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Liz Stanley

Liz Stanley is Professor of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. She is Principal Investigator for the Olive Schreiner Letters Online and remains actively engaged in Schreiner research as well as its successor project on Whites Writing Whiteness. For further information including extensive publications list, see

‘Olive Schreiner, Race and Transition points: On Matjiesfontein Workmen, Mrs Brown and WEB Du Bois’

In young womanhood, Olive Schreiner wrote that as a child she had wished there was a division across Africa with all black people on one side, leaving southern Africa as a kind of white-only paradise. In maturity, she wrote of race and racism as ‘the world’s great question’ and spent much energy in writing about connected issues and promoting radical ideas about race equality. In her middle years a number of transition points occurred that helped change how she thought and wrote about race matters regarding white as well as black people. This chapter explores three such transition points, their reverberations in Schreiner’s writing and political activities, and the importance of networks in facilitating them.

The first is Schreiner’s association with some Matjiesfontein workmen she met in 1890 when spending lengthy periods in this small railway village, feeling an affinity with them and their relationship with the karoo landscape. As well as comments in letters, at this time Schreiner was writing her first ‘A Returned South African’ essay, which among other things advances a social constructionist view of race, a new position as made particularly clear through exploring how she edited her manuscript so as to point it up.


The second is Schreiner’s meeting in early 1893 with Eliza Brown, wife of missionary John Brown, in Taungs when visiting with her sister Ettie Stakesby Lewis. Eliza Brown’s expression of the racist treatment she often received as a mixed race woman is mentioned in Schreiner’s letters and, anonymised, drawn on in another ‘Returned South African’ essay, concerning the then ‘betwixt and between’ existential situation of mixed race people.

The third concern the effects on Schreiner in later 1905 of reading WEB Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Given her by Frederick and Adela Pethick Lawrence, she described it as “a book I have long been seeking & waiting for”. Its most powerful attraction concerns her appreciation of the project Du Bois was engaged in, as a black person writing in his own right and expressing the world as he wanted to, rather than whites speaking for him and other black people. The limitations of well-meaning whites are specifically named in connection with Harriet Beecher Stowe (in Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Schreiner herself (in Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland). From 1905 on, Schreiner became more involved with members of the black intelligentsia and political elite, including such figures as John Tengo Jabavu, Walter Rubusana, Abdullah Abdurahman, and later Solomon Platjie. Regarding her writing, the reverberations can be glimpsed in network terms, in particular her uses of letter-writing to challenge the retrograde political views of white politicians, and support for black organisations including trades union activities in railways, docks and mines.

Networks and the connections they facilitated are central to these three examples of transition points, wherein new ideas and people were encountered and responded to by Schreiner in a range of ways and in the direction of increasing radicalism on issues of race and racism.

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