John Tengo Jabavu to Frederick Chesson, August 29 1887, C139/16

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Jabavu, John Tengo


Indigenous person




King Williams Town


Cape Colony

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Bodleian Libraries

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MSS. Brit. Emp. S. 18 / C139-16


Native Opinion Office
King William’s Town
29 August 1887

My dear Mr Chesson,

Allow me to congratulate you on what appears to me to be the success the Society, and yourself in particular, have achieved in getting the Secretary of State to instruct Sir Hercules Robinson ‘to report fully on the measure.’ This item of news came by cable, as also the intelligence that you had written a strong protest in the Times against the injustice done to the natives of this colony by the measure of disfranchisement.

Sir Hercules Robinson’s report will, I have no doubt, be that of his ministers, and they are past masters in duplicity as everyone who has closely studied their proceedings is bound to confess. I feel it to be my bounded duty to briefly recapitulate the cardinal points of our case for your benefit so that you may be the better enabled to cope with the specious arguments that will be advanced by the Bond agents in Cape Town.

The Constitution Ordinance, which is the Charter of our liberties, is the gift of Her Majesty’s government. It was, notwithstanding the angry discussions over the Eighth Section at the time, loyally accepted by the people of this colony. We contend then that, in terms of the Letters Patent of Her Majesty issued on the 11 March, 1853, if the Cape Legislature deems it fit to make an alteration in the Constitution Ordinance, let the authority that gave have a say. This is the more imperative because the charge has been made with regard to the very points that were very much debated and ultimately close in those early times – the franchise clauses, viz, clause 8 and 9 of the Constitution Ordinance. The Eighth Clause enfranchises occupiers of buildings of the value of 25 pounds. If the value of the house does not come up to the necessary 25 pounds, the value of the land occupied therewith is also to be taken into account. In the original discussions the Cape Council fixed the franchise at 50 pounds with the avowed object of keeping the natives outside the pale of the Constitution. But Her Majesty’s government altered it to 25 pounds expressly to enable the natives to have a say in their own government [viz despatch of the Duke of Newcastle 15 March 1853]. On the point dealing with inclusion of land occupied therewith, read Sir John Pakington’s despatch of 4 Sept 1852. Now, by the new Act (registration or disfranchisement act) the white man may make up a qualification by adding to the value of his house – if it is not worth 25 pounds – the value of the land he occupies, while the native may not do so because the land he utilizes is held by him under the communal tenure. It is argued that the white man’s land is of money value; the black man’s under the tribal or communal tenure, which is as secure as any white man’s holding, counts for nothing. The natives were settled as tribes communally long before the colonists came, as such they were taken over by the British government and there has never been any whisper as to their insecurity in the lands they hold in the giving of which the honour of the Queen was plighted. The people are alarmed that in first declaring that the lands they hold do not belong to them – as the new act declares implicitly – it is sought to deprive them of the lands when the supremacy of the Dutch in parliament, sought to be established by this measure, is assured. This opens up a stupendous question relating to the settlement of land by natives which ought to make Her Majesty’s government to go cautiously about giving the Royal assent to the new act.

It must be remembered that the native races have no other land then these reserved for living in which they are now by the new act punished by being deprived of citizen rights. It is the government’s own fault, if fault there be, that the reserves were kept for natives when the land taken from them was being parcelled out into farms for colonists. But it ought to be clearly understood that in these reserves each male adult has individual rights to the land on which his house stands, and also to the land he cultivates for his exclusive benefit, and the title, according to native practice, is as strong as the title of any citizen within the London Corporation. It is even recognized in Colonial Law Courts either by the right of prescription or under the native law. Over and above and beyond all this, the native in the reserve is now no more under his own chief than you and I are. He is under the direct rule of the responsible government as exercised through magistrates and other local offices of the colony. His chief has no power to administer any law whatsoever upon him, and in many cases the … chiefs have become government officers who carry out the behests of the magistrates and other local officials of the government. You will thus see that the tribal system in the colony is a thing of the past. If it did exist – if a native tribe lived under its own chief who administers native laws, and had indirect dealings with the responsible government at the Cape – then I certainly would not ask such a stupid thing as the granting to these people of the franchise. This, I presume, is all you meant in saying that the Society did not advocate the granting of the franchise to people living under the tribal system. And here I agree with you.

But now we have to do with the case of people who have been within the pale of the constitution ever since its existence, who have enjoyed citizen rights without challenge thirty-four years. The natives, as I have said, have ever lived in reserves to which the description tribal or communal tenure is applied, but citizen rights have never been denied them. It is true the new act says nothing about black man or white man. It was cunningly devised that no distinction should be necessary. White men do not live under tribal tenure – which is peculiar to natives. Therefore to disfranchise under tribal tenure could not disfranchise the white man, who is never found living under that tenure. The black man alone is aimed at. And on this point Sir Gordon Sprigg’s speech is moving the second reading of the bill is conclusive. I allude to the portion of it giving what all in the colony consider the real object of the bill. See on reserve side. It is easy to account for the increase of native names which is due to a determination on the part of the people to seek redress of grievances through constitutional means. They are giving up the idea of seeking redress through war or rebellion and are anxious to identify themselves with the government as citizens. This they are now told is a crime. Is it not monstrous?

I think your duty is rendered simple by the repeated declarations of the Cape Authorities that their measure is not one to disfranchise. If so, they will have no reason to complain if the home government, after submitting the Eighth Section of the Constitution Ordinance, together with the Seventeenth Clause, to the law officers of the Crown, detect the omission of the valuation of the land in the latter – proceed to amend it for them. For believe me that one … land therewith as … one of the Constitution by the new act will tell tremendously among our people, who have no representatives in future.

It is an idle fear that if natives are allowed to vote they will swamp the whites. They can only do so probably in 6 districts that are essentially native districts, but even there they have shown that their interests and those of their white representatives are one by sending men of European extraction to parliament whose views are fair and satisfactory towards all classes of the community.

We are still making preparations for furthering our appeal to the Home Government, and we trust if you see fit you will urge upon the Colonial Secretary to suspend recommending the giving of the Royal Assent to the measure until the deputation reaches London to plead their cause. I shall expect to hear from you whether the deputation of 3 or 4 natives should or should not come. I am not sure, however, what effect the cable message of the effect that Her Majesty’s government had the subject under consideration will have upon the people. It has given them great satisfaction, and we should be glad if you would not stop in the present course until the facts are all before Her Majesty’s government. A deputation of members of parliament principally selected from among the Liberal ministers would have a tremendous weight with the government in its present shaky condition; failing this then a memorial to the Secretary of State signed by members of parliament would also tell. But I shall appear to be instructing you in the work that you are admittedly au fait upon, but it is from the … of the heart that I write.

No ‘friend’ has come this year.

Wishing God’s abundant blessing upon yourself … work,
Believe me, very dear Mr Chesson,
Yours most faithfully,
J. Tengo Jabavu