Sunday, November 17, 2013

Historicizing the African Peasantry

Historicizing the African Peasantry with Colin Bundy

Chambi Chachage

Colin Bundy’s (1979) seminal book on The Rise and the Fall of the South African Peasantry, aptly dedicated to the Marxist ANC/SACP leader and author of The Peasant Revolt, Govan Mbeki (1964), is an attempt at a “corrective history” of the South African peasantry. It is a counter to the then “dominant prevailing liberal tradition of South African historiography,” which “posit[ed] the fundamental and inherent weakness of the tribal economy, the disadvantages that it imposed on Africans when they encountered the cash nexus and market relations, and the inability of Africans either to adapt that economy, or to forsake it, so as to participate ‘succesfully’ in the market economy” (3). Employing a Marxist approach, in contrast, Bundy historicizes the formation and expansion of the South African peasantry, which he claims had relative autonomy in terms of access to land and control of labor until, at least, the turn of 20th century.

Following a lead from Monica Wilson’s (1969) seminal essay on ‘The Growth of Peasant Communities’, Bundy pays close attention to the then often ignored assertion that the symptoms of underdevelopment and subsistence living standards only came after a period of early prosperity. Conscious of the pitfalls of ‘romanticising the peasantry’ and ‘inventing a classless Africa,’ Bundy refers to this period of prosperity as “the rise of the peasantry”. For him, some of the factors that led to this rise in places such as the Transkei and the Ciskei prior to 1870 was the successful adoption of new productive techniques as well as access to capital and larger landholding for smaller numbers of Africans (67). In fact he even goes a step further to show that this new native peasantry fared well in comparison to its European counterpart: “Indeed, in the period covered in this chapter [1870-1890], African peasants appear to have responded more effectively to economic change than white landowners” (Ibid).

It should be pointed out that Bundy employs a very broad definition of the peasantry collated from various theorists and that encompasses various typologies. Like Eric Wolf, he stresses the idea of disruption, asserting that one can appropriately speak of the peasantry when a cultivator becomes a subject to the demands and sanctions of power holders outside his own social stratum. He adapts from Theodor Shanin the definition of the peasantry as a process to show structural change;  and leans on Wilson to highlight differentiation and stratification as key aspects of the peasantry. Thus at the heart of his working definition is access to land and control of labor, albeit differentially. “An African peasant”, he concludes, “was a rural cultivator” who, “like peasants elsewhere...[was] dominated economically politically and culturally by outsiders in a wider society - involved in relations of coercion and obedience - but under colonialism the extent to which the state or its representative could enforce these relations differed sharply from time to time and from place to place” (9).

One of Bundy’s glaring omissions is the question of gender. The rise and fall of the peasantry is presented as if it is not a gendered process. Bundy’s relative success in showing the relationship between race and class in the differentiation and stratification of the South African peasantry across various ethnic groupings is not extended to gender, leaving the reader to wonder if women of the same race experienced the transformation of the peasantry in the same way(s). As Helen Bradford’s (1996) critique of this “gender-blindness” aptly shows, access to land and hence control of labor were gendered. For instance, she cites a case that alleges that in 1820 new British settlers were given 100 acres for each immigrant, and points out that this was not accessible to female immigrants. She also renders the history of subsequent flowering of the peasantry and analysis of class formation problematic since “most female peasants had long been separated from key means of production” (Bradford 1996: 354). 

Of course, as Bradley points out, Bundy later on admitted that his analysis would have been enhanced had it included a discussion on women. However, this is not simply a question of including a discussion. Rather, it is about  a whole conceptualization of the historiography as gendered. Or as she aptly puts it, when gender and feminist insights are integrated into every aspect of history, they have the potential of transforming our vision of the past, and thus undoing what she refers to as the misrepresentation of colonialism and men.

Thus Bundy’s text, when put into conversation with Bradford’s own work, presents a historian with both historiographical and methodological challenges. How do historians interpret the past when they encounter historical works that address the same ‘past’ on the basis of a more or less similar body of evidence? Is a scholarly historical interpretation merely a question of a subjective ideology and positionality? Or can all historians arrive objectively at the (historical) truth? If, yes, how far can one be objective and independent? For Clifton Crais (2011) Bundy’s history of the South African peasantry remains “tenaciously intact” despite Bradford’s critique. But would it remain intact if Bradford’s argument that “Bundy had 'comprehensively misrepresented' 'class formation, periodization, causation, and peasant well-being” is correct (Crais 2011: 15)?

Crais Clifton (2011). Poverty, War, and Violence in South Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Helen Bradford (1996). Women, Gender and Colonialism: Rethinking the History of the British Cape Colony and Its Frontier Zones, C. 1806-70. The Journal of African History, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 351-370.


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