Amazemtiti: The making of a native bourgeoisie class in colonial SA

Siyabonga Hadebe says most people are unaware of how black elites in the colonial era were formed and are also not aware that many liberation heroes actually came from this then very privileged group. Photo: Supplied

Siyabonga Hadebe says most people are unaware of how black elites in the colonial era were formed and are also not aware that many liberation heroes actually came from this then very privileged group. Photo: Supplied

Published May 27, 2020


“The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite…” – Frantz Fanon.

MOST PEOPLE are unaware of how black elites in the colonial era were formed and are also not aware that many liberation heroes actually came from this then very privileged group of people. The topic concerns the black elite of the colonial era, ‘amazemtiti’ (a Nguni bastardization of the word ‘exempted’, meaning those who were exempted from laws designed to manage and control black people.)

Well, this article attempts to address a largely unfamiliar topic to many people, especially the youth and many others. Those who are old enough will remember the novel of Sibusiso Nyembezi (later made into a television series) ‘Inkinsela yase Mgungundlovu’ (The Swindler from Pietermaritzburg). The Anglicised main character introduced himself as Mr. CC Ndebenkulu Esquire in an inflated tone of importance.

Megan Healey-Clancy and Jason Hickel claim that for Christians (amakholwa or ‘believers’) to escape from customary law, they “needed to demonstrate first that they had made clean breaks from the homestead; only then could they become amazemtiti.” There was a direct relationship between Christian faith and class.

These products of the colonial elite manufacturing factory were distinguishable for their ‘self-induced Anglicisation.’ Ndebenkulu was a caricature of a black elites his time. Anglicization also meant that these pseudo-elites took adopted English morality, manners and habits. Choral and classical music became their choice of entertainment to set them apart from ‘pagans’ who were neither educated nor converted to western religious faith.. Thus, no traditional dances or playing of the drums were allowed and also there were no traditional ceremonies or rites of passage for this group of people.

Enoch Sontonga would tell us a better story than many. Nkosi sikelel iAfrica!

Amazemtiti spoke English, and sometimes native languages, through their nostrils… When you want to get a clear idea of Anglicised black elites, just imagine two characters. Close your eyes and hear the voice of prominent TV broadcaster Dumile Matheza and notice how he pronounces isiXhosa with a feigned English tone: “Wambetha nge left hook unkabi!” Or, perhaps you need think of Zimbabwe’s ex-president RG Mugabe’s accent: “Little Tony Blair, take your England and I will keep my Zimbabwe…” “In Jamaica, they have freedom to smoke cannabis, the men are always high and universities are full of women…”

The black elite or amazemtiti, also sometimes called ‘onontlevu’ (the talkative ones, a nickname they earned owing to their zeal at preaching the gospel to “amaqaba”, the uncivilised), were basically an exempted native bourgeoisie in English colonies of the Cape and Natal somewhere around the late 1800s. In addition to being ‘amakholwa’ (Christians, believers), the amazemtiti were also known as ‘izifundiswa’, the learned ones.

These folks stopped being Zulu or Xhosa, for example, and became a new nation or ‘enclave’ of Christians among Africans. Of course, this was long before the days of Bushiri, Omotoso, Joshua and Mboro when religion was a class symbol. Amen.

Amazemtiti were a “landed aristocracy” against a hostile backdrop of wars and expropriation of land in colonial times. A difficult period for blacks but the ‘exempted ones’ rode the highest wave when it came to land ownership. For example, they acquired large pieces of land from missionaries: e.g. Nyanyadu near Newcastle, Driefontein near Ladysmith and also in the fertile valley of the river Umsunduzi near Pietermaritzburg, all in the what is now the Province of KwaZulu-Natal. There are other examples all over place of the amazemtiti territory.

Those who are familiar with the area of Estcourt in the Natal Midlands will be know the Bhekuzulu-Ephangweni area along the N3 highway (Estcourt North off-ramp). This was the vast plane of the AmaHlubi people before natives were annexed by the Imperial British in the latter parts of the 1800s. AmaHlubi were scattered all over the region from Lesotho and Eastern Cape to Cape Town. Their conquest was finally complete when land was taken from them.

But there was another occurrence that is barely spoken about: the family was divided into two. One part of the community was recruited to Ephangweni – the land that was until recently owned by the Lutheran Church and the Germans. These cousins had access to education and direct contact with a white man. Amakholwa (believers). The other part of the land (Kwa-Bhekuzulu) was the exiled place of the rebellious Hlubi King Langalibalele (Ngelengele!) after his release from Robben Island and temporary exile in Cape Town (Langa Township). Amaqaba (non-believers).

The character of the land of non-believers was that it represented a poverty creation scheme, and a source for cheap labour for the burgeoning mining industry and urban South Africa. This trend of sourcing cheap labour to service the white economy continues to this day in parts of Zululand, Lesotho and Pondoland as well as Sekhukhuneland.

Black intellectuals were onontlevu and therefore existed in all English colonies. Remnants of this class were also found beyond the colonial era. Many of them went on to be influential in different capacities in the newly-independent territories all over the continent. Academic Archie Mafeje referred to intellectuals as those people who are associated “with more than an average level of formal education.” So, some of foremost thinkers such as Stephen Biko (South Africa), Wole Sonyika (Nigeria), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Mazrui brothers (Kenya), Samir Amin (Egypt) and Chanta Cheik Diop (Senegal) were/ are higher grade products of the colonial black elite producing factory.


Just to add, unusual surnames among the Xhosa and Zulu speaking peoples of South Africa including January, Botha, Oliphant (Ndlovu), Grootboom (Radebe/ Mthimkhulu), Balfour, Mathew, etc. directly trace their origins from the culture of onontlevu, who were so keen to be good subjects of the Queen of England. But some of the people with these names trace their roots in slavery but these given names indicated close proximity to the white man.

When the Nationalist Party came into power in 1948, it tightened its race segregation laws. As a result, most of the exempted natives families converted from natives to ‘Coloureds’ as the benefits of being an exempted native vanished into thin air as draconian acts such as the Group Areas Act, originally passed in 1913, did not do them any favours any more.

This bit of history on the development of the African elite that we either call traitors or icons/ true liberators should be enlightening for those who are not aware of this part of our history. It is true that the African National Congress (ANC) was founded by ‘amazemtiti’ in 1912. A disappointed group of the native bourgeoisie in the Cape and Natal was very sad and disappointed that the English had double crossed them, by choosing the Boers as their partners to govern the newly created all-white led nation state called the Union of South Africa in 1910.

The ‘black whites’ saw that as a snub, and quickly assembled to present their petition to the Queen in England. When their efforts failed they returned home to form the South African Native Congress in 1912. It is no coincidence that the ANC remained hopeful in the years leading to 1948 that whites would change their minds and welcome them back as friends. Only when the Nationalist Party tightened the grip; they resorted to arm stuggle. It is also possible the likes of Mangaliso Sobukwe and others rejected the Freedom Charter 1955 because they had completely lost faith in whites, collaboration with Europeans was now a cardinal sin. U Poqo akalahlwa!

It is important to emphasise that not only Langalibalele Dube and Pixley ka Seme were from the colonial black elite communities, but also Robert Mugabe, Kamuzu Banda, Stanley Makgoba, Julius Nyerere, Steven Biko, Joshua Nkomo, Nelson Mandela, MG Buthelezi, Thabo Mbeki, Ntatho Motlana, Xuma, TJ Jabavu, Desmond Tutu, E’skia Mphahlele, Manase Buthelezi, Zaccheus Mahabane, Sobukwe, Harry Gwala, Govan Mbeki, Ndabaningi Sithole, KK Kaunda, Khoza Mgojo, Jomo Kenyatta, Arab Moi, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Njongonkulu Ndungane, etc. were all privileged natives, or descendants thereof.

Most, if not all, had some association with imperial Britain, especially the older generations. And, they were definitely children of the defeated so they had to carry the flag of their ruler, including language and culture.

Aren’t you surprised that the these leaders still took their ‘liberated’ territories to belong to the British Commonwealth? They owe their allegiance to the Union Jack!

The European élite undertook to manufacture a native élite in order for them to assist in the management of the expanse territories and to control other colonized people within the borders of the colonies. These were men that were primed to take over the reigns from colonial rulers. Nkrumah was governor of the Gold Coast, long before independence was granted. The book of Moeletsi Mbeki (also a descendant of amazemtiti) titled: “Architects of Poverty: Why Africa’s Capitalism needs Changing” sheds some light on the creation of black elites by the colonial African state.

The book of Moeletsi Mbeki titled “Architects of Poverty: Why Africa’s Capitalism needs Changing” sheds some light on the creation of black elites by the colonial African state. Photo: African News Agency (ANA)

Also, Frantz Fanon’s book titled “The Wretched Earth” (French: Les Damnés de la Terre) published in 1961 provides an anatomy of the black elite that the African newly independent state inherited from the colonial state. Fanon provides a good analysis of why post-colonial states have failed to step up to creating vibrant economies due to the elite or ‘proletariat’. This proletariat was/ is a class that lacked ownership of the means of production… Fanon stressed that in the colonial territories the proletariat was “…the nucleus of the colonized population which has been most pampered by the colonial regime.” In contrast, ordinary blacks had no opportunities to go to school, amaqaba.

Those who were fortunate studied in top schools like Nkamana (Vryheid), St Chads (Ladysmith), Ohlange, Kilnerton Institution and Lovedale and proceeded to Fort Hare. Fort Hare was the breeding ground for black elite during the colonial period. Liberation movements and struggle icons/ liberators emerged from these elites because they understood Western ways of living and mannerisms. If a true de-colonial discourse was to be developed, the likes of Fort Hare were created to deepen colonialism as well as to tighten the grip and control over the colonized. The institution’s primary purpose was to develop an elite class that would later assist the European ruler to administer the colonies in Southern Africa.

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 always considered an outsider.

One of the former ANC presidents JT Jabavu was part of the amazemtiti community as well. Jabavu is said to have colluded with the imperialist CJ Rhodes in promoting imperialist values at the expense of African values. Remember, Rhodes Must Fall?

Rhodes bankrolled Imvo Zabantu, an IsiXhosa newpaper founded by Jabavu to promote imperialist agenda amongst the African communities. Jabavu was also given funds by Rhodes to establish a college which is now Fort Hare for African students to stop them from going to overseas institutions where they would be indoctrinated with principles of freedom. Jabavu did not stop there, he continually used his paper to promote 1913 Land Act, voted for policies that took away African vote and did other things that today we would call mischievous against his African people.

It is possible that the black bourgeoisie despised Bhambatha ka Mancinza Zondi from the Greytown area in KZN who started the 1906 rebellion against head tax that was imposed by colonial authorities to force African males to work in mines and urban South Africa. It is quite hilarious that when South African liberation history is narrated, this monumental event in South African history is lumped together with stories of amazemtiti, including the formation of liberation movements years later.

Bhambatha was an iqaba who had absolutely no relationship, besides skin colour, with Seme or Sobukwe who read from a different script. It could be ahistorical to mention Bhambatha alongside these individuals because he was not a product of a colonial project. This could be a possible hijacking of history.

The ANC was always a home for enlightened blacks, and the organisation was equally comfortable with them on board. It is for the reason that presidency of the ANC for years remained an exclusive domain of this class. Former South African minister of health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimanga, once declared in her birthplace Mfume that her father, Junius Deliwayo Makilili Mali, “donated a piece of his land… and was also referred as ‘amazemtiti’ because he played a very important role to educate his community.”

A person like former president Jacob Zuma could be characterized as an ‘outsider’, because he didn’t go through the usual process. Are we surprised he was never really embraced from day one due to “lack of education”? Zuma and many more, for example, may be said not to be a direct byproduct of colonial elite manufacturing school. They did not go to all these schools mentioned earlier. Hence, the rebuke by ex-president Thabo Mbeki points out that Zuma wanted to deviate from ANC’s historic positions on non-racialism by turning it into a black party. This still signifies yearning for close proximity to Europeanism by the black elite, in the ANC context. ANC policy of non-racialism has never been reciprocated by whites.

Nonetheless, 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. In the name of liberation, Nelson Mandela was visiting his distant “unlce” Chief Albert Luthuli (also part of onontlevu in Groutville) when he was captured somewhere in KZN Midlands. Luthuli, as a cultured black, was given a Nobel Peace Prize in the 1960s for his good behaviour. It is important to highlight amazemtiti were comfortable amongst themselves. It is for that reason these individuals could gather in ANC or PAC meetings without problems.

“Prior to 1994 or thereabouts [one] 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” (Anon.) It is therefore possible that the first group of exiles that went abroad in the 1960s comprised only onontlevu who ran away from their white friends who were not turning up the political heat. When liberation movements returned home in the early 1990s, they now also included amaqaba. The end of apartheid could be interpreted as a form of reconciliation between the warring groups. This perspective can thus be utilized to explain such things as black economic empowerment schemes and transfer of capital assets from white aristocrats to carefully selected individuals.

The recent storm that engulfed the country after the last apartheid ruler FW de Klerk defended the oppressive system of apartheid led to prominent individuals like former president Mbeki to publicly defend him. Mbeki and others within the ANC have been consistent in their assertion that land expropriation without compensation is not in line with the party’s policy of non-racialism, which can be traced from the amazemtiti. A faction of amazemtiti adopted the Freedom Charter whereas the other became radicalized. The argument that the ANC protects the status quo in terms of the ownership of land and economy could not be far from the truth. The amazemtiti culture runs very deep in the veins of the ANC, and there is also a need to impress the Queen (now represented by investors and international capital).

Besides that the birth of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and the rise of apartheid in 1948 saw the direct attack on onontlevu, the new dispensation in the transformative policies of the post-apartheid state have done very well to dilute and or even annihilate the colonial black elite, and its descendants. But one thing is certain, there is quite a sizeable number of black elites who trace their roots from the amazemtiti dynasty. Usually these individuals come from families with a long history of education: sons and daughters of struggle icons were well positioned to ascend to powerful positions.

So, this document helps one to understand more or less why some people transitioned very easily from the ‘we are all oppressed’ state into becoming top honchos in the new South Africa. While some people have been fortunate to make it, ‘old money’ in black communities had a better headstart than the rest of the previously oppressed black majority. A small elitist class cannot seriously relate to your mourning about ‘black tax’ because they came from very affluent families.

To paraphrase Ndumiso Ngcobo: it is clear that not even black consciousness credentials will save one from being classified as an izemtiti (singular) — yes, this includes Biko himself and his friends in the BC movement as well as Poqo stalwarts. That is the paradox!

Next time you blab about who is a “sell out” or “vanguard of the revolution”, please remember that you are talking about two sides of the same coin. ‘Apartheid collaborators’ like Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Ingwazi Banda of Malawi are mere distant cousins of Africanists and ‘revolutionaries’ such as Julius Nyerere and Mangaliso Sobukwe.

Without understanding this bit of history it would be impossible to understand certain behaviours and phenomena as they unfold in our countries today. The culture of amazemtiti was a mere extension or colony of white European culture and some form of assimilation (or emulation) was probably an end goal. It is for this reason that amazemtiti who were liberation movement leaders sought refuge in England because of cultural similarities. They were housed by the ‘enemy’ who welcomed them with open hands.

The educated native upper classes have been very useful in assisting former colonizers to maintain control over the independent territories: the Anglophone and Francophone classifications must be understood in this context. Think about former Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny who utilized scarce state funds to build a USD600m worth cathedral or basilica in the capital of Yamoussoukro. The designs of the dome and encircled plaza are inspired by the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Holy See. This was an act of absolute madness, to put it mildly.

Also, the former president of Malawi Kamuzu Banda saw himself as a ‘black Englishman’. Percy Zvomuya wrote in the M&G that Banda “wore dark, three-piece suits, a homburg hat and gave all his speeches in English, never in Chichewa…” Photos of ANC leaders, for example, in earlier days portrayed blacks who not only dressed like English upper classes but their hairstyles too clearly showed whose image they sought to copy. It is safe to say that African states have stayed under the shadows of their European creators with the help of the local upper classes, who see themselves as an extension of wealthy aristocrats in Paris, London and Lisbon.

The culture of amazemtiti never died but it got remodeled to create the new so-called black middle class in the post-apartheid period. Now you understand why educated classes feel comfortable in Sandton or Umhlanga, they have to be close to their role-models of European extraction.

Based in Pretoria, Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economics, politics and global matters.


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