Johannesburg - Most people are unaware of how black elites in the colonial era were formed and that many of their liberation heroes came from this privileged group of people. The topic concerns the black elite of the colonial era, “amazemtiti” – a Nguni bastardisation of the word “exempted”, meaning those who were exempted from the Bantu laws designed to manage and control black people.
These products of the colonial elite manufacturing factory were distinguishable for their “self-induced Anglicisation”. Ndebenkulu was a caricature of black elites of his time. Anglicisation also meant that these pseudo-elites 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 … Just imagine two characters when you want to get a clear idea of Anglicised black elites. Close your eyes and hear the voice of prominent TV broadcaster Dumile Mateza and notice how he pronounces isiXhosa with a feigned English tone: “Wambetha nge left hook unkabi!”
Or, perhaps you need to think of Zimbabwe’s ex-president Robert 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 talkative ones
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 Transvaal, Vrystaat and Basutoland, this group was called majakane after a Dutch missionary Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp, also nicknamed Jank’hanna. According to Mphuthumi Ntabeni, this name meant “the people of Johannes” to refer to the early converts to Christianity in the Cape around the 1700s. Majakane means “amakholwa” (Christians, believers). In addition to amakholwa, the amazemtiti were also known as “izifundiswa”, the learned ones.
It would be a surprise that, as late as 1976, when Lesotho conducted a census, “no fewer than 15 towns in five districts still listed themselves as Majakaneng”. The Roman Catholic Church was dominant in Lesotho, but majakane also contributed to the African population of Christians. 1866, Bishop François Allard, the Catholic bishop of Natal whose territory also included Lesotho, referred to the Protestant Christians as “majakane”.
This class of educated and Christian people spread to include the Sotho speakers. The founder of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), Barnabas Lekganyane, traces his roots from the majakane of Lesotho before settling in northern Transvaal. Khotsong.
It appears the Nguni language speakers later adopted the term amazemtiti following the enactment of laws in the Cape and Natal that recognised the people that were mainly drawn from the early converts. Nonetheless, the term majakane remained among the Sotho speakers who assisted missionaries in spreading Christianity in Transvaal and Bechuanaland. Many majakane were also teachers, priests, police officers and clerks.
For example, these folks stopped being Zulu or Xhosa 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.
A landed aristocracy
In the Cape and Natal, in particular, amazemtiti were a “landed aristocracy” against a hostile backdrop of wars and land expropriation in colonial times. A difficult period for black people but the “exempted ones” rode the highest wave regarding land ownership. For example, they acquired large pieces of land from missionaries: eg Nyanyadu near Newcastle, Driefontein near Ladysmith and also in the fertile valley of the Umsunduzi river near Pietermaritzburg, all in what is now the Province of KwaZulu-Natal.
There are other examples all over the place of the amazemtiti territory.
Those familiar with the Estcourt area in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands will know the Bhekuzulu-Ephangweni area along the N3 highway – Estcourt North off-ramp. This was the vast plain of the AmaHlubi people before the Imperial British annexed natives in the latter parts of the 1800s.
AmaHlubi were scattered throughout the region from Lesotho and Eastern Cape to Cape Town. Their conquest was finally complete when the land was taken from them.
But there is 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 land of non-believers
The other part of the land (Kwa-Bhekuzulu) was the exiled place of the people 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 of 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, or onontlevu, existed in all English colonies since they had access to education provided by missionaries. Remnants of this class were also found beyond the colonial era. Many of them went on to become influential in different capacities in the newly independent territories all over the continent.
Academic Archie Mafeje referred to intellectuals as those associated “with more than an average level of formal education”. Thus, some of the foremost thinkers such as Stephen Biko (South Africa), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Mazrui brothers (Kenya), Samir Amin (Egypt) and Chanta Cheikh Diop (Senegal) were/ are higher grade products of the colonial black elite producing factory.
To add, unusual surnames among the Xhosa and Zulu-speaking peoples of South Africa, including January, Botha, Oliphant (Ndlovu), Grootboom (Radebe/Mthimkhulu), Balfour, Mathews, et al directly trace their origins from the culture of onontlevu, who were so keen to be good subjects of the Queen of England. However, some people with these names trace their roots in slavery, but these given names indicated proximity to the white man.
The Union of South Africa
When the Nationalist Party came into power in 1948, it tightened its race segregation laws that were previously introduced in 1910 with the founding of the Union of South Africa. As a result, most of the exempted native families converted from being called natives to “coloureds” as the benefits of being an exempted native vanished into thin air as draconian acts such as the Group Areas Act, initially passed in 1913, did not do them any favours any more.
This brief narration on the development of the African elite who 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 also true that the African National Congress (ANC) was founded by “amazemtiti” in 1912.
This is the first of three articles looking at the history of the black bourgeoisie.