Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa
By Jean Comaroff John Comaroff


Copyright © 1991 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-11442-2

Chapter One


Soon after dawn on a steamy February morning in 1960, a group of elders-"tribal headmen," the apartheid government prefers to call them-gathered at the court of Kebalepile, chief of the Barolong boo Ratshidi (Tshidi), a Southern Tswana people. They had been charged by the Bantu Commissioner, the local white administrator, to consider the building of a Dutch Reformed Church in their capital town, Mafikeng. Under the law of the time, the infamous Bantu Authorities Act (1951), "tribes" retained the formal right to ratify or refuse the allocation of sites to religious denominations. But Kebalepile and the Tshidi elders knew well that the DRC, the church of Afrikanerdom and apartheid, would be forced upon them, whether they wanted it or not. Rising slowly from his ceremonial chair, a respected old man, one Rre-Mokaila, spoke out, his body starkly silhouetted above the circular stone wall of the court:

You must know what it means to accept this church. The Dutch Reformed Church has a motto, a commandment: "There Shall Be No Equality Between Black And White in Church Or In State!" If we allot a site to this church, we know it is as good as [accepting] the Bantu Authorities Act. It does not want educated Africans.... It does not want black people to wear shoes. The DRC refuses passports to our children when sympathizers overseas offer them scholarships to further their education. We are afraid of the DRC. Its members are bribed people, people of no intelligence.

He sat down, shaking in mute anger. Then rose Morara Molema, grandson of the first Tshidi royal to become a Christian, a leader among leaders:

... the DRC is a state church. One of its representatives said here in kgotla (the court) that it will be given a site despite our refusal. That is the way of the Boer government. They want to take our land to put up their Boer church so they can take away our people.

The final speaker, Mhengwa Lecholo, also a headman of great seniority, added, with resignation:

We all know the attitude of the Afrikaner people toward us. It is bad.... The DRC, the Boer church, is today the church of the government. All laws passed in parliament in Cape Town are under its influence and support. Our grandfathers tried to keep this church, this people, away from our country. They were wise. Now we have them trying once more to find their way into our place. No!

The proposed Dutch Reformed Church was built. But not in the old Tshidi town. In the face of local opposition, church and government had a yet better idea. As part of the development of the "ethnic homeland" of Bophuthatswana, then still on the drawing boards, the state established a new township nearby. With its unrelenting files of square houses along wide, eminently policeable thoroughfares, this "location" looked just like Soweto writ small. It was called Montshiwa, after the Tshidi ruling dynasty-in a cynical attempt to appropriate "native" symbols. Among its first buildings, and the most grand by far, was the new DRC, replete with a large, expensively-equipped technical school. In order for education-starved Tswana children to gain entry, it was decreed, their families would have to join the church. The school was hardly opened when it was set on fire. Rebuilt at once, it was to be among the first structures torched in the troubled times of the 1980's, when young blacks throughout the land took to the streets to cry freedom. Their elders, who shun physical conflict at almost any cost, did not much like the violence. They were frightened by the fury in the eyes of their sons and daughters. But, they said, it was not hard to understand.

More recently, on Tuesday, 1 March 1988, the world awoke to read, in its morning newspapers, of a spirited confrontation on the streets of Cape Town. A number of Christian leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu among them, had been arraigned by police as they led a solemn march on parliament to hand a petition to the president. They were protesting a ban on the United Democratic Front and the Council of South African Trade Unions, two prominent antiapartheid organizations. Such bannings were not unusual here, as everyone knows. Three years before, on 21 July 1985, the authorities had declared a state of emergency so embracing that it became illegal even for Christian groups to sing Christmas carols, light candles, or hold vigils together. Liberal political cartoonists had seen this as a heaven-sent opportunity to poke fun at the absurdities and excesses of the regime, to subvert it through satire. But the South African government rarely relents in the face of ridicule: it let its resolute silence underscore the enormity of its power over all forms of public discourse.

On this morning, as they knelt to pray in the street, Archbishop Tutu and his reverend colleagues were first threatened with arrest and then fired at with a water cannon. Some of them began to chant Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the national anthem of liberation. Usually sung in a capella-style harmony and in two of the major indigenous languages, the manner of its performance speaks of the unity of struggle, of a determination to transcend differences of class and culture, ethnicity and gender, in the quest for freedom. It sounds, for all the world, like a venerable Christian hymn-which is not surprising, since it was composed at Lovedale College, a mission institution, in the 1890's, and was later included in popular books of devotional songs .4 "God Bless Africa," it intones in a melody more beseeching than belligerent, calling on the Holy Spirit to intervene (Woza Moya Oyingcwele!) on the side of Setshaba sa Jesu!, the "Nation of Jesus."

At first blush these passing incidents in the battle for South Africa seem merely to reiterate a commonplace: that the church has long been heavily implicated on all sides; that organized religion has played, and continues to play, a complex and contradictory role here (see, e.g., de Gruchy 1979; Hope and Young 1981; Cochrane 1987). Yet there is something remarkable about the fact that those who resist apartheid today-a multiethnic, sometimes secular, and often radical throng of people-can still represent themselves, in the idiom of a Victorian moral army, as a Nation of Jesus. It is significant, too, that the state has tried to appropriate their song of protest, notwithstanding its long association with the liberal tradition and mission Christianity: by Act of Parliament (no. 48 of 1963, section 5), Nkosi Sikelel' became the official anthem of the Transkei (Oosthuizen 1973:218), the earliest ethnic "nation" created under the homelands policy. For their part, black South Africans have ignored this Act of symbolic seizure, this political plagiarism. To the masses who sing it, it remains the national hymn of liberation.

It is no less notable that, in the effort to control rural blacks, a seemingly invincible government should go to great lengths to establish the DRC and its schools as instruments of its command. Or that young Tswana, despite their extraordinary hunger for learning, would want to burn these buildings down, just as in the past their great-grandfathers threatened to set fire to mission schools when they became sinister icons of colonial control. Indeed, it is not only the "Boer church" against which many black South Africans feel such resentment, although the DRC is marked out for special opprobrium. Take the testimony of Ezekiel Mphahlele, one of the great political poets of the age. Well before anyone in Johannesburg had read Fanon (1967), he argued (1962:192) that Christianity was responsible not merely for the glorification of European "civilization" but also for the "conquest of the [black] mind." So much so that "when Africans [first] began to chafe against mounting oppression, they spoke out ... in the medium taught by the missionary," despite its inappropriateness and impotence. For their part, the English churchmen with few exceptions "abetted, connived at or stood aloof from" the processes of conquest and conflict (1959:179). Denomination, implies Mphahlele, made little difference to the reality of domination.' Nor have the past twenty years of repression and resistance done much to dispel this impression. The youths who tried recently to raze the DRC buildings in Montshiwa Township might as well have been striking a blow at all of white Christianity.

The two incidents, in short, suggest another point: that the making of modern South Africa has involved a long battle for the possession of salient signs and symbols, a bitter, drawn out contest of conscience and conscious ness. This is not to deny the coercive, violent bases of class antagonism and racial inequality here-or to underplay their brute material dimensions. As we shall argue, it is never possible simply to pry apart the cultural from the material in such processes; class struggle, Voloshinov (1973) reminds us, is always simultaneously a struggle over the means of signification. In the eyes of the Southern Tswana, to be sure, the past century and half has been dominated by the effort of others to impose upon them a particular way of seeing and being. Whether it be in the name of a "benign," civilizing imperialism or in cynical pursuit of their labor power, the final objective of generations of colonizers has been to colonize their consciousness with the axioms and aesthetics of an alien culture. This culture-the culture of European capitalism, of western modernity-had, and continues to have, enormous historical force-a force at once ideological and economic, semantic and social. In the face of it, some black Africans have succumbed, some have resisted, some have tried to recast its intrusive forms in their own image. And most have done all of these things, at one or another time, in the effort to formulate an awareness of, and to gain a measure of mastery over, their changing world. It is no wonder that, in our attempt to understand the Southern Tswana past and present, we kept being drawn back to the colonization of their consciousness and their consciousness of colonization.

Of course, the dominant motif in the history of the Tswana peoples has been their incorporation into a colonial, and later a postcolonial, state. But this is a "state" in both senses of the term: an institutionalized political order and a condition of being. Consequently, colonialism has been as much a matter of the politics of perception and experience as it has been an exercise in formal governance. So, too, with Tswana reactions: they have flowed well beyond the domain of the "political" and onto the diffuse terrain of everyday life. Nor is this unusual. Colonizers everywhere try to gain control over the practices through which would-be subjects produce and reproduce the bases of their existence. No habit is too humble, no sign too insignificant to be implicated. And colonization always provokes struggles-albeit often tragically uneven ones-over power and meaning on the frontiers of empire. It is a process of "challenge and riposte" (Harlow 1986:xi, after Bourdieu 1977:12) often much too complex to be captured in simple equations of domination and resistance; or, for that matter, by grand models of the politics of imperialism or the economics of the modern world system.

Among the Southern Tswana this process began with the entry of mission Christianity onto the historical landscape. Not only were Nonconformist evangelists the vanguard of the British presence in this part of South Africa; they were also the most active cultural agents of empire, being driven by the explicit aim of reconstructing the "native"' world in the name of God and European civilization. The settler and the mining magnate, says Etherington (1983: 117), "merely wanted the Africans' land and labour. Missionaries wanted their souls." Patently, however, the chronicle of Protestant evangelism does not tell us the whole story of the Tswana past. Nothing does, in and of itself. Nor does it yield generalizations about the role of Christianity in the colonization of the non-European world at large. Nonetheless, it does throw light on the symbolic and material bases of the colonial encounter-and on the modes of transformation and argument to which it gave rise.

Narrowly conceived, then, this study is a historical anthropology of the Nonconformist mission to the Southern Tswana, ca. 1820-1920. But, as stated in the Preface, it sets its sights more broadly in three respects. First, despite its periodization, it looks forward, particularly in the final chapters of volume 2, toward present-day South Africa and specifically toward the modes of consciousness and struggle that have come to characterize its "street sociology and pavement politics" (Bundy 1987). Second, although focused on a small rural population, it is concerned ultimately with processes that occurred throughout the subcontinent-and indeed, in some form, throughout much of the nonwestern world. And third, it speaks to a series of analytic issues that continue to vex many historians and anthropologists interested in colonialism and more generally in the nature of power and resistance. As we asked at the outset (pp. xi-xii): How, precisely, were structures of inequality fashioned during the colonial encounter, often in the absence of more conventional, more coercive, tools of domination? How was consciousness made and remade in this process? And what was the role in it of precolonial economy, society, and culture? How were new hegemonies established and the "ground prepared," in Gramsci's phrase, for formal European political control? How is it that some usages insinuated themselves into the everyday world of the colonized, while others became the object of contest and conflict? Even more fundamentally, how are we to understand the dialectics of culture and power, ideology and consciousness that shape such historical processes?

It is also important to be clear about what we do not set out to accomplish. Our account is intended neither as a general anthropology of colonialism among the Tswana nor as an exhaustive social history of the mission, of black resistance, or of religious change in this part of the world. These topics have been covered, in all or part, in the works of others more competent than ourselves. Our horizons are more modest and yet, perhaps, hopelessly ambitious. Let us introduce them in their more general scholarly context.


Missionaries, Motives, and the Motors of History

It is sometimes said that, while the literature on religious transformation in Africa is very large, there are few anthropological analyses of the evangelical encounter itself-analyses, that is, that go beyond detailed, if often sensitive, chronicles of actions and events (e.g., Heise 1967; Beidelman 1982:2f.; Etherington 1983; cf. Shapiro 1981:130). Notwithstanding the fact that Christianity has allegedly been among the more effective agents of change in Africa (e.g., Bohannan 1964:22), the anthropology of missions, we are told, is still in its infancy (Spain 1984:206), and this in spite of some notable efforts to expand its scope. Even the most ambitious attempt to write a historical ethnography of a mission "at the grassroots," Beidelman's Colonial Evangelism, has been judged "sadly incomplete" precisely because it fails to bring a systematic-or a novel-anthropological perspective to bear on the subject (Gray 1983: 405; Bourdillon 1983).

This critique also reflects the more general neglect of colonialism-indeed, of history itself-by a discipline mainly interested until very recently in "traditional" African society and culture. Social historians, on the other hand, have long concerned themselves with, even been fascinated by, Christian evangelists. And they have not been alone. In the great awakening of modern Africa, when the colonized began to write their own histories and to reflect upon the technologies of European domination, they too gave a good deal of attention to "the" missionary-if only to excoriate him as an agent of imperialism (Majeke 1952; Ayandele 1966; Zulu 1972). The condemnation was extended also to scholarly apologies that portrayed European churchmen as well-intentioned philanthropists (e.g., Wilson 1969b, 1976; Brookes 1974) or benign imperialists (e.g., Sillery 1971); such accounts being seen by their critics as modern expressions of the same missionizing culture. While this unjoined debate foreshadowed later theoretical disputes over the relative weight of human agency and structural forces in African social change, both arguments were cast with reference to the same tacit question: "Whose side were the Christians really on?"


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