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This article was originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you would like to see some other articles from Missionalia, have a look at the list of Missionalia articles on the Web


Z.K. Matthews and missionary education in South Africa

by Willem Saayman

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Z.K. Matthews was an outstanding African academic and politician of 20th century South Africa. A product of the liberal and humanitarian mission education of Lovedale, he was also implacably opposed to the injustices of colonialism and apartheid. His ambiguous contribution to South African Christianity can be characterised as 'subversive subservience:' while employing many key colonial 'tropes' he did not 'follow the script' consistently but undermined it in various ways. He appreciated the positive contribution of missionaries but was highly critical of their injustices. He was one of the Christian leaders who saw to it that the gospel 'escaped' from the hands of missionaries in order to be appropriated authentically by African communities.


It is no easy matter to establish the extent to which outstanding African individuals such as Professor Z.K. Matthews can be said to have exercised their own initiative in Christian mission in South Africa. Given the singular position of outstanding pioneering individuals such as Z.K. Matthews, John Tengo Jabavu, Tiyo Soga and others, it seems at first sight to be stretching the point to talk in their case of African initiative. Certainly they contributed in a very important way to the relatively rapid growth of Christianity in South Africa. But in theology, methodology and approach, these individuals seem, rather, to epitomise that which colonial mission wished to produce: African Christians able to replicate in themselves, in their very being, the Western missionary ideal of Christianity at the time. They seem, in other words, not to have threatened colonial missionary hegemony in any way. As De Kock (1996:106) puts it, they spoke "in the modulated voices of the elite subjects of missionary education." If they were therefore faithfully "following the script" prepared by colonialist missionaries, how can one characterise their con tribution as "African initiative?"

What I am therefore trying to establish at the outset is that any analysis of ZK's contribution to African initiative in Christian mission has to deal, to a dispiriting extent, with the "ambiguities of dependence" (Shula Marks) inherent in the colonial situation. It is impossible to retrieve in "authentic" form the voice of the silenced victim of colonisation (De Kock 1996:105). I have therefore opted to regard the language and theology of African figureheads in De Kock's terms as "severely compromised by their necessary acquiescence to the new power formations and the new forms of 'civil' discourse" (De Kock 1996:110). De Kock characterises these forms of expression as subversive subservience (:105-140), arguing that the thinking of these privileged individuals enables us to recover a "subversive response" from modes of discourse which were only "apparently subservient" (:106).1 De Kock develops this concept in a study of the dominant role of the English language in South Africa, and the cost at which this was achieved. He concentrates his study on Lovedale as the pre-eminent missionary education centre of nineteenth century South Africa. My argument in this paper will be that a related and analogous case can be made out for a similar study of the dominant role that the Christian religion at present enjoys in South Africa, and the cost at which such dominance was achieved. Mission schools played an essential role in bringing about the christianisation of South Africa. Missiologists have not yet analysed the ambivalent (possibly duplicitous?) role of mission schools in that process. My paper, and the conscious choice of the concept of subversive subservience as an analytical tool, should therefore be read as a first attempt to achieve this (cf. Saayman 1996:90-93).

The recent interest in African agency in the colonial project is by its very nature interdisciplinary, covering fields such as linguistics, culture, social anthropology, sociology, history and theology – in short, all the social sciences. My approach in this paper is therefore also interdisciplinary, and I readily acknowledge my indebtedness, especially to De Kock's study. I hope in the end, though, to be able to interpret this missiologically.



Education played an important role in the colonial missionary project in South Africa from the very beginning, but began to make a major impact during the second half of the nineteenth century. Lovedale,2 destined to become the pre- eminent missionary education centre in South Africa, was opened in 1824 with the Rev Govan as the first headmaster. Govan regarded education as the means by which Africans could be elevated to exactly the same level as Europeans. The educational ethos, in line with the dominant political assump tion regarding the relationship between the races at the time, was therefore assimilationist (incorporationist) in character: a fairly small elite group of Africans would be educated in the same subjects and to the same standards as white pupils, with the aim of assimilating them into white colonial society.3 Such an approach had no room for vernacular education for the masses, or a strong emphasis on ethnic nationalism. On the contrary, what was envis aged was the production, through a "proper" education, of a small minority of Africans with the "standards" and lifestyle of "civilised English-speaking gen tlemen" (the male form is used deliberately). This approach blended well with the contemporary political economy, which was mercantilist in nature, and which aimed at settling the large majority of (uneducated) Africans per manently in separate reserves.

The assimilationist ideal did not last very long. Under Lovedale's second principal, Dr James Stewart, the emphasis shifted as influence of the assimilationist ideal began to wane. Stewart was convinced that British supe riority and custodianship were necessary preconditions for African well-being. The new ethos held, as its point of departure, that Africans were adolescent (indeed, infantile) and would be a liability in a modernising, industrial society without the firm custodianship of white benefactors (cf. Ashley 1982; Kros 1992:4-5). Stewart therefore wished to design a curriculum and school sys tem in tune with the African ability ) as he perceived it. He therefore pro pagated "practical, industrial, and, for the great majority, largely elementary" education. In this regard he refers to complaints from (white) colonists "that there is too much bookwork and too little practical training" taking place in mission schools (Stewart in Edinburgh 1910:268). Stewart's thinking was in harmony with that of Langham Dale, Superintendent-General of Education in the Cape colony in the last part of the nineteenth century. Already in 1884 Dale (quoted in De Kock 1996:105-106) acknowledged that

the millenarian 'heaven' envisaged by early missionaries would never be realised .... Dale was [therefore] arguing for industrial education so that there might be fewer 'educated idlers,' who, he maintained, were 'a greater pest to society than the red-blanket [totally uneducated] Kafir.'

To my mind this statement trenchantly embodies three important assumptions embedded in mission education towards the end of the nineteenth century: 1) Christianisation through education was not meant to bring about equality of the races; 2) Educated Africans were likely to develop airs of superiority vis-à-vis their "uneducated" kinfolk, tending to become "idlers;" and 3) Such attitudes were untenable in the light of the reigning Protestant-capitalist work ethic.

The references to "the pest of idlers" and the work ethic necessitate some reflection on the relationship between mission education and the burgeoning industrialisation of South Africa after the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and gold on the Witwatersrand.4 Until this time, incorporation was the leading ideal in thinking about the accommodation of black/white relationships in the political economy. In the mercantile era, the reserve system made good sense, as large concentrations of black labour in "white" areas were not necessary. A political strategy which aimed at co-opting a minority of "suitably educated" Africans into white society thus made sense – hence the educational ideal of similar education for black and white. As Dubow (1989:131) suggests, however, this was no longer the case under conditions of industrial capitalism: "The growing presence of a large African proletariat in the urban areas had the contradictory effect of emphasising Africans' social and economic power while highlighting their lack of political rights."

Segregation therefore replaced incorporation/assimilation as a political programme. The shift from a mercantile to an industrialised economy, with the accompanying need for sufficient cheap black labour to render the new industries profitable, had to be accommodated in Christian and educational terms. In 1910, J. Angove (quoted in Marks & Trapido 1987:6) wrote: "It must be acknowledged that teaching the Natives the dignity of labour, which is done in the compounds of De Beers Consolidated Mines, prepares the way for the missionary in teaching them all principles of Christianity." In 1894, Cecil John Rhodes, as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, could promise the white electorate industrial schools to displace the mission schools which were "turning out kaffir parsons," maladroits who later developed into "agitators against government" (in Thomas 1996).


When Z.K. Matthews arrived at Lovedale in 1916, the institution clearly bore the imprint of its great principal, Dr James Stewart. According to Stewart (quoted in De Kock 1996:73), African education was designed to:

1) be largely industrial, with a good general education up to at least Standard IV;

2) be a three-year training course which would permit a limited number to qualify as teachers for native village schools;

3) allow a much smaller class to go as far as matriculation; and

4) allow any, to whatever extent they may choose, to go as far as they desired, at their own expense, and on the same terms and with the same privileges as Europeans.

This last may be justified on the theory that education proceeds from above downwards, not from below upwards. A small educated class stimulates the ambition of those below, and this especially holds good among Africans.

I referred above to the general colonial conviction that Africans were adolescents, if not infants, who urgently needed the benevolent paternalism provided by kindly missionaries, district commissioners, and captains of industry. Stewart firmly held to this belief. In an address to the Lovedale Literary Society, he asked the rethorical question:

Starting as but yesterday in the race of nations, do you soberly believe that in the two generations of the very imperfect civilisation you have enjoyed and partially accepted, you can have overtaken those other nations who began that race two thousand years ago [!], and have been running hard at it for a thousand years at least? (De Kock 1992:128).

For this reason Stewart firmly rejected any idea of equality between the races. Because there could be no equality between the races, educational equality as a step to further equality was, for Stewart, a nonsensical idea. The "craze for Latin and Greek among a few" is therefore for him indicative of nothing but a buffoonish approach to learning among a few "empty-minded" Africans (cf. De Kock 1992:128). De Kock comments (as an ironic twist of fate?) that the missionary discourse in Stewart's time, by its very nature, set goals "which could have little effect but to perpetuate the gulf or chasm originally perceived by the missionaries as one between barbarism and civilisation" (De Kock 1996:131).

To sum up then: Z.K. Matthews entered a mission education system labouring under significant ambivalences and ambiguities. On the one hand, only churches and mission societies were extensively involved in providing African education at the time.5 On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the Christian ethical principles underlying this system of education were severely compromised through the entanglement of mission and colonialism.


I think it is necessary, in order to evaluate ZK's contribution, to start by reminding ourselves of the idealism with which Africans generally regarded education, as well as the sacrifices involved. For this reason I wish to use ZK's own poignant description of how the news that he had won a bursary to Lovedale was received by his family.

At home, when I arrived with the tidings, the light leaped into my mother's face. The scholarship covered only the tuition and board. It would mean finding the money for the journey – Lovedale was 500 miles south of us – and money for books, clothing, and other necessities. There was, too, the prospect, so exciting for me and so sobering for my mother, of my going so far away, where none of our family had ever been before, and into Xhosa country at that. When my father came home he clasped my hand with joy and pride. He and mother and my brother John, then in his final year of teacher-training at Perseverance School, talked the whole thing over as I listened in dazed delight and wonder. 'We must see him through,' my father said, and my brother John unhesitatingly assented. It meant that some of his small hard-earned income would, for years to come, be spent on giving me the chance of a high school education. I never knew in detail how my family managed, how much of my father's meagre savings and meagre salary, how much of John's hopes and efforts, went into giving me my start. I know only that it was an offering of the spirit that is forever beyond repayment (Wilson 1983:28-29).

Small wonder then that ZK was to feel such a strong vocation for teaching. He says that he regarded teaching not simply as a profession, but as a call to mission, a mission "to serve my own people and discharge my enormous obligation" (Wilson 1983:82).

His first opportunity to begin discharging his obligation came when he was appointed headmaster at Adams College near Amanzimtoti in Natal.6 He was the first African to be appointed headmaster of a secondary school in South Africa. In a report to the College Advisory Board (C1-3 ZKM Collection, UDCAS), he makes it clear that he dislikes courses specially developed for "natives," as they are widely considered to be inferior. Based on results achieved at his own school, and confirmed by results at other schools, ZK was convinced that the South African matriculation course "is not beyond the capacity of the native student, as is so often erroneously supposed." It was indeed his years at Lovedale, ZK was later to point out (1983:36), that awakened in him the burning desire to prove that Africans were equal to Europeans in all respects. According to him, the roots for this desire lay in the fact that they had European teachers for all their subjects except the Bantu languages. Students were also forced to use only English from Mondays to Fridays. "This growing ambition to prove the value of his Africanness was probably the opposite of what the founders of Lovedale had in view, namely the thorough christianising and Westernising of African pupils " (Saayman 1996:37).

It is also illuminating to note ZK's remarks about the teaching of History at Fort Hare (Matthews 1983:58-59).7 This first class of black students to graduate in South Africa were already struggling with the distorted facts, racial fantasies and ideological illusions of South African (and, to an extent, world) history as filtered through the white imagination of the time (cf. Starfield 1988:22). ZK remarked that

the history of the past reached us in a murmur of muffled voices, some telling us tales of our own people which we rejected as preposterous lies, others suggesting promises out of the European past itself which we did not quite dare take as applying to our future (Matthews 1983:59).

Although the faithful reproduction of the version of history as taught by the European teachers and lecturers was essential to gain good marks, the "subversive [communal] memory" of the past, alive in African oral tradition, kept the African students from accepting this school version of their history as "true." I think that this situation was probably at least partly responsible for the fact that ZK did not want a wholesale adoption of Western curricula. African education should rather be "the reconstruction of our experience in the light of the past experience of our fathers, our neighbours, other races and of mankind everywhere" (White 1993:199). In contemporary terms, one could argue that he was calling for a non-schismatic or non-sectarian Africanisation of African education.

ZK staunchly opposed the introduction of Bantu Education in the early 1950s,8 after the National Party victory in the 1948 general elections. Nelson Mandela (1994:156) quotes him as making the following declaration: "Educa tion for ignorance in Verwoerd's schools is worse than no education at all" – I would argue that one can see in this statement a precursor of the 1980s rallying cry: Liberation before education!

When addressing the missionaries and their institutions, ZK readily expressed his appreciation for what he regarded as great work. While he was studying at Yale in the early 1930s, after his stint as headmaster at Adams College, he was invited to address the 124th Annual Meeting of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) in Boston in 1933. In the address (A1-12 ZKM Collection, UDCAS), he gives a very positive evaluation of mission work in South Africa, especially that done by the ABCFM. Although it was still too early to predict what the verdict would be on the second century of Christian mission in South Africa, he felt that Christians had every reason to be proud of what they had achieved up to then. Nearly twenty years later, in April 1953, at a lecture at Howard University in the USA,9 ZK pointed out that Christian mission "has recognised and fostered in the African that dignity, and self-respect, that essential humanity which others with less lofty motives have sought to deny or destroy." However, he also pointed to the double standards of Western churches, quick to point at "paganism" and "evil" in African society, but closing their eyes to "rampant paganism" among whites (B4-29 ZKM Collection, UDCAS).10


It seems fair to characterise mission education at Lovedale as humanitarian and liberal. ZK Matthews and other contemporary African leaders themselves adopted such a Christian, humanitarian and liberal approach in their own lives (cf. Gerhart 1978). This seems to confirm what I remarked in the introduction: that ZK and other African leaders appear to have "followed the script" prepared by Western missionaries, and not to have threatened white hegemony in mission in any obvious way. It is very tempting in such a situation to describe the history of a colonised and christianised people in terms of their being trapped in the suffocating strands of the institutional web spun around them. To my mind it would be a mistake to do so – there are im portant nuances to take into account which may fundamentally change such an easy evaluation. It is, in my view, very important to remember that "the much greater power of the Europeans in the colonial encounter [also the colonial missionary encounter] does not negate the importance of African agency in determining the shape the encounter took" (Cooper 1994:1529). I think that one can argue that, at the deep level where Christian religion encountered African Traditional Religion, the missionaries' message "es caped" from their own hands and minds (Gray 1990) to find congenial refuge in the hands and minds of early African Christians. Despite the undeniable disappointments African Christians experienced with the ambivalences of their newly-adopted religion, therefore, "in the midst of ... disillusion and despair, authentic African appropriations of Christianity were developing" (Gray 1990:62-63). It is important to remember here Lamin Sanneh's thesis about the role of translation, and the essential "translatability" of the gospel itself in the colonial missionary encounter (Sanneh 1989). Translating the gospel, and proclaiming it in the vernacular, implies taking seriously the new host culture, and thus in a sense presupposes that the gospel would "escape" from the controlling hands and minds of the missionaries.

It is in this regard that De Kock's characterisation of subversive subservience seems useful. An African Christian leader such as ZK Matthews adopted some of the dominant tropes11 of the humanitarian-liberalist mission ary discourse. I am thinking here especially of dimensions such as the call for equal justice before the law, the value of education, and so on.12 In this respect one can therefore speak of him as being subservient to Western missionary hegemony, and "following the script." But leaders such as ZK simultaneously kept a much more critical distance with regard to other dimensions of missionary discourse, such as human community (race relations), cosmology, spirituality and the value of other religions, for example. He seldom openly challenged white missionary hegemony directly, but provides evidence of having contributed to the "escape" of the message from the hands and minds of the white missionaries. In this respect he therefore existed and acted in a manner subversive to white missionary hegemony. This subversion is not the same thing as retrieving, in authentic form, the voice of the silenced colonised at large (Young in De Kock 1996:105). But I would argue, with De Kock (De Kock 1996:106), that we have sufficient indications of a subversive response in "the modulated voices [also] of these elite subjects of missionary education." If we go about our search in this way, it is my contention, based on my study of ZK Matthews, that we will indeed discover "subversive initiatives." In the lives of African Christians, who were on the receiving end of the brutalities inherent in a rapidly expanding political economy, humanitarian liberalism perforce mingled with other realities. Those were dimensions of knowledge and belief such as ubuntu, the positive and holistic anthropology of African Traditional Religion, and the immediate reality and effectiveness of the spirits as well as the Holy Spirit. In this way the African Christian community developed concerns for beliefs and phenomena that Western Christian theologians tended to overlook or ignore.

Despite my fear of the dispiriting effect of the "ambiguities of dependence" (Shula Marks), I end on a more positive note, convinced that our research project is of the utmost validity.


I believe that it is necessary, in conclusion, to articulate what the missiological import may be of the present concern with researching African agency in Christian mission. Unkind critics may say that it is nothing more than a desire to be politically correct, a hypocritical attempt to embody the slogan Africanisation in missiological terms. It is undoubtedly true, at least for us southern African researchers, that the upsurge of interest in the role of African pioneers in Christian mission is not unrelated to the process of transformation in South Africa. I hope, though, that the real motivating force is wider than merely such a coincidence. Personally, I would situate this concern missiologically in the debate about interdependence and mutuality in Christian mission. For too long Christians in general and Christian mission aries in particular have conceived of the missionary journey only as a linear progression from "here" to "there" – Jerusalem, Samaria, the ends of the earth. We have failed to recognise that the missionary journey had much more in common with the flight path of a boomerang: no matter how hard and how straight it is thrown away, it never follows a straight line. If thrown with skill, it always returns to its point of origin. If thrown by the unskilled, its flight path is totally unpredictable, but certainly never simply a straight line.13 Peter goes to evangelise the "pagan" Cornelius, and returns to his exclusivist judaistic community of Christians forever a changed man. The subversive memory of Jesus alive in the Christian community chronicles throughout that missionary chickens always come home to roost. The unwritten, sometimes even untold, history of Christian mission emphasises, over and over again, that true evangelisation takes place only where the evangelisers are evangelised (cf. Saayman 1995).

To bring this home to South Africa and the subject of my paper, then: if we are to embark on research into the African initiative in Christian mission simply so that we can boast with African accomplishments, or have African figures such as Z.K. Matthews to prescribe as study material rather than John Philip, we have not yet done missiology. I believe that the charisms or charismatic gifts entrusted by the Spirit to God's African children from the very beginning of human history, have to be recognised as such and incarnated in both the missionary practice as well as the missiological reflection of the Christian community in South Africa and, indeed, in the Western world. Unless the evangelisers, whether white Africans or white Westerners, are evangelised, we will have laboured in vain. We must assist "the chickens to come home to roost" – in mutuality and interdependence. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic community in the whole oikoumene must reflect the unique genius of African charisms, so that the subversive subservience of African pioneers such as Z.K. Matthews becomes a sign communicating nothing less than the subversive memory of Jesus himself.


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VAN DER WALT, H. (Secretary of the Department for Education, Arts and Science) 1953. Letter to Mr Chapman, Acting Principal, Fort Hare, 22 July 1953. C2-190, UDCAS.

1 1 In his doctoral thesis in English Literature, entitled 'Civilising barbarians: Missionary narrative and African textual response in nineteenth-century South Africa,' Leon de Kock develops his methodology for analysing 'missionary narrative and African textual response in nineteenth- century South Africa,' with special reference to Lovedale (the pre-eminent missionary education institution in South Africa at the time, and Z.K. Matthews's alma mater).' It was published in 1996 by Lovedale Press/Wits University Press (De Kock 1996).

2 2 My emphasis on the role of Lovedale must be understood in the light of the fact that it was the pre-eminent mission education institution of the nineteenth century, but also the alma mater of Z.K. Matthews.

3 3 In this regard it is important to note that Lovedale came into being as a multi-racial school, originally catering for both black and white students.

4 4 I discuss this more fully in Saayman (1996), especially in chapter 1.

5 5 The statistics on African education in South Africa make interesting reading. Horrell (in Christie 1991:49) calculates that in 1905 there were only 184 schools for Africans in the whole of South Africa – all mission institutions. In these schools, approximately 3 100 teachers were teaching more or less 10 000 pupils, mainly in primary classes.

6 6 Adams College was started by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM). It later became a Congregational church institution.

7 7 It should be remembered that Lovedale and Fort Hare were very closely linked in the days of ZK. I am arguing therefore that ZK's remarks about History at Fort Hare can also be taken to hold true of the situation at Lovedale.

8 8 So strong was his revulsion against this system of education that he resigned from Fort Hare at great personal and professional cost rather than give the regime the opportunity to claim his acquiescence. I discuss this in more detail in Saayman (1996), especially chapter 4. One has to keep in mind, though, that ZK was one of the members of the Natives Representative Council and that he remained serving on it long after ANC structures had already decided to withdraw from it. I discuss this more fully in chapter 5 of Saayman (1996).

9 9 ZK was at that time Visiting Professor in World Christianity at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

10 10 This dualism of 'good' (white) and 'pagan' or 'evil' (black), 'mature' (white) and 'infantile' (black) is characterised by De Kock (1992:127; 1996 passim) as the leading 'master-trope' for educational discourse at Lovedale.

11 'Trope' is a technical term used in literary analysis for a 'figure of thought' such as a simile, metaphor, etc.

12 12 I have analysed ZK's response to humanitarian liberalist mission ideals much more fully in Saayman (1996).

13 13 I wish to state very clearly that this idea of the missionary journey and its 'boomerang effect' is one which was born in conversations which I had with my colleague, Klippies Kritzinger. It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge my indebtedness to him.

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