In the Supreme Court of the Transvaal, 13 Nov 1902

In the Supreme Court of the Transvaal, 13 Nov 1902

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘In the Supreme Court of the Transvaal, 13 Nov 1902′ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. What is shown here is a document in the JS Marwick Papers, held in the Killie Campbell Library in Durban. More precisely, it is a certificate of qualification regarding John Sydney Marwick’s competence to act as a Sworn Translator in two languages. A Sworn Translator was certificated as competent to translate official and legal documents and to give testimony as to such in court, showing a very high level of linguistic proficiency. This certificate about such is one of those documents that are not letters but hover at some of the edges of epistolarity.

2. The certificate provides a series of statements which just ‘are’ and there are no signs of them being addressed to anyone in particular, indeed to anyone at all. It is a statement, a loud statement, and it is the statement and its certification that is important, rather than if there is any particular audience taking note of this. The Supreme Court, then, assumes with confidence its own power and the import of its certificated actions. The certificate is an entirely performative document in and of itself – it certifies, it is the certification. But at the same time, this is for show; this is because in life and in political practice, the existence of an attentive and obedient audience is of the essence for such institutions as Supreme Courts. While the certificate of qualification is written in a way that seemingly elides the existence of any addressee, then, in a general sense there has to be addressees for the act of certification to ‘work’. If it ‘really’ certifies, there has to be an audience whose composing members accept the validity of this act of certification and will accept and where needed act on its content.

3. So how does it achieve its authority? First and of most importance, by being the Supreme Court and by acting with authority as such. So this certificate is one small demonstration of its authority, which has to be done and to be seen to be done as a first requirement. Secondly, it requires the paper equivalents of uniforms, badges, epaulettes and martial music to signify this and push it home through gaudy display. One aspect of this is the authorising device of the King’s symbolic presence through a postage stamp which sits at its head (in 1902, the Transvaal through act of war was a British colony and did not achieve responsible government again until 1905). Another, and of greater (or at least not so understated) importance, is the large flaming red seal of the Supreme Court that sits at its bottom and by virtue of its size and colour dominates the certificate. Its textual content is important too:

4. The certificate states:

In the Supreme Court of the Transvaal

It appearing to this Court that ^John Sydney Marwick^ is duly qualified to act as a Sworn Translator in ^English and Zulu languages^ within this Colony and he having this day been sworn according,

This Court doth here by admit him such Sworn Translator and order his name to be enrolled as such by the proper Officer.

Dated at Pretoria this ^13th^ day of ^November 1902^

By the Court

C. ?Leenhof

^Asst^ Registrar

Enrolled same day

C. ?Leenhof

^Asst^ Registrar

[ NB. ^insertion^, ?doubtfulreading ]

5. Some aspects of content concerning how it achieves and proclaims an authoritative status are follows. it is one of many such – it is a printed certificate, suggesting that the Supreme Court was regularly involved in such certification. However, the insertion by hand of specific information regarding names, dates and languages conveys considerable precision, concerning not only the name of the Sworn Translator and the date of their certification and enrolment, but that the Registrar who administered this was an Assistant, and also exactitude about the languages concerned. All the formalities are clearly signified as having been duly completed, regarding both certification and enrolment, with what the latter involves not being spelled out but subsumed through invoking the existence of a ‘proper Officer’ for enrolment as well as for certification.

6. Also, the insertion in the appointed place on the certificate of ^English and Zulu languages^ is both ‘correct’ and also by exceeding the space provided it is suggestive of something exceptional, which is bilinguality rather than simply proficiency in a second language. John Sydney Marwick, then, comes across as having what was officially deemed to be exceptional linguistic prowess. But was this actually so rare?

7. Ability in African languages on the part of European-language speakers is on the one hand signified as routinised if not universal by virtue of the existence of printed forms for certification which can then be completed with detail, but on the other an exceptional aspect is implied by the cramped way in which ‘English and Zulu languages’ has been inserted. Other WWW letter-writers, including missionaries working for the LMS, Henry Francis Fynn (with his papers discussed elsewhere on the WWW pages) and all six of the Forbes siblings, were also fully bilingual, Fynn in Zulu, the Forbes in seSotho and the missionaries in a variety of languages. White people who lived and worked on first hand terms with African peoples (at least in the earlier part of the white presence in southern Africa) learned the prevailing local languages, and those that grew up in such contexts were, not surprisingly, often highly competent linguists.

8. Marwick was one of these people, and shared not only the linguistic abilities involved but also the at times contradictory positive and dismissive responses to and feelings about their African compatriots that others too had. However, there is more to the certification of linguistic competence that Marwick received in November 1902 than this, once the reader’s eyes are lifted from the certificate to the wider context of events and Marwick’s role in them.

9. To start with some broad background information about Marwick. He was born at Richmond, Natal, in 1875. He worked in the Native Affairs Department and Magisterial Department in Natal from 1890 to 1895, then became the first Transvaal Native Labour Agent in Johannesburg from 1895 to 1899. He held various positions in the Department of Native Affairs and was appointed Assistant Secretary for Native Affairs in 1902 (the year of the Transvaal Sworn Translator certlficate). He was senior partner in the firm Marwick and Morris, employers of ‘Native Labourers’ in the Rand mines. From 1916 to 1920, he was manager of the Municipal Native Affairs Department, Durban. In 1920 he was elected MP for Illovo and continued as such for many years. He married Edith Evans Rowe in 1901 and they had one daughter, Vivian. He seems never quite to have got over Edith’s death in 1907, although later he remarried. He died in 1958.

10. Some points to glean from this are as follows. Marwick made his career in the context of ‘Native Affairs’, something which attracted the best as well as sometimes the worst of white men. This included being one of those who acted as recruiting agents in the employment of black miners in the gold and coal mines of the Rand. The earliest agents saw their role as being to act as intermediaries and as part of this to advise and protect the men they were responsible for.

11. It is in this context that Marwick is now best known, through Elsabe Brink’s (1999) 1899: The Long March Home and also a later TV documentary based around her book. Marwick saw it as his moral responsibility as a ‘native labour agent’ to organise the march of c7000 Zulu mine workers from the Witwatersrand back to the rural areas of Zululand / Natal they came from at the outbreak of the South African War in 1899. Their return home saved the mine workers from certain starvation as mining had come to a halt, and Marwick participated in and managed the march in a way that protected them from fearful and belligerent farmers and townspeople so that no deaths and little violence occurred.

12. Marwick’s papers indicate a disputacious man, quick to protest and complain. Some of this was about him, but in the sense that he continued to act as a representative of the men he recruited as ‘native labourers’ and clearly could not easily accept his policies and decisions regarding this being overturned or ignored. It led to him being in effect sacked, when his post/department was abolished through amalgamation. As an MP he continued representing ‘native’ causes, often when concerned with mining matters, and clearly cared passionately about such things.

13. What of whiteness here?

14. One point to note is the existence of intermediaries, white people who by character, by language competence and/or by role were positioned as in a sense ‘between’. However, this meant something very different when black polities and societies were the power in the land and whites were very much in a minority, the situation experienced by Henry Francis Fynn as a Resident Agent in Natal in the 1820s and 30s, for example, as compared with Marwick working in the Transvaal for a white government that was the power in the land in the 1890s.

15. A second point of interest is that Marwick in a way conducted himself in relation to earlier mores, rather than aligning himself with the capitalist and profit-making concerns of the companies who used the services provided by ‘native labour agents’. For companies and their managers concerned with profit and cost-cutting, Marwick’s humanitarian concerns are likely to have been seen as irrelevant or as threatening.

16. A third point here is that it comes across clearly from the archive papers that Marwick had a strong sense of moral duty, something which was both admirable and also for those who disagreed with him inflexible and annoying because this tended to see things in terms of right/wrong binaries. This is not to dismiss or in any way downplay the seriousness of the labour and other issues that Marwick raised and wanted righted, but rather to point out that he was increasingly at odds with the times and the political context in which he was operating.

17. Both the professional role that Marwick took on as a young man and also the political stance he lived out later in his life involved him acting as a representative in acting on behalf of a body of people and speaking for them. Certainly white individuals or groups speaking and acting on behalf of black people as their representatives would rightly be seen as patronising and unacceptable in today’s terms. But what did it mean for people at the time, and in particular for Zulu people? When Marwick died, many hundreds of former miners, their families and friends attended the funeral. Well before then, a number of praise poems (izibongo) of him were written and widely circulated. And a long-standing friend from those days, Peka ka Dinizulu, orated in praise of Marwick. Unless their responses are discounted – literally denigrated – then it has to be accepted that Marwick was an admirable man and people of the time and the place had little trouble with that view of him.

18. Whiteness, it might be summarised, is not a ‘thing’ which people have, but is a changing dimension of people’s self-presentation and behaviour. Context is important in giving meaning to it. Therefore it varies in different situations involving different people and also it has changed over time as circumstances, people, meanings, have changed. Generally, it involves mixtures of good and bad and indifferent aspects, while ‘the same’ circumstances and behaviours can be seen as all of these, depending. So rather than taking up presentist views and frames of reference, historical forms of research need to find ways of seeing things and people and events as they were viewed then-and-there. Which is complexly.

Elsabe Brink (1999) 1899: The Long March Home Cape Town: Kwela.

John Sydney Marwick Papers, Killie Campbell Library, Durban.


Last updated: 1 January 2017


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