One thing that makes a nomad different from what we consider ‘normal’ is that his residence has no permanency. Photo: Pixabay
One thing that makes a nomad different from what we consider ‘normal’ is that his residence has no permanency. Photo: Pixabay
American author Jeff Herbst claims that precolonial states in Africa “had all the incentives to control people instead of land”. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/African News Agency (ANA)
American author Jeff Herbst claims that precolonial states in Africa “had all the incentives to control people instead of land”. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/African News Agency (ANA)

PRETORIA – Wikipedia defines a nomad as “a member of a people, or species, that moves from place to place.” One thing that makes a nomad different from what we consider ‘normal’ is that his residence has no permanency.

Using the European perspective, nomads are or were found elsewhere, and definitely not in Europe. When white race reached different parts of the world, it always interpreted people’s lifestyles through their own tainted lens. If something did not resemble Madrid or London in some way or other, it attracted derogatory or contemptuous definitions.

One of the reason that it took long for European invaders to penetrate African interior is that they always saw the continent as “underdeveloped”, and its people “not sophisticated enough” compared to other societies who showed semblance to Europe, say in Asia or in the Americas.

Europeans preferred societies who lived in densely populated cities and also in places that showed permanency of some sort. Permanency means a single location, one authority, buildings, laws, etc.

European interpretation of advanced society should therefore fit this obscured definition without taking into consideration things like the environment and or lifestyles of populations they ‘discovered’. Permanency resulted in title deeds, legal systems and taxation.

So, the Europeans opted to dictate ‘permancy’ to many societies through the imposition of a Wesphalen state system – by drawing borders to contain the ‘unconventional’ living patterns demonstrated by many socities across the world, particularly in Africa and the Americas.

The mere fact that people could not live in one location for extended periods, this was not acceptable to the new landlords.

For them, the world had to be ‘europeanised’. It is no coincidence that to this day Europeans always put themselves and their systems as the only yardstick to judge others. One can even argue that Europeans see their skin and hair as better than that of other people, racism originates from this madness.

American author Jeff Herbst in his book ‘States and Power in Africa‘ (2000), gives insights on how the pre-colonial state was organised. He claims that precolonial states in Africa “had all the incentives to control people instead of land”.

Herbst argues that certain factors led to this situation:

  1. Rain-fed agriculture, which required little investment, thus keeping productivity low, and conferring little value to tracts of land. This reduced the incentives of states for territorial control.
  2. Feasibility of exit strategies in order to avoid control, made easy by abundance of land and small investments needed to undertake new agricultural activities. As people could easily leave, control had to be won by combination of building loyalties and coercion.

This resulted in the African state as it were to focus on controlling the “small core areas,” as opposed to the thousands of hectares. The intention was to manage its population, and remote areas (where less or fewer people lived) were largely neglected which made it possible for takeover by external forces.

However, some states like the Ashanti (which covered part of present day Ghana) attempted to control the remote areas were kept under control through different strategies. For example, the Ashanti “built a network of roads in order to communicate and facilitate the movements of armies.”

But it is necessary to point out that remote areas “were more often the object of booty of goods and people (an explanation of slave trade) or of tribute (even if no other kind of authority was exercised over them).”

“The cost of broadcasting authority was high due to environmental conditions, thus restraining state control to core areas,” argues Ivan Cuesta-Fernandez. But as the Europeans arrived and with growing populations, some states were rapidly expanding – Shaka’s small Zulu state was annexing others mainly within the grand African east coast polity to bring them under one authority.

Differences in environments

Herbst is of the view that “the diversity of state forms configured a state system that reflected the differences in environments, and forms of shared sovereignty were very common.” It makes sense to conclude that the African state showed a lot of fluidity and flexibility.

In this regard one important characteristic of African settlements was that people moved from one location to another for different reasons, from changing weather patterns (climate change isn’t new) to skirmishes.

Thus, places with good climate and rains were densely populated and arid places had fewer inhabitants. This phenomenon holds true to the present time.

The African east coast, stretching from Port Elizabeth to Somaliland, has always had large populations compared to lower west coast, particularly in Namibia and Western Cape. Hence, the Dutch settlers were of the impression that the entire southern part of Africa was “empty”. This conclusion was hastely made without going into the interior parts of the sub-region.

To this day, nonetheless, the the South African east coast into the interior (Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and parts of Limpopo) accounts for close to 70 percent of the country’s population. The combined population of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal is more than the number of people in Namibia, Botswana, North-West and Northern Cape put together.

These densely populated areas in the east coast are part of a bigger polity (political community) – so when analysing settlement patterns in southern Africa one needs to look beyond the current boarders of any of the newer states created by Europeans in the 19th century.

For example, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga share common traits as Mozambique, Malawi, Kenya, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, etc. From people and languages to vegetation and cultures, one can clearly see that this is one very big place.

It is not surprising that there are way too many similarities between these areas – they have always been more integrated with each other than we care to admit. These commonalities existed long before the nonsensical theory of Mfecane or Difaqane.

As stated above, sovereignty and other features common in a European state such as language could not be used to define an African state. Same as land, language belonged to different states.

For example, a similar language was shared between various groups residing in the south (Lesotho), north (Limpopo and southern Zimbabwe) and north-west and far west (North West, Botswana, Namibia and lower Zambia). This language today appears under different names: Sotho, Pedi, Kgalagari, Tswana and Lozi.

Another feature was that the people moved up and down at all times. The reasons for movements were not only due to war as Europeans want us to believe. This was a complex society that clearly showed a lot of vibrancy, but unfortunately did not mirror European living patterns.

Since the African polity did not resemble European settlements, the invaders concluded that the people were unrelated and or did not know each other. The area was then split between the Germans, English (Dutch) and the Portuguese to create fake European entities, later called countries.

American author Jeff Herbst claims that precolonial states in Africa “had all the incentives to control people instead of land”. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/African News Agency (ANA)
American author Jeff Herbst claims that precolonial states in Africa “had all the incentives to control people instead of land”. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/African News Agency (ANA)

Land Debate

This takes us to the raging but ill-informed debate on land in South Africa.

The Eurocentric ‘fact’ or ‘logic’ states that certain people moved from central Africa to south Africa. But dismally fails to provide a coherent and understandable explanation why groups in the Eastern Cape share similarities with people living in Tanzanian villages.

We are often told that something called ‘bantu’ moved downwards to occupy land. And therefore this thing ‘bantu’ does not belong to South Africa, which was founded just over a century ago.

WC Holden was amongst the first people to advance the mythology that South Africa was an ’empty land’ to justify why Europeans were rightful owners of the land. In his book ‘The Past and Future of the Kaffir Races’ (1866), Holden’s arguments are premised on the thesis that “Europeans and the Bantu tribes had entered South Africa at roughly the same time and that up until that point South Africa had mostly been an ‘empty land’.”

South African History Online summarises Holden’s ‘theory’ as follows: “the Bantu had begun to migrate southwards from present day Zimbabwe at the same time as the Europeans had begun to migrate northwards from the Cape settlement, with the two movements finally meeting in the Zuurveld region between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River.”

European logic fails to appreciate that African living patterns were too complex for the settlers to understand.

South Africa is a European construct which did not exist until as recent as 1910. So it doesn’t predate the old settlements in the east coast, as introduced above. The creation of South Africa distrurbed a large polity and separated it from its counterpart to the north of Tongaland.

Suddenly, the people of Zwide in northern KZN and Mpumalanga, for example, were removed from their cousins in Mozambique, and the lower Zambezi.

If the thesis that people moved up and down the east coast at any given time, what then made European historians and anthropologists to conclude that the thing called ‘bantu’ belonged somewhere other than in South Africa?

It appears that South Africa is similar to dry western coast, where the European settlers first established settlements. They noted the low populations in the area, and subsequently reasoned that the entire place was never occupied.

Empty-headed species invaded established communities but they had to destroy them simply because they were clueless about how Africans lived. The half-truths also insist that Europeans arrived before people were long established in the east coast from Mapungubwe to the Fish River.

As to be expected, Europeans got a shock of their lives when they reached the Fish River to find the lower part of the African east coast polity, which always had populations as attested through artifacts and others evidence.

Shula Marks states, “Excavations at Silverleaves and Eiland in the northeastern Transvaal, and Enkwazini near St. Lucia Bay on the Zululand coast have given dates for Iron Age settlements as early as the third to fourth centuries AD.”

The African east coast polity boasts historical sites like Mapungubwe, Maputo, Mombasa, Zimbabwe ruins, and many other settlements. Its vibrancy is documented in most Arab and Chinese literature. In fact, African east coast polity shares borders with Nubia and Kush in the north.

An equally thriving polity in the interior existed from the lower western interior to central parts of Africa.

Africa was not a tired, boring and underdeveloped place when Europeans started to ‘civilise’ it. It simply did not fit a caricature of what was understandable to the European thugs and criminals.

The argument by the likes of hallucinating Patrick Lekota that Africans must provide title deeds to prove that they owned land is ahistorical, and is advanced to further oppress the colonised. The Pamphlet is the lowest point in insulting indigenous peoples of Africa.

Africans must write their history the way they wish to otherwise colonialists will continue to define us the way they do. With fewer exceptions, African history and character still retains the definition of CM Doke, David Livingstone and Hendrik Verwoerd.

Not attempt has been made to give a different perspective.

On Monday, 1 October 2018, the Republic of Namibia held its national Land Summit to review the progress made towards the implementation of resolutions taken at the first land conference in 1991, as well as to fast-track the land resettlement programme.

Anyone interested in this contested topic should follow the events in Namibia quite closely as the rolling sands of the Namib desert come to life.

Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, politics and global matters based in Pretoria.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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