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Review of Luka Jantjie: Resistance hero of the South African frontier


By Yvette Hutchison

Luka Jantjie: Resistance hero of the South African frontier. Kevin Shillington. Aldridge Press / Wits University Press / Palgrave Macmillan, London / Johannesburg / New York, 2011. Pp. 306. ISBN. 978 – 0- 9520651-1-1 (pb). £18.95.

This biography traces the life of Luka Jantjie Mathibi Molehabangwe, a much neglected hero of resistance to British colonialism, in detail. Jantjie was the first independent African ruler to lose his land to the colonialists, with the discovery of the Kimberley diamonds in 1870. This was one of the key events that defined South Africa’s history. However, it is often narrated in terms of the Great Trek and the conflict between the British and the Afrikaners. Here Shillington retraces this history from the perspective of the people it affected most: the Batlhoro and Batlhaping peoples.

This history challenges many of the mythologies of apartheid history, in particular the narrative of the Great Trek into ‘empty lands’, and apartheid constructions and definitions of specific ethnic groups. It suggests how intertwined, and often conflicted the relationships within an ethnic clan was, how complex the hierarchies of power and loyalty were; as well as how both connected and fraught the relationships were between the Bantu and the Khoe, Korana and Griqua peoples. Ironically, often these latter peoples have been lumped into one group referred to as the Khoe-San, but Shillington challenges this representation and shows not only how inaccurate it was, but also how this misrepresentation served the colonial endeavour, and later the hegemony of apartheid, as the British opportunistically encouraged  the divisions in order to ‘divide and rule’.

Another fascinating contribution this book makes is its reflection on the complex role of missionaries in colonial southern Africa. It suggests a powerful and poignant tension between the Humanitarian values taught by the missionaries and their unquestioning belief in ‘British justice’. It suggests that no matter how well-meaning they were, missionaries like LMS Revd Robert Moffatt, and his colleagues the Hamiltons, played a profound role in the compromises made by men like Luka’s father, paramount chief Mothibi. Shillington shows how the missionaries were caught between a desire to change the symbolic beliefs in the Batlhaping people and a desire to be humanitarian and treat the people with dignity and respect. However, ultimately their loyalty was to their mission and England, and their conversion of Mothibi resulted in mistrust and confused loyalties, which better facilitated colonial manipulation for access to and finally control of the Batlhaping’s ancestral lands. Here Shillington draws on many British sources, and implicitly challenges some of the arguments made by John and Jean Comaroff in Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa, without directly referring to this work.

Shillington traces various different approaches to British colonisation: for example, John Mackenzie’s ‘thin end of the crowbar’ versus Lanyon, and the more typical South African ‘rude blow of a flat-headed hammer’ (115), both of which the Batlaping people experienced. This nuances our understanding of the different ways in which colonialism took hold in southern Africa, but also the geneses of many of the divisions and issues South Africa still faces, like ethnic distrust and division and the complexities of land reclamation.

Ultimately this is a story of how division weakened the indigenous peoples of southern Africa – the Xhosa of the eastern cape could not come to the aid of Luka Jantjie, as they had their own fight with the British, the Griqua and some Korana peoples were struggling for cattle and land and so fought the various Batswanan people. Even within the Batlhaping people themselves, their struggle over the question of who could legitimately claim the position of paramount chief weakened their fight against the colonial powers and the colonials as they moved ever further inland.

One of the particular strengths of this work is the way in which Shillington has extended his earlier research on the southern Tswana which was published in The Colonisation of the Southern Tswana, 1870 - 1900 in 1984. He has accessed new primary material: family letters and diaries, and oral testimony as he has continued his ‘a long emotional journey’ (p. xiv) with the history of the Batlhaping people and Lukas Jantjie. He conveys this narrative clearly, in a style that is easily followed and powerfully evocative of the complexities and struggles of this time and the various peoples involved. It draws the reader in – whether s/he is reading as a specialist from the field of African Studies, African history, or someone like me who reads history for interest. I certainly feel I know this man better. This work also convinces me that there are many such men and women who attempted to live peaceably in periods of profound conflict, who negotiated the complexities of inter-cultural exchange graciously, but who took a definite position regarding themselves and their people from which they would not compromise, even if this meant they faced death.

Reviewed by: Yvette Hutchison, University of Warwick.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 86-88]

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