Friday, 2 September 2011

The Struggle for the Eastern Cape 1800-1854

Black, white, and shades of grey

reviewed by John Boje, IOL

The Struggle for the Eastern Cape 1800-1854

by Martin Legassick

The STRUGGLE for the Eastern Cape is a graphic account of the subjuga-tion of the Xhosa people during the first half of the 19th century. The pro-settler history of my schooldays was written in black and white. 

Legassick’s synthesis of more recent scholarship excellently reveals all the shades of grey – intersections and ambiguities, intricacies and interstices. 

Although the basic plot of inexorable dispossession remains a simple one, easily encompassed in just 140 pages of text, it is this multivariability that gives the book its grace and power. 

The struggle for the Eastern Cape was a racial struggle, and yet it was directed against the British and, initially, against their black collaborators, but not against the Boers. 

In the early phases of the conflict, the Khoi, allied to the British, bore the brunt of the front-line fighting; however, in 1851 Khoi and other coloured people made common cause with the Xhosa and rose in revolt.
Resistance was fuelled by class consciousness, articulated in a letter from Uithaalder to Adam Kok, which urged that settler designs “tend to oppression and complete ruin of the coloured and poor of this land, a land which we, as natives, may justly claim as our mother land”. The Xhosa/ coloured alliance subverted liberal and missionary discourse of the whites’ civilising mission. 

Although some missionaries played an important role in transforming the Khoisan into a relatively privileged coloured community, being civilised meant a compulsion to labour. 

For the Xhosa it meant the total destruction of the cultural roots of their society, and to achieve this objective missionaries allied themselves with the settler elite and became servants of the state. 

The sub-title of Legassick’s book is Subjugation and the Roots of South African Democracy. This hopeful title embraces not only the subjugation of the Xhosa and their resistance to total destruction of the fabric of their society, but also the small beginnings of democracy in the non-racial franchise introduced into the Cape Colony in 1854. 

In addition to the 140 pages of text referred to above, the value of the book is greatly enhanced by 12 pages of scholarly apparatus and 24 unnumbered pages of relevant illustrations.