Indigenous Women’s Voices in the Colonial Records of South Africa: Asking for Permission

Indigenous Women’s Voices in the Colonial Records of South Africa: Asking for Permission

Peitho Volume 24, Issue 24 Fall

Author(s): Emily January Petersen & Breeanne Matheson

Emily January Petersen, an assistant professor at Weber State University, has conducted research on technical and professional communication in the United States, India, South Africa, and Botswana. Her research focuses on professional identities and organizations from a feminist perspective by examining social media, uncovering archival sources, and conducting interviews.


Breeanne Matheson is as Assistant Professor at Utah Valley University. She frequently conducts international field research in the Global South. She also has pedagogical interests in technical communication and rhetoric through community-centered projects and community action.

Abstract: This article tells the counterstories of women's voices in the colonial records of the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository in South Africa from 1900 to 1932. The documents reveal a common constraint for Indigenous women working inside a colonial system: that of asking for permission from authority, particularly white men within a colonial hierarchy. These stories recognize women as agents who employ survival strategies within racial hierarchies. We call out the violence of racial hierarchies that claim to be restrained by their own self-created policies and continue to recognize that technical documentation can be a tool of violence and oppression.

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Much of what we know about women from history comes from the famous or infamous. We often do not know much about the rhetoric that shaped the lives of ordinary women from history. To correct this, we went “in search of the debris of history … wiping the dust from past conversations, to remember some of what was shared in the old days” from the archives of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (hooks 338). The antenarrative fragments of women’s voices in those colonial records are all that exist on paper of some women’s lives in the repository, and such lives can teach us about women’s experiences and rhetorical considerations in the face of colonization and whiteness. This article explores a particular set of documents—colonial records from 1900 to 1932—and they reveal a common rhetorical constraint for Indigenous women working inside a colonial system: that of asking for permission from authority.

It is important to acknowledge that we authors are white women who live and work in the United States. We understand that our lenses, turned toward colonial records in an effort to recognize the voices of Indigenous African women, present significant limitations. We aim to address a call for more international scholarship (Jones, Moore, and Walton), a call for more diverse and international historical instances of women in technical communication (Petersen ), and to use our relative privilege to make space for more of these narratives. “For centuries the world of rhetoric has been anchored by Western patriarchal values … [with] a focus geographically on the Europeanized/Western world” (Kirsch and Royster 641). Through historical renderings of women whose only trace appears in colonial technical documents, we hope to make them visible, while recognizing that their voices in these records, perhaps the only written records of their lives, are mediated by many forces, including the colonial system and our white, Western gazes. We know that it is “a lack of awareness that turns whiteness from vehicle to weapon”  and that our sight may be limited (Martinez 46). Nevertheless, this article is meant to illuminate what and who we can through our available means and positionalities and to open, rather than close, the conversation about these missing stories from colonial documentation. Further, we believe that these stories are a fundamental key to the dismantling of colonial systems of white supremacy and that we have an obligation to study them as a part of our efforts toward racial justice.

We aim to avoid imperialist nostalgia, a form of delusional memory. We will not focus on the fascinations of imperialism that tend to lead white people like us to become enamored with the nostalgia of the past. We instead aim to “illuminate the undocumented … narratives of Black women’s experiences” (Baker-Bell 528). We know that narrative “has important implications for social justice…due to narrative’s potential for eliminating marginalizing silences” (Jones 351). Using a postcolonial lens to expand the field beyond Euro-Western narratives is a productive way of learning from and about people worldwide without engaging in a project that simply becomes a recolonization “under Western eyes” (Mohanty 516). We use five stories of women in the archives to accomplish these goals, as “multiple perspectives, especially those from people of color or other minoritized folk, are crucial to get at any sort of truth about racial matters” (Martinez 45-46). Further, “[t]o bear the burden of memory one must willingly journey to places long uninhabited … for the traces of the unforgettable, all knowledge of which has been suppressed” (hooks 342). We see the archives as an appropriate place for doing so, and our goal is to make the stories of people on the margins more visible.

This article tells five stories based on artifacts in the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, South Africa. We first review critical race theory (CRT), counterstory, and rhetorical archival scholarship to situate these stories and our analysis of them. Next, we outline our research methods, and then we tell the stories, ranging from 1900 to 1932, outlining the narratives that emerge from the documents we found and following each story with a rhetorical analysis. We chose these particular records for storytelling because they all represent the troubling narrative of Indigenous women asking for permission from white men, especially men within a colonial hierarchy. These stories offer insight into the rhetorical and logistical norms of colonized South Africa and point to the historical mechanisms of structural violence that Indigenous women faced. Finally, we discuss the implications of these stories, which include using counterstory as a historical method, recognizing women as agents employing survival strategies within racial hierarchies, calling out the violence of racial hierarchies claiming to be restrained by their own self-created policies, and continuing to recognize that technical documentation can be a tool of violence and oppression if it isn’t actively working toward social justice. As Plange argued, “the tactics and strategies women in these cultures adopt to confront their subjugation offer rich insights that have the potential to stretch the boundaries of feminist rhetorical studies” (n.p.).

Literature Review

Counterstories should create action and do so by challenging “the perceived wisdom of those at society’s center” and preserving “community memory of the history of resistance to oppression” (Martinez 114). Some counterstory methods include chronicles, narratives, allegories, parables, pungent tales, and dialogues (Martinez 22). Counterstory argues that we, especially white people, “need to stop minimizing the complexity and significance of narrative, stop depoliticizing the personal, and start studying the rich epistemological and rhetorical traditions that inform the narratives of people of color” (Martinez 92-93). Temptaous McKoy makes a similar case in her dissertation through Womanist theory. We should “focus on the narratives of Black women that are shared through various genres that are known to represent their lived experiences” (McKoy 39). This is important because “[n]arratives serve to accentuate, acknowledge, and validate the lived experiences of an individual at the specific moment of the tale recall and also serve to shed light on the lived experiences of those that have come in the past” (McKoy 40).

Counterstory, a methodology that argues that narratives are theoretical, follows the tenets of CRT, including the permanence of race and racism. Despite and because of such systems, Martinez argues:

…people of color have experiential knowledge from having lived under such systems of racism and oppression. POC have thus developed methods and methodologies that serve as coping mechanisms and navigation strategies, while also serving as ways to raise awareness of issues affecting people of color that are often overlooked, not considered, or otherwise invisible to whites. (Martinez 10)

The permanence of race and racism contributes to this double-consciousness that people of color  experience, and it connects to Wylie’s feminist argument that

…those who are subject to structures of domination that systematically marginalize and oppress them may, in fact, be epistemically privileged in some crucial respects. They may know different things, or know some things better than those who are comparatively privileged (socially, politically), by virtue of what they typically experience and how they understand their experience. (Wylie 339)

Given this information, “feminist rhetoric studies needs to be more inclusive of (and culturally literate about) global Black feminist practices” (Plange n.p.).

While the artifacts in this article do not necessarily represent the full extent of experiential knowledge, which is key to CRT, the artifacts do challenge dominant ideologies about who is represented in the archives. Despite the fact that the women’s voices are mediated by colonial records, the voices are still documented and visible. Further, the aim of this article is to centralize voices of women of color given the information that we have and to commit to social justice through recognizing and elevating these historical voices. We hope to extend the conversation begun in Peitho’s most recent special issue edited by Pough and Jones, whose work has provided “us with a new understanding of the rhetorical tools that sustain diverse histories across time and space” (n.p.).

Part of centering female voices of color is recognizing that Euro-Western narratives are not the only ones that can inform our theory and practice. The Global South is integral with the rest of the world; it can and should be as centered and central to ideas about rhetoric. Chandra Talpade Mohanty encouraged scholarship that is not so much a production of knowledge on a particular topic but rather a “political and discursive practice that is purposeful and ideological” which “resists and changes our ideas about ‘legitimate knowledge” (334). While doing such research, recognizing the narratives of women in other contexts, we must “[k]eep in mind that the history of international research by Western scholars mimics the colonial enterprise … International collaborations should be seen as opportunities to share knowledge, and … we should ensure a mutually-beneficial [sic] exchange of resources, information, and recognition” (Crabtree and Sapp 28). We can also push against even calling women in colonized areas “marginalized,” as Spivak said that using the framing of marginalized versus dominant re-centers the narrative around colonizers versus colonized populations. She suggested instead that individuals historically labeled as marginal might instead be recognized as the “silenced center” (Spivak 269). We aim to honor and recognize women’s voices from the silenced center in this article, with self-reflexivity on “how our own training and perspectives may [un]intentionally recreate the status quo” (Rose 4).

Racial issues in South Africa are at the center of the archival documents we examine in this article. During apartheid and colonialism in South Africa, “race was not a fixed, stable category … but rather a legal and bureaucratic construct which could be defined differently, depending on the purposes of particular pieces of legislation” (Posel 92). To understand the different groups and their treatment in South Africa at the time, we must acknowledge that this racial categorization was a hierarchical social construction. “Natives were at the bottom of the heap on the grounds of their alleged lack of civilization, education, and skill; coloureds occupied the middle rank. … Racial hierarchies ratified and legitimized the social and economic inequalities that were in turn held up as evidence of racial differences” (Posel 94-95). Whites or Afrikaners were at the top of the created hierarchy.

Considering race is of particular importance in the South African context because of the country’s history of colonialism and apartheid. During colonialism, the basis of apartheid, there were appalling mining conditions in the late 1800s and attempts to prevent land ownership for indigenous peoples in the early 1900s. Organizations formed to protest these problems, and Afrikaner nationalism increased during WWII, with whites taking government control in 1948 (Nattrass 167). Apartheid then began, with legalized segregation, discrimination, and the relocation of indigenous peoples (Nattrass 172). Harris observed that “[a]partheid has been described, most usefully, as a form of racial capitalism in which racial differences were formalised and pervasive socially, and in which society was characterised by a powerful racially defined schism” (Nattrass 67). However, it is incorrect to view apartheid’s domination as an “all-encompassing relationship between social groupings distinguished by their physical characteristics” (Nattrass 67). Instead, researchers must acknowledge the complexity of identities with factors such as ethnicity, gender, culture, language, politics, and class that contributed to the dynamics of apartheid.

Those familiar with the documents available in South Africa suggest that archives are slivers of “reality” and that they don’t ever give us a complete picture of what took place there. This is in part because “between 1990 and 1994 huge volumes of public records were destroyed in an attempt to keep the apartheid state’s darkest secrets hidden” (Harris 64). Further, although records are protected and looked after by archivists, documents do not last forever and often reflect the beliefs and values of the person(s) who preserved them. Deciding what gets preserved shapes which documents have survived, and archives reveal what priorities were present when the decision to save some documentation and not others was made. Harris offers three ways to think about South African archives, suggesting the following:

  1. Reality is unknowable.
  2. Records are a product of process and the process itself is shaped by the act of recording.
  3. If archival records do reflect reality, they do so completely and in a fractured way. They are not actors in their own right but are created and changed by people working as record keepers, archivists, and researchers. (64)

From a feminist rhetorical perspective, archival “work is grounded in and points back to the pioneering women, both contemporary and historical, who have insisted on being heard, being valued, and being understood as rhetorical agents” (Kirsch and Royster 643). The agency of women in the archives is central to feminist rhetorical scholarship, but so is expanding our view beyond simply highlighting their existence. We must ask questions about how we meaningfully represent people from the archives and how “we honor their traditions” (Kirsch and Royster 648). We should “develop a richer understanding of the lives of the women we study” (Mastrangelo et al. 162). Further, we must find ways to express and connect women’s lives to the larger contexts of history. One way to do so is through a transnational lens, as “looking for how archived knowledge and narratives often shore up the political economic objectives of the nation-state and global capital” gives us more information about the rhetorical and agential constraints women face (Dingo et al. 181). This gives us information about context, but it also helps us to see how and why archives may be incomplete because of the surrounding forces in decision making about what is included and what isn’t. Attempting to understand feminist rhetorics from a global lens “tracks rhetorics through which some women and girls are turned over to violence or abandonment while others are protected by the circulation of their heroic stories” (Dingo et al. 188). Not all stories are heroic, and yet we can find agency within archival stories that represent resistance to the control of women within particular historical contexts.

The way to address the above concerns in women’s archival research is through de-centering “the histories of Rhetoric and Composition and … push[ing] the boundaries to re-landscape our disciplines so that other stories and voices are heard and recognized. … [There is] a need for indigenous research methodologies and knowledge-making practices grounded in storytelling and relationships” (Legg 7). We know that much historical research, especially in archival spaces, remain colonized, and the field is in need of new methodologies and perspectives in order to expand what we know about the history of rhetoric and women (Legg 10). Archives are spaces that we can explore, interrogate, and refurbish to achieve these goals. We can approach the archives with the goal of exposing power structures and decolonizing women’s lives, spaces, and bodies. There are stories to be told, and, as Powell reminds us, “History isn’t a dead and remembered object; it is alive and it speaks to us” (121).


This project is based on rhetorical analysis of historical documents we gathered from the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository in South Africa. We visited these archives as part of a funded grant project through the CCCC focused on the writing and rhetorical work of women within organizations from the Global South. We aim to make visible forms of technical communication and rhetoric that have historically been overlooked by Euro-Western scholars. We searched these archives for organizational records of women, and the records that were labeled “Native women” caught our attention. We wanted to know more about what a record in the archive meant when it was labeled that way and who these women were. We saw the potential to learn about forgotten women from history, as these colonial records may be the only places their concerns or voices were recorded.

We visited these archives over several days in June 2019, specifically looking for histories of women as told by technical communication documents: letters, memos, meeting minutes, etc. We first combed through the online archival listings, flagging any documents that seemed relevant, particularly those with entries titled “Native Women/Woman,” which is how these records were labeled in the archives. Once at the repository, we presented our list to the archivists who pulled down each relevant box. We sorted through each one, one document at a time, photographing, scanning, and taking notes about any documents that recorded information about Indigenous women’s lives.

For this project, we took the documents that we photographed and narrowed them down for this article to the five that are analyzed. We chose these five because they all represent Indigenous women asking for permission, a common theme that made the five fit together as a snapshot of documents for evaluation. We used counterstory to analyze each document, telling each set of documents about the same incident as stories. Based on those stories, we conducted a rhetorical analysis, noting the way rhetoric was used in each set of documents and how such rhetoric affected the women’s experiences.

In our analyses, we hoped to address Spivak’s concerns about the tired narrative of the “old Third World as distant cultures,  exploited  but  with  rich  intact  literary  heritages  waiting  to  be  recovered,  interpreted,  and  curricularized” in a way that does not repeat a colonial pattern (114). Historical scholarship in contexts other than one’s own is, unfortunately, poised to recreate unacceptable colonial narratives if left unchecked. We attempt to highlight how “women are not mere victims of the production process, because they resist, challenge and subvert the process at various junctures” (Mohanty 345). We acknowledge Spivak’s instructions that writing should take place as a mechanism of resistance (Spivak 113), and, as scholars, we worked to write these stories from the archives in a way that avoids reifying the status quo and instead aims to call for repatriation for Indigenous peoples. Still, our efforts have been limited by the structurally violent system that created these records in the first place. For example, the records failed to note the tribal affiliations of any of the women highlighted in this article, leaving us little to work with in terms of understanding the specific identities of these women. In fact, the records lump all women into the category of “Native,” erasing their specific identities as a matter of course and for those of us working with the records some one hundred years later.

While documentation reveals much about an organization’s goals and rules, we find that these documents, complete with rubber stamped dates, letterhead, and interoffice notes, first tell a story of colonization, paternalism, and oppression. However, these documents also offer glimpses into the lives of Indigenous South African women’s voices, and those stories must be told. The counterstories that emerge from the documents create “at least the possibility of a genuine rhetorical situation that demands response and forces dialogue within color-blind racist systems and institutions in which racial practices operate in often obscure and invisible ways” (Martinez 60). This is why telling stories from the archives, particularly counterstories, matters. “[A] rubric for counterstory resides in whether the story is informed by the tenets toward advancing a better understanding of how law or policy operate” (Martinez 16). While the story from the colonial archives could be about how efficient and organized technical documentation is for certain parts of colonial South Africa, the counterstory instead centers the voices of Indigenous women who were written about and who submitted requests in writing to those white males who claimed authority. Counterstory demands that we dig into those records and better understand why such narratives illuminate tenets of CRT.

Counterstories from the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository

We have selected the following five stories, based on sets of archival records, to illustrate the complexities of women’s agency. Among them, we saw clear themes of women making efforts to gain power amid the violent system of colonialism, despite the excessive limitations placed upon them. Under each story we have included a brief synopsis of what was contained in each document as well as contextual information about how these stories fit together as part of a broader narrative.

1. Widows of Cetshwayo Ask for Permission to Slaughter a Cow

Meeting minutes by a magistrate in Ndwandwe Division, part of Zululand, record three women, Oka-Nfusi, Oka-Sitshaluza, and Oka-Mkalipi, who were widows of the former king of Zululand Cetshwayo, asking permission to move a red cow from one kraal to another in order to slaughter it. The district native commissioner passed their request to the acting chief native commissioner of Natal Province. Because the cow was owned by Dinuzulu, the new king of Zululand, the colonial hierarchies needed to confer on the women’s request. After layers of paperwork, the request was granted, as “Dinuzulu has no objection to the slaughter of the red cow by the women named,” and the paperwork was signed by the acting secretary for native affairs and the acting chief native commissioner of Natal Province (“Widows”). That final permission letter is dated 23 October 1911, meaning it took a month for the women to gain permission, as the first letter in the paperwork is dated 20 September 1911.

That Oka-Nfusi, Oka-Sitshaluza, and Oka-Mkalipi’s’s names are in the paperwork is remarkable. Women’s names from Indigenous tribes at the time were not well known or well documented. These women, however, were the widows of a king, meaning they had some form of privilege in the hierarchy of South Africa. However, that they had to ask permission to slaughter a cow, an act that would seemingly be part of everyday practice, means that their lives were highly regulated by the colonial system in which they lived. Such regulation is evident from the amount of paperwork and the amount of time it took for them to receive permission.

Of note is the “high language” used in the permission letters from the authorities. They use words and phrases such as “ultimo” for day and “subjoin,” “herewith,” and “beg to inform (“Widows”).” Such language is seemingly unnecessary given that the women simply want to slaughter a cow, but because the paperwork goes through two layers of colonial hierarchy (that we know of, and not counting the original meeting minutes, which are unavailable in the archives), such language may have been required or expected as part of the genre. The paperwork is a template with a letterhead that can be filled in with dates and the permission papers are letters, one with a letterhead and one without. The formality of this process is obvious.

To drive a cow from one place to another involves travel, and “travel as a starting point for discourse is associated with different … rites of passage, immigration, enforced migration, relocation, enslavement, and homelessness” (hooks 343). Travel has often been forced on BIPOC because of white hierarchy’s decisions and preferences. Even in this record, in which the women wish simply to slaughter a cow, their movements are controlled and their travel is decided by a white authority.

These documents also reveal something about official and unofficial lines of communication. Officially, local meetings were held in which citizens could express concerns or ask permissions. Those representing the hierarchy at those meetings would pass such communications up the line, first to the district native commissioner, who then passed the information to the chief native commissioner. That commissioner then conferred, presumably through his secretaries, with the owner of the cow, the king of Zululand, Dinuzulu. The communication then made its way back down through the same channels, finally reaching the women who are granted permission. The women are unofficial participants, as their communication is verbal and only documented in reference to the original words they spoke. The meeting minutes referred to do not exist in the archives that we could find. Further, these lines of communication are also divided by gender. In general, we see that women must ask permission unofficially, while officials, who are mostly white men, minus the king of Zululand, decide the answers and document them officially.

2. Nompi Asks for Permission to Move

A widow named Nompi wished to move her residence from a district in the Transvaal to Eshowe division in Zululand. She wanted to move because of her husband’s death. She owned one hut and had four children, ages six, seven, nine, and eighteen named Untandori, Ulema, Nomasonti, and Nomtala. The widow Nompi did not have cattle, horses, sheep, or goats, and her move meant that she would go from the territory of chief Mkonko-Mliki to chief Mbango. The magistrate for native affairs had “no objection to the granting of this application” (“Application by Native Woman Nompi”).  On 30 May 1906, a colonial authority noted that she and her daughters needed permission from the Transvaal authorities. The application had previously been granted by the commissioner for native affairs in Zululand, where the woman wished to reside, on 17 May 1906. The issue of permission from the Transvaal is not resolved in the existing records. Attached to the various correspondences is an application for permission to reside in Zululand and passes, which cite pass law No. 48 of 1884. The passes warned, “The duration of this pass must be carefully explained to the Native” (“Application by Native Woman Nompi”).  The pass was “available for return at any time during one year from its date” (“Application by Native Woman Nompi”). There are five passes, one for Nompi and one for each of her children.

These papers are rife with contradictions. The cover page describes a widow wanting permission to move her residence, but the passes attached to this record indicate that she and her four daughters were simply visiting. This might be explained by the note on a previous page that they must obtain permission from the Transvaal authorities. Perhaps the passes were temporary until Nompi and her daughters can obtain permission from yet another level of colonial bureaucracy.

The passes are of interest because of their genre and formatting. They are fill-in-the-blank passes with sections for a date, name, chief, where from, destination, purpose, and the officer’s name who fills them out. They are labeled as “inward” passes, which seemingly means that they are not for international travel. Pass laws were violently oppressive and controlled Indigenous people in ways that fundamentally violated their rights. Passive resistance to such control was first enacted by Mahatma Gandhi in Transvaal province in the early 1900s (Wells 57). Women in Bloemfontein in 1913 and in Johannesburg in 1958 resisted pass laws in uprisings. In 1958, the “anti-pass campaign lost its momentum and African women reluctantly took passes” (Wells 58).

The fact that Nompi and her daughters needed passes at all is evidence of racial violence typical of colonial control. Not only was Nompi dealing with the recent death of her husband, but in order to move (most likely to be nearer to family, although this is not indicated in the records), she needed to go through paperwork, which appears to have taken about one week to complete, from 8 May to 15 May 1906. However, there are notes from commissioners in Zululand and Natal provinces dated 17 May, 21 May, 27 May, and 30 May that grant permission and raise the issue of needing further permission for her movements. The records do not provide any narrative or correspondence about what happened after that question is raised. While it seems that she and her daughters were able to move and reside under a different chief, the narrative is not clear and leaves open the possibility that further paperwork or permissions were needed. If Nompi did not realize this, she may have had her passes revoked. If Nompi did not file new paperwork, she may not have been able to move or remain in her new residence. We do not know the rest of the story, but we do know that the paperwork of colonialism governed every move in the lives of women like her. The paperwork went through layers of authority and often took time to make its way back to the original requestor.

3. Women Ask for Remission of Husband’s Jail Sentence

A justice of the peace wrote a letter on 20 January 1900 based on an interpretation of what two wives, Umpansi and Nomuva, said in a petition to have their husband, Umsombuluko, released from jail early. The petitioning letter explained that the husband was sentenced to one year in jail on 18 April 1899 for taking meat from a stolen sheep. The man who stole the sheep was sentenced to 2 years in jail, where he died. Umsombuluko was still alive and jailed. He had nine children and two wives, who were kicked off of a farm after he went to jail; they had been staying as refugees at a kraal, with an older man who was unable to earn money. The women and children experienced a “great scarcity of food,” and because of continuous droughts, their garden of maize failed (“Petition”). They had become beggars, and neighbors were unable to assist them. They were experiencing starvation and poverty and the children were all too young to work. The letter assured the reader that the jailed man was of good character and had “behaved himself” in jail. They asked “humbly” and prayed for mercy that Umsombuluko’s sentence would be remitted early. The letter has two witnesses that the facts stated are true.

The attorney general agreed to remit the sentence if the statements in the letter are true. These statements include the following, as outlined to an investigator who must decide if they are true.

  • The number and ages of children
  • The place where the women and children are staying
  • The lack of assistance
  • The state of their gardens
  • The general state of poverty

The investigator found that all of the statements were true but that he could not vouch for the behavior of Umsombuluko in jail. He suggested asking the judge or prosecutor in the case for verification of his behavior and character. Judge Beaumont wrote a letter saying he has “no objection to his remission” (“Petition”). The release from jail was approved, and Umsombuluko was released on 4 February 1900. The official certificate and paperwork were completed a few days later. There are several letters in this collection simply informing people within the bureaucracy about the approval and his release.

The letter to the “supreme chief over the native population” is written in flowery and elegant language, with many titles at the beginning to flatter the recipient of the letter. It ends with religious language about prayer, humility, and mercy to show humility and appeal to the goodness of the receiver.

The husband was essentially jailed for poverty and hunger. He used stolen goods to eat and feed his family which resulted in more poverty for his family when he was arrested. Because he was jailed, the women and children became more destitute because of their economic dependence on colonial, patriarchal systems. His incarceration did not solve the problem that caused him to eat stolen goods in the first place; it only created more poverty and misery. The collection of documents that tell this story highlight the economic dependency of Indigenous women on the men in their lives and men in positions of power. It also highlights the racial violence of systems that leverage incarceration against individuals of color and that perpetuate cycles of poverty and loss.

4. Esther Caluza Asks for Exemption from “Native Law”

Esther Caluza wrote on 22 October 1913 asking for exemption from “native law” in order to keep the land she had worked for and purchased in her name. In her letter, she explained that because she is a “native girl” her relatives can claim her land. She asked for help in procuring an exemption certificate so that she could keep her land. The chief native commissioner of Natal Province responded on 24 October with a letter explaining that she must first return to Natal Province before she can petition for exemption. He explained that her application must be made through the magistrate.

Only two short letters make up this correspondence but in them are intersectional factors that affect Indigenous agency. First, because this young woman is Indigenous, she must apply for exemption from a set of laws that govern her, laws that are presumably legislated and enforced by white colonial powers. Her racial identity is at play in the need for her to ask permission to retain her own property. Second, her gender complicates her agency; she cannot simply rely on having access to the property that she has purchased with her own money, as she explains in the letter. Instead, she must be subject to “native law,” which presumably states that her property can be claimed by relatives (or males). Her predicament is complicated by these two identity factors, and she must then work through official channels to protect her property.

The letter from the commissioner, however, fails to acknowledge the complicated nature of the loss she is fighting against. The reply simply informs her of proper procedure, relying on bureaucratic processes and language to respond. There is no compassion from the commissioner about her situation and how she has come to be in it. There is only instrumental communication about how she must petition at a different time and through a different person. The reply serves to teach her how to get her request granted through the system, but without acknowledgement that the system has caused her problem in the first place.

5. Women Ask for Permission to Brew Beer

This fragmented story is made up of three letters and a cover sheet. In the first letter, dated 28 January 1932, a lawyer named T. J. D’Alton wrote to the town clerk’s office in Pietermaritzburg on behalf of “eleven native women” who wanted permission to brew beer at home on the weekends when their husbands were home. These women lived in Maryvale, on land considered part of the “town” (or colonized land) and therefore had to seek permission from those in charge. D’Alton makes the case that others in the town have been given permission by the commission to brew the beer and that the women are willing to abide by any conditions that the town seeks to impose. Additionally, he notes that the “native beer” is a staple food and it would be a hardship to deprive them of it (“Application by Native Women at Maryvale”).

R.E. Stevens, a city manager for Pietermaritzburg, addressed the town clerk in an internal communication on 2 February 1932. The letter says that the Urban Areas Act provides for either domestic brewing or municipal brewing. Because Pietermaritzburg abides by municipal brewing only, he cannot “allow domestic brewing in any portion of the town” (“Application by Native Women at Maryvale”). He suggests that the women, instead of brewing their own beer, purchase it from the Canteen, after they get permission from him to consume it at home.

The third letter dated 4 February 1932 is from the town clerk to the lawyer D’Alton, informing him that the City Council has no power to grant permits for domestic brewing within the town. He conveys the information from Stevens, that the women may purchase the beer and obtain permission to consume it at home.

The response of the city manager is clear and direct, written in a way that demonstrates his belief that the decision is not his but constrained by the law. This rhetoric scapegoats the law and claims that the only way around the law is to buy beer, rather than engage in the Indigenous and traditional practice of brewing beer at home. His response negates Indigenous customs, labeling them as impossible because the colonial law, embedded with capitalist idealism, is the final authority. He did not attempt to question the law or consider how the law failed to take into account the Indigenous practices of the people in that area. He used the law to make his decision final, saying, “I can find nothing in the Urban Areas Act which gives the Council power to allow domestic brewing in any portion of the Town” (“Application by Native Women at Maryvale”).  And yet, the council ostensibly has the power to make the laws. However, because the law is already in place, Stevens refuses to question the premise of the law in the first place and how such a law regulates Indigenous practices and contributes to cultural erasure.

In cases like this one, individuals inside of the system of white supremacy use the law in an effort to obscure their own agency, despite the reality that their offices possess the power to change these laws if they wished. If the “City Council is not empowered to grant permits for domestic brewing,” then who is? The only solution offered erases the Indigenous cultural practices of brewing beer, ignores the possible differences in the type of beer the women brew compared to what is available for purchase, and disregards whether or not the women can afford to or even want to purchase beer.

It is also odd that in the letters, the beer is referred to as “native beer” (first letter), “Kaffir Beer” (second letter), and “Native Beer” (third letter) without acknowledging that what they will purchase at the Canteen may not be the same staple food they wish to brew. D’Alton makes it clear that the beer the women want to brew, just “one gallon, at week ends,” is “part of their staple food” and that “these women feel it is a hardship to be deprived of this food” (“Application by Native Women at Maryvale”).

Further, we see that the women have engaged a solicitor to help them make the request, an act of agency. This might be due to several realities, including a lack of literacy (basic and/or legal) and a lack of power within a colonial system due to their race and gender. The women, while the driving force behind the request, must use the voice of a white male lawyer to speak for them in order to ask permission to make a staple food in their own homes. Their lives are mediated by this white man, the law, paperwork, colonial systems of power, and paperwork. There is no indication that their concerns or voices were heard by the city manager after he received the letter. They were not allowed to make a case for themselves in person or with emotion. The women have no ethos in this system, despite their efforts to speak up, leaving them without recourse except for a letter written on their behalf by a lawyer, who ultimately fails to ensure their needs.

While these women’s concerns over retaining their cultural practice of brewing beer at home have been preserved in these colonial records, their voices are mostly hidden behind the advocacy of a lawyer and colonial law, which fails to consider them as full citizens and does not consider their customs when settling the land and creating the laws. We have a record that eleven women had to find a mediator to ask permission to engage in an activity that was part of their everyday lives, but we do not see a clear record of who they were, how they lived, or what they really thought. We do get a sense that their feelings and thoughts were largely considered unimportant, largely ignored, and that the colonial system had not only failed them in this particular instance but entirely. The laws were drafted as part of the violent effort to erase Indigenous cultural practices and assimilate these women into white, colonial culture.

Discussion and Implications

An important implication of our historical work is that it aims to normalize using counterstory as a methodology. We see the telling of these fragmented narratives as a tool for exposing the cruelties of colonial systems as well as a method of honoring and learning from the resistances of the individuals who lived inside of these systems. We recognize the privilege of our positionality and the power that it affords us to make embodied methodologies a norm in the field. We welcome critique, opposition, expansion, and addition to our limited work here. We call for other scholars to join us in this type of work to document and advocate for the historical counterstories of marginalized individuals and to add to and refine our use of these methods.

We see the women in these documents not as victims but as agents working through a brutalized system of racial violence. Their stories show their efforts toward self-advocacy amid deep injustice: hiring lawyers, submitting documents, and working to make their circumstances more just. They are engaged in “survival strategies” (Baker-Bell 535), meaning that they act within the system and its constraints in order to self-preserve, while still advocating for permissions and more agency. Still, the historical record has left us little to understand the intricacies of their lives and of their resistance. This too is a form of violence and erasure.

One of the most important implications of the study of documents like these is that they reveal the historical mechanisms of structural violence that face Indigenous women in South Africa. For example, Zulu women in South Africa are presently engaged in a struggle in which their rights to their homes have been changed or superseded. Zulu women report being required to sign new leases and pay rent on homes they believed belonged to them and, in at least one case, the lease was written in the name of a woman’s boyfriend who was considered the head of household, even though the residence had belonged to her. In many cases, these leases were written in English, even when the Zulu women did not speak English fluently (“Trust Deficit”). Although this system of land governance was implemented at the end of apartheid and intended to offer Zulu people rights to their land, the policy embodies misappropriated notions of decoloniality (Itchuaqiyaq and Matheson), in which notions of sovereignty have been appropriated to become palatable to systems of power and colonial forms of government treat Indigenous people paternalistically. Examples such as these replicate the pattern we see in the above documents, suggesting that the study of the rhetorical history of a particular place can offer us important insights into the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

We know that rhetoric in technical documents can be a tool for liberation, but historical documents remind us that it can also be a tool of oppression and violence (Katz). We recognize that, in some ways, our work here perpetuates the problem further; these documents were written to and for white people only to now be re-interpreted by white scholars. Historical documents offer us a warning that Indigenous sovereignty cannot exist when it is governed by colonial rhetoric that reduces the agency of Indigenous people and serves as a mechanism to prioritize whiteness. Further, policies such as these that require petitioning structures of power to retain Indigenous cultural practices are often so embedded inside the hegemonic structure of whiteness that the origins of such policies can seem obscured, when, in fact, the same structures that enforce such policies created them in the first place.

We call for those who produce documentation and scholars to revisit the structural systems they help to shape. Collectively, we must ask how these systems shape or reinforce systems of whiteness. We must be willing to push back against these systems and work toward dismantling them in order to move toward Indigenous sovereignty. To this end, Indigenous stories must be centered and positioned within their historical context as a way of seeking repatriation and justice.

While we have told stories of Indigenous people asking for permission, the stories begin much earlier, with stolen land, genocide, forced mining labor, and erasure of languages. These acts of requisite permission seeking began with violence and erasure. We must recognize and dig deeper within historical records and knowledges to center the many wrongs that have been committed in order to make them right. We recognize that such work requires radical change across systems of government, industry, and other stakeholders. We call on researchers to be agents of radical change by understanding, seeking, and amplifying the full story. Not only does this require our field to recover and study the histories of systems of power that laid the foundations of certain stories, but it means that we tell stories that highlight the agency of Indigenous people. We must center their experiences and concerns and honor Indigenous knowledges as worthy of study, informative, and central to rhetoric and documentation. Further, we see this sort of study as vital to the task of decolonizing violent systems of whiteness.

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