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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 January 2021

Elizabeth Thornberry*
Johns Hopkins University


In 1881, Andrew Gontshi became the first black law agent in the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope and thus South Africa's first black lawyer. Records of court cases argued by Gontshi and his fellow black law agents provide a rich new archive for understanding the political sensibilities of the nineteenth-century Eastern Cape, where Gontshi practiced law and participated in the development of new forms of political organization, as well as the meaning of law to black intellectuals. In both law and politics, Andrew Gontshi employed procedural tactics to hold the state accountable to its own formalities. In Gontshi's world, law provided not a source of justice but a set of tools that could be used to advance a political agenda. Gontshi's story thus prompts a reconsideration of law's place in the intellectual tradition of South Africa's liberation struggle.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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I would like to thank Jacob Dlamini, Katie Hindmarch-Watson, and all of the participants in the 2017 Northeastern Workshop on Southern Africa, the Johns Hopkins African Studies Seminar, the University of Michigan African Studies Seminar, and the 2018–19 Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies Fellowship. Jeff Peires both provided valuable feedback and generously shared his own research.


1 Western Cape Provincial Archives and Records Service, Cape Town (CA) CO 4209, W. Fleischer, ‘Report re: Andrew Gontshi’, 24 June 1880.

2 I give the contemporaneous English translation from the Christian Express (Lovedale), 2 May 1904.

3 See Zimmermann, R. and Visser, D. H., Southern Cross: Civil Law and Common Law in South Africa (New York, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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7 Ibid. 8.

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13 Quoted in Odendaal, A., The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa (Johannesburg, 2012), 89Google Scholar. The language is Odendaal's paraphrasing and translation.

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15 Notable exceptions include the diaries of Tiyo Soga and Dyani ka Tshatshu, the papers of Sol Plaatje, and the epistolary networks described by Vukile Khumalo. V. Khumalo, ‘Ekukhanyeni letter-writers: a historical inquiry into epistolary network(s) and political imagination in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa’, in K. Barber (ed.), Africa's Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self (Bloomington, IN, 2006), 113–42.

16 Interview with Sinfundiswa Gontshi and Sikhumbuzo Gontshi, King William's Town, South Africa, 26 June 2019.

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20 Karekwaivanane, G. H., The Struggle over State Power in Zimbabwe: Law and Politics since 1950 (Cambridge, 2017), 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Karekwaivanane pays unusual attention to the entanglement of the popular understandings and political uses of law.

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22 Odendaal, Founders, 118.

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24 CA CMT 2/29, statement of A. Gontshi, enclosed in letter from W. Girdwood to Chief Magistrate, 9 May 1884.

26 CA CMT 2/33, letter from F. Gladwin to Chief Magistrate, 13 June 1881.

27 CA CMT 2/34, A. Gontshi to Chief Magistrate, enclosed in letter from T. King to Chief Magistrate, 15 Dec. 1883.

28 CA CO 4209, W. Fleischer, ‘Report Re: Andrew Gontshi’, 24 June 1880.

29 CA CO 4209, letter from A. Gontshi to Colonial Secretary, 7 June 1880.

30 ‘Amatuba …’, Christian Express, 1 Feb. 1882.

31 CA CO 4209, letter from A. Gontshi to Colonial Secretary, 7 June 1880.

32 W. G. Mills, ‘The rift within the lute: conflict and factionalism in the “school” community in the Cape Colony, 1890–1915’, Institute of Commonwealth Studies Collected Seminar Papers, 38 (1990), 29–39. Although Gontshi's enrollment predated these developments, the racial limitations of upward mobility were apparent well beforehand.

33 C. C. Saunders, ‘Tile and the Thembu church: politics and independency on the Cape eastern frontier in the late nineteenth century’, The Journal of African History, 11:4 (1970), 553–70; A. Gontshi, ‘Ukuzimela kwaba ntsundu’, Isigidimi Samaxosa (Lovedale), 2 Jan. 1882.

34 L. Wildenboer, ‘The origins of the division of the legal profession in South Africa: a brief overview’, Fundamina, 16:2 (2010), 216n129, 216n131.

35 W. Bell and N. Manfred, The Legal Handbook of Practical Laws and Procedure (Grahamstown, South Africa, 1902), 294. Agents enrolling in Cape Town, Albany, or Port Elizabeth paid a higher fee.

36 L. Wildenboer, ‘For a few dollars more: overcharging and misconduct in the legal profession of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’, De Jure, 44 (2011), 349; Chanock, South African Legal Culture, 222–4; Magistrates’ Jurisdiction Act (no. 43 of 1885) sec. 8; Enrolled Agents Act (no. 31 of 1886).

37 A 1903 law list included five law agents in the Orange River Colony and 33 in the Cape, but none in the Transvaal or Natal, although the authors did not consider the list complete. See Bell and Manfred, Legal Handbook, 295.

38 See for example the testimony of J. A. Chalmers in Government of the Cape of Good Hope, Report and Proceedings, with Appendices, of the Government Commission on Native Laws and Customs [G. 4—‘83] (Cape Town, 1883), minutes of evidence, 142.

39 CA 1/IDW 6/1/2/2, letter from C. Bell to Chief Magistrate, 26 Jan. 1882.

40 South African Native Affairs Commission, Report of the South African Native Affairs Commission, 1903–1905, Volume 2: Minutes of Evidence Taken in the Cape Colony (Cape Town, 1905), 526.

41 Odendaal, Founders, 118.

42 CA CO 4209, letter from A. Gontshi to Colonial Secretary, 7 June 1880.

43 CA CMT 2/44, letter from A. Gontshi to Chief Magistrate Blyth, 15 Nov. 1880.

44 CA 1/NKE 1/1/1/6, ‘Charge against Mr. A. Gontshi an enrolled law agent in the court of the Resident Magistrate of Nqamakwe’, 30 July 1889.

45 CA CMT 2/44, letter from J. Heathcote, P. Rozani, J. Kuzane, and J. Hamilton to Secretary for Native Affairs, 31 Oct. 1884.

46 CA CMT 3/146, letter from J. T. O'Connor to Chief Magistrate, 6 Oct. 1894. Emphasis in original.

47 R. v. Gontshi, (1892) 6 E.D.C. 280.

48 CA 1/ELN 2/2/7, Qavali v. Lentu, 12 Apr. 1880; CA 1/NKE 2/2/1/36, case no. 10 of 1900, 26 Jan. 1900; CA 1/MDT 3/1/8, July Ntombeni v. Matolose, 30 Dec. 1898; CA 1/MDT 3/1/4, Klaas Vuso v. Nqweneni, 16 July 1896. All of these exceptions were upheld, exculpating the defendants.

49 Christian Express, 2 May 1904.

50 CA 1/KNT 2/1/1/4, Maganinkomo v. Mdutumbana, Ndhlati, and Simani, 19 June 1884.

51 The cases were classified differently by the two courts due to uncertainty over whether the theft was an act of war and thus immune from criminal prosecution.

52 Girdwood also charged the two men with perjury, but the records of that case do not survive.

53 E. Thornberry, Colonizing Consent: Rape and Political Authority in South Africa's Eastern Cape (New York, 2018), 123. Girdwood also practiced medicine in Nqamakwe in the late 1870s and had occasionally appeared in court in this capacity.

54 CA CO 4209, W. Fleischer, ‘Report re: Andrew Gontshi’, 24 June 1880.

55 CA CMT 2/29, letter from W. Girdwood to Chief Magistrate, 5 June 1886; Thornberry, Colonizing Consent, 123–5; D. Williams, Umfundisi: A Biography of Tiyo Soga, 1829–1871 (Lovedale, South Africa, 1978), 113.

56 As Jeff Peires points out, Hook's 1905 memoir describes Parkies in glowing terms. I am grateful to Professor Peires for allowing me to consult his unpublished paper on Parkies's career, see J. Peires, ‘Introducing John Parkies’, (lecture, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, September 2011).

57 D. Hook, Of Sword and Statute (Cape Town, 1906), 326. For Zelile's identity, see Imvo Zabantsundu (King William's Town), 11 Aug. 1886.

58 On violent liberalism in the Eastern Cape, see R. Price, Making Empire: Colonial Encounters and the Creation of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-Century Africa (New York, 2008).

59 K. Breckenridge, ‘No will to know: the rise and fall of African civil registration in twentieth-century South Africa’, in K. Breckenridge and S. Szretzer (eds.), Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History (Oxford, 2012), 367–68.

60 General Regulations of the Transkei (proclamation no. 110 of 1879), sec. 28; see also Native Territories Penal Code (no. 24 of 1886), sec. 265.

61 W. C. Scully, Further Reminiscences of a South African Pioneer (London, 1913), 341–2.

62 CA CMT 2/33, letter from T. King to Chief Magistrate, 21 July 1883.

63 CA CMT 2/44, letter from A. Gontshi to Chief Magistrate, 15 Nov. 1880.

64 Commission on Native Laws and Customs, minutes of evidence, 280–1. See also the testimony of W. Girdwood, 270.

65 Commission on Native Laws and Customs, minutes of evidence, 501.

66 Criminal cases were automatically reviewed by the Chief Magistrate but could be appealed to the Eastern Districts Court. Between 1882 and 1894, civil cases could be appealed to either venue. After 1894, civil cases between African litigants could only be appealed to the Chief Magistrate. Administration of Justice Act (no. 40 of 1882). See also Native Territories Penal Code (no. 24 of 1886), sec. 268; Native Territories Appeal Act (no. 26 of 1894); Native Territories Appeal Amendment Act (no. 32 of 1898).

67 Gontshi took an active role in directing this case; see CA GSC 6/1/1/17, A. Gontshi to Registrar of the Eastern Districts Court, 22 Sept. 1892.

68 CA CMT 2/35, J. T. O'Connor, ‘Annual report for the year ending 31 December 1890’. For a similar complaint, see Commission on Native Law and Custom, minutes of evidence, testimony of W. Flynn, 280.

69 CA CMT 2/35, letter from J.T. O'Connor to Chief Magistrate, Nqamakwe, 23 Oct. 1890.

70 Chanock, Law, Custom and Social Order; for Southern Africa, see Comaroff, J. L. and Roberts, S., Rules and Processes (Chicago, 1986)Google Scholar.

71 CA CMT 2/35, ‘Copy of a resolution passed by the Fingo headmen of Nqamakwe District at their monthly meeting,’ 2 June 1890.

72 CA 1/IDW 2/1/1/12, Stemele v. Tini, 2 May 1893.

73 Interview with Nkohla, Ncorha, Nqamakwe District, South Africa, 23 June 2019.

74 CA 1/NKE 1/1/1/6, charge against Andrew Gontshi, 25 July 1889.

75 See CA 1/NKE 2/1/1/8, S. Nduba v. J. Mxolo, 16 May 1890; CA 1/KNT 2/1/1/8, Leta v. Samuel, 3 Oct. 1890.

76 See Galanter, M., Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture (Madison, 2006)Google Scholar.

77 Commission on Native Laws and Customs, minutes of evidence, 357. See also the testimony of B. Tembu, 170.

78 South African Native Affairs Commission II, 526.

79 Leiter, B., ‘Legal formalism and legal realism: what is the issue?’, Legal Theory, 16:2 (2010), 111CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On ‘procedural justice’, see Röhl, K. F. and Machura, S., Procedural Justice (New York, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

80 Batlan, F., Women and Justice for the Poor (New York, 2015), 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Gontshi's ethos resonates more strongly with Christopher Waldrep's description of post-emancipation Mississippi, see Waldrep, C., ‘Substituting law for the lash: emancipation and legal formalism in a Mississippi county court’, Journal of American History, 82:4 (1996), 1425–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

81 Odendaal, Founders, 105.

82 ‘Transkeian rule’, Imvo Zabantsundu, 24 June 1887.

83 See Odendaal, Founders, 90.

84 CA CO 4233, letter from A. Gontshi to J. J. Irvine, 23 June 1883.

85 Quoted in Odendaal, A., Vukani Bantu! The Beginnings of Black Protest Politics in South Africa to 1912 (Cape Town, 1984), 12Google Scholar.

86 For a recent overview, see Dedering, T., ‘“We are only humble people and poor”: A. A. S. Le Fleur and the power of petitions’, South African Historical Journal, 62:1 (2010), 121–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

87 Odendaal, Founders, 31. The description of John Parkies's legal ambitions is Odendaal's, the other quotes are taken from the petition as quoted by Odendaal.

88 The description of Parkies and his activities comes entirely from Peires, ‘Introducing John Parkies’.

89 Quoted in Odendaal, Founders, 31.

90 CA CMT 2/34, letters from Chief Magistrate of the Transkei to Resident Magistrate, Nqamakwe, 12 Apr. 1884 and 1 May 1884.

91 ‘Prisoners’ complaint, Nqamakwe’, in Cape of Good Hope, Return for all Papers Relating to the Use and Employment of Convicts by Mr. King, the Magistrate of Nqamakwe [A. 14—‘85] (Cape Town, 1885), 7–8.

92 ‘Statement of Sodasizi, 6 Aug. 1884’, in Use and Employment of Convicts, 5. Sodasizi's vehement insistence that he did not know this man may indicate an attempt to conceal the man's true identity, but there is no evidence that Gontshi or another law agent wrote the petition.

93 ‘Prisoners’ complaint’ and ‘Statement of Maqeza’, in Use and Employment of Convicts, 7–8.

94 CA CMT 2/34, A. Gontshi to Chief Magistrate, enclosed in letter from T. King to Chief Magistrate, 15 Dec. 1883.

95 Dlamini, J., ‘The land and its languages: Edward Tsewu and the prehistory of the 1913 Land Act’, in Cousins, B. and Walker, C. (eds.), Land Divided, Land Restored: Land Reform in South Africa for the 21st Century (Johannesburg, 2015), 50Google Scholar.

96 Chanock, South African Legal Culture, 228–31

97 Odendaal, Founders, 120–5.

98 Sprigg v. Sigcau (Cape of Good Hope) [1897] UKPC 5 (26 Feb. 1897).

99 Shear, K., ‘Legal liberalism, statutory despotism and state power in early twentieth-century South Africa’, Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History, 38:4 (2010), 523–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100 Cited in Odendaal, Founders, 395.