The majority of the political activists of the 1920s - including members of the ICU, the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC) - were influenced to varying degrees by the teachings of Marcus Garvey, a West Indian who had moved to the United States during the First World War. Preaching the unity of all blacks, he claimed that liberty would come about only through the return of all Afro-Americans to their ancestral homes - and to this end he had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914.
By 1925 opponents of white racism, in cities and rural districts but especially in the eastern Cape - had adapted the teachings of Garvey to fit in with the black South African experience. Thus the return of land to its ancestral owners became one of the central themes around which opposition to white settler rule was mobilised.
Not surprisingly, it was in the Transkei that Garveyism had most appeal. Here, a devastating series of crop failures, cattle disease, drought and locust plagues put intense pressure on people already struggling to eke out an existence on ever-diminishing land.
At the same time, political and administrative changes served to compound grievances: chiefs were stripped of most of their traditional powers; cattle-dipping and restrictions on the movement of herds, that Transkeians had opposed since their introduction in 1906, were enforced more strictly; new taxes were demanded, and the government wanted them to give up their limited Cape voting rights in return for more land.
A newspaper commented:
'These are the general conditions of life; poverty growing into hunger, debt with no hope of escape. No people under the sun who have not been tamed and weakened by centuries of low diet and despotism can fail, in such conditions, to get into a state of unrest.'
The broad mass of Reserve-based Africans were still deeply rural, clinging tenaciously to a way of life now under serious threat. And so they adopted Garveyism, which quickly developed into a strong anti-white sentiment, with 'Africa for the Africans' becoming their new slogan.
Nowhere was agitation against government attempts to introduce administrative change more marked than in the eastern Cape area of Herschel, a region settled years before by a variety of refugees and immigrants, many fleeing the effects of the Mfecane. Two changes in particular raised traditionalist tempers in the region - a proposal to establish local councils, with an accompanying increase in taxation, and a demand that landownership be registered, which was seen as both upsetting existing communal ownership patterns and inserting the thin end of a wedge that would end with the imposition of the feared councils.
The opposition that followed was a classic example of organised political resistance by rural Africans - led by an organisation called Iliso Lomzi (Vigilance Association) with particular support among women. The first clashes with the authorities were sparked by a more bread-and-butter issue than land tenure - a spate of high prices at local stores following poor rainfall in the summer of 1921-2. In March 1922 the Aliwal North newspaper reported a 'general boycott' of shops in Herschel, mainly by women who 'organise pickets near the shops and molest all natives coming away with purchases and take the goods from them'. The women demanded that people stop buying from the white shopkeepers until prices were cut -and the purchase price paid for wheat bought from local Africans increased. The boycott was halted after six months of sporadic action.
In the years that followed, further attempts were made to step up land registration, which prompted two kinds of protest - a renewed swing away from established mission churches to newly established independent churches, and in 1925 a serious boycott of schools, which worsened in early 1926 when, according to a teacher, groups of angry women 'drove
the children out of school and told them not to go to school again'.
The protest movement became organised under the name Amafelandawonye (the Diehards) or Amafela, with a plea for a political system based on a popular chieftancy with protection for customary rights (differing from the ANC, which sought to protect African rights in a common society). These differences in approach led to considerable tensions within the protest movement, with the mainly rural-based 'Africanists' attracting the attention of Wellington Buthelezi, a long-time critic of the ANC, who had preached the gospel of Garvey in the region for up to 10 years winning a following that ran to many thousands, particularly in Transkei. A day of judgment was drawing near, Buthelezi claimed, in which American blacks would arrive in aeroplanes from which they would bomb all white and African non-believers with burning lumps of charcoal.
Buthelezi's supporters cheered lustily when he told them to stop paying taxes and to stop dipping their cattle. In fact, his strongholds in Transkei were precisely those areas in which people had protested so vigorously against cattle-dipping in 1914.
Transkei magistrates and the missionaries did not take kindly to the Wellingtonites, who were subverting their authority, and Buthelezi was jailed and fined several times. By 1927 he had become such a menace to the state's ability to collect taxes and enforce dipping that he was permanently banned from Transkei. Although he continued his work elsewhere in the eastern Cape, his results were never as spectacular. By 1937, his following had dwindled to a few thousand. However, the ideas he had propagated held sway among eastern Cape Africans for many years, and at least one major separatist church still flies a flag of Garvey's colours.
For more on Marcus Garvey, visit http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAgarvey.htm