The economic hub of the Eastern Cape peasantry was King William’s Town, the fourth biggest centre of the old Cape Colony, much bigger then than the port of East London and dependent for its prosperity almost entirely on peasant production. King William’s Town was also a centre of mission activity, and many of the prominent white merchants and professionals were closely connected to the Scottish missionaries of nearby Alice. Their intellectual, spiritual and economic sympathies aligned with the emerging black peasant class and they were clearly distinguishable from the white farming community, as was demonstrated in the famous case of Rev. John Davidson Don, a Presbyterian minister prosecuted by the Cape authorities for protesting against the murder of a black labourer in 1885.
The liberal element made common cause with the emerging black elite to support ‘friends of the natives’ in elections to the Cape Colonial Parliament. Due to the colourblind franchise, black voters constituted more than 40% of the electorate in six Eastern Cape seats, and more than 20% of the electorate in 22 seats altogether. Cape politicians employed black political agents to mobilise black voters. In 1884 King William’s Town businessmen Richard Rose-Innes and James Weir sponsored a young black intellectual named John Tengo Jabavu who, frustrated by missionary censorship at Lovedale, resolved to start his own newspaper (See D.D.T. Jabavu – rallying white and black) . This was Imvo Zabantsundu, the first black-owned and edited newspaper in any South African African language.
Jabavu was not South Africa’s first black political leader – that honour belongs to Rev. Simon Sihlali of Cala who was elected president of South Africa’s first black political party, Imbumba yaManyama (founded Port Elizabeth 1882) – but he provided the rising black elite with an articulate voice, a platform and a role model. Organisations by the name of Iliso Lomzi (‘the Eye of the Nation’) sprang up in many of the smaller Eastern Cape towns, and in 1887 these convened a ‘Union of Native Vigilance Associations’ (Imbumba Yeliliso Lomzi Ontsundu), a direct forerunner of the African National Congress.
The number of black voters in the six key Eastern Cape seats increased sixfold between 1882 and 1886, and it seemed only a matter of time before black people utilised their voting strength to bypass the ‘friends of the natives’ and represent themselves directly in the colonial legislature.
But direct African representation in the legislature was not something that the framers of the liberal Cape constitution had ever envisaged. Their intention had been to incorporate black and coloured people into the system, not to create avenues whereby the system itself would be challenged.
White farmers began to mobilise on their own account, and in 1880 South Africa’s first formal political party, the Afrikaner Bond, was founded to protect white interests. It soon took aim at the liberal franchise. Voting qualifications were raised by the Parliamentary Voters Registration Act (1887) and the Franchise and Ballot Act (1892), so that the more rapidly black people qualified to vote, the more rapidly the colonial Parliament moved the goalposts.
The black vote itself split as the different white political factions – one headed by Cecil Rhodes and the other by the old-style ‘friends of the natives’ – exploited ethnic tensions to factionalise the black elite from within, one faction looking to Jabavu and the other to Dr W.B. Rubusana, a Congregational minister turned newspaper editor. Black politicians became overly absorbed in their own disputes. They failed to present a united front, thus allowing successive white administrations to roll back the gains of Cape liberalism. They also proved unable to come up with a coherent ideology at the political level, continuing to look to the Queen to save black South Africans from settler oppression. It was only after the Imperial government blessed the unification of South Africa under a racist constitution in 1910 that the stage was set for a new organisation and a new approach.