‘The hardness of the times and the dearness of all the necessaries of life’: class and consumption in bilingual nineteenth-century newspapers

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Social History, Volume 45, Number 4, p.453–475 (2020)




African bourgeoisie, amakholwa, Black press, Inkanyiso, Ipepa Lo Hlanga


Although the nineteenth-century black press has functioned as a useful resource in understanding the political organizations and associations created by southern Africa’s educated elite, rarely is it used to think about this elite’s consumption patterns. Consumption is often assumed to be a frivolous activity unworthy of consideration in the historiography of the kholwa (the converted Africans). Yet, the language and tone of the bilingual newspapers, created and edited by this kholwa elite, suggest a different relationship between social status and the Christian lifestyles introduced by religious conversion. Although these newspaper men continued to exemplify the sobriety, modesty and industriousness preached to them, they also escaped missionary edicts through luxurious sartorial and consumption choices. Christianity and consumption jostled for space on newspaper pages, constituting what may be termed a grammar of consumption and advertising that involved the translation and transplantation of foreign objects into an indigenous idiom. The interpellation of these newspaper readers through the language of consumption challenges assumptions about the supposedly precarious position of the African bourgeoisie. This article considers the kholwa as consumers – both of secular and religious items – and argues for a more nuanced reading of advertisements in the bilingual newspapers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Publisher: Routledge _eprint: https://doi.org/10.1080/03071022.2020.1812302