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Stephen Hayes


The historical issue
Several historians have observed the role of black Christians in South Eastern Africa in
pioneering and profiting from social change in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In reading some of the literature, it seems that much of this history is being written using
the "historical materialist" model, and church history of other periods has also been
rewritten using this model. It seems, however, that some of the conclusions drawn by
these historians may be coloured more by their presuppositions than by the historical
evidence. As the title suggests, the purpose of this article is to examine some of those
presuppositions a little more closely, to see whether they can really be supported by the
The main presupposition to be examined is expressed particularly clearly by Bundy
(1979:37) when he says:

Missionary enterprise, ultimately, was concerned to transform social institutions and

practices that were alien or incompatible with capitalist society into ones that were
compatible, and hence to encourage a total change of the worldview of the people in
whose midst they lived.
For Bundy, at least, it seems axiomatic that material self-interest was paramount, not
only for the missionaries, but for their converts, the kholwa.
While this may seem, at first sight, to be primarily the concern of historians, it also has
profound missiological implications. According to the historical materialist model,
religious conversion is determined by purely economic considerations, and in particular
by the predominant mode of production in society. This is not so much a question of
conscious motive, but is rather the result of economic forces over which the individual
has little control. For historical materialists, social being precedes and determines social
consciousness. Social being "encompasses the material life of society, and above all
people's productive activity, the economic relations between them in the process of
production" (Afanasyev 1987:2). Social consciousness "is the spiritual life of people, the
ideas, theories and views which guide them in what they do" (Afanasyev 1987:3).

The meaning of the term "kholwa"

To discuss the question whether material self-interest was more important to the kholwa
than religious conviction one needs to know who the kholwa were. The word itself is
derived from "ikholwa" which is used by speakers of Zulu and Xhosa to refer to
Christians, and it means "believer". It is used in many historical works to refer to black

Christians in southern Africa.1 Nowadays it is often used of those who are "Christian" in
a cultural sense, those who are, in English, called "nominal Christians". Zulu preachers
often make a distinction between "ikholwa" and "umKristu", between a "believer" and a
"Christian". In English, the connotations tend to be reversed, where "believer", in a
Christian context, means a more than nominal Christian.
Most of the white colonists in Natal and the Cape in the nineteenth century were also
"kholwa", in the sense that, even if not active church members, they would have at least
a nominal affiliation to one or other Christian denomination. If the question of this essay
were asked about them, one could, without undertaking a great deal of research, at
least put forward the hypothesis that for most of them material self-interest was more
important than religious conviction. Kholwa is a cultural and class term, and is often
used to describe people who have little or no religious faith, but who have some
association with cultural or class groups that have been influenced by Christianity.

Ways of looking at the question

At this point it might be possible to stop and argue that since, by definition, the kholwa
are primarily a cultural or class grouping, the statement that economic self-interest was
more important to them than religious conviction is axiomatic, and does not need to be
proved. The objection to this would be that it would be looking at the matter ahistorically,
and would not help one to answer a number of historical questions.

Historical or sociological
To look at it historically, the question needs to be refined: to what extent were the
kholwa motivated by material self-interest rather than religious conviction? The white
colonists of the nineteenth century could be considered in the same way as the African
Christian communities from a sociological point of view, but historically, they had grown
up in a community that generally paid at least lip service to what it saw as Christian
values. For blacks in the same period, becoming a Christian was far more difficult. In
Zululand, especially, during the period of the monarchy, being a Christian was seen as
being incompatible with being a loyal subject of the Zulu king. For whites, at this time,
being a Christian was socially acceptable. For most blacks it was not.

The last point raises a theological question, which also needs to be considered. The
Zulu monarchs were very much aware of a central point in Christian theology, which the
missionaries found difficult to answer: the Christian faith demands loyalty to Christ as
"king of kings", and the Zulu monarchs had no intention of taking such a subordinate
position. Their Christian subjects would therefore be seen to have a higher, and
conflicting, loyalty. In this respect, at least, Christians in Zululand in the period of the
monarchy were in a very similar position to the Christians in the Roman empire before
In historical writing it has been Anglicised by omitting the Zulu prefix (as indeed the word "Zulu" itself has
been Anglicised). Other loan words from Zulu have been similarly treated when assimilated into English -
for example "fundi", meaning "expert", is derived from the Zulu "umfundi", meaning a scholar.

Constantine - a group who were likely to be suspected of disloyalty to the state. One of
the problems faced by the Christian missionaries, therefore, was not that the Zulus
failed to grasp the main tenets of Christianity, but that they understood them only too
well, and rejected them. It will be necessary to return to this point later.

Presuppositions of the historian

It is well known that historical writing tells as much about the presuppositions and
values of the historian as it does about the subject matter the historian is writing on. In a
question such as this, ideological bias can play a significant role. A Christian historian,
believing that the kingdom of heaven is a "pearl of great price", looks for evidence of
people who sacrifice their material self-interest in order to acquire it. A Marxist historian,
believing that religious faith is epiphenomenal, and simply a reflection of the productive
relations in society, will interpret the evidence to support this hypothesis. Can any
attempt to answer the question actually succeed in doing any more than showing the
writer's own philosophy of history?
In view of this, I should at least give an outline of my own presuppositions and
experience, insofar as it is likely to affect my writing of this article. I have mentioned the
Christian and the Marxist points of view, and of course there are many others, though
these are the main ones to be found in writing on this subject. I myself approach the
topic from a Christian point of view, and, while recognising that Marxist analysis can be
a very useful tool for interpreting class and economic behaviour, I do not believe that
Marxist analysis is adequate to explain every aspect of human behaviour. I should also
point out that for the last 25 years I have had a fairly close association with the very
class of people which is the subject of this question, including leaders of the Northern
Natal African Landowners Association who were fighting blackspot removals in the
1960s, and with church leaders in the 1970s and 1980s. This gives certain advantages,
but it also has several drawbacks, not least of which is that it might be too easy to read
back into a situation two or three generations ago things that have developed

Source material
There is very little published material dealing with this specific question and more
research needs to be done to answer it adequately. I have drawn on Etherington's
thesis (1971) extensively for factual data. Etherington himself makes the point that very
little research has been done in this field, and it is not possible to do such research in
the scope of an article such as this. Etherington later (1978) published a book
(Preachers, peasants and politics in Southeast Africa) that incorporated much of the
material of his thesis, but while his thesis gave more of the background to the religious
motives of the kholwa, these were not included in the book. In his book, therefore,
Etherington appears to follow the same line as Bundy and others - the assumption that
material self-interest was more important to the kholwa than spiritual considerations. In
my experience of "kholwa" in the twentieth century, this is an unwarranted
overgeneralization. It is a hidden presupposition that colours a lot of recent South
African historical writing, and it needs to be challenged; and Etherington's own data in
his thesis do not support it. I do not really disagree with Etherington's main thesis, nor

with that of Bundy. Their contributions are important and useful. What I disagree with is
the hidden presupposition, which does not really form part of their argument, and so is
harder to pin down.
This article is not intended to be a commentary on Etherington's thesis, but rather to
challenge the general perception of the kholwa that is common among secular
historians. I am not trying to give a definitive answer to the question here; my main
purpose is to query the assumptions in some of the writing on the subject, and to point
the way for further research.

Approach to this question

In this introduction, I have tried to outline some of the possible approaches to the
question, and some of the difficulties in the way of answering it, and also some of the
issues that need to be considered in answering it. I hope to deal with some of these in
more detail in what follows.


Looking back on more than a century of Christian missionary activity, the compiler of "A
year-book of South African missions" wrote in the 1920s that one of his aims was to
"portray successfully the response of the Natives to these efforts on their behalf,
revealing the very real influence of the Native Church, the emergence of an intelligent
class of civilised natives, the development of Native organisations for the attainment of
their racial aspirations" (Taylor 1927: vii).
Here, though the terms are different, we see the kholwa being referred to as a class, in
very much the same way as many historians were to do fifty years later. The writer was
very much aware that one of the results of the efforts of missionaries was the creation of
a new class of people, and clearly sees this as part of the success of their work. In the
nineteenth century, missionaries saw their task as bringing Christianity and civilisation.

The "civilising" mission

Etymologically, "civilisation" means the culture of city dwellers, and in a sense the link
between Christianity and civilisation goes back to the earliest days. The Christian
churches began in cities, and only gradually spread to the surrounding countryside. The
words "pagan" and "heathen", applied to non-Christians, attest to this. If urbanisation
means people living in cities, "civilisation" goes further. A South African missionary writer
recently published a book with the title Die stad in die mens (Louw 1980): civilisation
means more than simply living in cities, it means acquiring the values and culture of city
Vilakazi's (1965:141) study of a twentieth-century rural community in Natal showed that,
though traditionalists from the area might go to work in the cities, it was for the most part
the kholwa who accepted urban values and culture. The nineteenth-century
missionaries came from an urban (or "civilised") culture, and they brought the values
and assumptions of that culture with them. One manifestation of this is their
extraordinary predilection for persuading their converts to build rectangular or "upright"

houses, and even, apparently, measuring their progress by the number of such houses
their converts built. Rectangular houses are characteristic of cities and of urban culture,
and for those brought up in such a culture a house of a different shape would not seem
to be a "proper" house.

The kholwa as an economic class

Shula Marks (1986:46) discusses the prosperity of the kholwa in nineteenth-century
Natal, and gives several examples of prosperous individuals. Norman Etherington
(1971:340), however, points out that "if the term elite is used to signify a group enjoying
special privileges and prestige, the kholwa were most certainly not an elite group before
1880. They were painfully aware that they were shunned and despised by most heathen
Africans." Undoubtedly there were prosperous individuals and communities among the
kholwa, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth
century. But it is misleading to say that this prosperity extended to all the kholwa, or
even to the majority of them. The leading citizens of Zululand at the same period (the
1860s) were probably far wealthier than the most prosperous of the kholwa in the
Eastern Cape or Natal, and certainly more so than those in Zululand.
Nevertheless, it is true to say that the prosperity of the kholwa was seen and measured
in capitalist terms. Whatever may have been the missionaries' reasons for encouraging
their converts to build upright houses, they used these as a measure of their prosperity
(Bundy 1979:172) and the colonial government of Natal exempted the owners of such
houses from hut taxes, on the grounds that the upright houses needed European tools
and techniques of building, and the builders would pay import duty on the tools
(Etherington 1975). Among the kholwa, wealth and prosperity came to be measured in
terms of land and capital, rather than cattle.

The first converts

As I have already pointed out, before 1880 the kholwa were nothing like an elite. In spite
of the missionaries' desire to make converts from the typical heathen, and from ordinary
members of tribal society, the early residents of mission stations were generally
atypical, and were the dregs, rather than the elite of society (Etherington 1971: 201-
203). Many were refugees from wars or feuds, or were fugitives from justice. Some
were migrant labourers, while others were homeless and dispossessed.
The Mfengu, whose cultural background was similar to those in Natal, and who were
driven south during the mfecane, turned to Christianity in a way that the Nguni who
remained in Natal did not, at least for another two generations (Etherington 1971:206).
Etherington sees this as an illustration of the "primacy of secular needs in drawing
Africans to Christianity", but I do not think he has examined it deeply enough.

Christianity and social change

In the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries in Africa shared a generally similar
western European or North American cultural background. It was easy for them to
identify their own cultural values with the Christian faith, and to see them as two sides of
the same coin (Bundy 1979:28). In the twentieth century, missionaries have questioned

these assumptions of their predecessors, and have undertaken a sociological, historical

and theological re-examination of the relationship between Christianity and culture (see
Kraft 1981 passim). This has gone hand-in-hand with a study of what makes a particular
group of people receptive to the message of missionaries. One of the findings of
missiologists is that it is people in transition who are most open to a change of
worldview (which is what religious conversion entails). For individuals, such transitions
include adolescence, beginning their first job, getting married, having their first child,
their last child leaving home, menopause, retirement, getting fired, getting promoted and
death in the family (McGavran 1980:259). For communities and groups of people, these
transitions include any form of rapid social or economic change. The point about such
external changes is that they tend to make people receptive to new ideas, and to be
more willing to change their worldview.
In the light of this, it is significant that the early kholwa of Natal and the eastern Cape
colony fit into this pattern. The Mfengu, for example, were driven from their homes,
uprooted, and found that their old interpretations of the world and society were no
longer adequate. Etherington has correctly discerned the contribution of secular needs
in drawing Africans to Christianity, but these needs were not purely economic. The
Mfengu are an excellent example of a group of people in transition.
The very same conditions that make people receptive to a change in worldview also
make them more open to economic and social changes. In a stable society, people see
little reason to change their worldview, or their social or economic system. This goes a
long way towards explaining why the Zulus were opposed to Christianity before 1880,
but much more receptive afterwards. The economic and social disruption and insecurity
that followed the Anglo-Zulu war made people more open to rethinking their worldview.
The economic, political and social forces that sanctioned the primacy of loyalty to the
monarchy had broken down, and with them, one of the main obstacles to the Zulus'
acceptance of Christianity. The Zulus had become a people in transition.


Etherington describes not only the origins of mission station residents, but also gives an
indication of how some Africans were converted. For some, it was listening to or
reflecting on a sermon, for some, there seemed to be a spontaneous desire to learn,
while for many, it seems to have been a revival meeting (Etherington 1971:203-204).
Even today the umvuselelo, or revival meeting, is the commonest form of evangelism
among Nguni Christians, and, in many denominations, was not encouraged by white
In many places, often far from the organised life of the mission stations, churches
sprang up as a result of the private initiative of a few people.
Such descriptions as are available suggest that the situation a century ago was not all
that different from that which obtains at the present day. Certainly the descriptions given
of revival meetings could equally well apply to similar events taking place now. But
again, as Etherington (1971: 203) points out, "After the passage of a century any
conclusions drawn about motives for conversion must be purely speculative" and he
goes on to remark that "All the instances of conversions discussed so far can only be

explained in terms of the psychology of religious conversion among the Nguni, a subject
on which virtually nothing has been written" (Etherington 1971:206). The question of
whether the kholwa were motivated more by economic needs than by religious
conviction must, at this distance, remain equally speculative.
All that can be done is to examine the behaviour of the kholwa, and to try to draw
inferences from this behaviour.


Bundy (1979:38) has pointed out that nineteenth-century missionaries set out
consciously and actively to promote economic differentiation and the formation of social
classes, though when he asserts that this was the ultimate concern of missionary
enterprise, I believe he is going too far. It is, nonetheless, clear that this was a stated
concern of many missionaries, and, as I pointed out at the beginning, success in this
was seen as one of the indicators of the success of the missionary endeavour as a

Kholwa economic activities

The very fact that the existence of such a class could be pointed to as an indication of
success shows that many of the kholwa did form such a class. Many became
landowners and peasant farmers, and prospered as a result of their association with
missionaries. The missionaries introduced improved agricultural technology, such as
iron ploughs drawn by oxen, which enabled kholwa farmers to increase their production
and produce a surplus for sale. Many kholwa also became transport riders and traders.
By the 1880s kholwa peasants were responsible for a significant proportion of Natal's
agricultural production, and blacks contributed almost a quarter of the Government's
revenue. Various reasons have been given for the decline that followed, but they are not
relevant to our question. In the light of the claims in some circles today that whites are
subsidising blacks through their taxes, it is, however, worth noting that during the 1880s
blacks were subsidising whites.
Etherington points out, however, that the actual achievements of the kholwa were not
entirely in accordance with the missionary vision. Quite a large proportion of the
missionary educational effort went into the training of artisans, but their success was a
great deal less than was hoped for (Etherington 1975:277). Whatever the reasons for
this, the fact remains that in their economic activities, the kholwa did not develop
entirely as the missionaries hoped. Their African converts had their own ideas about the
kind of education they wanted and the kind of work they wanted to do.

Religious activities of the kholwa

In the religious sphere as well, the kholwa showed an independent spirit from early on.
Some of them complained that, for example, the American missionaries wanted to make
American Christians out of them instead of Zulu Christians. Others took the initiative in
forming organised evangelistic enterprises, such as Unzondelelo, founded by Edendale
men in 1875 (Etherington 1971:302). The Methodist Church had been characterised by

lay initiative from its earliest days, and many conversions were the result of the efforts of
untrained and unofficial preachers. Unzondelelo, however, was a new departure. It was
an organised venture, and was financially self-supporting. It sent its own missionaries,
without reference to white church leaders, to various places, some as far afield as
Swaziland, and seems to have been remarkably effective.

Independent churches
It is interesting to note that, in the twentieth century, the Zionist churches are the fastest-
growing of all groups of denominations in South Africa, and that they generally do not
form an elite. While the Zionist churches made their appearance right at the end of the
period we are concerned with, it is significant that they are probably the churches which
people have the least economic incentive to join, and yet they are growing the fastest.

I have already pointed out the difficulty in determining the motives of people who lived a
hundred years ago. Very little has been written on the subject, and accurate information
is difficult to come by, as the documentation available is sketchy.
In the published literature, there have been several instances of individuals who
became Christians because of material inducements. There have also been instances
of conversions among people who had no such inducements. There are well-
documented instances of kholwa leaders who were prosperous and well off. Yet these
do not seem to have been typical of the kholwa as a group. Before 1880, the kholwa do
not seem to have been an elite, but rather the reverse. As in other groups and classes,
the elite among the kholwa gain more publicity. In a capitalist society, the careers of
successful capitalists tend to be better documented than those of the proletariat. One
can no more say that the examples cited by Marks and Etherington are typical of the
kholwa than one could say that those whose biographies appear in Who's who of
Southern Africa represent a cross-section of South African society.
Some kholwa showed enterprise and initiative in economic affairs, and were initially
integrated into capitalist society; others showed enterprise and initiative in the religious
sphere, and they were not always the same people. Some of those who took the
initiative in the religious sphere were not the elite among the kholwa.
I have pointed out that missiological studies show that religious conversion is more
frequent among groups of people who are experiencing rapid social change, people in
transition. The kholwa of South East Africa do not seem to be exceptions to this, and
most of the examples from this region seem to bear out the general finding. The
interpretation of this, however, is another matter. Does it mean that the kholwa were
people who wanted to grow rich from peasant farming, and saw that the missionaries
had land, and therefore sought baptism? In a few cases, this is probably what
happened. But it should be borne in mind that before 1880 the kholwa were generally
not prosperous and not an elite. Nevertheless, the earliest converts and followers of
missionaries were the refugees and dispossessed. They attached themselves to
missionaries because the alternative was starvation, not because they expected to
become rich. This is, of course, a manifestation of material self-interest.

On the other hand, towards the end of the period, there were probably far more kholwa
who were not living on mission-owned land, who were converted by voluntary black
itinerant preachers, or at revival meetings attended by people who were as poor or
poorer than they were.
People who are in transition are those who have already experienced a great deal of
change, and are thus open to changing their worldview. They are also more open to the
adoption of any other innovations, including innovations in agricultural methods. The
kholwa who became peasant farmers may have done so because they were more open
to change of all kinds - social, economic, cultural and religious. They may have done so
because their association with missionaries enabled them to obtain land and improved
technology. They may have done so because the Christian and "civilised" worldview
they were taught promoted the values of hard work and capitalism. More likely, it was a
combination of these and other factors.
All that can be said in conclusion, therefore, is that for some kholwa, material self-
interest was more important than religious conviction, while for others it was not. There
are not enough data to determine the relative numbers of the two groups, and certainly
not enough to determine whether one factor weighed more heavily for people than the
other. There needs to be a great deal more research before this can be done.
For historical materialists, of course, such considerations miss the point. For them,
history is made by the economic relations between people in the process of production,
and not by ideas. Trying to discover what motives people may have had for becoming
Christians is a waste of time, because their motives are seen as irrelevant. Empirical
research must take second place to theory, which will tell us what really happened. The
biggest problem with the historical materialist view seems to be its own contradictions. It
vehemently rejects all forms of idealism, except the idea of historical materialism itself.
From a Christian (and missiological) point of view, however, it is not enough to point out
the shortcomings of historical materialist writers. Christians have too often accepted an
idealist position, and have regarded people's motives and ideas as the only determining
factors in history. To do this, however, is to overlook the fact that Jesus Christ, the lord
of the church, is the incarnate Son of God. God, who is spiritual being, was sufficiently
interested in this material world that one of the Holy Trinity took flesh and became part
of it. As Christians we cannot unthinkingly accept the assertion that social being
determines social consciousness or vice versa. We should rather examine the relations
between them, and see how they influence each other.
In the case of the nineteenth-century kholwa (or any other group of people who become
Christians) we need to take seriously the economic factors that may have influenced
their conversion, but we also need to see how their Christian faith influenced their
economic and social life.

Afanasyev, V.G. 1987. Historical materialism. New York: International.
Bundy, C. 1979. The rise and fall of the South African peasantry London: Heinemann.
Etherington, N.A. 1971. The rise of the kholwa in Southeast Africa. Yale University: Ph.D. thesis.

Etherington, N.A. 1975. African economic experiment s in colonial Natal, in B. Guest, & J.M. Sellers (eds),
Enterprise and exploitation in a Victorian colony. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.
Etherington, N.A. 1978. Preachers, peasants and politics in Southeast Africa. London: Royal Historical
Hollenweger, W. 1972. The Pentecostals. London: SCM.
Kraft, C.H. 1981. Christianity in culture. Maryknoll: Orbis.
Marks, S. 1986. The ambiguities of dependence in South Africa. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
McGavran, D.A. 1980. Understanding church growth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Taylor, J.D. (ed.) c1927. Christianity and the natives of South Africa. Lovedale: General Missionary
Conference of South Africa.


Originally written as an assignment for the History Honours course at the University of
South Africa in 1987. The bibliography and the article itself therefore do not include later
works dealing with the topic. Published on Scribd Sep 2009.

Stephen Hayes

PO Box 7648, Pretoria, 0001 South Africa