I’ve been quite used to the influence of individuals from the United States of America on West African thinking from the late 1800s but little did I think they had a similar influence in South Africa around the same time.
During the Apartheid years, South African television was dominated by USA television shows – some in English and others dubbed into Afrikaans. This naturally led to a closer cultural tie between the USA and SA as opposed to the earlier British-SA cultural ties which never fully disappeared. The reason for the jump from British to USA influences was the ban by the UK Actors’ Guild in having any shows sold to SA. This did not seem to be a consideration of actors in the USA. The result is that SA language is heavily influenced or nuanced by Americanisms to the extent that I’ve had British colleagues complain about my writing, on occasion, being American! If anything it’s multi-cultural…
But back to my discovery of USA influences pre-dating Apartheid. Yes, there was the song ‘Daar kom die Alibama‘ sung by various Kaapse Klopse groups – it’s a song about the ship the Alabama which during the American Civil War put into Cape Town. The lyrics are rather repetitive but very catchy. One can only surmise as to why it became as popular as it did – at a time when slavery was being abolished in southern Africa, the Great Trek having occurred in 1836 after the abolition of slavery in 1812.
It was in reading Brian Willan’s biography of Sol Plaatje that the penny really dropped as to the influence of the USA on South African black thinking in particular. Wilberforce University, Ohio, was the destination of two of Plaatje’s friends (Henry Msikinya and Chalmers Moss) in 1896 which followed on from that of Charlotte Manye (Maxeke) who was one of the African Jubilee Singers. While Henry Msikinya did not return to SA having died in the USA about a year after he arrived, the others brought back ideas. Missionaries and others no doubt had brought American ideas to the southern African territories before for the likes of Henry and Chalmers to have even considered the move to study in the USA. Later, after World War 1, Plaatje toured the USA where he met WEB du Bois, Marcus Garvey and others further developing links and influencing ideas between the two territories. While initially these links would have been cultural – music as reflected in The Grand Vocal Concert which saw people like Will P Thomson remain in Kimberley rather than continue touring – it would soon have become political as both the African-Americans and the black South Africans were working to obtain equal recognition with their white compatriots especially where education was comparable.
The links make sense, considering that men like John Chilembwe who led an uprising in early 1915 in Nyasaland (Malawi) had studied in the USA – what has been surprising is the extent and depth of these early links.
And for anyone curious as to why I have consistently referred to the United States of America as USA or in full, it’s simply because I had a correspondent some years ago who thanked me for spelling out the relationship as they were from a United States country too… and American? well that’s a challenge – I use the term in the same way I do African – inclusive and wide-reaching.