It is commonplace to talk about the politics of labour struggles in South Africa’s history through the lens and experiences of urban labour. In South African popular imagination the image of Black militancy is dominated by the urban setting and the organising power of mining and factory labour. Yet, two of the most powerful anti-colonial rebellions in the Eastern Cape were led by Africans who had also worked on or had been raised on boer farms in the late 1700s and early 1800s. These two leaders were David Stuurman and Makhanda, uNxele.

In their era, the farms – ‘die plase’– were a key site of struggle and the development of militant anti-colonial consciousness.

As historian Patric Mellet has recently reminded us (see: “Rename Clifton after Makhanda, a unifying figure in our heritage, Cape Argus 4 January 2019), the names of Stuurman and Nxele belong together in helping us to understand the history of anti-colonial resistance and indigenous consciousness at the time of colonial invasion.

In her 1980 paper, David Stuurman: “last chief of the Hottentots”, Vetreese Malherbe documents the life of the rebel Stuurman, considered in his lifetime a criminal menace by colonists, and a formidable leader by his Khoi and Xhosa kin, for his unrelenting resistance.

For his resistance, he would be imprisoned twice on Robben, and successfully escape twice.
In 2017 the community of Hankey repatriated Stuurman’s spirit from Australia, where he died in the 1830s; in the process his history and memory has been revived and reclaimed.

Nxele, unlike Stuurman, has enjoyed greater memorialisation with the town of Grahamstown recently being renamed after him. He too became a militant anti-colonialist by developing a pro-African Christianity and then leading the ill-fated war to repossess Grahamstown in 1819.
Both were to be incarcerated at Robben Island after Nxele failed to reclaim Grahamstown for amaNdlambe.

Of importance, as Mellet points out, is that Stuurman and Nxele both had Gqunukhwa-Khoi roots, even though Makhanda is often associated only with his Xhosa lineage.

However, in his lifetime, Stuurman’s people in the Eastern Cape came to be rigidly defined as ‘Gonaqua-Khoi’, even though they were not fully distinct from, and were related to amaXhosa.

Across the Cape Dutch colony in the 1700s, San and Khoikhoi people were no longer regarded as a ‘free’ people and were compelled to become workers attached to Dutch boers.

This, Stuurman resisted to the very end.

Emergence of an oppressed wage-earning class

In 1795 the Dutch controlled four districts from Cape Town through to Graaff-Reinet, which incorporated the Eastern Cape midlands up to the Fish River. Groups of boers seeking freedom and fortune, sought to rear cattle, goats, horses and sheep and moved away from the Dutch East India Company, into the interior.

In this land and labour grabbing context, free and independent San and Khoikhoi, such as David Stuurman, posed a continuous threat to the viability of the Cape boer agrarian economy. The assault on Khoi independence was met with fierce resistance, with groups attacking Boer farms and travelling parties from the 1770s. Vicious warfare erupted which caused such deep insecurity that many Boer farms in the Graaff-Reinet District were virtually abandoned.

The San and Khoikhoi had to be made into farm workers and had to be deprived of land in order for the Cape Dutch colony to exist.

As their land-based way of life deteriorated in the 1700s, dispossessed indigenous people in the Cape colony began to turn to work on boer farms to survive. In The origins of agrarian capitalism in South Africa Keegan argues that: “Throughout the sheep- farming districts of the Cape interior, Khoi labour was thoroughly proletarianised, even if subject to non-economic coercion.”

San and Khoikhoi people entered wage labour on boer farms as shepherds, servants, farm hands and domestic servants who exchanged labour for a wage- paid mostly in kind and maybe sometimes in cash. Part of that ‘in kind’ wage included payment in alcohol- the notorious dop system.

<h3 id=””>Clinging to Freedom: The wars of 1795 – 1819</h3>

In order to hold on to their new farms and labour, trekboers had to have a very punitive outlook towards San and Khoikhoi (see: the work of Nigel Penn and Vetreese Malherbe).

According to Malherbe’s David Stuurman:“last chief of the Hottentots”, David Stuurman had experienced brutal treatment at the hands of one of his boer employers: “Vermaak had first demanded that he be shot but settled for having him tied to a wagon and beaten with sjamboks. After that he was ‘salted and left in the burning sun, for some hours.”

Stuurman had apparently also fatally poisoned a previous boer employer.

In general, the Stuurmans refused to be coerced to give up their independence and were likely compelled by circumstances to work for farmers.

The Stuurman clan clung to whatever independence they could, and this required full participation in the military conflicts occurring across their ancestral lands.

They also were able to negotiate for some land and ‘free’ Khoi status from the Dutch boers, who really had no choice but to give it to them because of how vociferously militant the Stuurmans’ were in warfare.

Alongside then clan leader, his brother Klaas Stuurman and other allies, between 1795 and 1803, Stuurman led expeditions to re-capture cattle and land from Dutch boer colonists in the region of his birth, between the Gamtoos and the Fish River (the longitudes between Jeffrey’s Bay and Grahamstown, criss-crossing through from the Karoo interior to the coast).

In 1799, warfare broke out along the shrinking Gqunukhwa territories along the Gamtoos and there was a rebellion by frontier boer farmers in Graaff-Reinet against the British authorities at the Cape.

Historian Denver Webb, in “The War Took Its Origins in a Mistake”: The Third War of Dispossession and Resistance in The Cape Of Good Hope Colony, 1799–1803, argues that in the war that unfolded in 1799, the British had made the ill-advised decision to try to manage the boer rebellion while simultaneously using the moment to try to eject Chungwa’s amaGqunukhwe further east across the Fish River. [1]

This compelled a Khoi-Xhosa alliance which took advantage of the conflict between the Cape British administrators and rebellious Dutch burghers: According to Webb in “The War Took Its Origins in a Mistake”: The Third War of Dispossession and Resistance in The Cape of Good Hope Colony, 1799–1803:

“Without a clear indication that they would be protected from Boer vengeance, Stuurman’s Khoikhoi were driven into an alliance with the Gqunukhwebe. They were joined by other Khoikhoi leaders, Hans Trompetter and Boesak, and moved through the Zuurveld plundering and burning farmsteads… In panic, the Zuurveld Boers retreated into the Swellendam district. The victorious Khoikhoi and Xhosa followed, crossing the Gamtoos River and ranging far and wide. To the north, the Mdange Xhosa seized the opportunity to deal with the Boers around Bruintjieshoogte and penetrated close to Graaff-Reinet.”

Klaas Stuurman’s justification for conducting this war were labour exploitation, land loss and cruelty at the hands of Dutch boers; he reportedly told the British expedition he met near Port Elizabeth, in 1799:

“Restore the country of which our fathers have been despoiled by the Dutch, and we have nothing more to ask. We lived very contentedly before these Dutch plunderers molested us; and why should we not do so again, if left to ourselves? Has not the Groot Baas given plenty of grass-roots, and berries, and grasshoppers for our use; and, till the Dutch destroyed them, abundance of wild animals to hunt?..[owing to the cruelties suffered at the hands of farmers] resolved us at once to collect a sufficient force to deprive the Boers of their arms, in which we have succeeded at every house which had fallen in our way. We have taken their superfluous clothing in lieu of wages due for our services, but we have stripped none, nor injured the persons of any, though, we have yet a great deal of our blood to avenge.” (quoted in Malherbe’s 1997: 35, 36).

The missionary factor

1799 was also the year that Johannes van der Kemp, the missionary would arrive to preach the gospel. He mostly succeeded amongst the San and Khoikhoi who turned to his mission station for refuge against the Dutch boers.

After his brother’s death in 1803, Stuurman agreed that his clan be settled in Uitenhage next and receive missionisation from Van der Kemp, according to Malherbe’s David Stuurman:“last chief of the Hottentots”.

Although van der Kemp and his acolyte James Read were seen as mavericks by Europeans because of their partial indigenisation and advocacy for the oppressed San and Khoikhoi, David Stuurman viewed them with suspicion because they played mediator with the colony and he saw them as being an agents of Khoi pacification.

In 1809, colonists began accusing Stuurman of leading cattle raiding expeditions against them with amaXhosa and harbouring labourers who had deserted farms. Tensions were rising again in the Gqunukhwa lands and the British administration and boer colonists decided they had to get rid of Chungwa of amaGqunukhwebe by attempting again to push them eastwards of the Fish River writes Malherbe.

Chungwa had made another defensive alliance with David Stuurman; aware of the military threat that this posed- the Cape colonial administration resolved to pre-emptively arrest Stuurman and his brother Botsman, break up his village and send him to Robben Island.

Stuurman and his brother were both able to escape Robben Island in December of 1809, after which they made their way back to their Gqunukhwebe-Xhosa kin.

From here, Stuurman began enacting raids and in some sense became a phantom bandit in the minds of the colonists.

Stuurman’s Final Exile

In 1811, the spectre of the returned David Stuurman loomed so large in the colony, that col John Graham, who was tasked with ejecting Ndlambe’s Xhosa from their areas – was concerned with first getting Stuurman out of his alliances with amaXhosa.

Graham’s instincts were proved correct when Stuurman’s armed Khoikhoi assisted Xhosa Chief Habana to hold his ground, while Ndlambe and his people were forced to relocate over the Fish River, as Graham had desired.

In 1812, the city of Grahamstown was established on the land lost by amaNdlambe.

Stuurman remained exiled amongst amaXhosa, when around 1816, a prophet called Nxele emerged and began preaching a pro-African Christianity. Nxele would rise up in prominence amongst the Ndlambe-Xhosa and would eventually become itola, the war-priest – to lead the Ndlambe into war to reclaim Grahamstown in 1819. Nxele failed, surrendered a few months later and was sent to Robben Island.

In the aftermath of the Nxele’s war, Stuurman’s activities continued to cause colonists to believe he was behind multiple plots and revolts. Thus he was arrested and sent to Robben Island by August of 1819.

Along with Nxele and others, Stuurman escaped from Robben Island for a second time. While he was successful, Nxele and others drowned.

In 1823, Stuurman was recaptured and banished to Australia where he died in 1830.

Grappling with early agrarian anti-colonial struggles

It is at this nexus of land dispossession and labour coercion for Cape colony farms that the South African working class was first formed; industrial stage of mining labour was a second phase.

Baaskap (master domination) and wage labour were inextricably bound on the farms as one system. This system of labour relations that would later be exported to the urban mines, factories, kitchens and suburban gardens where South African working class labour is located.
Stuurman’s life shows how the struggles for land reclaimation were also the struggles against labour exploitation.

The struggles of the early wage-earners in South Africa were actually struggles for the land.

This article is based on my 2012 doctoral thesis titled Private Game Farms and the Tenure Security of Farm Workers and Dwellers in Cradock – Implications for Tenure Reform in South Africa (University of Cape Town)

[1] As Jeff Peires shows in House of Phalo, even though in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Chungwa had attempted to maintain some neutrality and peace, the entanglements of intra-Rharhabe kin-conflicts, made it impossible for amaGqunukhwebe to not eventually fall victim to the colonial border policy. The rivalry between Ngqika and his regent uncle, Ndlambe created a dynamic of constantly shifting alliances between various African groupings.