Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Mfecane: The Image of Africa and the Land Question

On February 13th 2013, Dr Pieter Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus and Deputy Minister of Agriculture, gave a speech in Parliament inflaming a decades-old debate. It concerned the question how much of the land that is now South Africa was populated by blacks when European settlers began migrating north and east from the Cape Colony in the early to mid-1800s. His speech caused uproar, drawing a stinging rebuttal from President Zuma and a question by Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu asking whether it was Parliamentary for a member ‘to blatantly distort history.”

In his speech Mulder said “There are also differences of opinion about the influence of the Difaqane on land ownership. Read the diaries of the Voortrekkers about what they found when they moved into the interior.” What he was referring to is one of the most controversial episodes in South African history, controversial not just for what it meant for the people living at the time but also to historians of the period and contemporary politicians. The bare facts are not in dispute and involve mass migration of black tribes, insurgency by newly arriving white settlers and raiders, the rise of the Zulu nation to ascendancy, crop failures, cattle killings and starvation, slave labour, violent death on a horrendous scale and even cannibalism. What are disputed are the motive forces behind these unusual behaviour patterns, which poses the question: can we get to the truth and if so how does the truth help us solve the land question today?

Since the early 20th century four broad paradigms have emerged, variously pointing to Zulu expansionism at one extreme and to the Cape Colony’s need for labour and cattle at the other. The first was championed by George McCall Theale in the late 1900s, and viewed Africans as inherently violent and inferior to Europeans. Then mid-20th Century came the revisionist, African nationalist-inspired interpretation which elevated African agency and self-determination to the fore, creating the Shaka-as-hero myth. In 1988, Julian Cobbing’s paper The Mfecane as alibi identified the prime mover as forced migration under the influence of Boer, Portuguese, British and Griqua settlers and raiders. Finally, with the appearance of a great deal of new evidence, a blend of the earlier theories is emerging which gives primacy not to one or other process but to a complex mix of forces.

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