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The 1929 Bulawayo Shona-Ndebele fights reconsidered

11 Aug 2019 at 17:34hrs | Views
From Christmas Eve of 1929 to the end of that year, Bulawayo was an ungovernable city marred by fights between Shona, on the one hand (perceived as a 'common enemy'), and forces that were predominantly Ndebele and groups sympathetic to them. A brilliant attempt to explain these clashes a generation ago, nevertheless falls short. This article seeks to revise the popular interpretation of this violence and re-contextualise it historically. A longer timeframe would give us an alternative view of the conflict. It also vindicates the ethnic interpretation of the violence that Phimister and van Onselen, concentrating on the then-popular Marxist ‘class struggle' paradigm, either minimised or failed to assess thoroughly.

Read Ethnicity, not class? The 1929 Bulawayo faction fights reconsidered. Journal of Southern African Studies, 32 (3). pp. 429-447.

Bulawayo history is one of gradual and continuous migration of workers and other peoples into that town over a long period, from around 1897 onwards. A few years after the invasion of Bulawayo and the ‘flight' of Lobengula, which saw the opening up of mines nearby; the setting up of Bulawayo as a major railway headquarters of the colony; and the growth in manufacturing industry; it became clear that Bulawayo was developing into a major industrial hub in southern Africa. For this reason, it desperately needed African labour.Unfortunately, in the early years, local people were unprepared for town life. This unwillingness to work was not necessarily a case of any tribal instinct, as the early labour recruiters and administrators thought. The locals had options available to them. For instance, they could live and pay taxes from their proceeds as subsistence gardeners, or cattle farmers, or work in South Africa, where the Rand offered higher pay than in Southern Rhodesia. Also, their chiefs, the Kalanga especially, would not co-operate with the government in labour recruitment. Consequently, the town sought labourers from southern, eastern and central Africa, and from among the Shona peoples. Bulawayo therefore began with a foreign outlook, inhabited in its core by people of different ethnicities. By 1910, the Bulawayo ‘alien' African population had risen to 25,086 from 11,359 in 1906. Locals, who included Ndebele, Kalanga and others from Matabeleland were still outnumbered, only increasing from 6,345 in 1906 to 12,739 in 1910. There were of course, apart from Ndebele workers, a few prominent Ndebele inhabitants in town, some of whom were born in the location, such as the Manyobas (including Siphambaniso Manyoba, who became a prominent Ndebele activist after 1929), and others, such as Jojo Mkatjane, originally from the Shangani, who by 1930 appeared to have lost touch with home. There were also remnants of Lobengula's family, such as Queen Moho, who usually housed visitors from the royal family when they came to town; and the children of Muntu (Lobengula's brother), who deserted their father when he became a pauper in Bulilima-Mangwe and went to Bulawayo for ‘immorality'. To this number should be added a few local women already living in Bulawayo by 1897, whom the Native Commissioner Malema stereotyped as ‘prostitutes', whereas some, on the contrary, formed a reasonably prosperous class of women who made money from leasing their properties to urban male workers. The labour shortage that had engulfed Bulawayo in the early years had become history by as early as 1913. By then, Bulawayo had a ‘more than adequate' labour provision, with a large floating population' wandering between all the principal centres of employment. It would seem then that the unemployment crisis and the competition in the labour market that Phimister and van Onselen talk of as if it were just characteristic of the late 1920s only, began well before 1920. Just how then it sufficiently explains the ‘faction fights' becomes more complicated. It would be more useful for this article briefly to track the influence of early urban dwellers on Bulawayo's ethnic and moral fabric, as this also helps explain the 1929violence.The influx of ‘foreign' labour saw earlier Shona arrivals (also foreigners to Bulawayo)and non-Rhodesian migrants becoming the ‘owners' of Bulawayo, as their presence predated the birth of Ndebele activism. These residents defined the moral, linguistic and social tone of Bulawayo. This fossilisation, in a settlement previously a Ndebele pre-colonial headquarters, of ‘foreign' languages, different ethnicities and modes of behaviour, explains why it took a heavy and protracted struggle for the Ndebele and other inhabitants of Matabeleland to ‘regain' Bulawayo. Even now, Bulawayo is not that highly ‘Ndebele-ised'.As I came to realise, the 1929 violence was part of the effort to regain lost Ndebele moral authority over Bulawayo. Apart from the economic situation and urban stresses, the fights were part of a spirited response to a moral and ethnic panic by the ‘real' claimants of the town.In this project, Ndebele people, being less co-ordinated and less rigidly unified a category, did not mind help from any other ethnic group that had a bone to pick with insolent Shona.Early settlers of urban Bulawayo were in different senses both ‘cosmopolitan' and ‘ethnic'. They interacted freely at workplaces through a created convenient medium of communication, Lapalapa (also called Kitchen Kaffir), which was a mixture of numerous languages and ‘broken' English. Lapalapa, viewed by contemporary employers as a  language ‘adequate for the ordinary purposes of life', was respected as an emergent language that, according to Tudor Trevor, ‘spreads from Durban to the Congo, and in almost every kraal someone can be found to understand it'. Some employers, like Trevor, believed that learning ‘Kitchen Kaffir' would make them better communicators with Africans than those who were proficient only in individual African languages. The Native Commissioner(hereafter NC), Bulawayo, wrote of the ‘mixed character of [the] Native population'. At least to many early urban dwellers, this new cosmopolitanism was not necessarily a move towards detribalisation and a simple birth of ambiguous identities. Evidence suggests their tendency to congregate by homeboy and ethnic loyalties. There was also a construction of new ethnicities. Whilst Nyasaland, for instance, meant a place of origin, it became an ethnic label used by both Ndebele and Shona to describe people from Malawi and at times it described foreigners in general who had become full-time urban dwellers. Moreover, although the manner in which early Bulawayo workers constructed their dwellings and villages appeared haphazard, it reflected, rather, their attempts to congregate as ethnic groups, as the NC Bulawayo reported:

In Bulawayo, Natives from all the tribes of South and central Africa are to be found, while large numbers of Aliens have built Kraals and are living under a semblance of tribal conditions, in the vicinity of the town.


The fights that broke out in the last days of December 1929 help inform our understanding of Bulawayo history. The events marked an important turning point in the administrative structure of Southern Rhodesian urban areas in general, and Bulawayo in particular. From the 1930s, at least, the colonial regime had to problematise the urban African more than before. There was, for the first time, a great need, increasingly, to control urban housing, entertainment and sport, as well as to tighten up urban administration, which in most cases before this had been loose and chaotic. For the first time, there was also an attempt to give Africans a facade of control through the newly enacted Native Advisory Boards. Even more important aftermath of 1929 in Bulawayo was the increase in ethnic politics, which together with other alternative urban identities, made Bulawayo history especially complicated. For this reason, it is imperative that historians have a fair understanding of the 1929 Bulawayo fights or even earlier events before probing the later period.

Read the journal: Ethnicity, not class? The 1929 Bulawayo faction fights reconsidered. Journal of Southern African Studies, 32 (3). pp. 429-447.

Source - Rhodes University
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