Forging anti-Colonial Identities: African Franchise and the Making of anti-Colonial Blackness in Colonial South Africa, 1874-1890

Jonathan Schoots, Stellenbosch University

This paper examines how anti-colonial movements build a shared political identity to ground their struggle against colonialism. The paper explores the surprising role that franchise played among Black citizens in the late 19th century British Cape Colony and examines how voter rights movements forged a sense of shared Black identity and African nationalist politics decades before Apartheid. In this paper I argue that emergence of African nationalism in South Africa was bound up in Africans seizing opportunities to vote as a tool to defend African interests, and that the political efforts to strip away African voter rights played a powerful role in amplifying and spreading a Black political identity and uniting urban and rural movements in a shared political struggle. To do so I examine the transforming discursive foci of African political debates the isiXhosa press through the early period of African franchise. I analyze a novel newspaper dataset which captures the total extent of the African language press in South Africa between 1874-1890. I combine computational text analysis methods with close reading to follow emerging Ntsundu (Black) and Isizwe (national/ethnic) identities through a period of rapid African voter mobilization (1880-1886), and a subsequent period of African voter suppression through new disenfranchisement laws (1887-1890). Placed in its historical context, this discursive analysis shows how the proto-nationalist movement had to struggle to bridge internal political cleavages, yet was ultimately able to call forth a new collective community to face colonialism. This case offers insight into the larger possibilities and challenges of making anti-colonial identities and political movements, showing the challenges of bridging diverse pre-colonial political communities, and the way that shared exclusion facilitates the political and ideological intertwining of previously distinct political movements, drawing many diverse traditions into innovative new wholes.

See extended abstract

 Presented in Session 168. Colonialism and Empire