The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture. Africans of my generation — and even today — generally have both an English and an African name. Whites were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name, and considered it uncivilized to have one.
That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea.
Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea captain Lord Nelson, but that would be only a guess. My later notions of leadership were profoundly influenced by observing the regent and his court. I watched and learned from the tribal meetings that were regularly held at the Great Place.
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These were not scheduled, but were called as needed, and were held to discuss national matters such as a drought, the culling of cattle, policies ordered by the magistrate, or new laws decreed by the government. All Thembus were free to come — and a great many did, on horseback or by foot. They were wise men who retained the knowledge of tribal history and custom in their heads and whose opinions carried great weight.
Letters advising these chiefs and headmen of a meeting were dispatched from the regent, and soon the Great Place became alive with important visitors and travelers from all over Thembuland. From that point on, he would not utter another word until the meeting was nearing its end. Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form.
There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer. People spoke without interruption and the meetings lasted for many hours. The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens. Women, I am afraid, were deemed second-class citizens. A great banquet was served during the day, and I often gave myself a bellyache by eating too much while listening to speaker after speaker.
I noticed how some speakers rambled and never seemed to get to the point. I grasped how others came to the matter at hand directly, and who made a set of arguments succinctly and cogently. I observed how some speakers used emotion and dramatic language, and tried to move the audience with such techniques, while other speakers were sober and even, and shunned emotion.
At first, I was astonished by the vehemence — and candor — with which people criticized the regent. He was not above criticism — in fact, he was often the principal target of it. But no matter how flagrant the charge, the regent simply listened, not defending himself, showing no emotion at all. The meetings would continue until some kind of consensus was reached. They ended in unanimity or not at all. Unanimity, however, might be an agreement to disagree, to wait for a more propitious time to propose a solution.
Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority. Only at the end of the meeting, as the sun was setting, would the regent speak. His purpose was to sum up what had been said and form some consensus among the diverse opinions. But no conclusion was forced on people who disagreed. If no agreement could be reached, another meeting would be held.
At the very end of the council, a praise-singer or poet would deliver a panegyric to the ancient kings, and a mixture of compliments to and satire on the present chiefs, and the audience, led by the regent, would roar with laughter. As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place.
I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.
It was at Mqhekezweni that I developed my interest in African history. I learned of these men from the chiefs and headmen who came to the Great Place to settle disputes and try cases. Though not lawyers, these men presented cases and then adjudicated them. Some days, they would finish early and sit around telling stories. I hovered silently and listened. Their speech was formal and lofty, their manner slow and unhurried, and the traditional clicks of our language were long and dramatic. At first, they shooed me away and told me I was too young to listen.
Later they would beckon me to fetch fire or water for them, or to tell the women they wanted tea, and in those early months I was too busy running errands to follow their conversation. But, eventually, they permitted me to stay, and I discovered the great African patriots who fought against Western domination.
My imagination was fired by the glory of these African warriors. The most ancient of the chiefs who regaled the gathered elders with ancient tales was Zwelibhangile Joyi, a son from the Great House of King Ngubengcuka. Chief Joyi was so old that his wrinkled skin hung on him like a loose-fitting coat.
His stories unfolded slowly and were often punctuated by a great wheezing cough, which would force him to stop for minutes at a time.
Chief Joyi was the great authority on the history of the Thembus in large part because he had lived through so much of it. But as grizzled as Chief Joyi often seemed, the decades fell off him when he spoke of the young impis, or warriors, in the army of King Ngangelizwe fighting the British.
In pantomime, Chief Joyi would fling his spear and creep along the veld as he narrated the victories and defeats. When he first spoke of non-Xhosa warriors, I wondered why. I was like a boy who worships a local soccer hero and is not interested in a national soccer star with whom he has no connection. Only later was I moved by the broad sweep of African history, and the deeds of all African heroes regardless of tribe. Chief Joyi railed against the white man, who he believed had deliberately sundered the Xhosa tribe, dividing brother from brother.
The white man had told the Thembus that their true chief was the great white queen across the ocean and that they were her subjects. But the white queen brought nothing but misery and perfidy to the black people, and if she was a chief she was an evil chief.
Chief Joyi said that the African people lived in relative peace until the coming of the abelungu, the white people, who arrived from across the sea with fire-breathing weapons. Once, he said, the Thembu, the Mpondo, the Xhosa, and the Zulu were all children of one father, and lived as brothers.
The white man shattered the abantu, the fellowship, of the various tribes. The white man was hungry and greedy for land, and the black man shared the land with him as they shared the air and water; land was not for man to possess. I did not yet know that the real history of our country was not to be found in standard British textbooks, which claimed South Africa began with the landing of Jan Van Riebeeck at the Cape of Good Hope in It was from Chief Joyi that I began to discover that the history of the Bantuspeaking peoples began far to the north, in a country of lakes and green plains and valleys, and that slowly over the millennia we made our way down to the very tip of this great continent.
I was assisted by Mr.
Festile, the induna at the Chamber of Mines, who was once again playing a fateful role in my life. On his own initiative he had decided to offer me free accommodation in the mining compound. Few spoke English, and the lingua franca was an amalgam of many tongues known as Fanagalo. There, I saw not only flare-ups of ethnic animosity, but the comity that was also possible among men of different backgrounds. Yet I was a fish out of water there.
Instead of spending my days underground, I was studying or working in a law office where the only physical activity was running errands or putting files in a cabinet. Because the WNLA was a way station for visiting chiefs, I had the privilege of meeting tribal leaders from all over southern Africa.
I recall on one occasion meeting the queen regent of Basutoland, or what is now Lesotho , Mantsebo Moshweshwe. I asked them about Jongilizwe, and for an hour I seemed to be back in Thembuland as they told colorful tales about his early years. The queen took special notice of me and at one point addressed me directly, but she spoke in Sesotho, a language in which I knew few words. Sesotho is the language of the Sotho people as well as the Tswana, a large number of whom live in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The question embarrassed and sobered me; it made me realize my parochialism and just how unprepared I was for the task of serving my people.
I had unconsciously succumbed to the ethnic divisions fostered by the white government and I did not know how to speak to my own kith and kin. Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs. I again realized that we were not different people with separate languages; we were one people, with different tongues.
Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.
Since the turn of the century, Africans owed their educational opportunites primarily to the foreign churches and missions that created and sponsored schools. Under the United Party, the syllabus for African secondary schools and white secondary schools was essentially the same. The mission schools provided Africans with Western-style English-language education, which I myself received.
We were limited by lesser facilities but not by what we could read or think or dream. Yet, even before the Nationalists came to power, the disparities in funding tell a story of racist education. The government spent about six times as much per white student as per African student. Education was not compulsory for Africans and was free only in the primary grades.