Joyce F. Kirk. Making a Voice: African Resistance to Segregation in South Africa. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998. 342 pp. $79.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8133-2769-3.
Reviewed by Gary Baines (Department of History, Rhodes University, South Africa)
Published on H-SAfrica (May, 2000)
Is Port Elizabeth ever to attain a prominent place on the map of South African historiography? I pose this (rhetorical?) question as two monographs on Port Elizabeth have been published in the last few years yet neither makes mention of the city in their titles. The first, by Jennifer Robinson, was a revised version of her 1987 Cambridge PhD thesis. It was published under the title The Power of Apartheid: State, power and space in South African Cities (London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996). The second, and the subject of this review, is Joyce Kirk's substantially revised 1988 Wisconsin-Madison PhD thesis published as Making a Voice: African Resistance to Segregation in South Africa. In both works reference to Port Elizabeth in their published titles has been dropped.
Why is this so? I would venture to suggest that it has something to do with the fact that neither work was published in South Africa. This is not intended as a criticism of the authors but is an indication that the overseas publishers reckon that the reading public would not be sufficiently interested in or familiar with Port Elizabeth. This is presumably based on an assessment that those with an interest in South Africa would be put off by a work with subject matter that was too parochial. Whilst this might be a valid considerations when it comes to marketing these books, the titles do not fairly reflect their contents. And whilst both works --particularly that of Robinson -- have broader application to the South African historical situation, they remain case studies of Port Elizabeth.
In Kirk's case the title not only provides no indication that the study is set in Port Elizabeth, there is also no clue as to whether it is a historical or contemporary account. This might be because the book is published as part of the Westview Press "African Modernization and Development Series". The work is actually a detailed account of the attempt by Port Elizabeth's African community to counter attempts by the local authority, and then the Cape colonial government, to enforce residential segregation from the 1880s to the 1910s.
The author's stated primary objective is "to show how African resistance... influenced the government schemes and legislation to impose segregation in the urban area and sometimes dramatically reshaped the envisioned policy and even prevented implementation" (Preface, xxii). Kirk lists a number of factors apparently cited by historians to explain the propensity for the city's African population for resisting segregation (p. 5). These explain nothing of themselves. Kirk then seizes upon Tom Lodge's statement that "[t]he deep historical roots of modern political culture" is the key variable in explaining Port Elizabeth's reputation as a centre of resistance. But this is a circular argument for the writer simply invokes the city's reputation for having a tradition of resistance as evidence of an incremental political culture. There is no attempt to trace the development of this political culture through time. And pointing to periodic bouts of worker mobilisation, strikes, boycotts and other forms of political activism does not establish continuity in traditions of resistance. Memories alone cannot be used to mobilise people. Instead, we need to understand how each generation reinvests a tradition with its own meanings and reconstructs its political culture.
Why is the title Making a Voice? Is this because there is no more than one voice raised in opposition to the imposition of segregation? Clearly the dominant African or black voice in this account is that of the aspirant middle class. But there were undoubtedly other voices, such as that of the working class, which is not often heard in this account. Indeed, Kirk acknowledges that the documents offer a 'resounding silence' as to the actions of the African working class in affecting the shape of residential segregation. This is perhaps understandable because as a study that straddles the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Kirk's sources are mainly written and only the ruling classes and the educated elite can speak through these. Kirk attempts to offset this deficiency by allowing the 'voice' of Africans to be refiltered "through an African centered lens to gain a different perspective" (p. 22); that is, different from the white officials who created the documents. The voice that is heard is clearly her own, although I do not think that this is what is implied by the title of the book. I have no problem with an admission of an author's subjectivity; but to pass it off as the voice of the subjects of the study amounts to a methodological sleight of hand.
Kirk seeks also to provide African women with a voice in her account of resistance to residential segregation in late nineteenth century Port Elizabeth. Not much has been written to date on African women in urban areas in this period and the author seeks to rectify this lacuna in the historiography. She contends that "African women played an important role in the struggle against segregation in Port Elizabeth" (p. 25). In seeking to make her case, she examines two cases in which women sought to flex their collective muscle.
In the first instance (Chapter Five), Kirk relates how the participation of women in the 1901 general strike against enforced inoculation of Africans against bubonic plague forced the authorities to withdraw the discriminatory regulation. This is attributed to the fact that white townspeople were more affected by the disruption of their domestic arrangements than they were by the male workforce bringing the local economy -- and in particular harbour activities -- to a virtual standstill. Kirk ascribes the bargaining power of African domestic workers in Port Elizabeth to a shortage of labour on account of their unwillingness to work for wages. This was compounded by the fact that domestic work in the Cape Colony -- unlike Natal and the Transvaal -- was the preserve of women. She concludes that the exploitative domestic labour system that became commonplace in the country had not been established in Port Elizabeth by the turn of the century (p. 183). This may indeed have been the case but domestic workers were not exactly empowered for they were still subject to the 1857 Master's and Servant's Act, which made it a criminal offence to break a civil contract. And, in any event, the involvement of the women seems to have been of considerably less significance than the co-operation between the middle and working class in mobilising against the plague regulation that discriminated against all Africans. The women identified with their menfolk in this matter; their collective action represented an expression of communal solidarity rather than an assertion of a discrete female identity.
It was precisely on account of the solidarity of Port Elizabeth's African community that the Cape Colonial government employed 'divide and rule' tactics in order to enforce removals from Korsten to New Brighton in the 1900s. Promises were made by Prime Minister Jameson and his successor, Stanford, that only the 'floating population' would have to relocate and that property owners and voters would be exempt. The latter were told that they would be allowed to return to the freehold area once their homes were fit for habitation. Thus the 'respectable' classes were to receive preferential treatment. When these promises were not honoured, a Christian women resident in Korsten contested her eviction in court and this became "a barometer by which to gauge government enforcement and also to gauge how Christians would be treated" (p. 235). Although this proved to be a test case, the court upheld the right of the government to enforce the eviction order and the outcome meant that the removals could proceed unhindered. They did so without any resistance. Again, Kirk is incorrect to interpret this court action as being one in which gender played a significant role. Rather, as with the first instance, the plaintiff -- who happened to be a woman -- acted on behalf of the community. For if a man had contested the eviction, it is unlikely to have been read as act of masculinity. It seems that in her attempt to insert female agency in her account that Kirk misrepresents the situation.
In similar vein, Kirk overstates the role of African-Americans in Port Elizabeth in the late nineteenth century. The significance of these African-Americans in an alliance with local Africans is accentuated despite the fact that they were simply a few individuals who happened to settle in the town. Drawing on Andre Odendaal's earlier work which documented the existence of economic, social and political organisations in Port Elizabeth in the 1890s, Kirk highlights the African and American Working Men's Union (AAWMU) which she terms "the earliest economic co-operative or union formed as a capitalist enterprise in an urban area by Africans" (p. 137). In her opinion, the AAWMU "combined African nationalism and economic pan-Africanism" (p. 148). What (imaginary) nation does she have in mind? And how was pan-Africanism (as defined on p. 130) articulated? Both these ideological discourses are later constructs and, in my opinion, were unlikely to have been utilised to mobilize organisations such as the AAWMU. This is not to deny that black Americans and South Africans identified with one another on account of their similar experiences of racism and discrimination. Nor is it to deny the affinities and co-operation in cultural, educational and religious spheres. But the AAWMU was no more than an economic self-help organisation in the sense in which Booker T. Washington used the phrase. It is ahistorical to represent these as manifestations of (proto-)nationalism and pan-Africanism.
The role played by the churches, especially the African Independent Churches (AICs), in the New Brighton removals is a significant one which is recounted in some detail by Kirk. Unfortunately, this account is marred by Kirk's inadequate grasp of church history. For instance, the Edwards Memorial Congregational Church was not established by the Wesleyan Methodists (p. 281). The Methodists and Congregationalists were two distinct denominations and had separate churches for their African congregations in Port Elizabeth before the closure of the locations in the town. The Congregational Church was actually established by the London Missionary Society (LMS) which dissolved itself and affiliated to the Congregational Union of South Africa (CUSA) in 1897. Such cardinal errors could be attributed to a lack of conversance with church denominational history. But it also raises a question about the author's competence in dealing with the wider historical context.
Of greater concern is the manner in which the Order of Ethiopia changes its affiliation at the author's hands. Kirk rightly notes that the Rev James Dwane and his followers left the Methodist Church to join the Ethiopian Church, and then formed a union with the African Methodist Episcopalian Church (AMEC). But then she states that Dwane and followers were accepted as "a separate order into the English Anglican (Catholic) church" (p. 283) after parting company with the AMEC. What is one to make of this? Is this a reference to Church of England? And are we to take it that whatever institution is intended by this description is synonymous with the Catholic Church? And does the 'Catholic' in parenthesis and with a capital 'C' denote the Roman Catholic rather than the universal church? Is the author hedging her bets? Whatever the case, the phrase "English Anglican (Catholic) church" is nonsense. Kirk compounds her error when she states that the Order of Ethiopia affiliated "with the Catholic order" (p. 284). She finally gets it right when she notes (p. 284) that the Order of Ethiopia was actually affiliated to the Church of the Province of South Africa (CPSA).
Kirk might have avoided this confusion if she was aware that those called Anglicans in South Africa are not members of the Church of England but the CPSA, which is the equivalent of the Episcopalian Church in the USA.
The aforementioned Rev Dwane is a revered figure in the history of the Ethiopian movement. Kirk notes that Dwane is best known for his role in linking the 'Ethiopian' churches with the AMEC and, hence as a figure associated with a nascent form of African nationalism (p. 279). But a very different picture emerges in Kirk's account where he is depicted as a 'collaborator' with the Cape colonial authorities. First, he serves as a foil against the AMEC who in the opinion of an Anglican minister posed "a danger to the state" (cited p. 285). Secondly, Dwane was responsible for breaking the resistance of the African Christians residing in the old locations to removing to New Brighton. Dwane effectively struck a deal with the colonial authorities in order to obtain sites for his church and followers in New Brighton. Because he was regarded as a 'church loyalist' he was rewarded with title to the site of the Order of Ethiopia, whilst the AMEC and other -- but not all -- independent churches were turned down.
Thus Kirk is incorrect in stating that "this privilege was withheld from both the old established churches and the newly founded independent denominations" (p. 284). In fact, the Order of Ethiopia was one of ten churches to receive deeds of grant to sites in New Brighton during 1906-7. (Incidentally, this group did not include the Church of the Apostolic Holiness League [sic] mentioned on p. 287.)
Kirk argues that Port Elizabeth was "a pilot project for the future segregation of urban South Africa" (p. 252). In support of her contention, she points out that the 1923 Native (Urban Areas) Act, the cornerstone of urban segregation in the Union of South Africa was modelled on the Cape's 1902 Native Reserve Location Act, which was subsequently amended in 1905. She lists eight features of this legislation which came to be enshrined in the Urban Areas Act which sought to institute a national policy of compulsory segregation for Africans living in urban areas (p. 291 note #4). These are: (1) influx/efflux control; (2) residential segregation; (3) mandatory passes or badges tied to residence and employment; (4) prohibition on freehold property ownership amended to allow leasehold; (5) prohibition on self-built housing; (6) prohibition on liquor amended to allow domestic beer brewing on a restricted basis; (7) criminal penalty for nonpayment of rents; and (8) the establishment of advisory boards.
The only notable omission from this list is the provision for a Native Revenue Account. This NRA was to be subsidised by the sale of beer in municipally-owned beerhalls, a practice based on Natal's 1908 Native Beer Act, and known as the "Durban system" because it was perfected here. So convinced is the author of the similarities between the Native Reserve Location Act and the Urban Areas Act that she often transposes them. Thus the former becomes the latter (e.g. pp. 265, 271), and vice versa (p. 291, note #5). Whilst the similarities in the Acts establish a strong case for arguing that urban segregation was based on the Cape model, it only serves to reinforce the contention that Port Elizabeth's history of African settlement and relocation - abortive and otherwise - in the late nineteenth century was part of a wider experiment in urban residential segregation.
I have argued elsewhere that the dubious distinction of introducing urban segregation in South Africa might well belong to Port Elizabeth. Kirk appears to endorse this in the Introduction when she recounts what are called 'early segregation initiatives' and how "[t]he creation of Strangers' Location in 1855 represented the beginnings of formal urban residential segregation in the Cape" (p. 13). My argument was that this development arose from the challenge to the influence of the merchant elite on the local authority by the propertied classes and white ratepayers who wished to institutionalise segregation so as to control land and labour. Kirk holds that during the period 1880-1910 commercial interests who espoused the Cape liberal tradition managed to aid the African middle class in fighting a rearguard action against residential segregation. She sketches the tenacity of this alliance between African voters and white liberal politicians despite the odds stacked against it. Yet, in my view, does so without sufficient reference to the specificities of power relations in Port Elizabeth itself. It is necessary to situate the analysis of the growth of an ideology of white supremacy and racism against a broad background of Cape Colonial politics and changing economic imperatives. But it is equally necessary to offer insights into the dynamics of local politics and social relations in Port Elizabeth itself. We are occasionally afforded glimpses of tension between the Cape Colonial government and the Port Elizabeth Town Council, as over the manner in which the bubonic plague outbreak of 1901 was handled and who exactly exercised authority and was responsible for the state of affairs.
However, we are seldom afforded similar revelations about the inner workings of the Council. This is because the narrative in Making a Voice is inadequately contextualised in the local political economy. The rather too sketchy update of demographic, political and economic developments provided in each chapter provides little sense of the overall context in which the related events occur. The writer might have taken the opportunity proffered in the Introduction to provide a more coherent account of the changing historical context which shaped events in Port Elizabeth.
Making a Voice has numerous shortcomings. Perhaps the gravest of these is that Kirk, at times, demonstrates a rather simplistic understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. Instead of developing an argument, the writer has a tendency to cite a number of factors which explain change or stasis. For instance, there is a list of five factors (p. 18) that purportedly had a significant influence over the struggle over racial segregation and discrimination between blacks and whites and are held to have been constant throughout the period of study. These factors are simply tabulated but there is no attempt to explain the link between these variables nor to prioritise the factors at different points in the account. Although there are constant allusions to these factors throughout her work, Kirk does not make meaningful connections between them and the changes that are affected in the lot of Port Elizabeth's African populace. There is little development of the broader issues and the specific points raised. Hence, Kirk's study fails to deliver what the introduction seems to promise.
All in all, Making a Voice proved rather disappointing to this reviewer. While it adds a great deal of detail to our knowledge of the history of Port Elizabeth, its contribution to the city's historiography is rather less significant.
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Gary Baines. Review of Kirk, Joyce F., Making a Voice: African Resistance to Segregation in South Africa.
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