It is with a strange feeling of déjà vu that I read of the contretemps over the statement made in Parliament on February 16 by Pieter Mulder, leader of the Freedom Front Plus and the deputy minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, to the effect that black people had no claim to 40% of South Africa. Mulder rejected the claim that white people had stolen land and continued: ‘In the Karoo and Kalahari huge farms are available. Why does the department not buy some of that land to reach their 30% [redistribution of land] quicker?”
No less startling than Mulder’s statement was the discussion on SAFM on February 21. Callers asserted, on the one hand, that there had been no research on the history of Africans in the subcontinent and, on the other, that it was ‘racist” even to bring up the question of the appropriation of land in South Africa or, indeed, to talk of ‘African” history. The ignorance on all sides was obvious.
In fact, for all the outrage it caused, Mulder’s claim that about 40% of Southern Africa had not been settled by ‘Bantu-speaking Africans” when the Dutch arrived at the Cape is not particularly contentious, though one might quibble over the percentages. His suggested remedy to the land problem is, however, extraordinary.
Semidesert has never been attractive to farmers: it is hardly a coincidence that neither black nor white farmers have rushed to cultivate the underpopulated Karoo and Namaqualand. This said, however, by the time the first Europeans rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1400s, it is clear that African agropastoralist communities had long been settled on the well-watered summer-rainfall land suited to their crops and cattle, from the Kei River to the Limpopo.
The Karoo and Kalahari are still sparsely populated today — whether by white or black farmers — precisely because they were and are semidesert. Nor had Bantu-speaking agropastoralists colonised the better-watered Western Cape, where the winter-rainfall regime was unsuited to the cultivation of sorghum and millet, their staple crops.
Yet the Western Cape was hardly unoccupied when the Europeans arrived. Southern Africa had been inhabited for millennia by hunter-gatherers as well as, somewhat later, by herders. If the lands to the east and north of the Orange River were largely populated by Bantu-speaking agropastoralists, the admittedly sparser population of Khoisan herders and hunter-gatherers predominated to the west and northwest.
There is no argument then about these settlement patterns — but they make Mulder’s notion that the solution to African landlessness lies in the Kalahari bizarre. Like so many of the responses on SAFM, it reveals the longevity of apartheid ideology, in which the struggle over South Africa’s land and water from the beginnings of white settlement was denied. As is well known, apartheid-era propaganda asserted that by a quite remarkable coincidence the present-day African inhabitants of South Africa crossed its northern frontier, the Limpopo River, very conveniently at more or less the same moment as the first European settlers landed at its southern tip, the Cape of Good Hope, in the mid-1600s. They were therefore purported to be as recent in arrival as the whites.
Behind this lay two further myths: that the incoming agropastoralists destroyed all the previous Stone Age inhabitants of the subcontinent, who could be safely left out of account thereafter, and that the present-day location of the African population of South Africa is both a simple reflection of these original migrations and of the internecine Africans wars of the early 19th century known as the mfecane. Thus a former South African prime minister could roundly declare: ‘The fact that 13% of the land in the Republic is Bantu and 87% is occupied by whites is a division decreed by history.”
These views persisted because they provided a charter to the land and formed part of the ideological justification for apartheid. Yet all three aspects of the ‘myth of the empty land” can be — and have been — challenged by research. Archaeological evidence and, especially, carbon dating show that Iron Age agropastoralist farmers, who were the precursors of the contemporary Bantu-speaking population, were present in the Transvaal and Natal areas by the 200s to 400s of the common era. By the end of the first millennium they had populated most of the summer-rainfall areas suitable to the cultivation of sorghum and millet and to cattle-keeping.
Far from sweeping all before them, they occupied the land at least in part through the incorporation of the earlier hunter-gatherers and herders. Artefacts and skeletal evidence from early Iron Age archaeological sites reveal the complex relationships established between the Khoisan and South Africa’s first farmers; linguistic evidence and oral tradition also reveal close interactions between people of different physical types, language and ways of life — interactions that undoubtedly included conflict and warfare, but also included intermarriage, peaceful coexistence and cultural borrowing for well over a thousand years before the arrival of the Dutch and which continued into the 1800s.
That there was warfare in KwaZulu-Natal and its hinterland in the early 1800s is undoubted, though the extent of depopulation has been greatly exaggerated. When the Voortrekkers expanded beyond the Cape Colony in the late 1830s, they entered a vibrant and complex African world. To establish themselves they had to fight major wars and establish a series of accommodations with the Africans whom they were unable to dislodge from the land. Contrary to yet another myth, one maintaining that had it not been for British intervention the Afrikaners would have established themselves effortlessly as ‘the undisputed masters of South Africa”, it was only in the last third of the 19th century that many of the more powerful African peoples were conquered — usually by the British army rather than by the Voortrekkers.
The land still in African possession in the 20th century was the result of wars of resistance to colonial dispossession and legislative design — as well as, from the late 1800s on, of the intense conflict over land and the terms of rural labour that accompanied South Africa’s slow transition to capitalist farming. The 1913 Land Act played a crucial role in restricting access to the land as independent African peasants, sharecroppers and tenants were transformed into a highly exploited labour force.
In the process the confrontations, especially between the marginalised Afrikaners and Africans, were often fierce, frequently brutal and framed in a virulently racist discourse. Well into the 20th century, Africans who in their own words ‘still regarded the country as their own” resisted exploitation and expropriation through a variety of individual and collective strategies. This is the history the ‘myth of the empty land” seeks to bury.
As Professor ZK Matthews, one of South Africa’s first and finest African academics, recalled in Freedom for My People: ‘Our history as we had absorbed it bore no resemblance to South African history as it had been written by European scholars, or as it is taught in South African schools, and as it was taught to us at Fort Hare. The European insisted that we accept his version of the past — if we wanted to get ahead educationally, even to pass examinations in the subject as he presents it.”
From the late 1960s this ‘white version” of African history was increasing challenged. Both in Britain and the United States, historians of Africa turned from the history of the ‘great white man” in Africa to more inclusive, chronologically deeper and more radical versions of the past, informed by oral narratives and linguistic and archaeological evidence. By the 1970s, a revisionist version of South Africa’s past was being researched and taught in departments of history and archaeology in some of South Africa’s Anglophone universities.
For the most part, however, this revisionist history was researched and written almost exclusively by white historians. Inevitably, the deliberate stunting of black education by Nationalist Party governments before 1990 meant that the country produced far too few black scholars in general and even fewer black historians in particular. Those who survived the appalling manipulations and mutilations of history taught in South African schools during the apartheid era were shunted off to the so-called ‘tribal colleges” in the bantustans, where teaching was poor and critical thought stifled. There was no chance to introduce the new social history to black schools and few precious opportunities of doing so in the government-controlled institutions of tertiary learning in the so-called ‘black homelands”. There was little to attract black scholars into the fold. It is hardly surprising, then, that in 1994 there were few takers for a much-hated discipline, but it is extremely disappointing that more than a dozen years later both a minister and a radio debate can be so misinformed, especially because, thanks to the National Research Foundation, a renewed dialogue between South African historians and archaeologists is beginning to reveal the depth and complexity of South Africa’s precolonial past.
Yet, as the report of the commission appointed by Kader Asmal more than a decade ago to inquire into the teaching of history and archaeology in South Africa emphasised: ‘Promoting a strong study of the past is a particular educational imperative in a country like South Africa, which is itself consciously remaking its current history. In conditions of flux, historical study of a probing kind is a vital aid against amnesia and a warning against any triumphalism in the present.”
It is thus particularly shaming that a minister and much of his — and SAFM’s — audience should be so ignorant of South Africa’s struggle over land.
Shula Marks is emeritus professor at the University of London’s school of oriental and African studies and has lectured and written widely on South African history. She published a widely cited article on The Myth of the Empty Land in 1980