Skip to main content

British Africa and the South

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

What is said to be the first reference to education in South African history binds South Africa to America. The records of the Virginia Company of London in October, 1621, read: “. . . And as at home so abroad likewise even from Cape Bona Speranza God had raised up many benefactors toward this good worke insomuch as the Companie of Gentlemen and Marriners that lately came home from the Indies in the Royall James had given a contribution of 70” toward the buildinge of a Church or Schoole in Virginia beside a probable hope of a further supplie from diuers factories in the East Indies through ye solicitacon of a learned Minister (namely mr Copland) by whose good example and pswa-sion they were moued to this pious worke.”

The sum of .70. 8s. 6d., collected at the Cape of Good Hope by Reverend Patrick Copland in the “Royall James,” was followed by other collections; but the Indian Massacre of 1622 set back plans for education in the Virginia colony and this particular effort was never carried through. The early Colonial governors, if we may take Sir William Berkeley as a type, were not interested in developing public education. His celebrated statement, “Thank God there are no free schools in Virginia,” is often quoted, but the Reverend Patrick Copland was the type of Scot who was not to be turned from his purpose. A letter has come down to us which he wrote on December 12, 1646, to the Reverend Robert Blair, with whom he had been a student at Maris-chall College in Aberdeen. This letter tells of his earnest desire to go to Virginia and minister to the needs of education and religion in that colony. It is believed that this Robert Blair was the father of James Blair, who also studied at Marischall College and who later, in 1693, did in fact found the College of William and Mary in Virginia, becoming its first president. As we know, Blair was rebuffed in his early efforts. When asked his purpose for going to so much expense for education in the Virginia colony, he replied that the people in Virginia had souls to save, which brought forth the response from Lord Seymour: “Souls! Damn their souls! Make tobacco.”

Here we have the age-old conflict of government and mission, and it is interesting to trace the developments comprehended in the change from a governmental policy that frankly regarded a colony as a region for exploitation to the principles of trusteeship laid down by Lord Lugard in “The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa,” which is the Bible of the British colonial administrator today.

South Africa and the Southern United States have much in common. They both have a long colonial background with the conflict of interests between the mother country, exercising absentee control and aiming at the exploitation of material wealth, and the settlers and their descendants aiming at the building of a nation. They both have a tradition of life in the open, with a passionate love of freedom and with a type of individual resourcefulness which is slow to give ground to the requirements of a complex society. They both have a bi-racial civilization, with its differing standards of living for the different races and the inevitable fear lest the biological inheritance of the European stock be impaired. The idealism of Western civilization, with its tradition of a well-ordered society, humane and cultured, and of Christianity seeking the welfare of all and cultivating a sense of obligation for the under-privileged, prevails over wide areas of human relationships, but it is often obscured by the instinctive feeling that the black people must be kept in a status of inferiority. Within this pattern there is the same range of personal attachment and kindly rela-tionships. The attitude of the English corresponds roughly to that of our Northern States. They see race relations in the large, involving justice and opportunity, but upon long residence close to the personal aspects of the problem this idealism compromises with local custom in the practical regulation of affairs.

One important difference should be remembered. In the United States Negroes uprooted from their own land were brought into the midst of Western civilization, while in South Africa, Europeans established themselves in the midst of a primitive Native society that continues to function. Both races are in South Africa as conquerors. The Bantus pushing down from the north overcame the Bushmen and the Hottentots and met the Dutch Voortrekkers pushing up from the Cape.

South Africa, like America, has the problem of racial intermixture. In the United States mulattoes are classed with Negroes, and the tendency of succeeding generations is towards a brown race. In South Africa the colored people, or “half castes,” are a people apart from either Europeans or Natives. They rank with the whites politically and economically but not socially. As Dr. C. T. Loram puts it, “In the United States a man is either white or not white; in South Africa he is either black or not black.” The black people are referred to as Natives, and as long as they keep up their tribal life, this kind of separation will doubtless continue; the colored people are gradually being assimilated into the European mode of life, the thing that has happened to the entire Negro group in the United States.

The Union of South Africa has a population of about two million white inhabitants and a Native population of six and a half million. It is an independent country with Dominion status in the British Commonwealth of Nations. In that respect it is like Canada. The white population is mainly of British and Dutch origin, but South Africa also received a fine infusion of French Huguenots in the seventeenth century just as did Virginia and South Carolina. The descendants of the Dutch settlers were so long cut off from the mother country that their Dutch speech became more than a mere dialect and has become known as Afrikaans. English and Afrikaans are the two official languages of the Union of South Africa. The white population of the four provinces varies greatly between British and Dutch. Natal is roughly eighty-five per cent British, while the Orange Free State is eighty-five per cent Dutch. The two elements are about evenly balanced in the Cape and in the Transvaal, but the British are chiefly in the towns and the Dutch in the country. The desire for complete independence is deep rooted in a few, but the generous peace settlement of the Boer War and the wise administration of the British Government have resulted in an amicable adjustment of differences, and South Africa is today a loyal member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. While I discerned in talking to the Dutch people a deep appreciation of the Afrikaans language and the distinct cultural character which it expresses, I did not once detect a note of regret at the way events had turned out. There was less of vain regret than one would have found in the South within the same length of time after the Civil War.

In both countries enlightened world opinion is having increasing weight in race relations, and in the moulding of that opinion liberals of South Africa and of the South are making a decisive contribution. The immediate outlook in South Africa may not seem to justify this statement. The Hertzog government went into office on a strong wave of national feeling and in part at least against the indefinite policy of the Smuts administration as regards Native affairs. The so-called Color-Bar Bill, carrying out a form of economic segregation, was enacted in response to this demand, and the Parliamentary Committee Report advocated the repeal of the Cape Native Franchise. But liberal South Africans see the fallacy and the injustice of these measures and are outspoken against them. Like the “Jim Crow” laws of the South, so unjust in their application and so objectionable to Negroes, these measures are a phase in the development of national or state independence. They represent a determination of the ruling group to express their viewpoint in law, and obviously too much is expected of the law. When law ceases to be just, it breaks down, and with it falls a precious thing in civilization. Society has yet to devise better ways of dealing with such problems, and one finds sober inquiry toward this end going on in the universities of South Africa as it is in the colleges of the South. One sees, for example, increasing attention to Native education, and the Institute of Race Relations is doing a work of great significance. This Institute is a parallel to the Commission on Inter-racial Co-operation, which has been such a constructive force in the South since its organization in Atlanta in 1919. These organizations represent an effort to study and understand the social, political, and economic factors involved in racial adjustments and to apply methods of intelligent conference and accommodation. South Africa has its prejudices and injustices, but it has had no counterpart to the disgraceful outbursts of mob-violence in America. Respect for law and the orderly processes of government is too strong to give countenance to the mob spirit in the regulation of race relations. If the people of the South could know how widely publicized abroad are the lynchings of this region and the grotesque antics of the Ku Klux Klan, they would be sobered in the realization that much of the outside world looks upon these things as typical of American civilization, or rather the want of it. The crime news, the excrescences of mob-violence, and some features of American moving pictures play a large part in the impressions of America and in the prejudices against this country abroad. The liberals responsible for the Institute of Race Relations, in the words of Professor Edgar Brookes, one of the staunchest of them, “are determined to know the worst and to do our best.” There are no quick results from activities of this sort; they are long-term policies which promise well for the future. The Boer farmer moves and thinks in his accustomed ways and the ferment of new ideas must work a long time to bring about change. But when he is assured of being the master of his own house, his sense of obligation and fair play can be depended upon.

Perhaps a parallel may be drawn from Hertzog’s nationalistic policies. Responsibility and time have wrought changes from within which could not have been forced from without. When the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, Botha, one of the Boer leaders, was chosen Prime Minister. Smuts, another Boer general, was his chief adviser. They recognized the friendly attitude of the Liberal British Government as the means of achieving both unity and self-government in South Africa. Under the protection of the British Empire the Union could be maintained, differences adjusted, and minority rights respected. But Smuts and Botha were far ahead of their people. What they saw at a glance had to be gradually realized by the Boers with the aid of time and experience. Secession was already a dead issue in 1935, but since the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, ties with England and with the whole English-speaking world have been enormously strengthened. It is significant that South Africa, led by a government elected by a strong nationalist sentiment, has deliberately pursued its destiny as a self-governing member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Differences of long standing between English areas and the Dutch areas are fading into the limbo of forgotten things and a new type of South African, vigorous and self-confident, proud of the traditions of South Africa and ready to play a strategic part in future responsibilities, is now coming upon the stage. The liberal tradition which has evolved through the centuries of British civilization is finding a new response among this vigorous people. It was no accident that General Smuts with his remarkable grasp of international affairs and his conception of the unity or “wholeness” of mankind should be, next to Woodrow Wilson, the chief advocate of the League of Nations.

The universities of South Africa are not mere provincial institutions. They are in touch with the British universities and are much influenced by them, but they are also in touch with Yale, Columbia, Harvard, and Cornell. In the development of public education the influence of Columbia is strong, as is that of Cornell in the field of agriculture and Yale in forestry. But they are thrusting forward in their own right into the higher reaches of education. The University of Cape Town is comparable to one of our own state universities. The South African Native College at Fort Hare is the counterpart of one of the Southern state colleges for Negroes, though in academic program it is more like Fisk University. Stellenbosch, in addition to being the intellectual and cultural center of the Dutch element, is also a center of scientific work in agriculture. The universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand have taken significant steps in developing studies in Bantu languages and culture.

The growth of commercial cities is bringing about important changes. The social pattern of an individualistic life in the wide open veld with its almost patriarchal flavor is being balanced by the cosmopolitan influences of cities that keep pace with other cities of the world. The expansion of the home market, the daily press, libraries, art galleries, museums, the exchange of goods and of ideas, and highways and motor cars are fast breaking down the isolation which has been such an important factor in South African life. In this respect it is like our own Southwestern States with vast open spaces and sharp contrasts of climate and vegetation according to altitude and rainfall. We are accustomed to thinking of South Africa with its gold and its diamonds, but water is another precious thing in parts of this semi-arid land. Another parallel between the two U. S. A.’s is the frontier and democratic tradition which is a bond of understanding between the two peoples and which makes them resent the attitude of patronizing tolerance that they sometimes meet with in England.

In attempting to solve their problem by strict racial and cultural segregation, the South Africans are fighting against the stars in their courses. However much Natives may be attached to the ways of tribal tradition, the contacts that have already been made and that are inevitable in the future make them want the civilization of the white man. The white man depends upon the Native for his labor and does, not look with favor upon anything that will add to the cost of that labor, as a higher standard of living and more wants would certainly do. The experience of the South and of the West Indies with the plantation system goes to show that in preserving the status quo of labor, an ultra-conservatism is developed which puts the brakes upon changes of all kinds, and initiative is not given its proper recognition and reward. The rest of the world moves on and leaves the system in the eddy. If it becomes too badly out of step, disaster, economic and social, can hardly be staved off.

What I saw in Johannesburg seemed to me to point the trend in Native relations in South Africa. Here were assembled in the mining compounds Natives from widely scattered parts of Africa, with different languages, customs, and tribal traditions. Innate pride operates to preserve these things of their tribal life, but they stand out as strange in the new environment, appreciated for their picturesque qualities rather than for their original value. The steady atmospheric pressure of a modern industrial community is bringing about a definite type of Native society in which the common interests of life in a large city, with a grinding routine of labor and a varied background of amusement and diversion, are given expression. Group interests of this type replace the loyalties of smaller tribal groups. For example, they learn English, which among so many tribal dialects is the only common language, and in learning English, a break with their past cannot be averted. In the Bantu Social Center these common interests bring the people together under constructive auspices, and here we find an urban English-speaking type of Native society that is comparable to Harlem in New York or the Negro section of one of the Southern cities. There are various segregations and social taboos, but they are finding social satisfactions in the new way of life. They have their own newspaper, and the Native church is assuming a varied form of organization and the proportional influence which it has in the rural South, and for the same reason. It is a valid form of self-expression in a social order in which they have little direct voice. The ferment of nationalist ideas, which are playing such a large part in world politics as well as in world economics, cannot fail to influence the Native races of Africa. Consciousness of difference from Europeans is tending to unify diverse Native groups into some sort of racial solidarity, but the barriers of language, distance, and communication will make this a much slower process in Africa than in India, for example. Its chief manifestations are in South Africa, where Native sentiment has been unified in opposing such measures as the Color-Bar and the repeal of the Cape Franchise. The spread of Native “bush” schools and of the Separatist Churches also reflects a stirring of race consciousness, which has long been an important factor in Negro life and advancement in the United States. The principle of indirect rule which prevails in British Africa provides for Native self-expression and encourages Native responsibility. Tutelage of this sort, supplemented by education and by European co-operation in matters of health and economic development, holds the key to the civilization of vast areas of tropical Africa.

The Union of South Africa is playing a leading part in setting up a structural framework of civilization for Africa. Although the distance is very great from north and central Africa, nevertheless the pattern of society and the centers of business, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Durban, play a very important part in the gradual spread of Western civilization, certainly over the southeastern half of the Continent.

Native education in Africa has been greatly influenced by America in the field of rural and agricultural interests, but higher education is almost completely under the domination of English and Scottish universities. American influence has been largely due to two educational commissions to Africa undertaken by the Phelps-Stokes Fund and to the strategic assistance given by the Carnegie Corporation to certain experimental developments in different parts of Africa which followed suggestions made in the reports of the commissions. The British Colonial Governments and the missionary organizations working in Africa were quick to see the force of these suggestions and to avail themselves of the experience of the United States with the Jeanes teachers, farm demonstration agents, and such rural community schools as the Penn School in South Carolina and the Calhoun School in Alabama. The result has been to enrich the experience of the village school and to make it play a larger part in building a new civilization.

The Inter-territorial Jeanes Conference, held in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, May 28-June 7, 1935, brought together from all parts of British Africa government officials and missionaries for the discussion of village education. The proceedings of this conference reveal astonishing progress and some remarkably effective adaptations of educational procedures to African Native life.

In the Jeanes School at Zomba, Nyasaland, teachers sent out to the villages found their work hampered by the chiefs, who evidently feared that any change might weaken their authority. The principal hit upon the idea of conducting a special institute for the younger chiefs. They came and were given demonstrations in agriculture, and simple lessons in health and sanitation, while their wives were instructed in the care of children and in the preparation of food. The institute was highly successful. The chiefs immediately directed full co-operation and the teachers from the Jeanes school have been unable to meet all the demands upon them for developing the community aspects of their educational program.

A striking feature of Native education is the way in which mission and government supplement each other. There are, naturally, sharp differences of opinion and point of view, but fundamentally there is fine co-operation. Most of the Native schools are owned by the missions. A church society will set up a school in a central Native village; later on the Government inspects the school and, all the conditions being fulfilled, takes over the salaries of the teachers or gives a grant-in-aid, but the school continues under the control of the mission. The mission, being thus relieved, establishes other schools in outlying villages and so educational opportunity is extended. Available public funds thus go almost entirely for teachers’ salaries; the churches have complete freedom to give religious instruction and they render their great service in character building and in the training of personnel.

Whether this system, which has grown up so naturally out of the remarkable missionary activity in Africa following the example of David Livingstone, will give place to full governmental control of education, whether it will result in the dual system of public-supported and church-supported schools which prevails in America, or whether in the typical British way the present plan will continue with such adaptations as future conditions may call for, are vital questions in the further extension of Native education. The mission schools are inclined to leave the field of Native higher education to the Government because of the expense involved for a relatively small number of students,’but missionary influence is very, strong in the teaching staffs of the Government colleges, particularly in Achimota and Fort Hare.

These institutions have been patterned pretty largely after the English public schools and the Scottish universities which represent the experience of the teaching staff. The aim has been to give the Native students the best in English and Scottish education. The curriculum is exacting and thorough, and though based upon the British tradition is being rapidly modified. It still remains subject centered, but Latin is decreasing, mathematics is stationary, while science and subjects of vocational interest are growing in strength. Years of academic studies of this sort leave the student aloof from his own Native life and often out of sympathy with it. His position is more or less unhappy, because there is as yet nothing to take the place of it, and he is unable to live a socially satisfying life outside of the academic community which has given him these tastes. Much of this difficulty is inherent in the situation as long as the number of students taking advanced work is so small. Moreover, if any difference is made in the curriculum by adaptations to the special needs of Natives, immediately their suspicion is aroused and tliey get the idea that an inferior education is being put off upon them and that there is something in those very things that are denied them that has made the Englishman what he is. All practical work is left to the secondary schools, or else is encouraged as hobbies. Some of these hobbies are cultivated with good results, especially at Achimota on the Gold Coast and at Budo in Uganda.

The decision of the Government to give higher education to Natives in Africa is significant. This is vastly better than sending the Native to Europe or America, where too long a residence cuts him off almost completely from his Native ties. It is inevitable and indeed desirable that some should go, but they will be mature people who go to complete and perfect a course already begun and who come back to posts for which they are being more thoroughly prepared. This policy of higher education in Africa also means that these leavening centers will give tone and quality to Native intellectual life and exercise influences of great importance in the formative stages of Native life as it is rebuilt under Western guidance.

The principle is equally sound for America, and one would like to see better provision for higher education in the South where the life of the Negro is spent. The rebirth of Atlanta University based on the co-operation of all the Negro colleges in that city and the Fisk-Meharry Center in Nashville are genuine steps toward university interests. New opportunities are awaiting Hampton and Tuskegee with their distinctive interests in rural life, practical arts, and technical training. Howard University at Washington, with the support of the federal government, is comparable to a state university in scope and resources. Each of the Southern States maintains a Negro college with the emphasis upon agriculture, the mechanic arts, and the training of teachers. These, with a considerable group of independent church-supported colleges of liberal arts, constitute the scheme of higher education for Negroes: the total enrolment is in excess of thirty thousand students.

Perhaps the African colleges are even more academic than the English and Scottish institutions of today, where the impact of social change is bringing about new viewpoints. The men who built the Native colleges reflect the humanistic traditions of an earlier period. One has no fault to find with these values and no desire to withhold them from any people, but the value of education depends upon the reality of experience back of it. It is difficult to make these experiences real and valuable in any group of students. Among Western peoples, the selective process is at work and these courses are chosen by students who can devote the time to them and who look forward to careers in which these personal intellectual resources will contribute to their satisfaction and success in life. With Natives to whom English is a foreign tongue, and who have had little training in the use of symbols in abstract thinking, it is too apt to narrow their interests and exclude things that might minister more effectively to their growth and personal satisfaction. We are not warranted in applying the theory of mental discipline. By the time the Native student has got to college and mastered English, he has already spent enough time upon the tools of learning and what he most needs is access to the knowledge of the modern social and economic world.

The Jeanes work and the farm demonstration work give reality and effect to village and rural education. It is tied up with life and rooted in experience. The problem is not so simple in higher education, but complacency is giving way to promising efforts to make education at the higher level equally vital and socially valuable in its effect. Achimota and Budo are remarkably successful in this respect. They take the student into advanced studies with consideration for his own interests and requirements and they carefully keep up the contact with his Native background. The problem will be simpler when more highly trained Natives can be employed upon the staff and can assist in interpreting the needs and aspirations of Native students. More recognition of the social studies and more modern book collections in the libraries would also be useful steps.

The situation is again like that in the South. The Negro college was patterned after the old type of New England college. Negroes wanted exactly the same education that white people had. When they got it, there was at first an undue emphasis upon classical studies; but with all limitations upon the curriculum removed and with higher education available for larger numbers, Negro colleges are giving increasing attention to the needs of their group and they are taking pride in the cultivation of the special gifts and interests of their race, confident of enlarging their distinctive cultural contribution to American life.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading