conservative modernizers was John Tengo Jabavu (1859-1921), a teacher and a preacher who later became a community leader. He established the influential newspaper Imvo Zabantsundu and was one of the movers behind the establishment of the University of Fort Hare as the first university for black students. Jabavu was controversial not only for his dependence and appeasement of his white financiers but also for his support for the notorious Land Act of 1913, which dispossessed black people of their lands. The Act apportioned only 13 percent of the land to black people and allocated the remaining 87 percent to whites.

Despite opposition from radical modernizers such as WB Rubusana, Sol Plaatje, SEK Mqhayi, who jointly established their own rival newspaper, Izwi Labantu, the conservative modernizers became more influential in shaping the course of oppositional politics in South Africa. Having studied under Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, they came back to establish the South African National Native Congress, later renamed the African National Congress in 1923. One of the more radical modernizers, WB Rubusana, was at the founding of the ANC, with W.E.B Du Bois at the Pan African Congress in London in 1911, and also the first—and the last—African to run for parliament in the then Cape parliament, which at the time allowed for African representation under a qualified franchise. The franchise was later abolished and blacks were removed from the voters roll in 1936.

As Masilela points out, Booker T's protégés were not prepared to give over their right to lead Africans to a bunch of radicals...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 279-299
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-03
Open Access
No
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