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 Matheza 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 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 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 will 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 majakana remained among the Sotho speakers who assisted missionaries in spreading Christianity in Transvaal and Bechuanaland. Many majakanes 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.
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 blacks but the ‘exempted ones’ rode the highest wave regarding 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 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 plane 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 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, etc. 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.
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 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 also 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 unfortunate 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 (SANNC) 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 struggle. It is also possible that the likes of Mangaliso Sobukwe and others rejected the Freedom Charter in 1955 because they had completely lost faith in whites (meaning: the English); collaboration with Europeans was now a cardinal sin. U Poqo akabethwa!
It is important to emphasise that not only Langalibalele Dube and Pixley ka Seme were from the colonial black elite communities. 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, Oliver Thambo, 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, are associated 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. It is no coincidence that people like Nkrumah, Mbeki and Thambo loitered the streets of London while fighting for ‘liberation’. Are you surprised these leaders still took their ‘liberated’ territories to belong to the British Commonwealth?
This unusual step is because they owed their allegiance to the Union Jack!
The European élite undertook to manufacture a native élite for them to assist in the management of the expanse territories and to control other colonised people within the borders of the colonies. These men were primed to take over the reins 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 African colonial state. 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 offers a good analysis of why post- colonial states have failed to step up to create 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 colonised 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 the 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 had to be destroyed as well since they were created to deepen colonialism and to tighten the grip and control over the colonised.
The institution’s primary purpose was not to emancipate Africans but to develop an elite class that would later assist the European ruler in administering the colonies in Southern Africa. Today, the natives act surprised to see these products of colonial education, and their offspring treat them with contempt and disdain. They dominate politics and hoard wealth while the “other” continue to struggle in native reserves, later named townships and rural areas.
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 political activists during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Tengo Jabavu and his son DDT were 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 newspaper founded by Jabavu to promote imperialist agenda amongst the African communities.
Rhodes also gave Jabavu funds 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 the 1913 Land Act, voted for policies that took away the African vote and did other things that today we would call mischievous against his African people. In 2006, he was awarded the Order of Luthuli in Gold.
It is possible that the black bourgeoisie despised Bhambatha ka Mancinza Zondi from the Greytown area in Natal, who started the 1906 rebellion against the head tax imposed by colonial authorities to force African males to work in mines and urban South Africa. It is hilarious that when South African liberation history is narrated, this monumental event is lumped together with stories of amazemtiti, including the formation of liberation movements years later.
Bhambatha was an iqaba who had 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. In this regard, Dube (the first ANC president) opposed the rebellion against head tax since he wanted violence.
Dube also assured the Natal colonial government that amakholwa (civilised ones) would always remain loyal to it and that they had no reason to rebel. He is quoted as saying, “the loyalty of the natives is beyond dispute”. He was not shy to declare that his amazemtiti community still identified with the white man’s values and that they aspired to be seen as equals to whites. Therefore, the founding of the ANC had more to do with this goal than what is always claimed. Assimilation was the destiny, not political freedom for all sundry.
The ANC was always a home for the enlightened blacks and was equally comfortable with them on board. For this reason, the 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 to as ‘amazemtiti’ because he played a significant role to educate his community”.
A person like former president Jacob Zuma could be characterised as an ‘outsider’ because he didn’t go through the usual process. Are we shocked that 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.
In 2018, ex-president Mbeki’s rebuke of the ANC pointed out that Zuma wanted to deviate from ANC’s historical positions on non-racialism by turning it into a ‘black party’ (black could also mean amaqaba, who do not understand the pact between amazemtiti and their white friends). This still signifies a yearning for proximity to Europeanism by the black elite in the ANC context. Whites have never reciprocated the ANC policy of non-racialism.
Nonetheless, wedlock, tutelage, professional connections, and family ties were nodes in a web of alliances that ensured that this aristocracy had a material and racial class structure and class consciousness. In the name of liberation, Mandela was visiting his distant “uncle” Chief Albert Luthuli (also part of onontlevu in Groutville) when he was captured somewhere in KZN Midlands.
As a cultured black, Luthuli was given a Nobel Peace Prize in the 1960s for his excellent behaviour. It is essential to highlight amazemtiti were comfortable amongst themselves. For that reason, these individuals could gather in ANC or PAC meetings without problems. Mandela, too was given a Nobel Peace Prize for calming raging natives into submission. The new South Africa was born without resistance or demand for reparations or revenge – amazemtiti and their creators won the day.
“Before 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 responding favourably following their fresh political demands. When liberation movements returned home in the early 1990s, they also included amaqaba.
The end of apartheid could be interpreted as a form of reconciliation between the warring groups. This perspective can thus be utilised to explain such things as black economic empowerment schemes and the transfer of capital assets from white aristocrats to carefully selected individuals.
A storm that engulfed the country in 2020 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 consistently asserted 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 radicalised. The argument that the ANC protects the status quo in terms of the ownership of land and the 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). God Bless the Queen!
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 to 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.
Therefore, this article helps one to understand more or less why some people transitioned very quickly 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 head start 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: 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, Lucas Mangope, George Matanzima and Ingwazi Banda of Malawi are mere distant cousins of Africanists and ‘revolutionaries’ such as Nkrumah, Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and Mangaliso Sobukwe.
Without understanding this bit of history, it would be impossible to appreciate 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 (using the words of Anibal Quijano), and assimilation was probably an end goal. For this reason, amazemtiti, who were also leaders of the liberation movement, 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 colonisers 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 utilised scarce state funds to build a USD600m worth cathedral or basilica in the capital of Yamoussoukro. The Basilica of Saint Peter inspired the designs of the dome and encircled plaza 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, in earlier days, portrayed blacks who dressed not only like the English upper classes, but their hairstyles also clearly showed whose image and behaviour they sought to emulate.
Therefore, 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 remodelled 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 must be close to their role models of European extraction.
Siya yi banga le economy!