Fearing the Mirror

by Thulasizwe Somdyala

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”― James Baldwin

i have grown to have a sincere dislike for Cape Town. You can feel the disorientation in nature and surrounding, if conscious, you see the pain of a native face whose house bears a number and not the last name of the family. Natives walk and think like clockwork; a defeated purpose of just going around in circles. However, this is where uMama resides. Therefore, the heart finds itself there even when the mind and soul wishes not to. i feel i endorse, by my presence, the continual existence of a system that shamelessly promotes the broken status of the native with no sight of offering hope.

One of the experiences i look forward to when in Cape Town is riding the Metrorail train, third class, where the natives stack up. i find relevance with my people soaking in hood politics and street knowledge passed down in conversations, reflecting a lekgotla setting within the carriage. Words spoken illustrate the circumstance and subscribe ways to survive the common environment us natives are confined to. In the early hours on the train, you see our mothers squashed tightly by the overflowing volume of people in the carriage; dismantling their figures for the duration of the ride. Some mothers are on their way to work at a firm where she will be making things that she will never afford. Some of our fathers are on their way back from security guarding the night shift, missing the chance to see their children leave for school. By the time the father goes to work again, the children will be returning from school. Then there are the school kids who will identify with the inferiority they are being fed at school after experiencing this train ride. In the same train i am haunted by native missionaries who “come in the name of Jesus with the good news of the bible,” setting blurs in my eyes in refusal of witnessing the cultural genocide being imploded in front of me. Christianity in its fundamental discourse in Afrika is anti-Black; it seeks to remove and erase the essence of which we are with the interpretation of what we not. The pain watching my people commit a crime they are not incomprehension with; the bleaching of brains bringing white results that leave the label “fearing the mirror.” This essay discusses the concept of fearing the mirror; its historical attributes and consequences with the hope of illuminating self value within the native.

Source: The Citizen


In the fifteenth century, Portugal was the first European nation to pursue an aggressive and continuous exploration outside its shores. Infante Henrique also known as Prince Henry the Navigator is widely attributed as the pioneer of expansion, the advancement is attached to his maritime skills. Infante Henrique’s motive outside the pursuit of gold in the west coast of Afrika was for the conversion of “pagans” (a derogatory term given to people not exercising their religious beliefs in an isolated institution outside of their way of life) into Christianity. He too was the Administrator of the Order of Christ- an order dedicated to being anti-Muslim. It is here that the blueprint of African invasion was to be supplemented with the supremacy of the moral code and standard of Christianity in conquered land.

Missionaries (Tithes)

“The mission is a twofold respect, a pioneer for commerce. It creates the needs for a civilised life and is at the same time a protective power… which contributes more to the security of commerce than many ships of far.”[1]

In 1800, missionaries came to southern Afrika with a bible in hand, dressed in long robes so to protect their skin from the harsh elements of the sun. Missionaries were on a mission to convert natives; natives they chose not to understand and be enriched by objective knowledge but gave allowance to their ignorance to be the driving force for the expansion of their word. Initially, the missionaries were faced with miniscule results of success with the conversion of the natives into Christianity than they had envisioned. The indigenous people of the land were weary of their foreign customs and those who aligned themselves to these foreign concepts were ostracised by society.

In the 1880s, Christianity started to bear fruit when missionaries became the only alternative for natives to access agricultural land[2] after whites in the Cape colony had committed to an onslaught of land grabs; displacing and diluting the custom existence of the natives. Missionaries and their work were then shaped by the motives of traders and colonial government officials. The missionaries had created a market for dependence on western produce. The alienation of local culture was created by the Christian faith through its necessary reforms (i.e. wearing of western clothing to be Christian); making western consumption mandatory to natives trained and schooled by missionaries on their quest to baptism. This education created inferior notions of iqaba- “the uncivilised”- among the natives fostered by the perceived supremacy of western scriptures. This new line of thinking brought more natives to the guillotine. In search of manual labour for the labour intensive Cape diamond mine fields, the migrant labour system was established in South Afrika- hammering a nail in the coffin of the native family make up. The institutionalism of single family headed homes was initiated as men now left their homes “to set themselves to the first duty of practical Christianity- which is to earn an honest livelihood.”[3] Reminds me of Caiphus Semenya’s Nomalanga.

Fearing the Mirror

The repositioning of the native led him to find meaning of self in a new belief which was the only source of survival once their land was taken. Telling uMama, a devoted Christian, that Christianity in its discourse in Afrika is anti-Black- no different from slave ships that planked and piled bodies. Slave ships that managed to give value only to those saved from the carnage and could see the light at the end. In the same motion, Christianity is the mechanism in transporting our minds into slavery. uMama then placed me in a setting where if you practised indigenous understandings of who you are, without the name of Jesus being an adopted ancestor, you were ostracised in society; seen as iqaba. Mmmh… Seems the tables had turned, and the native had become the missionary’s child. At this point the most profound question-statement I ever heard came to mind:

“Nizilibele ukuba nizalwa ngobani (?)”― Thandiswa Mazwai

“Have we forgotten who gave birth to us (?)” uMama further shared in her story that her aunt, my grandmother, whose trauma was encapsulated in the fact that she never used a mirror. She was traumatised by how bibles and mirrors replaced the wealth of cattle and our freedom to be. Today i see us fearing mirrors, scared to be who we are and confined to being what we not; as it is unchristian to acknowledge and praise your ancestors and understanding of our existence. A jealous God they say.

Further inspecting on current state of affairs globally, you notice that people who have held on to their beliefs and praise a deity they claim ownership to prove to fare better economically and culturally than people who do not. For example, the Jewish people with Judaism, the Arabs with Islam and the Chinese with Confucianism and Taoism. The better welfare is enabled by the steering away from strains of western ideology, enabling better autonomy of resolving local problems with local solutions.

Believing in your Own

In 1906, the Bambatha Rebellion occurred, gravitated by forces of structural economic hardship. This was directed to bring aim to the Zulu’s dependence on the British colonial economic agenda. The death of Cetshwayo in Eshowe in 1884 ended the line of independent Zulu kings preceding loss in the Zulu-Anglo War 1879-1896. Tradition and defiance were now mounted on the shoulders of minor chiefs to continue the fight for independence. The defiance ignited and upheld by Bambatha and his brothers was to be the last resistance exerted by Black people in South Afrika before the formation of the ANC in 1912. The rebellion was against the British’s further imposing of a tax on people, adding further burden on the tax already implemented on the hut. They first taxed people for living on the ground they stole. Then were doubling up by taxing people for breathing on the ground and sky they were poisoning. Thixo. Bambatha seeing the poison, he rejected the apple. Rejecting to pay the 1 pound imposed tax on people, government officials were sent to forcefully recoup. “Two policemen were killed and the rest were forced to retreat. It became clear that Bambatha was not to be intimidated. This marked the beginning of Bambatha Rebellion”[4].

Isaiah Shembe was baptised in the same year of the rebellion, 1906, by the Afrikan Baptist Church. He received his calling into ministry work being struck by lightning, in Zulu culture that being a sign of God’s calling of prophecy. In 1910 he started his own congregation, based on Ibramic faith overlapped by indigenous cultural practises of praise. “Followers of the Shembe religion believe that God sent down Jesus for the Christians, Mohammad for the Muslims and Shembe for the Afrikans. God sent different messiahs because people needed leaders who they could relate to; someone with similar culture, identity and so on.”[5] The church is primarily made up of Zulu speaking worshippers with sizable minorities of Swati, Xhosa, Basotho, Tswana, Pedi, Tsonga, and Venda. As religion is believed to be God’s word and law, Isaiah Shembe saw religion as a way of life inseparable from how people conducted themselves traditionally. In separating one from their culture and tradition makes religion irrelevant to one’s life.

Isaiah Shembe bought land in ekuPhakameni, and welcomed those marginalised to the ills of society into his home. These were mainly women who too began the journey with him. Parallel to Zulu culture, young women are enshrined as the centre narrative in Shembe’s teachings. uNomkhubulwane, The Princess of the Sky, who is believed to be God’s daughter is praised for her providence of life through fertility in womb and nature. Thus the protection and empowerment of women lay fundamental as per Shembe’s ideological bearings. During time of economic vanity, black people scarred by hardship, women came to Shembe for advice regarding upliftment. With the only available employment being considered, Shembe discouraged women into succumbing to the conditioning of being domestic workers for colonial descendants. He encouraged women to do something unique which they would be proud in embodying. He suggested women use their talents in arts and craft, creating products which they could profit from. “These goods were often sold to tourists. This idea started a trend that still exists even today. Shembe women would sell on the Durban beach front, roadside markets and in rural areas.”[6]

The Shembe Church’s integration of Christianity and African Traditional Religion can largely be linked to Frantz Fanon’s idea of reciprocal relativism, this is, when two cultures confront each other and enrich each other. The Shembe church does this by rejecting colonial status and ideas that African culture is inferior.[7]

Isaiah Shembe died from salt fever, a state where your body reabsorbs its own sweat. Out in the field Isaiah died to a worked death. The picture of déjà vu exhibited in the reporting of Steve Biko’s death was printed of Isaiah Shembe. Reports were published by the Apartheid government that Isaiah Shembe died trying to fly off a scared mountain in The Shembe Church with fake wings attached to him. An assassination to his ideas and legacy; an attempt to belittle him to fraud status.

Source: http://www.mathabo.com/stories

Looking at the Mirror

As Afrikans we connect through our ancestors as a medium to reach God. The ancestors have powers, incomprehensible to the outsider, to handle their people’s welfare. Afrikans believe in an immortal life; when you die your spirit is only separated from the body and it is the spirit that carries the wishes of the living to God- creating an eternal connection.

The loss of culture and migration into a new custom that inevitably rejects you because it is not who you are, resembles the story of Krotoa, a Khoekhoe who was later baptised and called Eva by the Dutch. She grew up from the age of 12 in the VOC fort, being an understudy of some sort to Jan van Riebeeck and she was able to understand Dutch and became a translator between the Dutch and Khoekhoe. She aligned herself to Christianity which later she found herself caught between the two worlds of being Christian and Khoekhoe. Eva was ostracised by her people for her perceived betrayal and later betrayed by her Christian friends after falling to alcoholism and prostitution after the death of her Danish husband and the reassignment of Van Riebeeck to Malacca[8]. A remark in a diary written about her at death read, “With the dogs she returned to her own vomit- a clear illustration that no matter how tightly muzzled by imprinted moral principles, it reverts to its inborn qualities.”[9]

Eva died still being seen only as a savage (regardless of her conversion into Dutch culture) by the Dutch and as well as a traitor to her people. This is the deeper disintegration that the Europeans brought to the Cape; they took away the natives sense of being and understanding of their humanity.

Clearing the Mirror

The Ethiopian philosopher, Zereyacob, believed you cannot validate truth or religion by being told by others or reading about it. He believed only by reason is truth revealed. ”Indeed he who investigates with the pure intelligence set by the creator in the heart of each man and scrutinizes the order and laws of creation, will discover the truth.”[10] Therefore, it is with ethical behaviour in relation to the world in which African religion is constructed and not as an isolated institution away from how we live. Ever since native South Afrikans converted to Christianity, we lost our connection with the world and have been tamed in the process. From lions to cats type of tame. Our resistance has not been one to restore our humanity but of being integrated into another man’s house; he holds the key so we stand as visitors in our land. Right now the native South Afrikan is that kid you did not want at your party as a child but your parents extended the invitation as it was morally right to do so. So you faked your emotions towards him to maintain some form of civility with little time to nurse his needs and conversation. That’s us right now. And it hurts to hear from natives every time “ancestors” is mentioned, they question “You really believe in ancestors?” with a condescending look. i lose steam at the thought that one must validate the existence of their family who has passed on with the mechanisms of Christianity. If we to move forward, we can no longer be the missionary’s child, we need to get out the house and walk our own way.


Edits by Ian Mangenga


The “i” small cap is a conscious imagery of not being bigger than the group.. The Cartesian principle is “I think therefore I am.” In Afrika we say,” I am because we are and since we are, therefore I am.”


[1]Warneck . 1888. Modern Missions and Culture: Their Mutual Relations

[2]The Role of Missionaries (Retrieved 27 September 2015) http://www.sahistory.org.za/missionaries

[3] Wilson & Perrot . 1973. Outlook on a Century: South Africa 1870-1970

[4] Bambatha Rebellion (Retrieved 15 September 2015) http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/bambatha-rebellion

[5] Shange N. 2013. Shembe religion’s integration of African Traditional Religion and Christianity: A sociological case study. P 89

[6] Griffin, S.F. 1995. “Shembe‟ is the way. Durban: Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA). P 11

[7] Shange N. 2013. Shembe religion’s integration of African Traditional Religion and Christianity: A sociological case study. P 121

[8] Oxford. South Africa and the Story of Eva (Krotoa): The New Oxford World History Series. p 1 (Retrieved 12 September 2015) http://blog.oup.com/2009/05/south-africa/

[9] Giliomee, H (Ed). 2007. New History of South Africa. P 51

[10] Sumner. 1985. Classical Ethiopian Philosophy. P 236