Everyday identities, formal schooling and the practice of nationalism in Bechuanaland in the early twentieth century

Monday, 5 September, 2016 - 15:00

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There is little in the literature of the Silas Molema and Solomon Plaatje presented in this essay: men deeply rooted in the countryside, whose politics were profoundly shaped by institutions there, and whose sensibilities were situated in interpretations of tradition. This essay is an inquiry into why the representation of these educated Africans as traditionalist, ones who thought they lived in perilous times – the twilight of tradition, is strikingly absent in the historiography. It begins with a reflection on the literature and points to the implicit assumption that where Africans exhibited late Victorian and Edwardian lifestyles, alongside Christianity and education, they were considered to be transforming their ‘consciousness’ along a trajectory of ‘modernisation’. Indeed their lifestyles – their taste in architecture or dress for example, closely resembled those of white middle-classes in Britain or in the Cape. The literature does not consider how these tastes could have derived from and been cultivated within norms of respectability that Africans fashioned through their own institutions along the frontier. In her later work, Shula Marks revises her earlier argument that the earliest Christian converts in Natal were typically the socially vulnerable or chiefs on the margins of traditional authority. In her words, ‘on many occasions the new elite were indeed the old in new guise, the sons of chiefs and the aristocracy’ given their access to skills and resources. Nevertheless, this reinterpretation has not generated a re-examination of earlier analytical categories like ‘petty bourgeoisie’ or ‘peasantry’ that Marks and others had employed in pitting Christianity and education against chieftaincy. These categories continue to underlie key arguments about educated Africans’ conceptions of themselves, whilst shaping the historiography of nationalism in the twentieth century. The Molema-Plaatje archive necessitate however that we pause. It is an extraordinary archive of Africans’ routine strategies, their conversations about their lives and their hopes for the future, often in their own language, almost always in their own hand. Firstly, it invites historians to remember the often neglected observations that precolonial social configurations imposed limits on ‘invention’ along the frontier. Secondly, it goes further and opens up avenues for exploring Africans’ own indigenous categories of self-identification, like morafe, in relation to our conceptual lexicon, like ‘nation’. The essay demonstrates the potential of the Molema-Plaatje collection by presenting a limited case study: an exploration of a series of reports, letters and editorials in Koranta ea Becoana, situated in the context of everyday life. It shows that the newspaper announced the birth of ‘Bechuana’ and its constituent elements like the ‘Barolong’, ‘Bakoena’ and so on, as a morafe awakening to its foundations of ‘progress’ (coelo-pele). The newspaper’s content describes formal schooling as a ‘way of the past’, Sechuana, and as a natural step in the journey of a people whose ancient roots lay in enlightenment and knowledge. Sekhoa and Sechuana were central pillars of the conversation representing the shame and the honour of the morafe respectively. The central question was which social practices and visions of the future constituted a proper Self (motho), a respectable Being (botho), a Mochuana. This conversation, carried out between men, paid particular attention to the young woman who failed to occupy herself in learning, or in appropriate domestic duties.

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