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Regina Twala's Stolen Life Work Highlights Colonialism Inside the Historical Profession

Over the course of 2018, during a research period in the small southern African kingdom of Eswatini, I made multiple phone calls. My question was always the same: had the person heard of someone called Regina Twala?

Twala had been a writer, intellectual and anti-colonial political activist of the 1950s and 60s. She was born in South Africa, but after her arrest in 1952 for participating in the non-violent resistance movement the Defiance Campaign, she found the country increasingly repressive. In 1954, like many other Black activists she chose to cross the border to Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, to live in exile, and died there in 1968 at 60. She was the second Black woman to obtain a degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and was one of the co-founders of the Swaziland Progressive Party, Eswatini’s first political party, in 1960.

Yet no one I phoned had heard of Twala. I was surprised. From the little I knew of her, Twala had clearly been an influential figure. And Eswatini – where I was raised and educated – is a small country, about the size of New Jersey. It’s hard to remain anonymous there.

How could I make sense of the fact that a significant woman of her era could be virtually erased from popular history and memory? At the heart of the mystery stood another intellectual – a celebrated European historian called Bengt Sundkler. As I would learn, Sundkler’s fame existed in direct reciprocity with Twala’s obscurity.

In 1976, Sundkler published a book on religion in Africa, called Zulu Zion. It would become a celebrated reference point for all interested in how Christianity in Africa expressed itself via existing indigenous religious beliefs.

Unable to travel to southern Africa due to his heavy teaching obligations at Uppsala university in Sweden, Sundkler hired Twala as his research assistant, paying her to undertake an investigation of African churches throughout the 1950s. The Uppsala archives contain dozens of pages of research material sent by Twala to Sundkler on this topic. Consider this paragraph, where Twala describes how a group of church women danced with flags and sticks to the royal palace (Lobamba) of the king of Swaziland, Sobhuza II:

A bell was rung, and that was a signal for all to find their staves and set out for Lobamba [Sobhuza’s palace], then when the women began singing the congregation began marching in circles. The women with flags, emagosa, always led the way. This parade before the Church House is called kuhlehla, same term as used for warriors or age-groups when they dance or give a display before royalty.

Imagine my astonishment when I discovered a strikingly similar passage published in Sundkler’s Zulu Zion. Sundkler passed these words off as his own but they were lifted near-directly from the material Twala had sent him 20 years earlier:

A bell was rung, the signal for all to find their “holy sticks” and to set out for Lobamba. The lady wardens (emagosa) bore flags and led the way. The women with sticks, while marching, would walk in circles, kuhlehla. This was the term used for warriors or age-groups when giving a dancing display before royalty.

Read entire article at The Guardian