After my brother and I are dead, the Gule family line from my grandfather, William Gule, will come to an end in the patriarchal sense. I mention this fact because there has always been in my upbringing the idea that the Gule family name, along with the values that were transmitted to us, via my parents, by my grandparents, had to continue. In some ways this physical death is an apt analogy for another kind of death. This death of sorts is not only afflicting my family but is something that is sweeping through other mini-dynasties in the communities of Black South Africans.
The generation of people that my grandfather belonged to called themselves “amakholwa ”, the believers. At some point in the 19th century a group of them decided that they were no longer Zulu or Xhosa, and as in the case of my forebears, Swazi . They had become a new nation of Christians.
Somehow or other they had managed to secure three large pieces of land from missionaries. The one piece of land is in Nyanyadu, near Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, the other in a place called Driefontein near Ladysmith also in KZN and the other was in the fertile valley of the river Umsunduzi near Pietermaritzburg.
In these places they forged a kind of landed aristocracy. In some ways it was radical for its times. They insisted for instance that the female children were to have equal educational opportunities and they were entitled to an equal share of inheritance as the male children. They built schools with money they had earned as proto-capitalist farmers. They were independent of the traditional monarchy, and the colonial government.
There were other lineages and groups of amakholwa who established similar settlements in places like Groutville, Adams Mission and Inanda all of which are within an hour’s drive from Durban and then there was Highflats near Ixopo. Of course there were such initiatives in places like the Eastern Cape and other parts of the country.
When my grandfather was born in the 1890’s a trust that held the land in Driefontein had been in existence for almost 40 years. In addition to being amakholwa they were also izifundiswa, the learned ones. There were also other names by which they were know “amazemtiti” the exempted ones, or “onontlevu” the talkative ones a nickname they earned owing to their zeal at preaching the gospel to “amaqaba”, the uncivilised.
Depending on which side you happened to be born these terms came to mean different things. Although I cannot say that anyone could have taken pride in the term amaqaba, the onontlevu were quite proud of this mark of distinction but those that my kin called amaqaba used the term onontlevu in a pejorative, derisive way.
Prior to 1994 or thereabouts I could say, with some degree of confidence, that if you encountered a Black African in some profession or other there was also a strong likelihood that their lineage could be traced to these elite communities.
One unfortunate side-effect of this was a self-induced Anglicisation of these ancestors of mine. Feigned English airs became a mark of distinction. This was satirised by Prof. Sibusiso Nyembezi in his novel (later made into a television series) Inkinsela yase Mgungundlovu (The Swindler from Pietermaritzburg). The main character introduced himself as Mr. CC Ndebenkulu Esq. in an inflated tone of importance.
This Anglicisation also meant that they took on English morality, manners and habits. Choral and classical music became their choice of entertainment. No traditional dances or playing of the drums and no traditional ceremonies or rites of passage.
In our house as I was growing up we were forbidden from listening to what was then called Radio Zulu and the serialised radio dramas that we liked and listened to in secret. My grandmother hated umgqashiyo and umaskandi that was the staple of ethnic radio stations. That was music for amaqaba. We, the learned ones, listened to Radio Port Natal (Port Natal was the name that colonialists had first given to the port city of Durban).
Another side effect was a kind of incest that pervades the learned ones. Quite logically of course many went to the same schools and colleges. Inanda Seminary, Ohlange, Adam’s college Lavedale, Fort Hare and a number of other such institutions produced many of today’s and yesterdays professionals and intelligentsia. Wedlock, tutelage, professional connections, family ties were nodes in a web of alliances that ensured that this aristocracy had a material and racial class structure but also class consciousness.
That legacy is now on the brink of extinction. My generation is probably the last that still holds onto any notion of pride emanating from this history. Even amongst our generation there are sufficient numbers of ‘rebels’ to ensure that the legacy of people like my grandparents ends with us.
I would like to claim that this death of onontlevu is due to internal rebellion but it probably has more to do with other factors. For one thing the colonial and later the apartheid regimes demanded that Africans (rich and poor) should be confined to the same geographic areas. As a result the spatial and racial purity of the amakholwa got diluted. Some of us were forced to go to government schools unlike my parents who went only to the missionary schools. There we were confronted with people with different values, who believed in ancestors and witchcraft and other things that we considered superstitious nonsense.
At this point it might be worthwhile to point out that according to the unwritten rules of this landed aristocracy having money as in the case of many unlearned business people did not qualify a person to be one of them. Similarly, if you were educated but not from a “proper/cultured/good” family you were considered an outsider.
Of course as the anti-apartheid movement gained momentum from the 70’s onwards and class distinctions became less pronounced or at least became something that one couldn’t brag about openly, amakholwa lost some of their prestige. In addition to that the administrative arm of Apartheid began to wilt in the mid to late 80’s thus more numbers of the amaqaba got a shot at university education starting with the so-called bush universities at first and later on with white universities.
For the most part however, I think that the biggest blow to this legacy was the fact that Black professionals and business people could only live and plough their trade amongst other Black people. This meant that at some point or another even the learned and wealthy Black folk had to rely on the generosity, solidarity or revenue generated from the ranks of the poor and the unlearned.
On a micro scale there is another decisive factor that contributed to the demise of this black gentry. The factor is best illustrated by story I was told about a fellow whose mother was a teacher at my primary school. He was one of those “bright” people who for one reason or another dropped out of university and soon became an alcoholic and now spends his days trying to get a few rands from friends and acquaintances to buy booze. His is a familiar story. There are indeed many ways of dying, some are more stealthy than others.
As the story goes one day he was drinking with friends and one of them derided him saying that he was a loser and a drunk to which he retorted that he was indeed a drunk and a loser but added that he had one redeeming quality his friend did not have: “…at least I know what a professor looks like.”
The fortunes of people even within the same family and the same generation and the same social strata often vary radically such that sometimes the only thing that those to whom life and fortune has been less kind can hold onto is the notion that they belong to a prestigious lineage and have a level of education, though incomplete, that is above that of the next person.
In my family fortunes have not always been good. In 1985 my father had a stroke which stopped him working and a financial crisis ensued. At age 54 my mother had to go back to teaching at a nursing college that she had left in the early 70’s to work with my father at his/their surgery.
My mother has done well in the goals she set herself that all her children would have tertiary education. She may have sacrificed her own goals to help my father become the doctor that he was but in the eyes of the many of the present-day nontlevu she has done exceptionally well.
The emergence of a new political elite also set things out of kilter for me and my kind. Whereas previously many leaders in the liberation movement such as the ANC were primarily also products of missionary education but with the intensification of the anti-apartheid struggle another political elite emerged, one that was drawn from other constituencies such as civic movements and trade unions.
This political leadership became the new standard by which social values and status could be measured. To begin with these social values were based on leadership roles in “the struggle” as opposed to wealth accumulation that they have morphed into in the post-apartheid era. The democratic era which enabled the political elite and the nouveau riche to emerge, has significantly eroded the high esteem to which people of the nontlevu persuasion had been held.
Increasingly the notlevu’s have realised that in order to survive in the new political and economic environment, they have to assimilate into the emergent elite and in that way die as a class.
There are many monuments to the amakholwa legacy: the schools I have mentioned above, many of the early Black newspapers were initiated by them, for some time much of literature, theatre and intellectual output by Black Africans in South Africa came about through their efforts.
This not a lament at the demise of the old elite. Its death is a natural development that mirrors among others changes in the political regime of the country, the changing local and international economic climate, and the dissolution of old political and class forms of patronage including that of the British ex-pat middle class after whom my forebears had modelled themselves.
If those of us who still hold values that are different from the of primitive accumulation that marks the post apartheid moment it is our duty to learn from both the successes and the failures of the people that populate our history, including people like my grandparents and the elite Black class they fashioned so as to survive and thrive even as colonialism was bent on eroding any and all vestiges of humanity that Black people possessed.
And perhaps their legacy lies not in the preservation of blood-lines nor in physical monuments of the sort that the British and Afrikaaners built to their exploits and heroes but in the fact that we can learn something from them and that the nobler side of their mission will not be entirely lost on us and the coming generations.