Stories of a landowning black middle class predate apartheid

“Young and driving a BMW” is how the black middle class has often appeared in studies of post-apartheid South Africa, says Cape Town scholar Nkululeko Mabandla. But his thesis, which just earned him the crown of this year’s Africa Thesis Award, claims that the origins of the black middle class actually go way back, to colonial times.

By Anne Saenen
Published by Radio Netherlands Worldwide, Africa Desk

According to the Mabandla, although most of those who might have fallen into this category were dispossessed of their land through the Glen Grey Act of 1894 and the Natives Land Act of 1913, the landowning black middle class was not entirely wiped out. In fact, a particular black middle class – defined not only by occupation, but also by ownership of land – developed at the turn of the twentieth century.

Cape Colony in the nineteenth century is one such example, where “a combination of education and landownership qualified some blacks to be on the voters roll, in what was known as the qualified franchise”. Mabandla goes on to write that: “In the reserves, later called Bantustans or homelands, the same resilience of landownership has been recorded.”

Life under white rule

A vivid illustration of how “the struggle for land and the adoption of education was part of a broader anti-colonial resistance”, as Mabandla puts it, comes through the case study of Elisha Mda. The story of this black landowner, born around 1860, is recounted through an interview with his great-grandson, Mda Mda, now a retired lawyer and well-known political activist.

“My great-grandfather came to be settled here in Gwadana,” Mda Mda recalls. He then explains how in 1865 his great-great aunt arrived and married the village headman. However: “They were unsuccessful in conceiving a male child so, they came home to ask for a boy and then they were given grandfather [Elisha] to raise as their own.”

But when Elisha was taken to Tsomo to live with his aunt, it was not just a move from one family to the other. It was a switch from a traditional African life to a life under white rule.

“There, a missionary school had been established by the whites,” Mda Mda says. “The land [Fingoland] was under white rule. So, he attended school. And because the boy was clever, he was well liked by the teachers and missionaries. The feeling here at home [Gwadana] was, ‘Folks, it looks like the whites are gaining the upper hand. It would be wise to have our own representatives even in this new regime.’”

Penetrating the West

Elisha’s Western schooling allowed him to penetrate Western society and its privileges. He became a teacher and bought his first land in British Kaffraria. He remained a landowner the rest of his life, which, according to Mabandla, places him in a black middle class defined, above all, by the ownership of land.

Motivated to write his thesis by an observation that class formation is still not well understood in Africa, Mabandla draws a compelling conclusion here. In contrast to what other research suggests, small pockets of black landownership developed in the nineteenth century and continued to exist well before apartheid rule.

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