Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Politics of New African Marriage in Segregationist South Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Politics of New African Marriage in Segregationist South Africa

Article excerpt

Abstract: For the mission-educated men and women known as "New Africans" in segregationist South Africa, the pleasures and challenges of courtship and marriage were not only experienced privately. New Africans also broadcast marital narratives as political discourses of race-making and nation-building. Through close readings of neglected press sources and memoirs, this article examines this political interpolation of private life in public culture. Women's writing about the politics of marriage provides a lens onto theorizations of their personal and political ideals in the 1930s and 1940s, a period in which the role of women in nationalist public culture has generally been dismissed as marginal by scholars.

Résumé: Pour les hommes et les femmes éduqués dans les missions appelés "nouveaux" Africains dans une Afrique du Sud ségrégationniste, les plaisirs et les défis de se faire la cour et du mariage ne sont pas seulement des expériences personnelles. Les "nouveaux" Africains ont aussi publié leurs récits conjugaux comme des discours politiques sur les races et la consolidation de la nation. Grâce à des lectures attentives d'articles journalistiques et de mémoires négligés, cet article examine cette injection politique de la vie privée dans la culture publique. L'écriture des femmes sur la politique du mariage mettent en lumière les théorisations de leurs idéaux personnels et politiques dans les années 1930 et 1940, une période où le rôle des femmes dans la culture publique nationaliste africain a généralement été rejeté comme marginal parles chercheurs.

Key Words: Gender; marriage; race; ethnicity; nationalism; South Africa

"How can we build Africa when we regard each other as aliens?" In early 1942, a journalist posed this question to readers of the Bantu World, a Johannesburg newspaper with a national circulation. This question did not emerge in front-page reporting on a political convention. Nor did it appear in an editorial treatise against "tribalism." It was not posed by a prominent political leader like African National Congress President Alfred Xuma, a frequent contributor on similar themes. Rather, this big question appeared in the women's pages, in a column by "Miss Rahab S. Petje," an urbane young writer who would soon be attracted to the African National Congress Youth League in Johannesburg (African National Congress Youth League 1944). Her column focused on a more immediate challenge than that of building Africa: "Why we modern girls find it so very difficult to get married." She blamed "barbarism and backwardness in our parents, and worse still, segregation": she complained that parents, particularly "uneducated" parents, discouraged otherwise ideal unions between young women like herself, "an educated Mosotho lady," and eligible young men who were "Zulu B.A.'s, Xosa B.A.'s, etc." She urged parents to accept interethnic pairings between "educated" youth, so that their daughters might become proud "mothers of Africa" rather than "old maids" or "fallen girls" (Petje 1942).

Scholars of South African political history have paid much attention to contemporary discourses of panethnic (often called pan-"tribal" at the time) unity staged at political conventions and in newspaper editorialsdiscourses usually issued by men (see Limb 2010; Rive 1991; Cobley 1990; Couzens 1985; Walshe 1971). Indeed, scholars have characterized women as marginal to African nationalist politics before the 1943 formation of the African National Congress Women's League (e.g., Erlank 2003; McClintock 1995; Walker 1991). But political histories have generally neglected to explore the political interpolation of private life in public culture that was also characteristic of the 1930s and 1940s, which Petje's writing exemplifies.

This article explores how mission-educated men and women broadcast marital narratives as political discourses of race-making and nation-building. It first situates this complicated class of writers and readers within segregationist South Africa, where they were known as "New Africans. …

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